September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
For a sense of the continuity of the of the terrorist tradition in America, consider this actual sequence of events: The FBI smashes a dead-serious plot to overthrow the federal government and reveals that for more than a year the right-wing militias involved were undergoing army-style training, fired up by inflammatory talk radio. They Planned to use their bombs, rifles, and machine guns to wage guerrilla warfare on American cities, and they claimed friends and allies in government and the military. They aimed, in one reporter’s words, to ”bomb selected buildings, seize public utilities, blast bridges, terrorize Jews, appropriate Federal Reserve gold, assassinate fourteen Congressmen, and set up a dictatorship.” The goal: to remove all liberal and anti-Christian forces from government, not least the liberal President and his activist wife.
This happened in January 1940.
However you define it, terrorism has seldom been long absent from the American landscape. In this century we have endured attacks by anarchists and labor militants and ethnic-based nationalist groups. At mid-century, Puerto Rican groups carried out some spectacular actions, including a 1950 attack on President Truman’s home and a bloody 1954 assault on Congress. Cuban and Croat exile organizations have often been active on American soil. During the Vietnam years, the Weathermen and other leftist bodies undertook widespread bombing campaigns that peaked in 1969 and 1970.
But the longest tradition of political terrorism lies on the ultra-right. The original Ku Klux Klan, during Reconstruction, was probably the biggest, most successful terrorist movement in American history, systematically practicing assassination, random murder, and intimidation. Since then, a succession of armed militias has arisen to combat a federal government supposedly usurped by conspiracies opposed to American liberties and values, starting with the “shirt” groups and Christian Front of the thirties and continuing through the Minutemen and revived Klan of the sixties to the neo-Nazi militants who began to make their appearance in the eighties. Though the bombing in Oklahoma City represented a leap in scale, it was hardly new in introducing terrorism to America, in coming out of the radical right, or in expressing domestic rather than international grievances. Americans have never needed instruction from abroad in launching the organized mayhem that we call terrorism.
The rebels whose ambitious plans open this article belonged to an organization called the Christian Front. In the late 1930s ultra-right, fascist, and anti-Semitic groups flourished in the United States, and some were violent. Their threats of terrorism and armed insurrection, largely forgotten today, caused wide concern, and the crisis did not abate until it was replaced by the far more immediate dangers of the Second World War.
That past experience with terrorism holds real lessons, both about what drives people to such extreme actions and about what can counter them. The Christian Front terrorists of the late 1930s were motivated by ideas and concerns almost identical to those of today’s white-supremacy movements and armed militias. And then as now, the government took actions that backfired and may have actually increased support for the dissidents.
The Christian front was but one of several hundred ultraright and anti-Semitic organizations in 1930s America. Most were tiny, but a few had members in the thousands. The best known included the German-American Bund, which aped the military style and rhetoric of Nazi Germany, and the Silver Legion, or Silver Shirts, led by William Dudley Pelley. The Silver Shirts’ more than twenty thousand members, concentrated mainly in the West, trained openly for armed confrontation. Their field marshal Roy Zachary gained national renown in 1938 by announcing that if no one else was prepared to assassinate President Roosevelt, he’d do it himself. Zachary and Pelley became popular speakers for the far-right groups and clubs that sprang up all over the country in 1936 and 1937, amid the New Deal and a wave of labor unrest. In these organizations, few doubted that communism was simply a front for Jewish conspiracy, a belief fomented in that notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion .
Probably the most dangerous group was the Christian Front, founded by the radio-show host Father Charles E. Coughlin. Coughlin was originally a supporter of the New Deal, but like many Catholics he was deeply affected by the Spanish Civil War. Many on the American far right saw the war, begun in 1936 when the right-wing armed forces of Spain rebelled against a democratically elected leftist coalition, as a life-and-death struggle between Christian civilization and Jewishbacked communism. By 1938 Coughlin was saying on his weekly radio show that the Jews had started the Russian and Spanish revolutions and would soon turn America’s cities into “another Barcelona.” He exhorted his listeners to arm, train, and organize a Christian Front against the Red Front.
This Christian Front was to be paramilitary, made up of platoons that would constitute a national militia some five million strong. The first Christian Front units assembled clandestinely in New York City in the summer of 1938; over the next year they spread to Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and other major cities in the East and Midwest.
They engaged in street violence from the start, their members attacking Jewish-owned businesses and Jews in the streets. And Coughlin warned that that was only the beginning. Whenever the Front organized in a new place, New York activists like William Bishop showed up to tell recruits to train and arm under the guise of sporting or rifle clubs. At a Philadelphia meeting in 1939, Bishop urged members to procure machine guns.
The talk of weapons was more than just bluster. The Front claimed hundreds of supporters in the New York City and New York State police departments alone. Informants reported that the Front was obtaining ammunition from Fort Dix and other Army bases, where it was said to have the sympathy of senior military officers. It maintained a clandestine Revolutionary Council to coordinate military training and plan possible attacks.
The flavor of that underworld is captured in a brilliant exposé, Under Cover , published in 1943 by “John Roy Carlson,” the pseudonym of an Armenian-American journalist named Arthur Derounian. In 1939 Derounian, posing as an anti-Semitic reporter and organizer, undertook to infiltrate ultraright groups. He spent four years under cover testing the scale and seriousness of the militias, and he met many zealots who openly espoused armed conflict. Some boasted about gun-running activities. One said, “Jew hunting is going to be pretty good soon, and we are practicing.” Another predicted “the boys” would “dynamite Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago—paralyze transportation and isolate whole sections of the country…. A bloodbath is the only way out.”
Much of their talk was clearly fantastical, but Derounian also watched them in action. He visited the Midtown Sporting Club, in New York City, a cover for members of the Iron Guard, a parallel to the Christian Front. Iron Guard members, who used the Hitler salute, mapped “every arsenal, subway station, power house, police and gasoline station, public building …” to prepare for an armed rising. The club’s leader told Derounian: “I’d like to be able to pick up the paper someday and read ‘Grand Central Station Bombed,’ ‘The White House Blown to Bits,’ or ‘ Queen Mary Sunk at Her Dock.’”
That such threats were taken seriously is suggested by the security provisions made when the King and Queen of England visited America in 1939, a massive mobilization of police and military personnel that seems unremarkable by today’s standards but was astonishing at the time. Every bridge and culvert the royal train passed on its way from Niagara Falls to Washington, D.C., was under constant guard by officers who had been instructed to watch for rail sabotage and “for the throwing of a bomb or hand grenade by someone standing in a crowd or someone passing in an automobile … for someone sniping from a hillside with a rifle or someone in a crowd firing at the trains.” The fear of ultra-right terrorism climaxed in January 1940, when the leaders of the Christian Front were arrested in Brooklyn. Seven men, including Bishop, were charged with running a secret organized militia disguised as a sporting club. Newspapers showed photographs of their cache of weapons and ammunition. The Front was said to be in contact with both the German government and IRA terrorists planning attacks on British targets in North America. In the jittery atmosphere the arrests created, newspapers gave headline coverage to thefts of explosives in several states, suggesting that these might be connected with the radical right, and allegations followed that various accidents at industrial or defense plants had been the work of saboteurs from pro-Nazi groups.
Violent 1930s organizations like the Christian Front grew in a political soil that at first glance seems quite different from that of contemporary America. They could recruit easily from a population impoverished and demoralized by years of Depression, and anti-Semitism was far more widespread and accepted in an age that had yet to experience the Holocaust. But there are close analogies across time. The past two decades, like the thirties, have produced an extremist political culture that sees the American government and social order as so corrupt and dangerous it is the primary threat to the well-being of its citizens. The Coughlinites played particularly on anti-Jewish and pro-Axis sentiment, while the modern extreme right sees a wide range of threats to traditional values and social structure: affirmative action and desegregation; the transformation of the family and the relationship between the sexes; and the decline of old industrial and agricultural areas. In both cases, an especial peril has been that of uncontrolled immigration destroying forever the idealized white America of bygone days; just as the specter of mass Jewish immigration (“refujews”) stirred American anti-Semitism to new heights in 1938 and 1939, so has large-scale Asian and Hispanic immigration inflamed today’s far right. And extremists of both eras have been united in their anxiety over a loss of national sovereignty to international institutions and “one world” movements.
One thing that often distinguishes extremists from the merely disaffected is their sense of a hidden purpose underlying events: Bad things don’t just happen; they are somebody’s plan—and the bigger the evil, the more powerful the forces behind it. The primary villain in the thirties was the federal government, and it is again today, not only actively sinister in its own right but also used as a tool by clandestine financial interests. In the 1930s the supposed international forces undermining American society were Zionist, led by “President Rosenfeld” with his “Jew Deal.” Today’s far-right groups vary about who exactly is subverting America, but many subscribe to the old anti-Semitic scheme and recite the same familiar names of Jewish magnates and bankers.
By far the most influential text and manual for the modern revolutionary right is a 1978 novel, The Turner Diaries , written pseudonymously by a leader of the radical right, William L. Pierce. It presents a harrowing account of an imaginary racial war in the 1990s, in which white “patriots” led by a terrorist group called the Order orchestrate a bloody and ultimately successful revolution against the existing “Zionist Occupation Government.” The acronym ZOG has entered the vocabulary of the far right from the novel and has helped shape extremists’ concepts of their enemy. Though the term ZOG was unknown to the Coughlinites, it exactly catches their world-view. The Turner Diaries has so influenced real events that in the 1980s an actual group took the name the Order and began a two-year campaign modeled on the one in the book. In 1983 they even plotted a bomb attack against the very same federal office building destroyed this year in Oklahoma City. And the Oklahoma bombing itself bears a startling resemblance to a scene in the book where a truck bomb destroys FBI headquarters in Washington, killing hundreds. Among other things, the explosive used is identical, and so is the time of day.
Just as the militias of both eras have shared a powerful antiSemitic strain, so have they conformed in identifying themselves is “Christian.” In Coughlin’s day dozens of rightist outfits used “Christian” in their names, as many do today. But while the terminology is the same, the meaning has shifted. The kinds of Christians who followed Coughlin held relatively ordinary religious views; their more recent counterparts have been increasingly influenced by the Christian Identity movement. This sees white Northern Europeans—"Aryans"—as the authentic heirs of biblical promises and covenants, by virtue of their descent from the lost Tribes of Israel; Jews are false claimants to Hebraic status and are of the devil. These ideas were pioneered by Depression-era race theorists like Gerald L. K. Smith and his disciples, and they constitute a direct link between contemporary whitesupremacy extremism and the fringe thought of Coughlin’s day.
Viewing the government as the enemy is all the easier if the government actually carries out policies that can be claimed to pose a direct threat to the lives and safety of the population. Current antigovernment extremists have been inspired by the death and destruction at Waco in 1993 and other armed confrontations; the Waco siege was the chief stimulus for the growth of militias over the last two years, a uniquely powerful symbol because it specifically represented an apocalyptic confrontation between the government and a church—the ZOG destroying a Christian body.
In the late 1930s there were two comparable stimuli. The Spanish Civil War was viewed in terms quite as prophetic as Waco: a direct, murderous confrontation between the forces of religion and those of communism, a model for what might be inflicted on America. Then by 1939 the main obsession shifted to fear that the United States might be lured into World War II on the Allied side. Millions of Americans opposed involvement on constitutional and humanitarian grounds; extremists did so because it would consummate Roosevelt’s rise to dictator. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of lives would be lost so that control of the country could be surrendered to Jewish interests. This bizarre view justified and even necessitated armed violence to preserve American society. As in the 1990s, rightist terrorism was upheld as national self-preservation.
In both eras access to weapons became a critical issue too. In the mid1950s Congress passed the first federal gun-control law, banning the private possession of automatic weapons and machine guns. This aroused nothing like the furor over recent restrictions on assault rifles, but then as now such federal controls were depicted as an attempt to disarm the American people so they could be tyrannized—and then as now one response was military-style training and organization. Infiltration of the armed services in order to obtain weapons and supplies was a recurrent theme in exposés of the Christian Front and its contemporaries, and since the 1980s modern paramilitary groups have been charged with the same thing. Once again The Turner Diaries presents a detailed account of how and why it should be done. All in all a very small step leads from the 1930s underworld described by John Roy Carlson to the 1980s and 1990s one represented by the Order in both its fictional and reallife manifestations.
If the violent extreme right of the 1930s was so similar to that of today, then we should be able to learn from that generation’s experience—from both its success in destroying the groups so thoroughly and its various failures as well. One important question to consider is whether extremism is best confronted or ignored. Today and in the 1930s alike, many people have held extremist views without the least likelihood of ever actually becoming violent. For a government, a critical goal is to ensure that those peacefully disaffected don’t progress to the next stage of active armed resistance. This can be a tough challenge. Following the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton won both praise and blame for his effort to associate the tragedy with a climate of hatred and suspicion fostered by the far right. This had the virtue of drawing attention to paramilitary and other groups that had been largely ignored in the mainstream press, but it could be dangerous as well.
In this context the 1930s offer mixed lessons. The Coughlinite movement arose in a comparable environment, inspired by a popular radio personality with a mass audience of loyal followers. Once Coughlin embarked on his anti-Jewish crusades, people began to feel he was actively encouraging intolerance and racial violence and started urging that his broadcasts be controlled or suppressed. These calls became overwhelming following Germany’s Kristallnacht attacks on Jews in November 1938, and stations in New York and other cities announced that they would refuse to carry his programs without first reviewing his scripts. But this permitted Coughlin to pose as a martyr, and his supporters found in the situation final proof that the media were under Red and Jewish control. They organized mass pickets of the offending radio stations and turned out thousands of demonstrators a week for months afterward; the rallies became the major source of recruitment for the growing Christian Front. In the end the attempt to fight hate speech served only to confirm the conspiracy theories of people already deeply suspicious of the government. It may have actually increased racist agitation.
Though that attempt to silence Coughlin was a disaster, the Roosevelt administration hoped to fare better with the arrest of his Christian Front followers, which might discredit the extreme right by portraying the whole anti-Semitic underworld as a realm of terrorists and their disciples. But problems soon arose. The political cost of putting a Catholic priest on trial made it impossible to prosecute Coughlin himself or any of the fire-eating antiSemitic clergy in the Brooklyn diocese. Even militants as outspoken as Bishop were difficult to convict, because seeking to overthrow the government is very hard to prove.
Once the Christian Front trial got under way, in early 1940, defense lawyers alleged that the whole case was a government frame-up and showed that at least one of the main activists was an FBI double agent. This raised the perennial problem of counterterrorist policing. Any law-enforcement agency worth its salt will try to find informants within potentially violent groups and plant agents who can forestall violent acts. But when such moles are revealed, defendants can argue that the agents were either provocateurs trying to entrap them or liars describing imaginary plots to please their superiors. The defense is likely to assert that the informant himself first suggested acts of violence or took seriously talk to which no one else gave any weight. Juries are often convinced by these arguments. Indeed, accusations about police informants have been the major source of controversy in the trial of Muslim fundamentalists accused of planning bomb attacks around New York City.
In 1940 the prosecutors seeking convictions against the Christian Front discovered that they faced an uphill struggle. They had to work with a hostile jury, which probably included some Coughlin sympathizers. The trial effectively collapsed by midyear, with the accused returning to a heroes’ welcome in Brooklyn. Coughlin himself, ecstatic, proclaimed, “God bless … the Christian Front!” and he redoubled his efforts until the outbreak of war permitted the government to close his newspaper and finally silence him. The failure of the trials damaged the administration as much as it strengthened the far right. It made the Justice Department much more cautious about pressing criminal charges against potential terrorist or subversive groups, and it raised public doubts about the seriousness of the charges and the conduct of the FBI. Some Republican congressmen dismissed the whole idea of armed militias as a red herring meant to ensure Roosevelt’s re-election in 1940.
Perhaps law-enforcement officials should bear this precedent in mind over the coming months, as prosecutors formulate charges related to the Oklahoma affair. American courts have always been willing to convict individuals of specific acts of terrorist violence, but only as long as the prosecutions didn’t appear to be political or attempt to use one incident to stigmatize a whole movement or subculture. The Christian Front trial was one of many in which juries simply refused to believe wide-ranging charges of sedition or revolutionary conspiracy, even when the evidence may have seemed overwhelming to a casual observer. Another example is the 1988 acquittals of the right-wing leaders accused of involvement with the Order’s terrorist schemes. The administration might want to cast the widest possible net in the wake of the Oklahoma City calamity, but past experience suggests that this would be counterproductive and even perilous.
Some thirty years ago Rlchard Hofstadter published his classic essay on what he called “the paranoid style in American politics.” He argued that a strand of conspiracy politics, defining events in terms of a constant struggle between good and evil, could be traced through all of American history. Successive generations have blamed the nation’s problems on villains ranging from Illuminati and Freemasons through Catholics, Communists, and Jews. Hofstadter’s analysis certainly applies to both the Coughlinites and the modern far right, but his account doesn’t address how often conspiracy theories have led to actual organized armed violence and active terrorism. Until recently, perhaps even until Oklahoma City, Americans tended to think of terrorism as a foreign menace that could somehow be excluded from our shores. But it has indeed happened here, on numerous occasions, and the perpetrators would often have described themselves as patriotic Christian Americans. Today’s militias are only the most recent manifestation of a long tradition. To stress that terrorism is no historical newcomer in this country is not to trivialize recent events but to appreciate what is in fact a powerful, if little understood, thread in American political history.