The Left Embraces Countersubversion: The 1930s Brown Scare

John Metcalfe before HUAC, August 12, 1938
John Metcalfe, first witness to appear before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, discussed his experience infiltrating the German-American Bund, August 12, 1938. Source: Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division:

The following post is a revised version of an essay originally written for a compilation volume of posts from this blog. The collection, Congress and Countersubversion in the 20th Century: Aspects and Legacies, will be published in June by ECU Academic Library Services, in cooperation with UNC Press.

The hunt for subversive or “un-American” elements in U.S. history is a phenomenon generally associated with the right half of the political spectrum. When the concept of countersubversion is mentioned, it is the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and anti-communist “witch hunts” that usually come to mind. However, there have been several occasions in American history when large elements of the left have likewise embraced a countersubversive mindset regarding their adversaries. The first such occasion was in the 1930s, when much of the New Deal Left wholeheartedly embraced what has come to be known as the “Brown Scare.”

The rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party to power in Germany in 1933 inspired the creation of a number of radical right-wing movements here in the United States. The most infamous of these groups, was the Friends of New Germany, who in 1936 would rename themselves the German-American Bund and openly pattern themselves on and embrace German Nazism. Other groups included William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Legion of America (the “Silver Shirts”), Father Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front, and the Black Legion. The latter group was involved in several murders in the industrial Midwest, and became so infamous that they were the subject of a 1936 Warner Brothers film starring Humphrey Bogart.

Black Legion Movie Poster
Poster for the 1936 film Black Legion, a prime example of the cultural reach of the Brown Scare. Source:

This growth in domestic fascism and right-wing radicalism soon produced what historian Leo Ribuffo has called the “Brown Scare”: an often exaggerated fear of the threat posed by the radical right, in response to the alarming rise of the Third Reich in Europe and the frequently repellent activities of its supporters in the U.S. The Brown Scare soon penetrated the popular culture. In addition to films like Black Legion, Sinclair Lewis’s ironically titled 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here warned of a fascist takeover of America. Media outlets, such as newspapers, magazines, and radio, likewise struck up the alarm. A number of civil society organizations also led the charge against the emerging radical right. Groups such as the Friends of Democracy, Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League, and Mobilization for Democracy, exposed real and alleged fascist activities and mobilized public opinion against the newly-perceived threat.

The Brown Scare soon inspired governmental action against the believed threat of fascist subversion. Both the Roosevelt Administration and its allies in Congress quickly embraced the politics of the Brown Scare. Among other consequences, it would lead a New Deal Democrat, Rep. Samuel Dickstein (D-NY), to play a crucial role in creating what would become the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  President Roosevelt himself was committed to using the power of the federal government to root out domestic fascism, regardless of civil liberties concerns. It was Roosevelt who empowered J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to engage in domestic political surveillance, starting in 1934.

Bund Rally MSG-1939
German-American Bund rally at Madison Square Garden, February 20, 1939. A show of strength that proved to be the Bund’s high water mark. Source: National World War II Museum:

As the perceived threat posed by foreign and domestic fascism grew, the Brown Scare only intensified. At home, events such as the 1938 discovery of a Nazi spy ring in New York City, and the German-American Bund’s infamous February 1939 rally at Madison Square Garden increased pressure to act against the radical right. Abroad, the continued successes of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy contributed to the growing concerns. One especially infamous quote uttered in the fall of 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, came to encapsulate this environment. In an offhand comment, Spanish Nationalist General Emilio Mola referred to a nationalist “fifth column” that would capture the city of Madrid from within. The phrase “fifth column” soon went viral, to borrow a contemporary term, spreading rapidly around the world. It was embraced wholeheartedly by supporters of the Brown Scare, for whom it came to embody the fear that the Bund, Silver Shirts, and other domestic fascists could be used by the Third Reich to weaken and subvert the US from within.

FDR openly adopted the idea of the “fifth column” to justify acting against domestic fascist groups. On May 26, 1940, in the midst of Germany’s relatively quick victories in western Europe, Roosevelt warned in a radio address about “the Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery.” He went on to elaborate by stating that this internal enemy would seek “to create confusion of counsel, public indecision, political paralysis and, eventually, a state of panic…. The unity of the State can be sapped so that its strength is destroyed.” (Roosevelt’s Address on the “Fifth Column”)

Powered by such fears, the Brown Scare soon culminated in a campaign of legal persecution at federal, state, and local level. Both the head of the Bund, Fritz Kuhn, and the Silver Shirts, William Dudley Pelley, were arrested and tried. Kuhn was convicted in New York in 1939 for embezzling Bund funds, sent to prison, and eventually deported. Pelley was convicted by the federal government in 1942 on charges of sedition. He then became one of 30 defendants charged in a 1944 case, United States v. McWilliams, that alleged the defendants to be part of a conspiracy to engage in pro-Axis subversion. In a certain irony, many radical right organizations and individuals who embraced a right-wing version of the countersubversive ethos likewise found themselves targets of the Brown Scare. Elizabeth Dilling, author of the infamous 1934 guilt-by-association work The Red Network, joined Pelley among the defendants in United States v. McWilliams. As loathsome as Pelley, Dilling and many of the other defendants were, the charges were extremely questionable, and the great sedition trial of 1944 is generally considered a travesty of justice.

This case would end in a mistrial after the death of the judge, an event that  marked the de facto end of the Brown Scare. The defeat of the Axis both discredited fascism and greatly reduced its salience as a domestic threat. In addition, the onset of the Cold War and the rise of the Second Red Scare would soon once again give right-wing countersubversion the upper hand.

As with the Red Scare of 1919-1920, the Brown Scare of 1933-1944 was rooted in a real threat, yet greatly exaggerated both the extent and scale of that threat. In the words of historian Alex Goodall:

The groups and individuals on the radical Right that might be reasonably described as fascist or cryptofascist…. added up to a tiny fraction of the population: no more than a few hundred thousand people in a nation of 130 million…. Right-wing extremists could cause trouble in their localities, but were largely impotent on the national stage. Noxious as they were, they never presented a meaningful threat to American institutions or spoke for more than a tiny minority of American citizens. (Goodall, Loyalty and Liberty, 194)

The major legacy of the Brown Scare was the manner in which it helped prepare the way for future countersubversive measures that gravely threatened civil liberties. The “fifth column” panic was one of a number of factors that led to the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942. The Brown Scare’s mix of congressional investigation, executive branch law enforcement/surveillance activities, and civic activism provided a template for McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare. As historian John Earl Haynes described it:

Much of the popular image of American communism that appeared after 1945 was based on attitudes developed in the 1930s and early 1940s toward fascism…. And the techniques developed to fight American fascism and American fifth-column activity in the 1930s were the same as those used against American Communists in the late 1940s and 1950s. (Haynes, Red Scare or Red Menace, 19)

Finally, the willingness of some to label any opponent of the New Deal, or of American entry into World War II as fascist or pro-Nazi left many right-wing countersubversives with a keen desire to return the favor. They would eagerly seize on the opportunity to do so during the McCarthy Era.

Primary Sources From the Brown Scare

Carlson, John Roy. Under Cover. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1943. (Joyner Stacks: E743.5 .D4)

Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here: A Novel. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1936. (Joyner Stacks: PS3523.E94 I6 1936; currently missing)

Rogge, O. John. The Official German Report: Nazi Penetration, 1924-1942. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1961. (Joyner Stacks:  E743.5 .R64)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. ‘Roosevelt’s Address on the “Fifth Column”.’ Propaganda and the American Public.

Secondary Sources

Beekman, Scott. William Dudley Pelley: A Life in Right-Wing Extremism and the Occult. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2005. (Joyner Stacks: E748 .W23 D48 2013)

Goodall, Alex. Loyalty and Liberty: American Countersubversion from World War I to the McCarthy Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.  (Joyner Stacks: E743.5 .G63 2013)

Hart, Bradley W. Hitler’s American Friends : The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. (On order for Joyner Library)

Haynes, John Earl. Red Scare or Red Menace?: American Communism and Anticommunism in the Cold War Era. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996. (Joyner Stacks: HX83 .H36 1996)

Ribuffo, Leo P. The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983. (Joyner Stacks: E806 .R47 1983)

Smith, Geoffrey S. To Save a Nation; American Countersubversives, the New Deal, and the Coming of World War II. New York: Basic Books, 1973. (Joyner Stacks: E806 .S684)

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