Tuesday, May 5, 2015

On "Under Cover" by John Roy Carlson **

Publishers Weekly's best-selling nonfiction book of 1943 is a work of its era. I can see how it sold so well back then and also why it does not live on as some sort of classic now. Imagine, if you will, a book about Islamic terrorist in the United States, a book that names names, tells of white-bred American citizens who are plotting with Muslims to place the country under Sharia law and of a few politicians who are out to help them. Very juicy . . . except this book is about American Nazis in the lead up to and during World War II. And most of those Americans are no longer famous, if they ever were. Hence, not so juicy now.

Carlson's name is a pseudonym for a man who uses an assumed name when investigating these various right-wing groups. The man himself is an Armenian who came over to the United States as a youngster, having suffered, with his parents, the prejudice of peoples in the Old World. One Christmas in New York, a couple of men assassinate the bishop of their Armenian church. These men claim ties to a right-wing group. And thus Carlson's mission is born: to penetrate such groups and find out how they are working in the United States.

What follows are accounts of Carlson, posing as an Italian American, visiting various right-wing organizations and becoming, at times, a pseudo-member. He starts low, helping to sell right-wing newspapers (but mostly destroying them and claiming he sold them) and attending meetings of various right-wing groups. Eventually, he starts his own paper, which he distributes only to people who are already of a right-wing persuasion. This gives him credibility that he's able, from then on, to use a door to various "American First" or "America for America" groups.

Many of these groups are anti-Semitic. Many believe in using democracy to spread their doctrines and then ending democracy once they come to power. Many take Germany's side in the war or are antiwar. Many probably are dangerous. Carlson goes to cities all over America to get the scoop: New York (including black Harlem, where there are African American Nazi sympathizers), Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Boston. Carlson tracks down various politicians who given an ear to some of the people in these groups. And Carlson gives out addresses and phone numbers too!

And yet, I couldn't help but feel that some of the people mixed up in these groups were, besides those who were clearly racists or national socialists and those who were crackpots at best, probably simply antiwar. Carlson writes frequently of those who are appeasers or defeatists, those who don't want to fight this war, slotting them in with outright traitors. And in that, it seems, there can be a danger, as there has been at other times of war. I'm reminded of a conservative talk show host who once asked, "How can you be a Democrat and call yourself an American?" Or of another such host who said that Congress's lone nay voter with regard to handing George Bush vast power after 9/11 should be kicked out. When did our country become a one-party state? Isn't that what exists under dictatorships?

Carlson claims to have wanted to investigate Communists as well but to have been unable to get past the screeners. His main problem, as he notes, is not with opposing parties (he likes middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans) but with the right and left extremes. In that regard, he's probably like most of us Americans.

Some interesting figures did pop up in the book. Senators Gerald Nye and Benjamin Wheeler seem like intriguing figures to read more about, given their ties to some of these organizations. Likewise, a priest named Father Coughlin who hosted an anti-Roosevelt (pro-Nazi?) radio show, until he was kicked off the air in the middle of the war, is a very interesting figure that I'll probably want to read a book about at some point in the future.

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