I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Radio Priest
Father Charles Coughlin hated Jews and Communists and he railed against them in his weekly radio broadcasts in the 1930s. He had a massive following whose members he encouraged to form armed cells to defend America from the enemies he saw lurking in the weeds.
In an event that had echoes on January 6, 2021, extreme right-wing zealots planned to take over the government.
The Christian Front
Father Coughin's inflammatory rhetoric reached the ears and minds of people suffering through the Great Depression. They wanted someone to blame for their misfortune and Coughlin told them who it was—Jews and Communists. He tended to lump the two groups together as if they were one and the same. He yelled that he wanted a “crusade against the anti-Christian forces of the Red Revolution.”
Coughlin spouted verbatim the antisemitic rantings of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany's propaganda minister. He organized “Buy Christian” campaigns and boycotts of Jewish businesses. Coughlin's loathing of Jews has echoes today in the white supremacy movement whose members have been described as “very fine people” by a former president.
The Christian Front sprang from Coughlin's urging. Their rallies welcomed fellow crusaders such as the fascist German American Bund. They had the backing of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, Thomas Molloy. These were not a few fringe wackos; Christian Front rallies drew in crowds of 10,000 on occasion.
Jews in New York City faced the danger of being stabbed or beaten up by Christian Front thugs. Journalist Sheldon Kirshner writes that “Their ideology could have been taken straight out of Nazi Germany’s playbook. They were devoted to installing a temporary dictatorship aimed at eliminating Jews from American society and rooting out Communism.”
With chapters all over the country, the centres of operations for the Christian Front were Boston, under the leadership of Francis Moran, and New York City where John Cassidy held sway.
These men enjoyed the protection of local politicians including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John McCormack. Other members of Congress, such as Minnesota Senator Ernest Lundeen, were also playing footsie with the pro-Nazi extremists.
Fascist Sympathizers in Congress
By 1939, members of the Christian Front were cooking up schemes to launch physical attacks on the U.S. government. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow notes that “A newspaper called PM had published an exposé describing a scheme in which sitting members of Congress were helping an agent of Hitler's government distribute German propaganda in quantity all over the United States.”
The agent, George Sylvester Viereck, was also working closely with Senator Lundeen, even writing pro-Hitler speeches for the lawmaker. When Lundeen grew concerned his pro-Nazi sympathies were being exposed, Viereck counselled him to call the stories a “witch hunt.”
At the end of August 1940, Lundeen and 25 other people died in an airliner crash. FBI agents were also on the plane, probably keeping the senator under surveillance. Prior to the flight, Lundeen's secretary found him at his desk distraught and weeping. He told her "I've gone too far to turn back."
The cause of the crash has never been explained other than the enigmatic comment that the pilots were “prevented from effectively operating the controls.” There might have been a fight on board among passengers.
It turned out that Senator Lundeen was part, perhaps somewhat unwittingly, of a plot to overthrow the government.
A Coup Is Planned
In January 1940, many newspapers published a photograph of five young men holding rifles. These weren't .22 calibre squirrel guns; they were serious .30-06 high-powered rifles capable of firing a bullet through a brick wall. The men were members of the Christian Front unleashed by Father Coughlin, and they seemed to be saying “We mean business.”
One of Coughlin's lieutenants, Francis Moran took to calling President Franklin D. Roosevelt “Mr. Rosenfelt,” and claiming he was secretly Jewish. He said Roosevelt ought to be “removed from office by force and violence.”
The Catholic priest didn't go quite that far in public, but he certainly shared the sentiment and labelled the president a tyrant. From that it's a short step to taking up arms and calling yourself a patriot.
Military-grade explosives and ammunition went missing from a National Guard armoury in New York, whisked into the hands of the Christian Front by a sympathizer. Heavy machine guns and Browning Automatic Rifles were stolen from other military depots, and the group began assault training at a camp in New York state.
They had a plan. They were going to bomb government buildings and kill members of Congress. They counted on this triggering a violent response, and, in the ensuing chaos, the Christian Front would oust the government and emerge at the head of an authoritarian, Fascist regime.
The Brooklyn Boys on Trial
Fortunately, the FBI was aware of what Father Coughlin's Christian Front was up to. Feeling the coup attempt was imminent, the bureau swooped on January 13, 1940. Charles Gallagher wrote about this in his 2021 book Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front. He says, “We came ... a hair's breadth away from the triggers being pulled and the buttons being pushed on those bombs.”
Seventeen men in New York were arrested, jailed, and charged with sedition. Suddenly, Father Coughlin, who had recruited many of them, had never heard of any of the men.
The defendants became known as the Brooklyn Boys and, in court, they took the tactic that they were not trying to demolish American democracy they were trying to save it. The trial was a farce.
To start with, there was widespread local support for the defendants. No Jews were permitted on the jury and the foreman was the first cousin of a priest who supported the Christian Front. The prosecution painted the picture of a bunch of sophisticated terrorists who were about to overthrow the United States. The public and the jury thought it laughable that a few lads from Brooklyn could pull off such a feat.
Most were acquitted, the remainder set free on a mistrial. One of the ringleaders, John Cassidy, asked the judge to return his gun, which the judge was obliged to do under the Second Amendment.
Now that they were free men, Father Coughlin remembered that he did know them after all and said the trial vindicated him. He claimed the FBI and Justice Department actions were “a hoax.”
Was the Christian Front Threat Real?
The people who supported the violent extremists numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Christian Front members were well armed and trained and ready for a fight.
There were many sympathizers in the National Guard and other branches of the military, as well as in Congress. However, the general feeling was that the Christian Right was a bit of a joke. Then, on September 12, 1940, the Hercules Powder Plant in Kenvil, New Jersey blew up.
The company was running full tilt making gunpowder to meet the expected demand when the U.S. joined the fighting in World War II. Fifty-two men died in the blast, which was followed by explosions at other plants involved in the manufacture of munitions.
This time the planning of the attacks came from the West Coast where Nazi groups were organizing out in the open. There was a Hitler Youth camp, an Aryan bookstore, and recruiting rallies.
And, the FBI was told what was going to happen because there was an informant on the inside; shockingly, they did nothing until the blasts occurred.
The extremists planned to pull off a series of violent attacks right after the 1940 presidential election, exploiting right-wing opposition to President Roosevelt. In the bedlam that followed, they would install a Fascist, pro-Hitler government.
Fortunately, the authorities were able to shut down these far-right inspired Fascist groups before they triggered the mayhem they planned for.
So yes, the threats from the Christian Front and its fellow travellers were serious. Recent events have shown that there are still plenty of people in America who hold these ultra-right, antisemitic views.
“ ... There's a reason to know this history now. Because [of] calculated efforts to undermine democracy, to foment a coup, to spread disinformation across the country, overt actions involving not just a radical band of insurrectionists, but actual serving members of Congress working alongside them ... ”
— Rachel Maddow
- Of the 17 Christian Front members brought to trial in New York only one did not walk free. Claus Ernecke was found hanging in the basement of an apartment building. His death was not investigated although his lawyer claimed he was murdered.
- Father Coughlin drew audiences of 30 million to his venomous rants; that would be the equivalent of 132 million based on today's population. By 1940, his tirades had become more extreme, and the networks pulled the plug on him and, belatedly, the Catholic Church also muzzled him. He died in 1979 almost 88 years old.
- In April 2022, the Anti-Defamation League published a study that noted antisemitism “reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism reported.” This is a 34 percent increase over the previous year and the highest number in 40 years.
- “The Christian Front in America.” Sheldon Kirshner, February 16, 2022.
- “Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra.” MSNBC, November 2022.
- “FBI Files Shine Light on Homegrown Nazi Plot to Overthrow Us Government During WWII.” J.P. O'Malley, Times of Israel, January 28, 2022.
- “Father Coughlin, the Great Depression's Radio Priest.” Robert McNamara, ThoughtCo, August 14, 2019.
- “How Widespread Is Antisemitism in the United States?” Justin Klawans, The Week, October 28, 2022.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor