1920 - 40. Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin: The Battle of Ideas
This second prequel chapter of the video documentary series can be viewed here. The series can also be viewed in its entirety on Netflix, or purchased directly at untoldhistory.com. Below is our transcribed text of the chapter, written by Peter Kuznick, Matt Graham and Oliver Stone. narrated by Oliver Stone... As the troops returned from overseas following the war, Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding was promising a return to normalcy, ushering in one of the most conservative eras in American history. But the Teapot Dome Scandal engulfed his administration and revealed his Interior Secretary to be in the pay of Big Oil, which had been plundering public lands. The 1920's would turn out to be a decade of bold cultural experimentation mixed with political conservatism - an old culture of scarcity versus a new culture of abundance. This would be baptized "the roaring twenties."
Moral reformers feared the doughboys, having discovered what some called "the French way," would foist their new appetite for oral sex - as well as their diseases - on innocent American girls. The licentious French had, after all, offered to set up brothels for American soldiers like the ones that serviced their own fighting men, with the idea that it would maintain health standards and morale. But U.S. officials adamantly refused, and back home moral crusaders exploited wartime anxiety to shut down red-light districts around the country, driving prostitutes underground, and forcing them to seek protection from gangsters and pimps.
In 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified, banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States, a reform backed by women's temperance groups, certain protestant denominations, the reborn Ku Klux Klan and some progressives. But as with the War on Drugs later in the century, alcohol remained readily available for all who wanted it, and the war on alcohol ended up producing fantastic profits for a new stratum of criminals dominated by Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrant gangs.
Smedley Butler had seen some of the worst violence of World War I and the corruption that had ensued. But now on sabbatical from the military, he was assigned the streets of Philadelphia: "Cleaning up Philadelphia was harder than any battle I was ever in." Butler closed six hundred speakeasies, including two patronized by the city's elite, who had him fired.
Other repressive aspects of the new American life included immigration reform laws that imposed strict quotas on southern and eastern Europeans, and entirely banned immigration from Japan, China and East Asia. Anti-semitism infested post-war America. Some associated Jews with Communism and radicalism. Others thought Jews exerted too much influence in Hollywood, business, and academia. Top universities like Harvard slashed admission of freshman Jews from 28 percent in 1925 to 12 percent in 1933.
Other measures were taken to eliminate "undesirables." In 1911, as Governor of New Jersey, eugenics enthusiast Woodrow Wilson signed a law authorizing sterilization convicts, epileptics and the "feeble minded." Over the following decade, some sixty thousand Americans would be sterilized, more than a third of them in California. Sexually active women were particularly targeted. Future German leader Adolf Hitler followed U.S. developments closely, and claimed to model some of his own master race strategies on U.S. programs that he lauded but criticized for only going half way. He would go further - much further.
Between 1920 - 25, three to six million Americans joined the racist, anti-semitic, anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, which dominated politics in Indiana, Colorado, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Alabama, and sent hundreds of delegates to the 1924 Democratic Convention. It is astonishing to think that in 1925 a quarter million people watched 35,000 Klansmen march and rally through Washington D.C.
Hatred stalked the heartland. Fourteen-year-old Henry Fonda, later a movie star, recalled watching a lynching in Omaha, Nebraska, from his father's printing plant:
"It was the most horrendous sight I'd ever seen. We locked the plant, went downstairs, and rode home in silence. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope."
Hundreds more African-Americans would suffer a similar fate, often advertised widely in advance and memorialized on postcards and sound recordings. Lynchings became perverse rituals of desecration, replete with dismemberment and castration, and preserving body parts as souvenirs.
Backwoods bible colleges proliferated. Anti-intellectualism abounded. In 1925, a Tennessee school teacher named John Thomas Scopes was prosecuted, convicted and fined for teaching Darwin's evolution theories in school.
World War I marked the ascendancy of the U.S. and Japan, the war's two real victors. It had brought American an unprecedented collusion of bankers, businessmen, and government officials, in an attempt to fix the economy and guarantee profits. By 1925, the U.S. was producing over 70 percent of the world's oil, which had powered the Allied' wartime navies, planes, tanks, and other motorized vehicles. New York had replaced London as the centre of the world economy, its size exceeding that of its next six rivals combined - Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, and Japan.
Cynical and disillusioned from a brutal war, the people were hungry to live at a level and experience life in a way they had never done before. A new materialism reigned, based on credit; radios, movie palaces, and a new golden age of advertising that perfected the capitalist art form of manipulating, not only consumer hopes and fantasies, but also fears and insecurities. Henry Ford sold 15 million Model-T's before switching in 1927 to the more fashionable Model-A. Jazz, with its roots in the African-American south, became wildly popular - flappers, petting, speakeasies, the Harlem renaissance, sports, wild new movies - with and without sound - flourished. Rebellious younger writers came on the scene - new expressionism in the works of E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Lawrence Stallings, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, and Dalton Trumbo, many of them went to Europe. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1920,
"Here was a new generation, grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken."
Gertrude Stein, a lesbian writer living in Paris, famously commented, "All of you young people who served in the war, you are a lost generation."
As the 1920s progressed, prosperity increasingly came to rest on the shakiest of foundations - unprecedented borrowing, massive speculation, and German war reparations. Agriculture was depressed throughout the decade. Auto manufacturing and road building slowed. Housing investment slowed, and the gap between rich and poor grew sharply. Capital scrambled for profitable speculative outlets.
To help pay Germany's war reparations, German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, a prominent Jewish industrialist, expanded economic, diplomatic, and even military ties with communist Russia, forging a bridge between the two nations that had been left out of Versailles, in order to rebuild their war-ravaged societies. This infuriated not only England and France, but members of Germany's thuggish right-wing Freikorps, who were already up in arms about Germany paying its reparations. They assassinated Rathenau in 1922.
Germany's economy suffered an inflation unlike any ever experienced in history. Wheelbarrows full of worthless German Marks were burned for firewood. By 1923, a bankrupt Germany could no longer pay reparations to France and Britain, who in turn asked for relief on the $billions they owed in war debts to the U.S. government. 'Absolutely not' replied the spartan new Republican president Calvin Coolidge. By 1924, Europe's economies teetered on the edge of collapse. Then, and again four years later, commissions of bankers and businessmen, led by Morgan and his allies, drew up plans for German economic recovery that would guarantee continued but more manageable reparations payments. In essence, the U.S. was loaning money to Germany so it could pay reparations to France and Britain who then used the money to service their war debts to the U.S. The bankers got rich, the people stayed poor. By 1933, Germany, though paying enormous reparations, owed even more money to the Allies than it had in 1924. It was in this climate of economic crisis in the West, and communist revolution in the East, that a new monster was born - it was called Nazism.
Separate and apart from Germany, in Italy in 1922, Benito Mussolini and Fascisti took power and decimated the communists in bloody street battles. And as 1925 came to and end, it was the Morgan bank that loaned Mussolini's government $100 million to repay its war debts to Britain and the U.S. Morgan was very pleased with Mussolini's repressive labor policies.
Nazis stormed the city of Munich in 1923, led by World War I corporal Adolph Hitler. His followers included war veterans unable to adjust to civilian life, who clamoured for the chance to put down communist uprisings and later formed the backbone of his stormtroopers. For his part in the failed coup, Hitler spent nine months in jail refining his views. His shrill assertion had won the war, only to be stabbed in the back by politicians at home, was gaining more and more adherents. Hitler's cause would be greatly advanced when, in 1929, the central bankers walked head-on into an unforeseen disaster - the Great Depression.
Montagu Norman, who ruled the private Bank of England from 1920 to 1944, and a paranoid anti-communist and anti-semite who traveled incognito to avoid assassination, asked the governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank to raise interest rates to slow Wall Street's soaring stock speculation. Ironically, Norman had been instrumental in convincing the previous governor to lower the rates two years earlier, which fuelled the orgy of speculation that now rattled the system. Morgan's senior partner Thomas Lamont considered Norman the wisest man he had ever met. But the U.S. stock market, as it would in 2008, had diverted its money and credit away from production into speculation, borrowing to the hilt in order to loot the economy for huge profit. When the English and American banks raised their rates, the credit of the world tightened quickly and the too-big-to-fail American banks went into a panic. Huge banks in Austria and Germany followed.
The crash ended American loans to Germany, and Germany's industry collapsed entirely in the winter of 1932-2. Unemployment soared to over 30 percent, putting millions of angry young men in the streets. Capitalists and conservative politicians feared an imminent communist coup, and Hitler, Germany's most virulent anti-communist was thus invited by the ruling classes into the government. Although still representing a radical minority party, in January of 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany:
"The German people is no longer a people of shame and degradation. ... No more weakness and lack of faith for the German people, no!"
In speeches like this, Hitler touched a deep cord with many Germans, promising them something they could barely remember - pride.
But disorder followed Hitler's rise to power when the Reichstag, the national parliament, mysteriously burned down. Hitler readily blamed the communists, and many were thrown in concentration camps. He quickly began a massive program of rearmament, which he made public in 1935, and once Hjalmar Schacht became his Minister of Economics he received vital bank credits from Montagu Norman, who, in 1934 told a Morgan partner:
"Hitler and Schacht are the bulwarks of civilization in Germany. They are fighting the war of our system of society against communism."
Many American bankers agreed, trusting their friend Schacht and hoping that Hitler would repay at least some of the reparations and also crush the German communists.
America was in deep crisis, as well. Republican Herbert Hoover struggled ineffectively to quell the great depression - more than 20,000, possibly as many as 40,000, angry American veterans, known as the Bonus Army, descended on Washington demanding war services bonuses not due to be paid until the year 1945:
"I came to Washington to get my bonus, and I'm gonna wait until I get it if I have to till 1945."
They set up a tent city on the Anacostia Flats in Washington. They brought their wives and children. They lived by military discipline with a daily parade and a strict no-drinking rule. General Smedley Butler arrived to lend moral support:
"I know who's made this country worth living in! Its just you fellas. Makes me so damn mad - a whole of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn't speak of you as tramps in 1917 and '18. Take it from me, this is the greatest demonstration of 'Americanism' we have ever had. Pure Americanism!"
He was mobbed by veterans wanting to speak to him. Until late that morning he sat with them in their tents, listening to their tales of lost jobs and families in distress and old battle wounds.
After demonstrators clashed with District police, President Hoover ordered General Douglas McArthur to restore order. Convinced that the Bonus Army was the vanguard of a communist coup, McArthur - not for the only time in his stories career - disobeyed presidential orders and rousted the veterans with tanks, bayonets and tear gas. McArthur, whose aides included later generals Eisenhower and George Patton, pursued the fleeing veterans across the river, and set their makeshift city aflame. But when the Bonus Army marched again next year into Washington, there was a new president in the White House, who sent his wife, Eleanore, to help serve the veterans three hot meals a day with coffee. One veteran remarked, "Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife." Several days later, the Bonus Army voted to disband. The new president put many of the veterans to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
It was in his famous inaugural address in March, 1933, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt rallied the nation with his declaration:
"...that the only the thing we have to fear is fear itself."
It was the signature line of his extraordinary life. In truth, he was facing a disaster. Unemployment stood at 25 percent. The gross national product had fallen 50 percent. Farmers had lost 60 percent of their income. Industrial production had dropped over 60 percent. Between 1930 and '32, 20 percent of U.S. banks had failed. Breadlines formed in every town to feed the starving. The homeless walked the streets and slept in vast shanty towns known as "Hoovervilles". There was no safety net to assist the desperate. Misery was everywhere.
Roosevelt united Americans around a message of inclusion, the opposite of Hitler's:
"The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit."
In this vein, he called for strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments, and an end to speculation with other people's money. He proclaimed a "New Deal," and although he could have nationalized the banks with hardly a word of protest, he chose a much more conservative course of action - he declared a four day national bank holiday, conferred with the nation's top bankers on his first full day in office, and signed an emergency banking act, which was written largely by the bankers themselves. The banking system was restored essentially without radical change. And despite being accused of betraying his class, Roosevelt would ironically save capitalism from the capitalists themselves.
Recognizing the failures of unfettered capitalism, Roosevelt unleashed the powers of the federal government. In his first 100 days in office, he passed legislation that established the Agricultural Adjustment Administration to save farming, the Civilian Conservation Corps to put young men to work in the forests and parks, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to provide federal assistance to the States, the Public Works Administration to coordinate large-scale public works projects, the National Recovery Administration to promote economic recovery, and he passed the Glass-Steagall Banking Act which separated investment and commercial banking and instituted federal insurance of bank deposits. He also repealed Prohibition, and stated, "Now would be a good time to have a beer."
Roosevelt assembled a team of visionaries. Among them were Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's chief aid, National Youth Administrator Aubrey Williams, Rexford Tugwell, Adolf Burle, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. There was also the formidable Frances Perkins, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, and the first woman every appointed to the Cabinet. They become known as the "New Dealers." Henry A. Wallace, the young Iowa geneticist, would become one of their leading lights.
He was from a Republican farming clan that had worked the land since it was frontier. His father Harry had served Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge as Secretary of Agriculture. Roosevelt to take whatever actions necessary to repair the nation's devastated rural sector. His solutions were controversial. To stop over-production, he paid farmers to destroy 25 percent of the cotton crop that was in the ground. He also ordered the slaughter of 6 million baby pigs, although he made sure the Agriculture Department distributed much of the pork, lard and soap to needy Americans. Condemned by critics, Wallace took to the radio to defend his program. He called it a "declaration of interdependence,"
"The ungoverned push of rugged individualism perhaps had an economic justification in the days when we had all the west to surge upon and conquer. But this country has filled up now, and grown up. There are no more indians to fight. We must blaze new trails in the direction of a controlled economy, common sense, and social decency."
In the end, Wallace's plan worked brilliantly - cotton prices doubled; farm income jumped 65 percent from 1932 to '36; corn, wheat, and pig prices stabilized; and the farmers became Wallace's staunchest supporters. For a man who had spent years perfected a strain of hybrid corn, and who believed that abundant food supplies were essential for a peaceful world, Wallace was horrified by the unfortunate message such policies sent:
"The plowing under of 10 million acres of cotton and the slaughter of 6 million little pigs in 1933 were not acts of idealism in any sane society. They were emergency acts made necessary by the almost insane lack of world statesmanship during the period from 1920 to 1932."
The public, which blamed business for causing the Depression, welcomed Roosevelt with great enthusiasm, hoping he could spark a recovery. But he was an enigma, campaigning at times as a big government liberal, spinning out one new government program after another, and at other times as a budget-balancing conservative. Some thought him a socialist in the Eugene Debs/Norman Thomas tradition; others, a fascist or corporatist, supporting the merger of state and corporate power. His industrial recovery program, the NRA, regulated production, competition, and minimum wage rates, some of which smacked of Italian Fascism.
In reality, Roosevelt was more pragmatic than ideological. Nonetheless, he was misunderstood by big business. Openly opposing Wall Street made for smart politics, but it won him the ever-lasting enmity of conservative Republicans, who attacked his inflationary policies as unconstitutional - "printing press money," they called it - and worse yet, FDR took the U.S. off the gold standard. He sacrificed foreign trade and its profits in order to stimulate domestic recovery. He also took steps to reduce the country's small 140 thousand-man army.
In 1934, retired General Smedley Butler reentered the picture, presenting shocking information to the House Special Committee on UnAmerican Activity:
"I was supposed to lead an organization of 500,000 men which would be able to take over the functions of government."
Butler charged the anti-Roosevelt oligarchs, including J. P. Morgan's son, Jack, and the wealthy DuPont business clan with trying to recruit him to lead an uprising of desperate veterans to force Roosevelt from office. The press dismissed it as "the business plot," a paranoid conspiracy. Henry Luce's Time magazine led the charge, but after the testimony, the House committee, chaired by future Speaker of the House John McCormack of Massachusetts, reported it had been able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler, and concluded that "attempts to establish a fascist organization in the United States were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when, and if, the financial backers deemed it expedient."
The committee strangely chose not to call many of those implicated to testify, including failed 1928 Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith, Thomas Lamont of Morgan, army General Douglas McArthur, various high placed corporate executives, as well as the former American Legion Commander (Hanford McNider), and the head of the National Recovery Administration (Hugh S. Johnson). The tumultuous, frightening prospect of a fascist coup was popularized in the best-selling novel by Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis - It Can't Happen Here - which depicted a similar series of events to those alleged by Butler. And later a similar plot emerged in the very popular Frank Capra film, "Meet John Doe." Al Smith, who became a spokesman for the right-wing American Liberty League, scorched Roosevelt:
"There can be only one capital, Washington or Moscow. There can be the pure, clear, fresh air of free America, or the foul breath of communistic Russia. There can be only one flag, the Stars and Stripes, or the flag of the godless union of the Soviets."
Although the Smedley Butler hearings could be soft-pedaled by the media, the House of Morgan and the four Du Pont brothers were actually called to testify by one of the most remarkable Congressional hearings in U.S. history, that of the Senate committee investigating the munitions industry, under North Dakota's Gerald Nye, a progressive Republican. The target? War profiteering on an unimaginable scale, and collusion with the German enemy in World War I.
Nye, sensing another war was coming, supported nationalizing the arms industry and increasing taxes on incomes over $10,000 to 98 percent on the day a war began. The investigations reached their zenith in early 1936 when the House of Morgan and other Wall Street firms were called in. Was it true that Morgan and other firms pushed the U.S. to war in order to recoup the enormous sums they had loaned the Allies? Morgan Jr., along with Thomas Lamont and other partners, dismissed this as a fantastic theory, claiming there was no material advantage to having the U.S. enter the First World War because U.S. business were already thriving from supplying the Allies. One sceptical Senator asked the bankers, "Do you think Great Britain would have paid her debts if she had lost the war?" A banker replied, "Yes, even if she had lost the war she would have paid." But we must ask: would a broken and bankrupt Britain really have repaid those debts? Although Nye and his committee failed to stop war profiteering, they did succeed in educating the public, and also raised another disturbing issue that continues to rankle historians - what to say about U.S. businesses contributions to German economic and military revitalization.
World War II continues to be one of the most heroic periods in American history and myth. The modern media industry of books, television, and movies have applauded America's contribution to the defeat of Hitler's Nazi regime. But they ignore, forget, or overlook that many prominent American businessmen and citizens, driven by greed, but sometimes by fascist sympathies, knowingly aided the Third Reich. IBM, headed by Thomas Watson, had purchased a controlling interest in the German firm Dehomag in the early 1920s, and held on once the Nazis seized power. On his 75th birthday in 1937, Watson accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, given him for the assistance IBM's German subsidiary provided the government in tabulating its census with its punchcard machines. This later proved very effective in, among other things, identifying Jews, and later still in helping make the trains to Auschwitz run on time.
On an even larger scale, General Motors Alfred Sloan, through his German subsidiary Adam Opel, built cars and transport vehicles for the German army. Sloan, on the eve of Germany's invasion of Poland, said his company "was too big to be affected by a petty international squabble."
Henry Ford's German subsidiary manufactured an arsenal of military vehicles throughout the war with the consent of the parent company in Michigan. Ford himself had earlier published a series of articles - later a book - entitled The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. Hitler hung a portrait of Ford in his Munich office, and told the Detroit News in 1931, "I regard Heinrich Ford as my inspiration."
When the European war was declared in 1939, Ford and GM, despite subsequent disclaimers, refused to divest themselves of their German holdings, and even complied with German government orders to retool for war production, while resisting similar demands from the U.S. government.
Ford, GM, Standard Oil, ALCOA, ITT, General Electric, the munitions maker Du Pont, Eastman Kodak, Westinghouse, Pratt & Whitney, Douglas Aircraft, United Fruit, Singer, and International Harvester, continued to trade with Germany up to 1941. Although the United States declared many of these business activities illegal under the Trading With the Enemy Act, several corporations still received special licenses to continue operations in Germany. Profits piled up in blocked bank accounts as Americans were dying on the battlefield.
German coal and steel magnate, Fritz Thyssen, had been one of Hitler's early backers, and much of his wealth was protected overseas by the Brown Brothers Harriman investment firm, through the holding company Union Banking Corporation, in an account managed by Prescott Bush, father of future president George H. W. Bush, and grandfather to W. Bush. In 1942 the U.S. government seized Union Banking Corp., along with four other Thyssen-linked accounts managed by Bush. Then after the war the shares were returned to the American shareholders, including Bush.
By 1943, half of the German workforce was slave labor or, as the Nazis called them, "foreign workers." Despite having lost direct control, Ford profited from these people, earning $millions in requested funds after the war. Ford also benefitted from its alliance with IG Farben, a chemical cartel that built the Buna rubber plant in Auschwitz, which manufactured Zylkon-B, the poison gas that killed so many. Farben employed 83,000 forced labourers from Auschwitz, and held a 15 percent share in the Ford subsidiary, FordWerke. American authorities knew of the death camps by August '42, but until this could be clarified said nothing to the public. Rabbi Stephen Wise finally broke the silence in late '42 - the story was carried on page 10 in the New York Times, and not much was made of it.
IBM fought, and succeeded, in acquiring all of their sequestered profits. And Ford and GM both reabsorbed their German subsidiaries, even having the audacity to sue and win reparations for those European factories that had been destroyed or damaged in Allied bombing raids, up to $33 million in the case of GM. And after the war, these corporations took steps to obscure their involvement. Documents were burned or went missing, especially in former Nazi-occupied areas. The subject of collaboration is highly taboo.
To facilitate such dealings, of course, banks and law firms were needed. The corporate powerhouse law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, whose managing director was future secretary of state John Foster Dulles, with his brother Allen Dulles as a partner, had as clients many of these powerful institutions, including the very important Bank for International Settlements which was set up in Switzerland in 1930 to channel World War I reparations between the U.S. and Germany. After the war was declared, the bank continued to offer financial services to the Third Reich, and the majority of gold looted during the Nazi conquests of Europe ended up in BIS vaults, which allowed the Nazis access to money that would have normally been trapped in blocked accounts. Several Nazis and supporters at high levels were involved, including Hjalmar Schacht and Walther Funk, who both ended up in the dock at the Nuremberg Trials, though Schacht was acquitted. American lawyer and chairman of the bank, Thomas McKittrick, claiming neutrality in Switzerland, managed this process. Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, unsuccessfully tried to close the bank down after the war, claiming it had acted as an agent of the Nazis.
The Chase Bank continued to work with Vichy France, a client state and intermediary of the Third Reich. Its deposits doubled during the war years. In 1992, the Bank was sued by Holocaust survivors, claiming it held blocked accounts from this era. Morgan Bank, Chase Bank, Union Banking Corporation, and BIS were the four dominant banks who succeeded in obfuscating their collaborations with the Nazis.
William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron, who was proud to have provoked the Spanish-American War, was still alive and went to Germany to meet with Hitler, whom he admired. Throughout the '30s, his papers demonized the Soviet Union and ran stories depicting the Nazis in a friendly light.
American hero Charles Lindbergh, one of the most celebrated Americans of the 1920s - alongside Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, and Charlie Chaplin - became the poster boy of the American First movement. Although Hitler had just smashed France, Lindbergh feared Germany's ultimate defeat, and implored the American public:
"Hitler's destruction would lay Europe open to the rape, loot, and barbarism of Soviet Russia's forces, causing possibly the fatal wounding of Western civilization.
Lindbergh was enthralled with Hitler and almost moved to Germany. Roosevelt suspected a darker reality than simple pacifism, and remarked in 1940, "If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this: I'm absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi." Many Americans abhorred racism and repudiated Lindbergh's right-wing views, but they remembered the horrors of World War I and wanted the U.S. to stay out of Europe's wars. Even General Smedley Butler would join the ranks of the isolationists, although he would die in 1940 before the U.S. entered the war: "Mr. Roosevelt will be re-elected, unless he makes some false step and involves us in a foreign war which is surely coming."
From the American point of view in the heart of the 1930s depression, in a time of great moral confusion, when the world was upside down, when even a maverick like General Smedley Butler would become isolationist, where American business was not to be trusted by the workers, there was a gigantic unseen global struggle going on. It was essentially between the left and the right, between communism at one extreme and fascism at the other. Between these poles, America was a baby giant, a nascent empire going through birthing pains - confused, anxious, scared. What would America become? It could be argued in hindsight that the non-intervention of the United States in the Spanish Civil War, which Roosevelt later characterized as a grave mistake, set the course for a numb neutrality between fascism and communism that would seriously confuse the stakes for the American public.
We've described the lurch toward fascism that would end with World War II. But the wrestling match with communism continued to haunt the American imagination for decades to come. In 1931, as U.S. unemployment approached 25 percent, desperate Americans stampeded Soviet offices looking for jobs. In the eyes of the poor, there was this great hope that the world would be a better place. The combination of a left-leaning Congress and an energized populous and a responsive president in Roosevelt now made possible the greatest period of social experimentation in American history. Its there to be seen in the passionate works of Dos Passos and Clifford Odets, in the iconic photos of Dorothea Lange, in the riveting message of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," written by Sidney Buchman who was a communist party member, in the lyrics of "Over the Rainbow" and "This Land is Your Land," and in one of the greatest novels of that era, The Grapes of Wrath by Nobel Prize winning John Steinbeck, in which can be found the dark optimism of the ordinary American.
Hundreds of thousands of people either joined the Communist Party itself or passed through the popular front groups during the period of 1935 to '39 when the Party appealed to progressive Democrats, including Roosevelt to unite with the Soviet Union against fascist aggression. Not only did the Communists lead the fight against fascism, they provided the foot soldiers to build the great industrial unions of the CIO, and they battled for African-Americans' civil rights decades ahead of their time. To many, they seemed to represent the moral conscience of the nation. Communist sympathizers included some of the nation's greatest writers such as Sherwood Anderson, James Farrell, Richard Wright, Clifford Odets, Langston Hughes, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and Lewis. Renown writer and critic Edmund Wilson visited Russia, saying he felt as if he was at "the moral top of the universe, where the light never really goes out." He wrote in 1932:
"To the writers and artists of my generation who had grown up in the big business era, and had always resented its barbarism, these years were not depressing but stimulating. One couldn't help being exhilarated at the sight of the unexpected collapse of the stupid, gigantic fraud. It gave us a new sense of freedom, to find ourselves still carrying on while the bankers, for a change, were taking a beating."
Was communism the answer for America? The popular perception of Russia was still a forbidding one. Henry Wallace, a symbol of the New Deal's caring capitalism professed himself an admirer of Soviet social programs that offered its citizens universal health care, free public education and subsidized housing. Roosevelt's Republican opponents, however, were horrified. Things grew worse when Wallace hit the cover of Time magazine in 1938 as Roosevelt's logical successor. Wallace, like many Americans, was focussing more on the Soviet Union's achievements than on the ugly and largely hidden brutality of Stalin's repression, which he would later discover and renounce.
What they saw in the USSR was a thriving, state-run, full-employment economy. It was based, starting in 1928, on a five-year plan that was building big, highly visible projects - damns, steel mills, canals - by unleashing science and technology. Progressives had long favoured this kind of intelligent planning over the dog-eat-dog capitalism, in which individuals made decisions based on maximizing individual profit.
The late 1920s, former Bolshevik enforcer Joseph Stalin had risen to prominence through a calculated course of murder and ruthlessness - some called him "the red tsar." In another century, Stalin would simply have declared himself "divine," as a king would and rule without protest. In fact, he often behaved more like a traditional tsar, using communism as an authoritative weapon to rule. During the 1930s, controversial reports, often disbelieved by American progressives, filtered out of the USSR telling of famines and starvation, political trials and repression, secret police, brutal prisons, and ideological orthodoxy. More than 13 million lives were terminated under Stalin's despotic resolve. Kulaks were slaughtered or allowed to starve for resisting forced collectivization of agriculture; organized religion was stifled; scientists were arrested; military leaders loyal to the Russian Revolution of 1917 were purged in huge, phoney showcase trials. It was a backward police state having nothing in common with Karl Marx's vision.
Stalin believed that the West would ultimately combine to try to crush revolutionary Russia as they had in 1918. But although he defended Soviet interests abroad, he was primarily concerned with maintaining control at home. His war was not with the world, but with his own people. Unlike Hitler, who was devoted mystically to his Nazi ideology, the highly paranoid Stalin was, in comparison, a poor student of the communism preached by Marx and Lenin, and that of his implacable enemy who he exiled in 1929 - Leon Trotsky.
Trotsky felt that the Soviet revolution, surrounded by hostile powers with its vast peasantry and small industrial base, was way too backward economically and could not stand on its own. He called for a world-wide permanent revolution to realize the Bolshevik's visionary transformation. But Stalin's response was socialism in one country, but which he meant the USSR. And when Stalin finally had the outspoken idealistic Trotsky silenced once and for all with a pickaxe in his skull by agents in Mexico in 1940, few in the West understood that this murder signified in the end, truly - not the beginning - the end of a revolutionary movement towards international communism.
Stalin, unlike Trotsky or Lenin, was finally no more a true communist than Mao Zedong would ultimately become in China. In pursuit of his nationalistic goal, Stalin, encircled by hostile capitalist nations and fearing this new war with Germany, concluded the non-aggression pact with Hitler after desperately trying to forge an alliance to stop Hitler. In hindsight, it was Stalin who was right about Germany, not the United States. He had to get ready for the bloodiest war in human history.
The West painted Stalin as not only a monster, which he was, but added the fundamentally tragic misperception that Russian itself, and Stalin's victims - the almost 200 million Soviet people - were indeed an equally implacable monster bent on global conquest. But the facts reveal that during the 1930s, it turned out that it was the anti-communist fascists who were spreading the world revolution we so feared, not Stalin, who was turning backward Russia into an industrial giant. And out of this confusion and suspicion grew the basis of a severe and grievous future misunderstanding between the West - particularly the United States - and the USSR which would result, once World War II ended, in the equally dangerous Cold War.
In the cross-currents of the 1930s, the U.S. stumbled between isolationism and engagement, between hatred and fear of communist Russia, followed by friendship and alliance with it. But then the curtain of hatred and fear descended once again. And with the great brutality and soon-to-be-discovered horrors of World War II, a new pessimism was about to enter the human consciousness. With his hopes once more ground to dust under the boot of fascism, war, and big business, the common man would have to find his own one-eyed way to survive in the kingdom of the blind.