Ninety-Year-Old America First Founders Book Straightens Out
A Fundamental Misconception. Prominent Jews and Chrisians
Joined to Defend America Yet Stop a Headlong Rush to War.
This is the thirdand finalarticle on the America First Committee, the Chicago-based group formed to keep us out of World War II. It appears this week in The Wanderer, Americas oldest national Catholic newspaper.
By Thomas F. Roeser
CHICAGOThe candid speech by Charles A. Lindbergh in Des Moines on September 11, 1941 which listed as the three most important groups pressing for war as the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration, was the only speech he ever made that referred to Jewish support for war directlyand even there he braced his assessment with the statement that no person with any sense of dignity of mankind could condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. The details of the speech and the impact it caused is set down for posterity in a memoir, Making a Difference, by 90-year-old Robert D. Stuart, Jr. who was my boss for years as CEO of Quaker Oats. The book is privately published and not on the commercial market.
Lindbergh may have thought his speech was balanced, but for those who wanted war, it ignited a fire-storm on supposed anti-Semitic grounds. It rocked the Chicago-based America First Committeedespite the fact that Jews served in high positions there. Especially Sidney Hertzberg its national publicity director who also directed the Writers Anti-War Committee for the Keep America Out of War Congress.
Hertzberg was one of the most prominent journalists of the day, rising from copy boy to write editorials for The New York Times. He was a left-wing political activist who served as labor editor of The New Leader, contributing editor for Time, worked for the Committee for the Defense of Civil Rights, served as editorial consultant for Commentary magazine, published by the American Jewish Committee, was publicity director of the Liberal party of New York, worked with Edward R. Murrows See it Now TV program, did assignments for the Ford Foundation and was a political aide to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, specializing in winning support from the Jewish community for the latters bid for the presidency in 1968.
To imagine that Hertzberg was anti-Semitic or supported anti-Jewish bigotry was ludicrous. Today his son, Hendrik Hertzberg is political editor of The New Yorker magazine. Hendrik is a former two-time editor of The New Republic where he shared duties there with Michael Kinsley. Other Jews who occupied key roles at America First included Bertha Tallman, who left a high paying post as traffic manager of Benton & Bowles to organize the committees advertising and mailings and Congesswoman Florence Page Kahn of California. Nevertheless the main attack dog for the Roosevelt administration who charged the America First Committee with anti-Semitism was FDRs secretary of the interior, Chicagos Harold L. Ickes.
Ickes was a former writer for the Chicago Tribune who turned so far left on joining government that he declared to the Congress of American-Soviet Friendship in November, 1943 that in certain respects we could do well to learn from Russia. Yes, even to imitate Russia. Ickes was an irascible cigar-chomping partisan Democrat who earned his spurs with Chicago reform and also with Teddy Roosevelts Bull Moose movement, building a following with the City Club of Chicago. Intriguingly, I am now chairman of the City Club. In his seventies, he married a woman fifty years younger and fathered the current left-wing supporter of Hillary Clinton for president, Harold Ickes, Jr., a man with the same squinty eyes and dead fish appeal as his father.
The Roosevelt effort to push America into the war was frustrated by the America First Committee which capitalized on the general disinclination of Americans to get involved. Obviously, the goal of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was to secure U. S. involvement for Britain would not have survived without such help. Roosevelt agreed but, ever the cautious politician, had to maintain the public image of neutrality all the while secretly pushing for war. But Churchill was impatient.
In August, 1941 when Roosevelt met with Churchill at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland for the Atlantic Charter conference, Churchill formally pleaded for a U. S. declaration of war. No, said Roosevelt, Congress would oppose such a motion. In fact, he told Churchill, on August 13, 1941 the House extended the draft by only a single vote. Had the vote gone the other way a million men would have been released from the service to return home. Thats how pro-peace the U. S. is, he told Churchill. Nevertheless, FDR said, eventually the U. S. will come in. It will be engaged because he, Roosevelt, planned to wage war but not declare it. The hidden details have been unearthed by scholar Thomas Fleming in his legendary book, The New Dealers War [`Basic Books: 2001]. Fleming bears the same name but is not related to the president of the Rockford Institute.
Notable books written about the period, including the landmark Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-45 [University of Nebraska Press: 1981] by Wayne Cole, professor of history at the University of Maryland, show that FDR hoped the news media hype his Atlantic Charter compact with Churchill and fan the flames of public sentiment for war. No such luck. Before the Atlantic Conference, the polls showed 74 percent of the people wanted to stay out of war with Germany. A poll taken a week after the conference showed the same response74 percent or three-fourths of the nation had no desire for war with Germany.
Frustrated, Roosevelt had planned to create an incident in the Atlantic after the destroyer Greer stalked a German submarine aided by a British patrol plane before the U-boat fired a torpedo at the destroyer. Again, not much outcry. Then the battleship USS Kearny was sunk after pursuing a sub with 115 U. S. sailors dying in the freezing North Atlantic. Roosevelt thought he had a pretext now. He cried on radio: The shooting has started! And history has recorded who fired the first shot! But his speech-writer and famed dramatist Robert Sherwood later complained that the country didnt budge, wanting peace. The bereaved families mourned [but]
[t]here was a sort of tacit understanding among Americans that nobody was to get excited if ships were sunk by Uboats he wrote.
Disgruntled by his inability to strike a flint and produced a spark to touch off war in Europe, Roosevelt turned to the Far East. In retaliation for Japans mid-1941 seizure of southern French Indochinawhich had no real interest to the United StatesRoosevelt froze all Tokyos assets in the U. S. which he had already done with Germany and Italy. The Japanese now had to go with hat in hand to the U. S. to get a license for any product useful to the war they were waging with China.
Then he tightened the noose. State Secretary Hull reading a broken Japanese code knew that Japan was desperate for oil. The code shows its leaders worried it would lose its war with China. They came to a consensus: they would have to strike out against the U. S. as a matter of honor. Gratified Roosevelt and Hull embraced the embargo. Still, prodded by Churchill, Roosevelt worried that war would not come in time. He met with his cabinet and, as Fleming shows with Freedom of Information data, discussed how, in secretary of war Henry L. Stimsons words, to prod Japan to fire the first shot. From a corner of the cabinet room, Ickes with no experience in foreign policy whatever was plugging for us to get into the war in an effective way. No such luck for many weeks. But Roosevelt was told an attack by the Japanese would come: never fear.
Now Roosevelt returned to the issue of Germany. While an attack from Japan was expected sooner or later, what would happen if Germany would not declare war on us? How could we declare war on it if Japan struck at us? What would happen to Britain and Churchill then? It would not be all that easy to get Congress to declare war on Germany. And Hitler, cunningly aware of FDRs wish, ordered his Uboats and air force to avoid attacks on Americans at all costs. FDR was in a dilemma. What he determined to do was the high-water mark of presidential duplicity.
The idea came from the British. In William Stephensons 1976 phenomenal book A Man Called Intrepid, the code name for a highly placed British operative, an idea to goad Germany into declaring war was given to Roosevelt. While negotiations with Japan went from bad to worse in November, 1941, the idea was hatched to leak a bogus secret strategy to the press that supposedly detailed the administrations plan to dethrone Hitler. But Roosevelt went the plan one better. He decided not to leak a bogus strategy but an actual one. Since the beginning of modern warfare, military men have drawn up contingency plans on how to act in case of war. A Lt. Colonel Albert Wedemeyer had drawn up just such a plan in the W ar Department.
FDR decided to do a hitherto unthinkable thing: leak the actual strategic plan to an anti-war Senator and enemy. The thought was that the anti-war Senator would in turn leak it to an anti-war newspaper and enemy of FDRs. The leak strategy would accomplish two FDR ends. One, the strategy was so detailed that it would certainly provoke Hitler to, in a rage, declare war on the U. S. At the same time, the newspaper printing it could easily be accused of either treason or sedition. With the papers editor and publisher prosecuted, the paper would fall into disrepute and be thoroughly discredited. The strategy would be leaked to none other than Sen. Burton K. Wheeler (D-Montana), Roosevelts prime enemy and arch-opponent of war. With luck, Wheeler would in turn give the paper to Roosevelts most hated journalistic enemy, the Chicago Tribune run by the man FDR hated more than any other: Col. Robert R. McCormick.
The thought could only come to a man of Roosevelts complex, some say, duplicitous, personalitya man who told treasury secretary Henry Morganthau: You know I am a juggler and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does
I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.
Events proceeded according to Intrepids plan. The war strategy, a
comprehensive document, called Rainbow Five, was leaked (by a person still unknown) Sen. Wheeler whose wife served on the America First board. Predictably, as if by clockwork, Wheeler leaked it in turn to the Chicago Tribunes Chesly Manly.
The leaked war plan emblazoned the Tribunes front page on December 4, 1941: FDRS WAR PLANS! along with the New York Daily News and the Washington Times-Herald then also owned by the McCormick family. As a 13-year-old with a father passionately engrossed in public affairs, I well remember the story and the day it hit the Tribune. The story said FDR planned a 10 million man army; from that massive force, no fewer than 5 million that would invade Europe in 1943 to overthrow Hitler. In that pre-TV era the paper hit the newsstands and doorsteps like the Tsaunami. The first thought was that the Tribune had exceeded itself in hatred of Roosevelt and now had endangered U. S. security.
When I went to St. Juliana grade school that morning where Roosevelts photo hung on the principals wall next to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, my 7th grade teacher, Sister Janice Blee, OSF, said to the class: You see now what can happen when the newspaper that Thomas likes carries hatred of the president that far. It may well put us in war! All heads swiveled and 27 young faces glowered at me since I was the only Republican and non-Roosevelt devotee in school.
I was worried that my favorite newspaper would produce war and the FDR White House roared with anger and feigned great dismay. It scurried to find the leaker. J. Edgar Hoovers FBI was enlisted and traced it then Lt. Colonel Albert C. Wedemeyer in the War Department. He had, in obedience to his superiors, written the plan. He was aghast that his document had been leaked and claimedthough no one believed himthat he had nothing to do with it.. His own mother called up from Nebraska and said, what in the name of God have you been doing?
The FBI believed it had the real culprit which meant he could be court-martialed and imprisoned indefinitely. First, his surname was German. Second, he had attended some of Bob Stuarts America First Committee meetings in Chicago although out of uniform. Wedemeyer later wrote that the next three days were the worst of his life. He was not only innocent, the War Department knew he was guiltless and his career proceed apace. Later as Lt. General he served as military adviser to Chiang Kai Shek in China, replacing General Joseph Vinegar Joe Stillwell, who was compromised as a pro-Mao guy. Wedemeyer became a key planner of the Normandy invasion.
Life for me at St. Julianas wasnt cozy either. Attorney General Francis Biddle declared the newspaper could be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act. We learned later that Roosevelt, delighted with his hoax, asked Secretary of War Stimson to see if his old nemesis Col. Robert R. McCormick, Tribune editor and publisher, could be court-martialed as a member of the Army reserve. But McCormick had retired from the reserve which disappointed FDR greatly.
The leak was the nations biggest news for three daysfrom Thursday, December 4 to Sunday, December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor made the issue of Rainbow Five moot. We were at war. The probe of the leakage stopped. Tribune managing editor William Loy (Pat) Maloney figured out the leak was premeditated by Roosevelt. He demanded the probe go on. Nothing doing.
In Washington, Franklin Roosevelt was in a quandary. On December 8th he appeared before Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan. But he couldnt ask one against Germany because he couldnt get one since Germany hadnt responded. But maddeningly, Hitler still delayed declaring war on the U. S. He wouldnt take the bait. Two days passed. More prodding was needed. So, on December 9, 1941 Roosevelt made a radio address to the nation that has not received much coverage in the history books.
He accused Hitler of goading Japan to attack Pearl Harbor. He said, Your government knows Germany has been telling Japan that if Japan would attack the United States, Japan would share the spoils when peace came. Still Hitler didnt act. Finally on December 11 Hitler went before the Reichstag. He said he considered Roosevelts speech a de facto declaration of war citing the story that appeared in the Tribune. Germany had finally declared war on us. Churchill cracked open a bottle of fizz water and lighted a fresh cigar. He and Franklin Roosevelt at last had their war. These details are developed in full in Flemings brilliant book written with full use of the Freedom of Information Act, a book which has not received much attention but which has never been denied. The America First Committee was disbanded. The Tribune responded by saluting the colors. We had to win this thing now.
What happened to anti-war leaders after Pearl Harbor? Roosevelt wanted vengeance against them for making him work so hard to get into the war. But Attorney General Francis Biddle was a civil libertarian loathe to punish dissenters out of respect for the First Amendment. Then he started receiving notes from FDR urging prosecution of those assailing Roosevelt. Biddle has written: He was not much interested in the theory of sedition or in the constitutional right to criticize the government during wartime. He wanted this anti-war talk stopped.
The pressure on Biddle was excruciating. He had to do something. The first one to be punished was Fr. Charles E. Coughlin, the radio priest who had said Roosevelt was a war-monger. Biddle convinced Postmaster General Frank Walker, a Catholic, to suspend postal privileges for Fr. Charles Coughlins magazine Social Justice. The Tribune attacked the banning of Social Justice from the mails, fearing it would also be silenced. The persecution didnt take. Continually harassed by Roosevelt, Biddle went to Treasury Secretary Morganthau to try to get Fr. Coughlin on a tax fraud conviction. But Morganthau, a Jew, feared that tangling the Catholic priest Coughlin who had bluntly assailed what he called the power of international bankers a thinly-veiled reference, would inflame the country into an anti-Semitic pogrom. Morganthau bailed out.
Instead, Biddle thought of an easier way. He sent Leo Crowley, chairman of the FDIC and another Catholic to Detroit where he conferred with Archbishop Edward Mooney, Coughlins Ordinary. Mooney was malleable. He ordered Fr. Coughlin to shut down Social Justice and end his broadcasts. Obediently, Fr. Coughlin did. Roosevelt was delighted with the outcome, Biddle wrote and the AG breathed a sigh of relief.
. It was not the last time that a Catholic prelate caved to political pressure and would not be the last time a U. S. bishop would bend to win brownie points from secular officials..
Roosevelts next target would be Lindbergh. Ickes called him the No. 1 Nazi fellow traveler. But Lindbergh earnestly wanted to enlist and serve his country in time of war. He was 40 when the war started, married and the father of three living children. He had been a colonel in the Army Air Corps Reserve until his resignation in April, 1941. He wanted to activate his commission. Roosevelt blocked it. Lindbergh then wrote to General H. H. Arnold of the Army Air Force offering his services. Roosevelt blocked that. He sent Ickes, whom Stuart calls FDRs hatchet man, out to call the national hero a ruthless and conscious fascist, motivated by hatred [of Roosevelt] personally. Navy secretary Frank Knox, a former newspaper publisher in Chicago and foe of Robert McCormicks, agreed.
Not content with blocking Lindberghs wish to return to service, the administration banned him from serving as a consultant to any aviation business that had federal contractscutting off possible employment by companies that sorely wanted him: Pan-American, United Aircraft and Curtiss-Wright. Finally the Lone Eagle was hired under contract by crusty old Henry Ford who was afraid of nobody least of all Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1942 Lindbergh went to the Pacific as consultant and at age 42 as a civilian flew fifty combat missions against the Japanese. In one encounter, flying a P-38, he shot down a Japanese plane. The episode was kept from the newspapers by censorship of Franklin Roosevelt. It was not until a new era had dawned when President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress restored Lindberghs commission in the Air Force reserve and promoted him to brigadier general. Then Lindbergh wrote a book The Spirit of St. Louis which won the Pultizer prize. But Harold Ickes old slurs have remained. Lindbergh is still thought of, in some quarters, as an anti-Semite and pro-Nazi.
A sad postmortem: like all humans, Lindbergh had his private failings. In 2003 it was discovered that he had had an affair with a woman in Germany from 1957 to his death in 1974. DNA tests proved he fathered her three children, a fact unknown to his illegitimate children who discovered letters he had written to their late mother which prompted the announcement long after he and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, his wife had died.
The third nationally known critic of President Roosevelts maneuvers to war, Archbishop Francis J. Beckman of Dubuque, Iowa was investigated by the FBI at the direction of FDR. The probe publicized an investment in gold mines made of archdiocesan funds by the prelate. Treasury Department broadsides and media hype prompted some of the holders of notes to demand repayment like a run on the banks. Most of an art collection owned by Beckman and exhibited at Loras College was auctioned to pay off the notes. Beckman was relieved of his duties as archbishop of Dubuque but was allowed to keep the title of archbishop.
An archbishop without a see and ignored by his prelate colleagues, he moved towhere else?Chicago. He signed up as spiritual director for an organization called Catholic Confraternity of Pilgrims run by this reporters father. Thus as a young college kid, I listened for hours to Archbishop Francis Beckmans side of the story when he dined with us often at my parents Chicago home. While his speculation in gold mines was highly problematic, his unseating as Dubuque prelate, he maintained, came from persecution meted out by the administration in punishment for his opposition to the war. No one doubted Roosevelts yen for vengeance for a moment. Archbishop Beckman died in Chicago in 1948 when I was twenty.
Younger officers of the America First Committee were not dogged by the Roosevelt administration probably because so many of them were either liberal Democrats or had close associations with them. My old boss, Robert Stuart, the founder of the group, a conservative Republican but who had a wide list of prominent Democratic friends, enlisted in the army, rose to the rank of major and served on General Eisenhowers staff, landing in Europe shortly after D-Day. Intending to run for office as a young California lawyer, he was drafted by his family to take over the company his grandfather had helped found. He became chief executive officer of The Quaker Oats Company, directing the companys rapid growth as a prime marketer, serving his party as Republican National Committeeman for Illinois and his country as U. S. ambassador to Norway, appointed by President Ronald Reagan. It was my honor to serve him most of my business life.
As is widely known, Stuarts old Massachusetts colleague, John F.
Kennedy enlisted in the Navy, won the Navy Cross, became a Congressman, Senator and President of the United States. Stuarts good friend, Sargent Shriver enlisted, returned to Chicago, married JFKs sister Eunice, became head of the citys board of education and in the Kennedy administration headed the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty, running for vice president of the United States in 1972. But Kennedys involvement has seldom been covered.
In all the millions of words about John Kennedy, very little has been focused on his Massachusetts leadership of the America First Committee. Stuart and he did not stay in touch. But it happened that Stuarts daughter Marian (Marnie) wangled an interns job in the Kennedy White House through college connections and with no clout whatever. One day when senior staff members thought Kennedy was at Camp David, they allowed the interns to swim in the presidents swimming pool. Marnie Stuart dove off the edge of the pool and came up to look directly into the eyes of President Kennedy who was watching the young people swim.
He asked her name, inquired where she was from. When she said she was Marnie Stuart from Chicago, he said, You wouldnt in any way be related to a Bob Stuart of Chicago whos with The Quaker Oats Company, would you?
Hes my Dad, she said. No kidding! Kennedy said, You probably
never heard of this but we were together in the America First Committee! Yes, she said in an understatement, I heard of America First. Kennedy mused for a moment, added: that was a long time ago and walked on. In his book, Bob Stuart says that when he heard his daughter relate the story, he breathed a thankful sigh, knowing of his old colleagues reputation with young women.
Today the conventional wisdom that has embraced our history like a suffocating giant octopus holds that (a) there were a group of reactionary, Neanderthalssome anti-Semiteswho unwisely tried to stop us from going to war to save western civilization. And (b) they were proved wrong when the aggressor Japanese struck at a defenseless Pearl Harbor. The conventional wisdom is not only wrong, it is grossly illiterate.
Whether or not you feel that western civilization was spared by us joining the warand I happen to feel that waythe fact remains that by stalling Franklin Roosevelts designs and delaying our entry into the war until 1941 far later than FDR wanted, the United States suffered far fewer casualties than any other nation so engaged. And that was due to the courage of the America First Committee, the coalition of Republicans, Democrats, corporate CEOs, conservative newspaper editors and publishers, conservative news reporters, labor liberals, lefty radicals and yes Jewish intellectuals as well whose spokesman was Americas greatest civilian hero. It included priests, ministers, even a Rabbi or two and a valiant Dubuque Catholic archbishop. All headed by a 24-year old Yale law grad, a gallant Scottish Presbyterian who became a charming non-assuming businessman from Quaker Oats, Bob Stuart.
In concluding his memoir, Making a Difference, Stuart writes,
I remain convinced that the United States could have avoided becoming embroiled in the Second World War had our leaders pursued different policies. Neither the Nazis nor the Japanese had the power to directly threaten the United States
Though the circumstances that have brought us into the war are somewhat different (al Qaeda can hurt us and will do so whenever possible) I feel compelled to concede in my own conscience that U. S. policy in the Middle East has given Arabs grounds to resent America. Radical Islam has seized upon this resentment, inflamed it and turned it into a potent weapon.