Bradley W. Hart’s Hitler’s American Friends made TIME Magazine’s “13 books everyone should read” list. The CTA/California Faculty Association member says he’s not sure how it happened, but he hopes “it prompts some good discussions, especially at this moment in history.”
Based on research he’d done regarding the eugenics movement and far right in Britain, American Friends tells the untold story that has never appeared in school textbooks – that there were powerful homegrown antagonists, ranging from Midwestern Catholic priests to Congressmen who used their franking privileges to send mail proclaiming German propaganda at cost to American taxpayers, who protected and promoted Hitter and the Nazi doctrine.
Hart is a Fresno State University assistant professor in the Media, Communications and Journalism department. We visited with Hart about his research and how writing this book impacted his teaching.
You say this is important to tell and to teach – why? It’s a troubling part of our history, but it’s also one of those critical moments when our country could have gone a different direction. We were closer to going a completely different and troubling direction than a lot of people want to believe. That’s important for us to be teaching our students.
We are in a critical moment now. We don’t know where we’re heading, but looking back at other critical moments such as this gives us the context to understand the types of choices we make now.
So, what is the story? The support for the Nazis in this country was far greater than historians and the general public appreciated, and that support took a number for forms and came from varying motives. The German American Bund, for example, was openly supportive of Hitler and were shut by the American government and their own leaders’ corruption. Organizations that purported to keep us out of the fighting after WWII erupted, such as America First, had 800,000 members nationwide. One key figure was Charles Lindbergh, who has almost been written out of textbooks for everything but his 1927 flight across the Atlantic. The combination of individuals and groups is important to understand because it reminds us how, even today, citizens in a Republic can be susceptible can be to extremism and evil.
In the book you note that America was dangerously divided prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Do you think America is equally divided now? America was more divided back then. The time period in the 20th century that is the most analogous that I write about is the 1960s. We’re still more unified than in 1940-41 because there was a philosophical division on foreign policy and the country’s role in the world. That comes out from the America First Committee, which was anti-Roosevelt, anti-new Deal, anti-intervention. Each side was proclaiming a different vision of what the U.S. should be and its role in the world. That division is starker than today – we haven’t gotten to that point where we’re debating those really big questions.
What role did unions play during this time? Organized labor features prominently in this story. Certainly, organized labor made a major push against these groups and far right organizations. The big take away was the importance of organizing. Big business was key to the Nazi success and the only way to resist these heavily funded groups, and the only way citizens could push back in an organized fashion, was to organize against them. Unions played a critical role in this period and continue to in our society today.
Considering the information and dis-information campaigns of the time and our current use of social media, are we more susceptible to false news and misinformation? Certainly, the Nazis had a huge disinformation campaign to try to confuse the American public opinion in the 1930s up until Pearl Harbor. Social media can be used as a good or bad tool, in that it is a way to circumvent corporate-controlled media or get out stories. It’s an interesting challenge, which is another way unions can play an important role. And, that is in helping people understand which stories are true and legitimate and which are not. An organization like CTA or CFA can play an important role in disseminating stories from a different perspective that are at the same time reliable and legitimate. That curation of stories for social media will become even more important as we move forward.
How does writing a book like this impact your teaching? From the perspective from those of us who teach American history, it’s important to tell these untold stories. It’s important to convey the positive and troubling aspects of our history, and I would lump this book into one of the more troubling aspects. To give a broad perspective on American history to our students, so they can understand where our country has been, the challenges this country has faced and overcome so they can have a better sense of where this country may be going in the future.
My research is instructive on the classes I teach, and my teaching in the media, communications and journalism department is deeply influenced by this. In fact, the importance of journalists in exposing what’s going on emerges in this book. One of the big heroes is John C. Metcalf, a Chicago journalist who actually infiltrates the German American Bund, one of the right-wing organizations of this period. So, actually researching the history gives me a better perspective in teaching my students about where these fields have been, where they’re going and also about the techniques journalists can use to uncover these important and troubling stories.