The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt


Such allies were readily available. The Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest with a parish in a Detroit suburb, had experienced a meteoric rise to fame and power during the Depression years by effectively utilizing that new tool of mass communication, the radio. The “radio priest” advocated a strong central bank and the distribution of large amounts of unbacked currency as a means of bringing the United States out of the Depression. He accused international bankers and the Roosevelt brain trusters alike of being part of a conspiracy to undermine America’s position at home and abroad.

His audience was composed mainly of lower and lower-middle class Irish and German Catholics living in large cities. For these people Coughlin offered both an explanation of their Depression-born woes and an emotional outlet for their frustration. By identifying their oppressors as rich eastern bankers, white AngloSaxon Protestant aristocrats, and Ivy League intellectuals, he appealed both to a hidden ethnic and religious bias and to the insecurity of his listeners as relative newcomers still not fully assimilated into the American melting pot. In accusing these “oppressors” of being somehow un-American—that is, both communistic and capitalistic in an evil “international” sense —he gave his followers at once more security in their own Americanization and a scapegoat for their anger.

The priest had organized his followers into a huge, active movement, the National Union for Social Justice, and by the spring of the presidential election year, he, like Townsend, was talking in terms of a new political party. His candidate was to be William Lemke, a Republican congressman from North Dakota, a veteran of third-party organizing efforts in his home state, and a man who commanded a wide following among the dissatisfied farmers of the northern Plains.

The Coughlin and Lemke forces soon became the prime object of Gerald Smith’s plans. At first Townsend balked. He had, in the past, made derogatory statements about both the Congressman and the priest. But Smith slowly built a bridge between Father Coughlin and the Doctor. Coughlin’s strong support for Townsend after the Bell committee hearings softened the pension leader’s attitude, and Lemke’s defense of the plan made him more palatable to Townsend.

In May, Smith told the press that he, Coughlin, and Townsend were about to “congeal under a leadership with guts.” By June 16 he was asserting that “more than twenty million votes” could be controlled by a “Smith-Townsend-Coughlin-Lemke Axis.” A working agreement was developing among the four.

On June 19, Lemke announced the formation of the new Union party, with himself as the presidential candidate. Lemke told newsmen that “we are assured that all these groups—the Coughlin followers, the supporters of Dr. Townsend and the members of the ShareOur-Wealth movement—welcome the opportunity to unite under the banner of this party.” Smith moved quickly to win Townsend’s co-operation. He escorted the Doctor to Washington, D.C., where they conferred with a Coughlin spokesman and with candidate Lemke himself. Townsend was impressed, and his desire to advertise himself and his plan increased with the rising fervor of political activity around the country as the 1936 presidential election approached. The old doctor decided to cast his lot with the Union party. But although he would give it his personal backing, he decided it would be a tactical error to have his organization formally endorse Lemke; he wished to avoid the risk of officially backing a losing horse.

The new third party, then, came into the world as the product of a curious coalition, bound together by somewhat similar inflationist programs and a unifying hatred of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But there were significant divisive factors: the rival personal ambitions of the leaders and the strikingly different groups of supporters to which each appealed. If the Union party was to be successful, its disparate elements would have to work together.

One of these elements was already facing an internal test. In July, the Townsend National Recovery Plan, as it was now called, prepared to hold its second annual convention in Cleveland. As thousands of aged Americans trekked to the Lake Erie city for the event, the road that had begun in Long Beach, California, two years earlier reached its most important turning point.

On the first day of the convention, good fellowship overflowed. A man on the rostrum instructed each member of the audience to shake hands with the neighbor sitting at each side. Another told everybody to shout, “God bless you.” But the warm glow experienced that first day was cooled by the proceedings of the next, when Representative Corner Smith—a Democrat from Oklahoma, a famous lawyer of Indian blood, and a stirring orator—stood up to speak. Corner Smith was a power in the movement, and he was angry at recent developments. Now he blasted Father Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith, accusing them of trying to use Townsend for their own purposes. He praised F.D.R. and spoke against endorsement of the Union party.

The crowd gave Gomer Smith a rousing ovation. An angry Dr. Townsend hurried to the microphone to say that “poor Corner” was a “troublemaker” and should not be applauded. The permanent chairman of the convention then stated that “there will be no more free speech at these meetings.” But the trouble was not over. The whole question of the Townsend movement’s role in the coming campaign had been opened, and by the end of the day some fifteen state delegations had caucused and voted against backing Lemke.