In the third decade of the Twentieth Century, as the Great Depression dragged on and the unemployment rate climbed above 20 percent, the United States faced a social and political crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was swept to power in the election of 1932, forcing a political realignment that would put the Democratic Party in the majority for decades. In 1933, President Roosevelt proposed a “New Deal” that he claimed would cure the nation of its economic woes. His plan had many detractors, however, and at the fringes of mainstream politics, disaffected Americans increasingly looked elsewhere for inspiration.
Catholic priest and radio-personality Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front, the German American Bund, the Black Legion, and a variety of nationalist, anti-Semitic, and/or isolationist groups opposed to President Roosevelt, “Moneyed Interests,” and Marxism attracted over a million members and supporters during that decade. Collectively, these groups have long been considered to be a particularly American expression of the same type of fascism that swept Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. The application of the term “fascism” to such a wide variety of individuals and organizations has proved troublesome, however, and the historiography on the subject is conflicted. Did European-style fascism appeal to Americans? Could an “American fascism” have kept the United States out of World War 2?
In order to answer those questions, we must first determine what American fascism was and was not, and then we have to understand why these groups and individuals failed to form any kind of broad coalition against Roosevelt, the New Deal, or liberal democracy itself.
Depending on the historian, American fascism began either as a far-ranging, populist-inspired movement and later degenerated into a number of fringe groups and fanatics, or it began as an isolated phenomenon that lost credibility during the Second World War and simply disappeared. Its adherents either consisted of a wide spectrum of Americans, or of a few thousand recently naturalized immigrants and two or three intellectuals.
“In the United States there were all kinds of fascist or parafascist organizations,” Walter Laqueur asserted in Fascism: Past, Present, Future (1996), “but they never achieved a political breakthrough.”[i] A decade earlier, historian Peter H. Amann took an opposite track. “It seems clear that there were far fewer authentically fascist movements in Depression America than was thought at the time,” he argued.[ii] Conversely, Victor C. Ferkiss, writing in the 1950s, contended that American fascism “was a basically indigenous growth,” and that a broad fascist movement “arose logically from the Populist creed.”[iii]
According to Ferkiss, American fascism was defined as a movement that appealed to farmers and small merchants who felt “crushed between big business . . . and an industrial working class,” espoused nationalism in the form of isolationism, believed that authority came from popular will and not from “liberal democratic institutions” that had been corrupted by moneyed interests, and possessed “an interpretation of history in which the causal factor is the machinations of international financiers.”[iv] According to Peter Amann, all fascism (even the American type) was characterized by an opposition to Marxism and representative government, advocacy of a “revolutionary, authoritarian, nationalist state,” the presence of a charismatic leader and a militarized mass movement, and commonly (although not universally) racist and anti-Semitic views.[v]
These two divergent portrayals, one inclusive and one exclusive, mark the ends of the spectrum in regards to defining fascism in the United States during the 1930s. The former portrays fascism as a legitimate threat to the status quo, and the latter nearly calls its existence into question because so few groups actually fit this model.