October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
About 1935, anno Domini, the Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, was perhaps the most beloved and most hated, the most respected and most feared man in the United States. His Sunday afternoon broadcasts during the thirties were avidly followed by a radio audience of between thirty and fifty million Americans, and his weekly newspaper, Social Justice, published by his massive National Union for Social Justice, claimed a paid circulation of well over a million. Social justice was the message he preached, and when he translated this into specific issues, thousands of Coughlmites marched at his command to the telegraph office to notify their congressmen of their leader’s wishes. His denunciation of plans to have the United States join the World Court in 1935 brought 20,000 telegrams to the Senate—which rejected the plans.
His bishop once described him as “the voice of God,” and indeed, to many Americans his almost hypnotizing voice, during the confusing gloom of the Depression, seemed to proffer confidence, direction, and trust. His closest associates were charmed by his warm graciousness, his courtly manner, his infectious humor, his way with an anecdote; in a classroom, from the primary level to the university, he exhibited the rare gift of an inspired teacher.
Others—and they, too, numbered m the millions—were dismayed at the “spectacle” of a Roman Catholic priest “involved” in politics; they were suspicious of his motives and alarmed by his evident power; they read sinister implications into his utterances; they were stunned and shocked when “the radio priest” ripped off his clerical collar and denounced the President as a “liar"; they considered him, among other things, a vicious demagogue.
Coughlin backed Franklin D. Roosevelt (“It is either Roosevelt or rum, ” he proclaimed) until he decided that there was nothing new about the New Deal. Convinced that the Roosevelt administration was “soft” on Communism, he launched an abortive third party in 1936, which suffered, along with Roosevelt ‘s other opponents, ignominious defeat. In the years just prior to World War II he became increasingly isolationist and anti-Communist in his pronouncements. He was against military aid to Russia, and he opposed the entry of the United States into the war; his radio audience dwindled, and after Pearl Harbor the unabated hostility of his newspaper toward the war effort led to its
suppression by the U.S. Department of Justice. Coughlin continued as a parish priest until he retired from the Shrine in ig66. Today, at eighty-one, he leads a quiet but active life in the comfortably sprawling, one-story home he designed and built for himself (“My third m two years, ” he proudly explains. “I’m a good builder. If I hadn’t become a priest, I think I would have enjoyed being a carpenter”). It is in Birmingham, a few miles from the Shrine of the Little Flower, where he is listed as pastor emeritus. His daily routine is relaxed but fixed. He washes his car, attends his geraniums, and works at occasional books—theologically oriented volumes that he publishes and distributes through his own mailing list. His private chapel, m which he celebrates the Mass every morning ("Ifind that I say Mass now more fervently, with more devotion"), is situated between his spacious bedroom and a small study, where he displays alabaster busts of popes Leo XIIi and Pius xi flanking a silver-framed photograph of his favorite bishop and personal mentor, the late Michael J. Gallagher. He no longer makes many public appearances. He avoids the press and rigorously shuns any more controversial exposure. For the past three decades he has refrained from discussing his own version of his tumultuous public career until recently he consented to talk for the historical record with A MERICAN H ERITAGE .
Not many men—certainly few priests in this country—have managed such turbulent careers as yours. Looking back, can you explain this?
I was the world’s greatest oddity as a clergyman—back in 1926, especially. Most Catholics at that time believed that a priest had no business in politics. He shouldn’t mention anything dealing with taxation or pollution or war, you know. That’s a silly notion. After all, Christ excoriated the tax gatherers and cleansed the temple of the money changers who were debasing the currency then.
And you felt that a priest had a right to get involved? A right?
The clergy had a duty to do it, not a right, a duty, even at the expense of life. You see, man is composed of both body and soul, and you have to take care of the total man if you’re going to be a priest. Now today the tendency is to take care of the total body, and to hell with the soul. Before my time, everything was total soul. But I couldn’t, I wouldn’t have done what I did if I hadn’t had the support of my dear friend Michael GaIlagher, the bishop of Detroit. Bishop Gallagher believed as I believed, and Pope Leo xin believed before him, and especially Pope Pius xi. Pius xi and Michael Gallagher and Joe Schrcmbs, he was the bishop of Cleveland, they were closest friends.
You felt, then, that you had the backing of the Church? OJ the pope himself?
I believed that, even though I can’t prove it today. I probably shouldn’t say it, because if there was one thing I learned during my career, it is that you shouldn’t say what you can’t prove. But I knew, I knew what I was doing. I knew I had the authorization of the Church, because Pius xi said in 1931 that too long we have waited to intervene in these matters of taxation and carelessness over the poor and the aged and the oppressed. He was reaffirming what Leo XIH spelled out in his encyclical Rerum Novarum , issued in 1891, the year I was born: the Christian concept of social justice. I think Pius xi summed up this concept when he stated that it is practically impossible for a man to save his immortal soul when he is unjustly denied the goods of this world. And the first good, the most important asset, is freedom. That gift comes from God. No state can grant it, and any state that tries to deprive men of it does so at the risk of its own life. The rest—and that includes most of the social concerns that Americans are now becoming agitated about -flows naturally from this premise. So you see, everything I did and everything I said was an attempt - and I’d be the first to admit, a highly fallible attempt- to promote and exemplify the ideals of social justice spelled out by these two popes.
This is the context in which you view your work?
Yes. But there is one other thing. I am a man under authority. I believe in it, I have tried to live it, I would gladly die for it. I didn’t start out that way, though. I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. My father was an American. I was the only child, and an only child, when he is a boy, is always spoiled by his mother, so they tell me. When my grandfather came to live with us, he insisted - and he had more money than he needed—that I go to a strict boarding school for my high-school education. And it was strict. The school operated under the Holy Ghost definition of education, which was, if you recall it, teach me goodness first, discipline second, and then a poor third comes knowledge. We had the goodness preached to us and taught to us, and it was very wonderful. But the discipline was something out of this world. One night at dinner my first year, my table was headed by a philosophy senior who had been a semipro boxer. I was simply impertinent. He said something to me, and I told him to go to the devil, and he walked around and just yanked me out of my chair and floored me with one punch. That was the rule. And when I got up I had to apologize to the whole table. Frankly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. In one instant, I learned discipline.
When you finished college you had a vocational choice between politics, sociology, and the priesthood. Is that correct?
In the professorial sense I suppose I did. I was extremely fortunate during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto to study under several of the most brilliant teachers in the British Empire. One was James Mavor, the famous Scottish professor of political economy, who taught, among others, John Maynard Keynes. As a result I guess you could say I became a Keynesian in economics at an early age. Another was Dr. Daniel Gushing, the priest-philosopher and good friend of the Belgian prelate, Cardinal Mercier, who had helped Leo XIII write Rerum Novarum . I loved Dr. Gushing, and through him I came to love and revere Leo XHI.
Did these men influence you toward the priesthood?
I would say, probably. The clergy I was interested in were the Basilians, secular priests who lived in a community and were dedicated to teaching, which is what I did for six years after my ordination in 1916. When the pope disbanded these associations we were given the choice of joining a religious congregation or order, or we could remain secular priests. I chose the second option, and on February 26, 1923, I was incardinated into the diocese of Detroit by Bishop Gallagher.
You acquired an early reputation as a pulpit orator. Did this help launch your career as the “radio priest”?
No, that was purely accidental. In 1923 a close friend of mine, Dick Richards, who was the chief distributor of Pontiacs in Michigan, bought the local radio station, WJR. The studio was on the top floor of Detroit’s BookCadillac [now Sheridan-Cadillac] Hotel, and I remember we used to have to climb an iron ladder to get into it. Well, you know radio was a pretty haphazard operation in those days. You went on the air when you could find somebody to do or say something. And occasionally I’d go over to the station and play the piano a little, or read something from Thomas Moore or Keats or Shelley or Tennyson.
Was this before you became the pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower?
That’s right. By this time I’d become the assistant secretary to the bishop, that is, his personal secretary. I handled Michael Gallagher’s correspondence, not Bishop GaIlagher’s. Well, in 1925 he gave me the Royal Oak appointment. There was no church or anything, just a common agreement that the growth prospect of this area north of the city looked promising. He suggested I go buy some land. With what? I asked. Oh, he said, I’ll cosign a note at the bank for you. That was the way parishes were established in those days. The bishop had complete confidence in his selectee. So I found a nice site out on Woodward Avenue and bought it. Then I needed about fifty thousand dollars to build a church, and I started looking around, backward instead of forward, as I should have done, and I discovered I had only twenty-eight families, thirteen of which were mixed marriages. It wasn’t too bad when the husband was Catholic, but when the wife was the Catholic I couldn’t expect much money. To make matters worse, soon after we started building I learned that the Ku Klux Klan was about to get a court injunction to stop the construction, something about a flaw in the deed. Well, Michigan had one of those odd laws to the effect that no injunction could be issued once the roof was on. It was the start of a three-day holiday, so I rounded up a good bunch of carpenters, and we worked around the clock, by torchlight at night, and when the court opened Tuesday morning the church was topped off, and the Klan couldn’t do anything about it legally. But the money was running out, and I seemed to be losing ground every Sunday. I didn’t know what to do.
So you went on the radio?
I went to my friends for help. There were four of us who spent a lot of time together. Dick Richards, who owned WJR, Lawrence Fisher, the general manager for many years of General Motors’ Cadillac Division, and Eddie Rickenbacker. They used to call us the Evil Four.
It was just a nickname. Well, anyway, I was telling them about my troubles one night, and they suggested I try broadcasting. You go on the air, they insisted, and just tell some of the stories you’re always telling us, and you’ll be a big hit and get all the help you need. Well, I couldn’t tell those stories on the air, you know. They weren’t offcolor stories or anything. They were the kind of stories that men tell when they’re together. But they kept insisting that I try broadcasting, and that’s how it started, almost accidentally.
Your first broadcast, a program for children entitled “The Golden Hour,” was on October 5, /926. The show gradually increased in popularity and was eventually earned over the Columbia Broadcasting System network. Then, on January 12, 1930, you abruptly changed the format and attacked Bolshevism. Why?
I had been doing this in the church prior to that date. I was concerned about the tendency on the part of some Democrats at that time to send aid to Russia. I didn’t want the recognition of Russia until Russia recognized God. A government based on the quicksands of atheism can’t be successful, because atheism saps authority. That was my contention then, and I still think I was right. You know, I don’t know one people in all of history that have suffered as much as the Russians. The Irish, the Poles, the Jews, you name them. No one has ever suffered like the Russians, first under the czars, with the silent acquiescence of their bishops, and then under the Bolsheviks. Let us never forget that between 1917, when the revolution started, and 1923 about twenty-one million Russians were slaughtered, according to the estimates of our own State Department.
Why did CBS force you off the network in April, ig’ji?
I was stepping on the toes of money, money, money, and I was getting too close. … I’ve had a wonderful course in finance, which isn’t the same as banking. I don’t like talking about it, because the minute you do, you’re anti this and that and the other thing, you know. At any rate, there was a tremendous amount of pressure being put on my friend Bill Paley [chairman of the board of CBS] to get rid of me. He had graciously arranged for me to go on CBS, and I owed him a debt of gratitude, and I couldn’t see why he should be made to suffer because of the controversy around me. So when the network began demanding changes in my scripts, I was glad to get out. Besides, Bill taught me how to organize my own network, which I did.
Your broadcasts were soon being earned over a “network” of twenty-six independent stations from Maine to Colorado, at a cost of fourteen thousand dollars a week. Was this paid for through contributions to the Radio League of the Little Flower?
The Radio League grew out of the letters I received in the early days, and I said, well, these people want to support me, and it costs a lot of money. Hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars eventually. As the program expanded to other stations, they began charging me regular commercial rates, which was right.
Your first direct involvement in domestic politics occurred in October, 1931, when you denounced the Depression policies of the Hoover administration—is that correct?
That’s right, I had come to realize, and I was dismayed by this knowledge, that according to the laws of the United States at that time, the government was empowered to spend thousands of dollars on the pigs in Alabama and Georgia but not one cent for the relief of the people of those states. I tried to tell that to my congregation, and I used to say to them, how terribly unkind the American people are and how unskilled they are in the practical knowledge of running a country. I told them it was unfair to blame Mr. Hoover; after all, I used to say, he’s only the Executive. Let me say this about Mr. Hoover. There never was a finer, more stalwart American gentleman than he was. He was also one of the best-educated Presidents we’ve ever had, with the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson, who had the education but lacked the judgment of Mr. Hoover. Well, President Hoover was probably the most harnessed Executive we’ve ever had, at a time when we needed one with more elasticity in his actions. Later on, years later, when he was living in New York at the Waldorf-Astoria, I went over to tender my heartfelt sympathies and apologies for anything I might have said while he was President, and he said, “Young man, I don’t blame you. I was the symbol of our nation, and the nation needed castigation. As you know now, it wasn’t my fault, but I would have been a cad"—that is the word he used—"if I had said, don’t blame me, blame Congress.” That was quite a heroic statement.
Then, early in /952, you became an enthusiastic supporter of New Tork’s Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt for President.
I liked Mr. Roosevelt, and I think he liked me, up to a point. He was the governor, and we had a mutual friend, Jimmy Walker, who was mayor of New York City. Jimmy had a flair for appointing competent people, who loved money, to the management of the city’s affairs. Well, the investigation of the Walker administration by Judge [Samuel] Seabury was becoming embarrassing to Mr. Roosevelt, so one day the governor said to me, “You’re on the air. I wouldn’t mind a little bit of help, to tell the truth.” I reminded him that Jimmy was a friend, and he said, “Hell, he’s friends with everybody. He’s friends with you, he’s friends with the pope, he’s friends with Antichrist.”
Did you consider yourself an active Roosevelt supporter?
I would say that my “impromptu” speech at the 1932 Democratic convention in Chicago swung a lot of votes to his candidacy. In fact, I think I was the last speaker before the nominations began. It was supposed to be extemporaneous and all that. “Hi there, Father. Why don’t you come on up to the microphone and say a few words,” but it was all, you know, carefully staged.
And Governor Roosevelt asked for your help in the Walker case?
He made it clear to me that he had to get rid of James, one way or the other. Seabury had finally submitted the charges against Walker to the governor, and Mr. Roosevelt had announced that he was going to give the mayor a personal hearing, so he invited me to come to Albany and sit in. The governor was concerned about the reaction of Catholic voters to his handling of the Walker case. So I sat in on the Albany hearing. It was a masterful performance by the governor, during which Mayor Walker embarrassed himself right out of office, and after it was over I came out, and Mr. Roosevelt was gesticulating to me, and I was smiling back, and the reporters could see that I was on his side.
And afterward Mayor Walker resigned and left the country. But before the Albany hearing you had said at a Communion breakfast in New York that the charges against Walker were part of a Communist plot to undermine respect for government. Were you shocked when these charges turned out to be true?
I said the accusations were too preposterous to believe. When they turned out to be true, I was shocked to death. I think most Americans were.
President Roosevelt appointed your friend Mayor Frank Murphy, of Detroit, to the governor-generalship of the Philippines. Some people have claimed that the appointment was a direct result of your support, while others, including Mrs. Roosevelt and Postmaster General James A. Parley, have denied it. What did happen?
I saw Mr. Roosevelt after he won the nomination, and he told me that he was very grateful for what I had done. “Padre,” he said—he always called me Padre—"you can have any damned thing you want after this election.” I said that there’s not much I want, I can’t take much; but, I said, I want to tell you a little bit of history that you might not know. I said that South America was supposed to be a Catholic continent. Whether or not they were good or bad Catholics, they did go under the flag of Catholicity. And I told Mr. Roosevelt that it was a curious phenomenon that all the European nations were represented by Catholic ambassadors but not the United States. You know, I told him, that they call us “ yanquis ” down there, even in Mexico; and the word didn’t translate as “Yankee.” It had come to mean, in political slang, high Freemasons. So I said to him, listen, get smart, because the day will come when we’re going to need hemispheric solidarity—I was for that even then—so why don’t you send a Catholic ambassador down there. And he said, “Hell, I never thought ofthat. It’s a good idea.” And he asked me to get him a list of qualified Catholics. I got a list together, and in December, after he had been elected, I went over to New York to see him. “Padre,” he said, “terrible disappointment. I can’t go through with that.” I asked him why, and he told me that he had promised to make Cordell Hull the new Secretary of State, and Hull had already told certain people that they were going to be ambassadors down there. But, said Mr. Roosevelt, you can have anything else you want. So I said, what about the Philippines, and I suggested Frank Murphy, who had served my first Mass back in 1916 and had a lot on the ball. “You got it,” he said, “he’s it.”
Who introduced you to Roosevelt?
That’s a hard thing to say. I can’t remember the time, from the time he was governor of New York, that I didn’t know him. Later on my good friend Joe Kennedy, the father of the President, had me get very close to Mr. Roosevelt. That was before the President made Joe the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The recurring theme of your broadcasts during this period was monetary reform. You charged that the Depression was a result of trying to maintain an impractical gold standard and insisted that the United States had a choice, as you put it, between revaluation and Christianity or repudiation and Bolshevism. How does your position appear in retrospect?
I wanted silver remonetized, of course, because I knew that there wasn’t enough gold to go around. You see, there just isn’t enough precious metal in the world to make it the basis of real wealth. If you study the history of money, as I have, and it goes back four thousand years before Christ, when all they had was gold and silver, you come to realize how international finance has been monopolized over the centuries by a small group of men who have had the power to manipulate the internal affairs of nations.
You spent a lot of radio time lecturing your audience on currency, didn ‘t you?
When I went to a junior school in Canada, about the equivalent of the eighth grade here, we were taught money. In fact, it was taught along with geography. I remember how the teacher used to give each of us the name of a ship, and we had to take that ship from the port of Montreal all the way to Hong Kong, and we had to learn why the price of the Canadian dollar was different in all the various ports of the world- and why that price fluctuated from day to day. Well, economic geography just isn’t taught in this country, and Americans just don’t know a thing about money, and it’s a hopeless situation trying to teach them anything, because we have the best dollar, so they still think—although it’s off twenty-one cents today in Zurich.
You still keep in touch, don’t you?
I’m sort of a bug on that situation, and I like to keep right abreast ofthat. One of the first things I get, at 4:30 A.M. every day, is the market price of the dollar in Switzerland.
When Al Smith announced that he was “for gold dollars as against baloney dollars,” you accused him, on your broadcast of November 26, 1933, of being a paid stooge of the banking interests. What prompted you to attack the most prominent Catholic politician in the nation?
Would you say that historians have generally underestimated the strength, the closeness of your relationship with F. D. R.?
He wasn’t the greatest President we’ve ever had. I knew it, and so did many of his associates. But I liked the man. People say I hated him, but I never did. I loved the man. When he was away from that darned desk of his and that long cigarette thing and sitting down with some of us or playing cards, there was no more gracious person that ever lived. You know, even then I wouldn’t let anyone else attack Mr. Roosevelt, and I still won’t. Isn’t that funny? He wasn’t a malicious man, either, don’t ever think that. I don’t think there was a bit of malice in the man’s make-up. But I think he was unfortunate in the choice of some of his associates. A lot of them were square pegs, and I told him one time, I’ll bet you wouldn’t invite some of them down here for dinner.
In the middle of your campaign to have silver remonetized—I believe it was in April, 1934—Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau released, ostensibly with the President’s approval, a list of persons and organizations with substantial investments in silver. Prominent on the list, withßve hundred thousand ounces, was your Radio League. Who do you think was really responsible for this action?
I blame Morgenthau.
But surely Roosevelt knew about it?
I wouldn’t say that. Many things happened under the Roosevelt regime that I happen to know he didn’t know, and after they’d happened he’d tell me. Serious things, too. He’s only the President, I used to say, and I make the same statement today about Pope Paul. He’s only the pope. Seriously, heads of organizations are not always to blame for the affairs of their organizations. Now take that silver-list thing. Sure, that hurt me at the time. I didn’t even know about that investment until the list appeared. But when you’re the head of an organization you’ve got to be a man and take responsibility.
Wasn’t that about the time that a prominent congressman threatened to kick you from the Capitol to the White House m your clerical garb “with all the silver in your pockets”?
No, I think that was later—a couple of years later.
When you began your 1934-35 broadcast season in September you asked your listeners to write and tell you if they wanted you to continue criticizing the New Deal. The results of that private poll were never revealed.
Don’t ask me something like that, because I can’t remember. All I remember is that I was getting many millions of letters. I had enough to do keeping up with the approximately two hundred clerks I had handling all this correspondence. Don’t forget, during all of this, my first function was still parish priest. Eventually I had seven assistant priests, as the Shrine grew over the years from the twenty-eight families I started with to the more than 3,500 we had when I retired. Even when the assistants came I was still the pastor, and I knew what my duties were. I kept my parlor hours in the evening, even during the most hectic periods, so that my parishioners could stop by and talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. You know, about 99 per cent of the marital problems that came up could be solved if I could just get one of them to laugh. My parlor hours, that’s the only thing I really miss in retirement.
Well, the listener poll must have been satisfactory, because you went on attacking certain New Deal programs, particularly the contributions of the “Dram Trusters, ” as you called them. Then, on November 11, '934, you announced the formation of the National Union for Social Justice, complete with a sixteen-pomt platform to accomplish the “ever-elusive ideal of social justice” as spelled out m the papal encyclicals. Did you view this organization as a sort of people’s lobby along the lines of the groups now headed by Ralph Nader and John Gardner?
Well, it was sort of an independent lobby. Really, at that time, I think I was a party man; I think that, whether or not I knew it, I was a Democrat, if you want to put it that way, whether or not I’d analyzed the whole meaning of the word democracy and all its implications. At any rate I was persuaded by a lot of gentlemen, important gentlemen around the country, to get up an organization for the purposes of indoctrinating the people with the principles of social justice. That was it. It wasn’t political, although you can’t prove it wasn’t political. If you’re indoctrinating anybody today, you’re in politics.
At various times the National Union claimed as many as five million members. How many paying members did you have?
Nobody actually paid anything. What they did was buy the National Union’s weekly newspaper, Social Justice . At its peak we had over 1,200,000 paid subscribers.
Without going all through the sixteen points would you briefly define the term ” social justice”?
Well, there are two definitions of man. Man is a rational animal. That definition came all the way from Aristotle and Socrates and those people, who were animal ninetenths of the time and rational one-tenth. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Man is rational social animal, because, first of all, man is only a half a human being; the other half is a woman. No one is a complete totality. Secondly, no man is an island, as John Donne pointed out; no one is a Robinson Crusoe. Whatever each man’s specialty is, he needs someone else to cut his hair, to grow his wheat, to sail his ships. To all, different gifts, see. We need one another. So social justice is a little bit different from personal justice. Social justice is the justice that one human being or one group of human beings should have toward another group of human beings, who make contributions to the well-being of total society, without which society itself would crumble.
The controversy begins when one tries to translate these general ideals into specific programs?
Yes, and how many dollars each gets.
In 1935 you became more and more critical of the Roosevelt administration.
I was very disappointed with the lack of genuine monetary reform, and I said so. And some of the relief programs just weren’t working well, and I said so. And I told Mr. Roosevelt, too. As fine as Mr. Roosevelt was, he was a very poor businessman, one of the worst that ever sat in the White House. His own father, when writing his will, didn’t leave him a nickel; he left the management of the estate in charge of somebody else, you know that, don’t you? Well, I didn’t blame Mr. Roosevelt for a lot of these policies. It was the fault of some of the men around him, but I couldn’t go around being critical of his underlings. The President is the head of the organization and must take the responsibility.
Do you still feel that way?
I was pretty young. It was a young man’s mistake, personalizing those attacks. I wouldn’t stand for anyone attacking any President today. Since this upheaval against authority in the world today, I’m so fearful of these attacks on the President, I don’t want to see his authority eroded.
Because of your huge following and your criticism of the New Deal, there was much speculation in 1935 about you and Senator Huey Long combining to form a third party. Was such a plan in the works?
All that speculation was absolutely false. I never discussed a third party with Long, or much of anything else, for that matter. I didn’t know the senator that well. I met him several times in social situations, you know, with a bunch of senators or something. The only time I ever saw him alone was when he was sick in his Washington hotel, and Mrs. Garner, the wife of the Vice President, asked me to pay him a visit. We drove over in her car, and she waited outside while I went in.
May I ask what was discussed at that meeting?
Why, his health, of course. I was only in there about ten minutes. It was just a social call, and I wouldn’t have gone at all if Mrs. Garner hadn’t asked me to.
Was there one thing in particular, one issue or one incident, that caused you to break with the Roosevelt administration?
There was, but I can’t talk about the specific details because there are some people living that can’t stand this thing. But the fact was that some evidence had come to the attention of my bishop which indicated that certain officials in the Roosevelt administration were helping the Communist cause overseas. Well, Bishop Gallagher called me to his home one day, it was the summer of 1935, and he said, “Now, Charles, you’re through supporting the New Deal and Mr. Roosevelt,” and he showed me this evidence.
Did you take this evidence to the President?
I’m getting to that. You see, prior to this time, I had gotten quite close to Mr. Roosevelt through Joe Kennedy. We used to go down to his family home in Poughkeepsie- we always referred to it as Poughkeepsie, Hyde Park was a sort of dirty word—about every two weeks and visit Mr. Roosevelt. Well, after Michael Gallagher showed me this material I stopped going, and Mr. Roosevelt noticed that I seemed to be avoiding him, so one night, at the beginning of September, 1935, I got a call from Joe Kennedy to the effect that the “Boss” wanted to see me. I knew what it was all about, so I checked with my bishop, and he said it was all right to go.
The “Boss” was Mr. Roosevelt?
Yeah. So at any rate I got on a train and rode all night and finally got to Albany about four in the morning. As I got off the train a newsboy came up, shouting the headline about Huey Long’s death. He had been shot a few days before, but he had just died. I bought a paper, and then Joe drove up in his Rolls Royce—he drove his own car in those days—and we drove back to Mr. Roosevelt’s house. Well, there was nobody awake, of course, so we went up to a little kitchen and made ourselves some breakfast. I guess the President got up about six—he was always an early riser—and he called to us from the top of the stairs. You know, he really walked on his arms. He had the strongest arms and shoulders of any man I ever saw. Well, I ran up the stairs to lend him my shoulder, and I still had the morning newspaper under my arm. He noticed it, and I showed him the headline and said, “Hey, your boyfriend is dead.” He got the news of Long’s death from me.
What was the President’s reaction?
He blanched. He was shocked. You see, he liked Huey Long. Lots of people did. Everybody liked his buffoonery, a special kind of buffoonery he had that caused people to laugh. It made people like him as a person, quite apart from his politics or philosophy.
What happened then?
We went down to the President’s little breakfast nook and talked for a while, and finally he asked why I hadn’t been around much. I sort of hemmed and hawed a bit, so finally he told Joe to “go look at the pigs—he didn’t have any pigs, of course; it was just a little joke he used to make. Joe laughed and went out, and then I showed the President the evidence that Michael Gallagher had received. We talked for six hours that day.
What did the President say about it?
He just kept saying, “It can’t be true” and “I don’t believe it.” I told him that his plan to recognize Russia diplomatically and to extend credit to the Soviets was all right, because it was obvious that no nation could go bankrupt without affecting all the other nations in the world. But this evidence, the evidence I showed him, this was just too much.
Did the President ever look into the matter?
I don’t really know. What I gave him was a copy of a public document, and I told him, when you get back to Washington, you have the ways and means of finding out the truth of the matter. But it was never mentioned again.
Did you part friends?
He wanted Joe and me to stay for dinner, but we had already made plans to drive up to the home of a friend of ours in Great Barrington. On the way up I told Joe most of the story, and when we got there Kennedy asked the butler to bring him some writing paper, and he sat down —I remember he pushed some dishes aside, the table had been set for dinner—and wrote out his resignation as chairman of the SEC.
That was on September 10, 1935?
It was the day after Huey Long died, yes.
And that fall you announced a “hunting season” on Congress, meaning that your National Union for Social Justice was going to become involved in the Congressional primaries the next year.
The candidates endorsed by the National Union won twelve of twenty-four contests in Pennsylvania and thirteen of eighteen in Ohio. Did you consider this part of the struggle for social and economic reform that you had hoped would be undertaken by the Roosevelt administration?
That’sright. We tried to get it through the House; that was the aim, but it didn’t work.
On June IQ, 1936, you abruptly announced to your listeners the formation of a Union Party ticket headed by Representative William Lemke of North Dakota. “It is not pleasant for me who coined the phrase ‘Roosevelt or rum'—a phrase based upon promises—to voice such passionate words, “you explained. “But I am constrained to admit that ‘Roosevelt and rum ' is the order of the day because the moneychangers have not been driven from the temple. ” How do you feel about that campaign today?
It was a horrible mistake. I was persuaded to do that by a lot of nincompoops.
Why do you say that?
That was no way to indoctrinate people.
Did you consult with the other officials of the National Union for Social Justice before you nominated “Liberty Bill” Lemke?
No, no one was consulted. I think it was a meeting with Lemke one day, either in New York or here, and I said, “You’d make a pretty good President yourself. You’ve got the right ideas about finance and the right ideas about farming.” We had, who was this boy, [Secretary of Agriculture Henry] Wallace, I think, pontificating about agriculture and those things at that time, see. I guess he was a theorist. So I said to Lemke, “At least, you’d make a pretty good farmer-President.” But the campaign was a horrible mistake.
For the Union Party effort you joined forces with the California old-age-pension advocate, Dr. Francis Townsend, and Gerald L. K. Smith, who had succeeded the late Huey Long as leader of the Share-Our-Wealth movement.
I was supposed to be an associate of Townsend and Smith. I met Townsend once in my life for about five minutes in Cleveland and Smith for about three minutes before the same rally. I didn’t know anything about him. Same with Townsend. That was the thing then, for these persons to attach themselves to you, and then do something to defame you.
The Cleveland rally you mentioned, that was the Townsendite convention in mid-July at which you dramatically took off your coat and clerical collar and brought the ten thousand people in the audience to their feet by denouncing “Franklin Double-crossing Roosevelt” as a “liar” and “a great betrayer. ” Tour gesture with the collar, was that/or oratorical effect?
It was about 105 degrees in the shade.
Did you regret having called the President a liar?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I said so publicly.
Your bishop, Michael Gallagher, was en route at that time to visit Pius xi. The New York Times quoted him, on July 27, to the effect that his trip to Rome had nothing to do with your political activities. What was the purpose of his trip?
To discuss me—favorably. He and Bishop Schrembs went together. But he couldn’t afford to tell state secrets to the reporters like that.
But when Bishop Gallagher returned to this country he told the press that he considered Roosevelt the best candidate.
So did I.
You did? Can I ask you a personal question? Whom did you vote for in 1936?
I couldn’t tell you now. I really can’t remember.
On October 8, 1936, Eugenia Cardinal Pacelli, the Papal Secretary of State and subsequently Pius xn, came to the United States. The purpose of his extended tour was never announced, but his arrival started the press speculating that he was investigating you.
Cardinal Pacelli was no friend of mine, no friend of Michael Gallagher’s. When he came over to discuss me with Mr. Roosevelt he came out to have a meeting of the bishops in Cleveland. So, all the bishops had to appear at this meeting, and Pacelli, well, he wouldn’t talk to either Michael Gallagher or Joe Schrembs. He scorned them. So the bishop came back and he said, “Boy, have I got news for you. You’re finished.” And when Pius xi died in 1939, I was.
Were you worried when you learned that the Papal Secretary of State was, as you put it, “no friend” of yours?
No, I was weary. You can get weary doing this sort of thing. You get tired. You wish you lived in Portugal for about six months. To get away from it.
The 1936 Presidential campaign had more than its share of vituperation. According to my notes, even your friend Joe Kennedy turned against you and called you a disgrace to the cloth.
Joe said that? Oh, no, no, no. Whoever quoted him as saying that just isn’t telling the truth. No, that’s not true. Of course the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and that group down there, who I think came next door to hating me, they’d say anything to harm me.
I’m sorry, I was wrong. That quote was attributed to John B. Kelly, the Democratic chairman of Philadelphia.
I knew it wasn’t Joe Kennedy. He wouldn’t have said such a thing. Not that we always agreed on everything. Sometimes he’d tell me I was a jackass, but he’d never call me a disgrace.
In the course ojyour career you were called everything from a demagogue to a Fascist to an anti-Semite. How did these accusations affect you?
It never bothered me. I’ve often tried to analyze that psychologically. It hurt for the time being, for the first ten minutes. It’s different when you’re married, you have to take those things into consideration because of your wife and family. When you’re unmarried it doesn’t bother you. I’m talking psychologically. It’s water on a duck’s back, as it were. And because you’re not seeking money, and it doesn’t affect your pocketbook, that’s the second reason. And thirdly, and it’s the major reason, it’s a gross untruth, and any day I wanted to, I could pull the strings from under them.
One of the high-water marks of the Union Party’s 1936 campaign was a rally that drew forty-two thousand people to Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on August 16, 1936. Just before you collapsed from heat prostration you stated that you would quit the radio if Lemke didn’t receive at least nine million votes.
I wish I had collapsed sooner. It was a rash promise.
Lemke didn’t receive a million voles.
Why, he didn’t even get 900,000. The whole thing was a horrible mistake. I was glad when it was over.
Did the campaign end your relationship with Roosevelt?
Oh, no. I continued to see him until the war started, not as frequently, of course. But you see, I genuinely liked the man, and I think he enjoyed me. His wife didn’t.
Do you want to talk about Eleanor Roosevelt?
No, that’s not fair. She leaned too far to the left to suit me, that’s all.
Despite your campaign promise, you returned to the airwaves in 1937 but things were never the same again, were they?
Not after the death [January 20, 1937] of Bishop GaIlagher, no. I was very close to Michael Gallagher. I loved that man. He was probably one of the great theologians in the country.
You didn’t enjoy the same type of relationship with his succesArchbishop Edward Mooney?
I’ll tell you the story about that, but there is one thing you have to remember: Bishop Mooney was a real gentleman, a good gentleman. Well, years before—Michael Gallagher told me this—years before, Mooney had been the president of the Cleveland Latin School, and Joe Schrembs was the bishop there. Now in those days Michael was a Sinn Feiner, as most of the Irish bishops were, and he was invited down to Cleveland by the local Sinn Fein society to make a speech. And when he got there, his throat hurt so much he couldn’t talk. So he told Bishop Schrembs about his problem, and Schrembs told him not to worry, he’d get someone to read it for him. So Schrembs called in Father Mooney and asked him to deliver the speech, and Mooney refused. He told Schrembs that he didn’t believe in Sinn Fein. “What,” said Schrembs, “you’re an Irishman, and you don’t believe in freedom for Ireland? Then get out of my diocese.” And he suspended Mooney on the spot. Well, Mooney had powerful friends, and he eventually made his way to the American College in Rome, where he was consecrated a bishop. Well, he became archbishop after Michael Gallagher died, and one day he had me downtown to discuss something with me, ‘twasn’t very pleasant. I said, “Bishop, let’s get this thing straight. You are here to be the hatchetman for Pius XH, and I want you to do the job, because I stand back of him, if he told me to jump off this window. Don’t be afraid. I hold no animosity toward you. You’re doing your job, and I stand back of authority.” There were tears in his eyes. He didn’t have much courage, he didn’t have much fortitude, but he was a gentleman.
Mooney wanted you to submit your radio scripts for review, didn ‘t he?
He did it in a clumsy way. He appointed nine young priests who supervised my script on a Wednesday evening prior to the Sunday broadcast. And the nine of them, I don’t know if any of them knew anything about political economy. I told Mooney, I’m not disclaiming their intelligence, but they haven’t had enough experience. I knew it wasn’t going to last.
In the late 1930 ‘s you became increasingly isolationist in your foreign-policy statements on the radio and m your weekly newspaper, Social Justice.
As I said, my generation considered the next world war a foregone conclusion after the Treaty of Versailles. I was most interested in stopping World War n; Mr. Roosevelt wasn’t. He thought that this had to be done. He had been sold a package that Nazism was the most damnable thing on the face of the earth, and therefore, if he joined Communism to fight Nazism, it would be all right to get rid of it. And I was trying to sell the proposition that, now don’t distinguish between the two of them too much. Marxism is the word you’ve got to get in your vocabulary. Nazism is only the left wing, Communism is only the right wing [ sic ] of the same bird of prey. Let them fight it out between themselves, and afterward we’ll all go in for the kill. I still think I was right.
Did you consider yourself an isolationist?
An isolationist? No, I was the same as Mr. Hoover, I was the same as Charles Lindbergh, I was the same as a hundred other prominent Americans I could mention who weren’t being attacked because they weren’t getting publicity. I didn’t want anybody to help Russia or Germany. I wanted them to fight it out themselves. Because I still have hope that Russia will come back to Christianity, will come back to normalcy. But because I came right out and said this, I was accused of being pro-Germany. How could I have been for this pup Hitler? There was never anything worse in the mystical body of Satan than this fellow Hitler.
Others accused you of being an Anglophobe.
No I’m not! Some of my best friends live over in Essex and Sussex in England. I’ve been against some of the English government over there, but if you can’t be against a political party without being anti the whole country, what’s wrong?
But after the war started m 1939, to be against the British government was widely interpreted in this country as being proGerman, wasn’t it?
Well, now, there were some Jews in this country that started this, especially the ACLU people. At that time the Jews were all for aid to Russia, don’t forget, and I wasn’t going for that, so to minimize my effect on that, they said I was anti-Semite. That was always a good ploy. This thing about my being pro-German, I was just as much against the Nazis, because I knew well enough that Nazi was a bad word, Communist was a bad word, Mussolini’s Fascist was a bad word. The right word was Marxist. I’ve always used the generic word, Marxist. We’re getting a form of Marxism in this country here. I don’t know what they’re going to call it. They’re not going to call it ommunism or Nazism, but one day they’ll wake up and coin a name for it here. All the Marxist principles are here now, materialism, materialistic concept of life, and all this sort of stuff. It’s in the works.
What about the charge that you are anti-Semitic?
I’m certainly not against the Jews. After all, Christ, if he’s got any blood in his veins, was a Jew. And he has Mary’s blood in his veins, anyway, we Catholics believe. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, but he has Mary’s blood in his veins. The Twelve Apostles were Jews, and I would say—it might shock you to hear this—that of all the popes we’ve had, about 30 per cent were Jews, with Jewish blood in their veins. There’s nothing wrong with the Jews, any more than there’s anything wrong with the Irish. I always resented the use of the term anti-Semitic because, after all, the Jews are only a very small portion of the Semite race, the smallest, in fact. So I’m not antiSemitic. I am anti some Jews. Some of the international bankers I attacked were Jews, but I attacked them, not because they were Jews, but because they were international bankers who took good American money that should have been invested in this country and used it to set up the revolution in Russia in 1917. I’m certainly anti- ACLU for all the dirty things they do all the time. They’re never on the right side of the decent Jewish things, even. My Jewish friends are against them. They think they’re the shanty Irish of their race. But the minute I talk about a Jew who happens to be a misdemeanor Jew, therefore I’m anti-Semite. That’s not … I’ve talked about more Irishmen. I’m not anti-Irish.
Would you describe yourself as anti-Zionist?
I’m not anti-Zionist, but I don’t go for them. These ionists aren’t well-liked people anywhere. They’re like the I.R.A. [Irish Republican Army] over in Ireland. They’re not nice things to bring up, but you can’t throw an umbrella over a whole nationality and say that there are no buncos in that nationality.
I asked that because in July, 1938, Social Justice published the now discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was alleged to give details of a centimes-old Jewish conspiracy to control the world.
How I came in touch with these Protocols to begin with, don’t ask me. I must have had two hundred copies of them sent to me from all over the world. I had them in every language. Why? I don’t know. Who told them to send them? I don’t know. I was on the air, and I was a popular character, that’s about all. I got them, and I think I’ve read everything about the Protocols , and I think I’ve studied them as much as any living American my age. First of all, I don’t know the certain truth about them; I don’t think anybody does. I couldn’t prove they’re false, I couldn’t prove they’re genuine.
You said in your introduction to the Protocols in the newspaper that it wasn’t important whether or not they were genuine, only that the pianists should disavow them.
Yes, but as I said, nobody knows the certain truth about them. How old the Protocols are, I can’t get back farther than the sixteenth century, for sure. Who circulated them first, I don’t know. But it’s such a mystery, and there’s such contradictions to it, that the safest thing to do about the Protocols is forget you ever read them, and try to be a Christian for ten minutes, because the Christian attitude toward all these things, even toward Communism, and there’s no doubt who wrote the Manifesto , is this: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
There seems to be some confusion about your exact relationship with Social Justice. Did you actually control the newspaper?
You mean financially? Yes, I did financially.
No, I meant editorial control.
I’m supposed to have, but there were some weeks when I was away. I wasn’t even there to be consulted about what was going in the paper. But it was in my name, and when we were attacked for doing this and doing that and the other thing, because I was the publisher—sure, it’s mine. That’s the only way a man could do. There were many, many things that appeared in Social Justice that I wouldn’t know anything about until maybe two or three weeks afterward.
Some people considered the newspaper a scurrilous publication for doing such things as printing a pink-tinted photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt. Did you know about that before it appeared?
No, no, I didn’t.
On October 21, 1939, the paper demanded the impeachment of Resident Roosevelt. Did you have a hand in this?
I had none. But what’s the use of saying I didn’t have any hand in it? I was the owner of Social Justice . I was the publisher of Social Justice .
Were you ever concerned about the enormous influence you seemed to have over your audience?
How did this power affect you? I thoroughly believed in what I was doing, and I tried to be honest. I’ve spent my whole life defending the things I believed in. And I’ve always been loyal to my country. I’d die for it. That’s not poetry with me. I’ve never forgotten Cardinal Mercier’s old statement that he who lacks patriotism can never say he loves God. You’ve got to love your country, but love doesn’t mean you have to be full of adulation. You have to love it and try to correct the wrongs.
As your views on the approaching war became more and more controversial some of the radio stations on your network, like WOR in New York, began finding excuses to drop your program. Then, late in 1939 the National Association of Broadcasters adopted a new code that prohibited the sale of air time to “controversial” speakers. You were the primary target of the code. Was this what finally ended your radio career?
They used that instrumentality, too. But what really put me off the air was the committee of young priests that Mooney established to censor my broadcasts. It became an impossibility to carry on. One of the priests told me once that they would take a pencil and just indiscriminately knock a page out. At one point I was writing enough for four hours of air time so they’d have something to take out. So finally it got down to the point where I called up Archbishop Mooney, and I said, “Archbishop, I want you to know, you’ve got down to the point now where I can’t get up and recite the last half of the Hail Mary.” So I said to him, “Come on right out and say so.” And he said, “No, I can’t. They won’t let me say so. They want you to quit.” “Oh,” I said, “they do. That’s the first time you told me. Fine. I’m through.”
By “they” did he mean the review committee?
No, Rome. Pius xn was no friend of mine.
Were there any hard feelings between you and Mooney?
Of course not. He used to come out to the Shrine once and a while, for confirmations or something like that. When he came out he was always gracious, and I always received him graciously, and I always had a bottle of his favorite Bristol Cream, and we always had a drink together. In fact, during his last illness, in the last year and a half of his life, I was one of the few persons who used to go down and see him. He knew that I was, of all things, an obedient priest.
The final act, in a sense, occurred in March, 1942, when U.S. Attorney General Francis Riddle, presumably at the urging of President Roosevelt, asked the Post Office to “suspend or revoke” the second-class mailing privilege of Social Justice and ordered a federal grand jury investigation.
That was a horrible thing. They came up to the Shrine with Army trucks and took all my files away, a million names of the mailing list, all the papers and the letters, wagonload after wagonload, and I’ve never received them back. I guess they junked them in Washington someplace. And they took about twelve of my secretaries down to Washington. I challenged them publicly, “Bring me down and ask me the questions.” And they wouldn’t accept it. Why they had these lip readers in the dining rooms down there, and my secretaries would go to dinner, and they’d tell them the next day in court what they said at dinner. I was supposed to have been on the side of the Nazis, I was supposed to have gone to Germany, I was supposed to have seen Hitler. All nonsense.
Biddle wrote later that the administration was trying to avoid putting a priest on trial for sedition.
Biddle couldn’t have tried me for anything. If Biddle had ever tried me for sedition, he would have been tried for a lot of other things, because I had attorneys stronger and smarter than Biddle. He knew perfectly well that if he had ever tried me, a case would be brought against him personally that would have put him in limbo forever.
That’s no way to fight. Those young girls didn’t know anything about me. Bring me down there, and put the questions to me. I’ll answer any question truthfully. But Biddle was only doing as he was instructed to do, we don’t know by whom.
You don’t think Roosevelt knew about it?
He knew about it to begin with, yes.
My understanding is that Biddle finally sent an emissary, a man named Leo Crowley, to talk to Archbishop Mooney, who then called you m on May i, 1942, and threatened defrockment unless you agreed to be silent for the duration of the war.
No, no, no. There’s no truth in that. Mooney and I were good friends all the way through. And I never heard of Crowley in my life till the whole thing was over. He certainly never saw me. You know, you can’t condemn a man without giving him a hearing, which they never gave me. But they didn’t want to give me a hearing. They just wanted to smear me.
Did you meet the archbishop on May i?
No. There was no confrontation of any kind.
How did you feel when the public part of your career ended at that time?
I felt relieved.
In retrospect, Father, what do you consider your Jmest accomplishments?
First of all, I was the first man in the clergy to bring social justice to the minds of the public, even to indoctrinate them that such a thing existed. And in doing so, I was the first man of the cloth to let them know that the clergy has a duty, not a right, to do this.
Would you consider yourself to have been in the vanguard of today ‘s activist clergy, and what is your opinion of them?
Well, I’m a priest, and I certainly was an activist. Today’s activists? Some of them are wonderful; some of them I don’t agree with. I certainly can’t go along with the destruction of property. I don’t believe in going to these barbaric excesses. You see, you can’t have disorder to get your point across. There are two things you can’t throw aside when you’re in public life. You must be a gentleman. Once in a while you slip, as I’ve done myself. And always you must be a Christian, and remember that you’re not representing yourself, you’re representing your church.
Is there a specific accomplishment that you take special pride in?
There are dozens of things, some of them probably more important to me than they would be to the public. But what about unionism? Don’t forget that the UAW [United Auto Workers] was started in my kitchen down at the Shrine of the Little Flower. The early leaders of that union used to meet with me for breakfast each Sunday after the nine o’clock Mass, and we’d talk about it. They didn’t have a strong enough organization, and I was trying to teach them to fight politically.
The UAW presents social justice awards every year. Is this your influence?
Oh, sure. I spent many an hour and many thousands of dollars helping get that thing going.
Henry Ford was a friend of yours. How did he react to your efJorts to organize the auto workers?
Henry Ford was all for it. He was only afraid that the wrong people would get control. “Get the wrong people, they’ll turn it on me,” he used to say. “Get the right people, they’ll work with me.”
Yet at the end of his life, Henry Ford was identified as an archfoe of organized labor.
Oh, yes. He was “anti-Semite,” he was “antiunion,” he was “a selfish old moneybags.” People didn’t know Henry Ford. There are so many people maligned. When you get to be my age, you look back at so many people who were maligned. It’s so easy to condemn when you don’t know the circumstances. And so many lies get themselves written down as gospel truth. And another thing. When you get to be my age, you don’t really care any more. I mean, what’s the use of contradicting them?
Father, one last question. If you had your life to live over again, is there anything you would do differently?
There is nothing I would do the same.