The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt

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Father Coughlin returned to the spotlight in December, 1937, when he formed the Christian Front Against Communism, a movement which reflected his increasingly totalitarian ideology. In a series of radio broadcasts Coughlin initiated an anti-Semitic crusade, accusing the Jews of originating Communism and excusing Nazism as an understandable attempt to block Jewish-Communist plans for subjugating Germany. The priest spoke at German-American Bund rallies, and when hostilities broke out in Europe, he actively supported Hitler’s “sacred war … against the Jews.” After Pearl Harbor, when Coughlin’s newspaper was barred from the mails under the Espionage Act and his church insisted that he discontinue his political activities, the golden radio voice was finally silenced. (See “The Wartime Cabinet” in AMERICAN HERITAGE, June, 1962.) Never again was Father Coughlin to be active in the political arena.

Gerald Smith also crusaded against Communists and Jews in the late thirties and early forties. But unlike Coughlin, he persisted throughout the war years and after. Smith’s anti-Semitism was particularly vile; he led what he called the “Stop-Ike-the-Kike” campaign before the 1948 primaries, and later vilified the United Nations as the “Jew-nited Nations.” In the 1950*3 Gerald Smith became just another bitter old man lost in the radical crowd.

Townsend’s course, never that of a true demagogue, was very different. He returned to diligent work for the group whose support had brought him into the limelight. But the 1936 election had exposed the pension organization to the nation as an ineffective political pressure group. It had no real power—it could not defeat a President or intimidate the major parties.

And the old doctor was now vulnerable as he had never been in the past. Shortly after the election, it was announced in Washington that Townsend would be prosecuted on the contempt citation voted against him when he had dramatically walked out of the Bell committee hearings in the spring. He was convicted in early 1937, and only a barrage of pleading letters from those who remained faithful moved the President to commute the thirty-day jail sentence, though he was required to pay a $100 fine.

Dr. Townsend remained a free man, but his organization was faltering. Membership fell off, and from the decay of the plan sprang other panaceas, such as the “Thirty Dollars Every Thursday” clubs in California. Although Dr. Townsend pushed on, continuing to lead his dwindling band of followers, publishing his newspaper, and maintaining a national headquarters throughout the war and postwar years, nothing could reverse the growing tide of unconcern among the elderly toward the movement and its founder. The end of the Depression and the prosperity of the ig4o’s and ig5o’s eliminated the fear and privation upon which the plan had fed. Yet Francis E. Townsend carried on until 1960, when, still speaking hopefully of the future, the man who had found a career when most men think of retirement died in Los Angeles at ninety-three.

Dr. Townsend did not achieve his long-sought goal. But in the Depression decade this dedicated, sincere man, despite his ignorance of economics and naïveté about politics, carved out an important place for himself in American life. “It is dissatisfaction with the attainable,” Raymond Gram Swing has written, “which leads to fanaticism and at last to social fury. … When great masses are ready to believe the impossible, that is an ominous political fact.” In the 1930*3, when the great Depression created a crisis in which messianic leaders could flourish, millions of pathetically eager, infinitely hopeful, and dangerously credulous people trooped blindly after Dr. Francis E. Townsend. The old Doctor pushed his followers too far and too fast in the election campaign of 1936, but for many hectic months his movement was a force to be reckoned with in the United States. Winston Churchill, then sixtytwo years old, came to this country during those months and dismissed the Townsend Plan as “an attempt to mint the moonlight into silver and coin the sunshine into gold.” Perhaps it was. But for a time millions of Americans fervently believed in it. The year was 1936—the year of the old folks’ revolt.