Here is the church, and here the steeple
Open it up and see all the people!
Let us begin this story on an anxious Sunday afternoon, October 30, 1930, just about a year after the Great Wall Street Crash. Much water has gone under the bridge in that year; to many it looks as if the bridge itself were gone. The Little Bull Market of early 1930 has fallen apart, and is on its way to even deeper lows than those of the previous October. Inactivity is on its way to becoming paralysis.
For the investor the summaries of the first ten months of 1930 are a précis of disaster. The value of all listed stocks has dropped almost 23 billion dollars since the hopeful high of April; the profits of 200 leading industrial corporations are down 45.9 percent; railroad shares are down 65 points, industrials down 167; steel production is down 40 percent, automobile production down 60 percent; stock transactions are off 28 percent in volume, check transactions are off 25 percent. The only thing that is up is the suicide rate.
What of the farmer? Even worse, as 1930 wanes into November. The wheat he sold last year for $1.35 a bushel is selling now for $.76. After the blistering drought of the past summer he is lucky if he has any to sell at any price. The bank is getting troublesome about the mortgage. Farm income on the whole is down 16 percent (it hasn’t been really high since the war, even during the Boom). Foreign shipments of agricultural products are the lowest since 1915.
For the investor the summaries of the first ten months of 1930 are a précis of disaster. The only thing that is up is the suicide rate.
And the workingman? Already there are six million unemployed. Factory employment is down 20 percent and payrolls are off 29 percent. The man who still has a job can read the future in his shrinking pay envelope and dwindling bank savings. Even if he doesn’t want to look, he can see the breadlines forming, and he is not unmindful that winter is ahead. He is feeling the pinch hard already; he will feel it more.
And all of them—investor, farmer, factory worker—have their eyes uneasily on the banks. Through the first ten months of 1930 the doors have closed on 60, 70, 80 banks a month. In November, though this is not known yet, bank closings will jump to 236. In December they will jump again to 328. As the winter wears on it will be possible for a passer-by in New York, seeing a line forming for Chaplin’s City Lights, to ask, “What’s that, a breadline or a bank?”
Down and down and down goes everything, pitching toward the depression which will be so much deeper and more enduring than anyone now suspects. In bankless Iowa City eggs sell for six cents a dozen. In Chicago the breadlines stretch endlessly along dirty brick walls in windy streets. Women’s skirts follow Hoover’s prestige on down, and the flapper era ends in grimness and bewilderment and anger. So that thousands of those who are wearily or casually tuning in their radios to Station WJR, Detroit, on this Sunday afternoon of October 30, are plowed and disked and harrowed, ready for the seed the speaker will plant.
A Voice Made for Promises
Perhaps, if they had had the habit of listening to WJR for the past four years, they knew something of this speaker—a priest of the parish of Royal Oak, Michigan, born in Canada of Irish-American parents, educated by the Basilian Fathers and the University of Toronto. His name: Charles E. Coughlin. His distinction: a voice of such mellow richness, such manly, heart-warming, confidential intimacy, such emotional and ingratiating charm, that anyone tuning past it almost automatically returned to hear it again.
It was without doubt one of the great speaking voices of the twentieth century. Warmed by the touch of Irish brogue, it lingered over words and enriched their emotional content. It was a voice made for promises. For four years the priest had been using it to deliver a Sunday broadcast to children. But on this Sunday of care and fear in America, Father Coughlin elected to address the parents, with a stern denunciation of “money changers” and “subversive socialism.”
It is possible that this first socio-economic sermon from Royal Oak was the outburst of a man oppressed with the conditions he saw around him and fearful of the future. It is just as possible that it was the opening lead in the calculated playing of a hand. By the autumn of 1930 a shrewd politician would already have noticed the crowds of shabby men in the reading rooms of public libraries, trying to find from the books what had hit them. Father Coughlin, even then, was a shrewd politician. He took advantage of his Sunday children’s hour to tell these men that it was the international bankers who had wrecked the country, and the Communists who were trying to take it over. It was not a memorable speech, especially. What was memorable was the reaction.
Letters poured in. Some wanted to know, as correspondents wanted to know for the next twelve years, what a priest was doing talking on such subjects. Others cheered and wanted more. Taken together, that flood of mail meant that people would listen to anyone who sounded as if he knew answers. Father Coughlin’s trial balloon had proved what people wanted to hear, and had shown him how to spread the walls of the Shrine of the Little Flower and bring into one audience thousands upon thousands of listeners. Most of those listeners were angry at the bankers; many were afraid of Communists. Though he added other scapegoats later, Father Coughlin really built his structure on those two. By a miracle of illogic, he eventually combined them.
Taken together, that flood of mail meant that people would listen to anyone who sounded as if he knew answers.
By the end of 1930 the priest had organized his unseen listeners into the Radio League of the Little Flower, dedicated to the unraveling of the tangled economic web, and was pulling in letters in quantities that amazed WJR and may have amazed Coughlin. Other demagogues in the American tradition have been hay-wagon orators, shirt-sleeve spell-binders from park bandstands and town-hall platforms. But Father Coughlin was the first to discover how he could do the whole job by remote control, be free of hecklers, be just as sure of taking up the collection, and in addition have documentary proof by letter of what his audiences wanted. He boasted many times that he knew American public opinion better than any man alive. In his limited way he was right.
From the beginning he was a master of the art of being several things at once. Speaking as a priest and a hater of Communism, and with the consistent support of Bishop Michael Gallagher of Detroit, Father Coughlin was sure of a large Catholic audience. But as he projected his Little Flower pulpit out into the air waves, he let economics transcend denominationalism.
Hillbillies from Kentucky, farmers from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois and Minnesota and the Dakotas, worried clerks in Chicago and Cleveland, unemployed stevedores in Boston and Brooklyn, sweatshop tailors in Rochester and New York, taxi drivers, school teachers, Gentile and Jew and Methodist and Hard-Shell Baptist, listened to the mellow brogue and were swept away. It played upon their dreadful fear of poverty and hunger and insecurity; it said the things their own worries were saying; it turned upon the traitors the whole nation was beginning to turn on, denounced the bankers and industrialists who had ruled and ruined the country, the greedy politicians and the money changers in the temple.
These new listeners cheered the florid Coughlin rhetoric and the roll of the great metaphors, and they followed with angry approval when the voice rose in jeremiads, and they grew solemn when it fell in heavy warning. They wrote letters and they put one-dollar bills in the envelopes and they mailed their approval to Royal Oak. Their pointless unrest was suddenly pointed. There were people to blame, things to be done, and there was a leader to follow. Three months from his opening speech on October 30, Father Coughlin was getting fifty thousand letters a week.
Even on the conservative estimate of one letter writer to each two hundred listeners, that meant an audience of ten million, reached over seventeen CBS stations plus occasional cut-ins. It was an abrupt and heady miracle: the parish priest addressing crowds such as no man had ever regularly addressed before. At first he was cautious; he whipped only dead or dying horses. Poor Mr. Hoover, already politically dead, took a beating. A speech entitled “Hoover Prosperity Means Another War” drew in 1.2 million letters, an all-time high.
The priest attacked prohibition, punch-drunk as it was, and pleased millions. He organized God’s Poor Society in Detroit, assisted the indigent, and advertised his work discreetly on the radio. When the 1932 Presidential campaign got under way, he climbed aboard the Roosevelt bandwagon, coined the slogan “Roosevelt or Ruin,” was courted by bigwigs and politicos. Without any clear political affiliation he was already a strong political force. His audience was now estimated at anything from 30 million to 45 million.
Sweatshop tailors in Rochester and New York, taxi drivers, school teachers, Gentile and Jew and Methodist and Hard-Shell Baptist, listened to the mellow brogue and were swept away.
So far the critics were few. On what grounds except bigoted grounds could one mistrust a priestly friend of the poor? What madness would lead anyone to repudiate so substantial a straw in these drowning times? To many, his was the only voice that spoke truth. And others approved. Commonweal, the liberal Catholic monthly, had praised him without stint in 1931. Bishop Gallagher beamed upon his protégé. There was reputed to be a letter from the Pope directing thanks to Father Coughlin for spreading the doctrines of social justice first enunciated in the Rerum Novarum encyclical of Leo XIII, and amplified by Pius XI himself in 1931.
During 1933, Father Coughlin was a rabid New Dealer. He supported monetary inflation (from beginning to end of his public career he called for such inflation, and for the return to Congress of the right to issue currency). When Al Smith, in the Outlook, dismissed both Father Coughlin and his money theories as “crackpot,” Coughlin replied; Smith countered; Coughlin replied again, accusing Smith of undercover dealings with the Morgan interests.
His speech was abusive, perhaps libelous, and the response to it was mixed. Commonweal, supporting Smith, backed off the Coughlin platform and admitted that he was too fond of personal vituperation. But the Literary Digest thought his attack on Smith a sign of his integrity: he was pursuing a principle “beyond the gates of creed” in thus attacking a well-known Catholic. (The Digest might have come a good deal closer to an accurate statement of the case if it had not looked upon Coughlin as the representative of the political Catholicism so many Americans feared. A good look would have revealed that his demagoguery was a truer profession than his priesthood.)
Through 1934 Father Coughlin’s radio receipts often reached twenty thousand dollars a week, most of it in small amounts. Out of these funds he erected a monument to himself and his conception of “Social Justice.” He built a seven-story tower with an immense crucified Christ spreadeagled across one side, and he built a new Church of the Little Flower. (For three successive years the AFL formally censured him from using non-union labor, some it Canadian, and paying less than the union scale.)
In the tower were the offices of the Little Flower Radio League and Coughlin’s personal headquarters. A large staff of helpers handled the enormous mail and answered requests for the printed sermons, which Father gave away to anyone who wrote in. His radio time was costing him fourteen thousand dollars a week, his secretarial help between three and four thousand dollars. Even so, there was something left over in these plushy years of the deepest depression.
Father Coughlin invested the surplus in silver futures—and a little later found himself talking very fast to explain that the investment was made in the name of his secretary for the benefit of the Radio League, and that there was no connection between his investments and his constant public clamor for the remonetization of silver. Because no one, even his enemies, believed him really greedy for money, he talked his way out of that. But the opposition had almost scored a damaging point, and he was steadily getting a worse press. But when he took his case to the people over the air, he got his vote of confidence. The letters continued to come in, the almost pitifully devoted letters, and the dollar bills.
And in Mattapan, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, a Russian-Jewish picture framer whom we may call Ben Levin listened on Sunday afternoons, and considered how the picture-frame business had fallen away to nothing, and worried about the rent for the bigger flat he had had to get when the fifth baby was born. He heard Father Coughlin analyze the vicious credit money that the banks created and profited by, and it seemed to him that the priest spoke sense.
Levin said part of what he thought to an Irishman who came by on his way from Keohane’s Tavern in Codman Square, and the Irishman said, “You’re God-damn right. He’s the only man jack of ’em with the guts to speak out.” Before he went home that night Ben Levin folded a dollar bill in a sheet of paper, and as he went up the street he dropped it in the mailbox for Royal Oak.
It was the Ben Levins who gave Father Coughlin the confidence to make his next moves. He thought he knew who and how many were behind him. He began to criticize the New Deal; to hint that Roosevelt was not moving fast enough or far enough in his reform of the financial structure. And he began to be more open in his criticism of labor unions. In October, 1934, he broke with the AFL, recommending that the government take over the collective-bargaining functions of the unions and administer industrial peace by fiat. Mussolini and Hitler had advocated the same method.
A Road of His Own
By breaking with the New Deal and organized labor, Father Coughlin started down a road of his own, apparently expecting that he could draw after him many who had up to now followed Roosevelt or the unions. His constant cry, whether he preached woe to the bankers or damned Hoover or credit money or bullyragged Roosevelt or called for a living annual wage or promoted the social-justice program of Leo and Pius, had been, “We are not political.” That was still his protestation when in December, 1934, at the very peak of his popularity, he began organizing the National Union for Social Justice.
The NUSJ, a “non-political” lobby owned and run lock, stock, and barrel by its founder, was not only a sign of Father Coughlin’s growing arrogance: it was a factor in increasing that arrogance. Dedicated to a platform of sixteen points and seven principles, it was clearly designed as the instrument of Father Coughlin’s political ambitions. The cards that came in by tens and hundreds of thousands (Ben Levin’s was among them) made Coughlin impatient of restraint even from quarters that might have been expected to cow him.
When Cardinal O’Connell for the third time rapped his knuckles in public, Coughlin replied. He reminded his hearers that the Cardinal had no jurisdiction outside of his archdiocese of Boston; that he could speak only as an individual, not as a prince of the Church; and that he himself might profitably do something about promoting the welfare of the people instead of hobnobbing with the rich so much. A good many people gasped at that impudence, but Father Coughlin was not chastised.
The program of the NUSJ, announced early in 1935, was merely a more formal statement of the ambiguous, vaguely radical-sounding generalities Father Coughlin had been preaching since 1930. It was partly derived from the liberal encyclicals of Leo and Pius, and except where it was insincere, or contradicted itself, or failed to become specific enough to mean anything, it was above reproach. The most specific planks in that platform concern the money and banking system. In the collapsing thirties, with the whole banking system paralyzed, reform of the banks was a safe cause.
His money theory Father Coughlin got from a Chicago lady named Gertrude Coogan. He disseminated it in a booklet entitled Money: Questions and Answers. (Miss Coogan later charged that he stole it from her, giving her neither credit nor royalties.) Apart from the money issue, however, the program breaks down everywhere into vagueness, slipperiness, yeasty expressions of pseudo good will unimplemented with methods or approaches. On such an issue as the quarrel between production for profit and production for use, the priest coined a typically weasel-worded compromise: “Production for use at a profit.” The more one thinks about that phrase, the less it means. But it sounded impressive, and it satisfied the faithful.
With his People’s Lobby organized and growing, Father Coughlin undertook to whip some pretty lively horses instead of the dead ones he had been abusing so long. His words of praise were now reserved for Huey Long, Gene Talmadge, Benito Mussolini, and Senators or Congressmen whose position happened to please him. His most violent attacks were on President Roosevelt.
The obvious political direction of his ambitions had by now brought him under fairly sharp fire. Christian Century, Forum, Nation, Atlantic, all charged him with fascist leanings; several Catholic leaders rejected him. He stirred up angry replies every time he spoke. But Father Coughlin was too deep in his game to heed the warning bell. Under criticism, he posed as the people’s friend, loyal only to them and to the two great liberal Popes and God. Let the anti-Christs and the money changers scourge him all they wanted, so long as his message was heard!
His words of praise were now reserved for … Benito Mussolini and Senators or Congressmen whose position happened to please him. His most violent attacks were on President Roosevelt.
How strong was Father Coughlin’s crowd? While he boasted an audience in the millions, how many votes could he swing if he chose? How much pressure could his People’s Lobby exert? Those who asked those questions had an answer, of a sort, in the result of the World Court vote. With the administration supporting it, with forecasts indicating passage by a good margin of the bill which would require the United States to adhere to the Court, Father Coughlin spoke one Sunday denouncing the Court proposal as “treason,” a “conspiracy with the money lenders,” and much else. He praised William Randolph Hearst’s stand and aligned himself with isolationist groups. He urged his listeners to wire their Senators and Congressmen. They did.
Wires came in by basketfuls, routed around through Baltimore to relieve the strain on the Washington telegraph offices. Raymond Gram Swing gives Coughlin the dubious credit of turning the tide against the Court and thereby puts him among those who knifed the League of Nations on its crucial year. By now Coughlin was not merely powerful, but was widely feared and widely hated. His Bishop continued to back him, appearing with him on his radio hour to advertise his support. His printed sermons still carried the imprimatur of the Bishop of Detroit. But for the first time, in response to considerable nudging from the radio audience and organized labor, they also bore the union label. The friend of the workingman had printed them for four years in a non-union shop.
Still denying political aims, Father Coughlin prepared for the election year of 1936 by increasing his radio hookup from twenty-nine to thirty-five stations. He also founded a weekly newspaper, Social Justice, with himself as editor. No new bogeyman needed to be invented. Money changers, Communists, the League of Nations, Roosevelt, the AAA, the CIO, and William Green sufficed. And for active work there was the job of electing Congressmen who would support the NUSJ, the problem of getting a toehold in the American Reichstag.
Political in All but Name
The NUSJ was not a political party; that is, it was not on the ballot in any state. But it had a program, a war chest, a newspaper, an organization which Father Coughlin rearranged by Congressional districts, and a group of candidates whom it labored to elect. True, those candidates were Republicans and Democrats who had discreetly made a noise favoring the aims of the National Union, but Father Coughlin himself said that ultimately the two major parties would both have to be destroyed and a more realistic political system inaugurated.
Meanwhile, just to be sure of getting something, the National Union endorsed Republican and Democrat alike, often endorsing several candidates in the same district. Under those circumstances it was pretty hard to lose. The Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries indicated considerable National Union strength. Social Justice seethed with non-political organization moves and non-political campaign directions, and in the summer it announced plans for a non-political national convention in Cleveland during August. In June the paper began running a series of articles on parliamentary procedure, and perhaps in preparation for things to come, Father Coughlin removed his name from the masthead as editor in chief.
Then on June 19, on a radio audience estimated at thirty million, Coughlin dropped his blockbuster. He denounced the “promise-breaking” New Deal in more vitriolic terms than he had ever used before; he announced the formation of a new “Union Party,” with “Liberty Bill” Lemke of North Dakota as its Presidential candidate and the principles of Social Justice as its platform; and he announced the NUSJ’s “endorsement” of Lemke.
Stripped of rhetoric and double talk, the speech meant that Father Coughlin had formed his own party. A fort-night later Coughlin announced that Dr. Francis Townsend’s hundreds of thousands of would-be pensioners, as well as the remnants of Huey Long’s Share-the-Wealthers under Gerald L.K. Smith, had joined with him to support Lemke and O’Brien.
It was a thundering coup for Father Coughlin, in a way. He had brought into his own camp, on definitely secondary terms, his two chief rivals among the prophets and the panacea givers, and he had kept a back door open by insisting that his National Union was only endorsing Lemke’s party, not creating it. At the same time, if a man is known by the company he keeps, Father Coughlin’s dramatic burst into the political arena showed him more clearly than ever before to be a quack, a devious politician, a shifty manipulator of truth, and a man ambitious for personal power.
Stripped of rhetoric and double talk, the speech meant that Father Coughlin had formed his own party.
And he was in the big leagues now. Against Hoover and prohibition and the NRA and even the World Court he had had victories. Now he was up against not merely Roosevelt and organized labor but both major political parties. Yet unless all the signs are false, he thought he had a chance. His hope seems to have been that Lemke could carry enough states to prevent a majority for either party, thus throwing the election into the House of Representatives. If the Union Party could do that in its first test, it could do more in 1940.
For the purpose of the Lemke campaign, Social Justice did a quick about face. Labor baiting died down; labor news increased. The “steel magnates” replaced William Green and the CIO as whipping boys. The AAA, symbol of New Deal tinkering and mismanagement and “Communism,” took a terrible thumping. The page called “The People Speak” was filled with earnestness and enthusiasm. And from Sherlock and Druin and Carter and Ryan and Fitzgerald and Morgan and Clark and Murphy and Kalb and Kuhn and Buckley—and from Ben Levin of Mattapan, Massachusetts—came pledges, contributions, a rising chant from those who had been deep in depression for almost seven years and still knew breadlines, cold rooms, park benches, flophouses, and the virtues of folded newspapers inside worn shoes. In his speeches and editorials Father Coughlin was getting recklessly specific. The NUSJ, he said, would give Lemke five million votes.
Then on July 16 Coughlin addressed ten thousand Townsend Plan delegates at their convention in Cleveland, and for the second time in a month made history. He criticized and threatened and promised. He played the audience like an organ, stroked them and lashed them and flattered and scared and comforted them, and finally he rose on his toes and lifted his fists and denounced that “great betrayer and liar,” Franklin Roosevelt. He ripped off his coat and his clerical collar and poured it on, while correspondents dove for the nearest telephone. Coughlin had sassed Cardinals before, but he had never before called the President a liar.
When he was done, the ten thousand Townsendites, in a frenzy of devotion, paraded for an hour in Coughlin’s honor. “You had all the throbbing sensation of another great moment in history,” said Social Justice, “as you watched it go on and on and heard that roaring, unified voice, ten thousand, pouring up from the soul of working class America.”
Maybe you had that throbbing sense, but some of the correspondents there had a crawling sense of having heard that unified voice before, in Munich or Berlin, and many radio listeners were bothered by the “betrayer and liar” remark. Ben Levin wrote in from Mattapan saying he hoped Father Coughlin would make some kind of explanation why he called Mr. Roosevelt a liar.
There were other pressures besides those of the many Ben Levins. Father Coughlin apologized promptly and publicly, saying in effect that he took back the word “liar,” which he had impelled to use by passion and stress and by the fact that Mr. Roosevelt hadn’t invariably told the truth. Ben Levin read the apology in Social Justice and was troubled.
In Cleveland a few days later, before forty-two thousand frantic supporters, he convinced anyone who hadn’t been convinced before that he was one of the most effective speakers alive. When he called for clapping as a sign of approval, the sound was deafening; when he called on those who agreed to stand up, the audience rose in one surging wave. And most effective of all devices: seven minutes before the scheduled end of his address he wavered, staggered, collapsed, and was helped off by a group of grim-faced guards.
Whether his collapse came from heat, indigestion, or histrionics, it couldn’t have been better timed. The lady who had the honor of proposing Father Coughlin’s name for the presidency of the National Union almost swooned herself with the enormity of her mission. Her nomination was unanimously approved—or almost unanimously. At the crucial moment a malcontent delegate named O’Donnell rose and bawled, “No!” and was escorted out by the police in imminent danger of his life.
In that same convention, Coughlin made a vow. If Lemke did not get nine million votes, he himself would retire from the radio. But when election night came and returns came in it was clear at once that the Union Party was a bust. In the final count, Lemke got less than a tenth the votes Coughlin had promised him. The radio priest promptly suspended the activities of the NUSJ and retired from the air.
As for Ben Levin, after working for the Union Party almost up to election day, he had undergone a soul-churning change of heart and voted for Roosevelt. So had most of the other nine millions that Coughlin counted on. Roosevelt’s personal magnetism had swung them into line—that and the growing doubt of the priest, the way he had turned on The Chief, the way he sometimes talked like a labor baiter, the things he said when he got worked up.
He had no business, for example, calling Roosevelt “anti-God” in Cincinnati. Both Archbishop McNicholas and Monsignor Ryan had protested that. And when he advocated the use of bullets “when any upstart dictator in the United States succeeds in making a one-party government and when the ballot becomes useless”—that was pretty dangerous talk. And there was his habit of calling every liberal a Communist, and the way he talked about the CIO as if everybody in it was straight out of Moscow.
And there was also, for Ben Levin, an occasional twinge when he read something in Social Justice that seemed to be anti-Jewish—not really and openly, but by implication and innuendo. Ben Levin listened to the rumors that Father Coughlin had been, or would be silenced by the Pope, and he found that he didn’t much care. The NUSJ unit he belonged to wasn’t meeting any more. There were no radio speeches. Ben Levin felt a kind of relief, and was glad he hadn’t voted for the Coughlin crowd. His son put it aptly enough: “Coughlin loused up his chances by shooting off his mouth too much.”
There was also, for Ben Levin, an occasional twinge when he read something in Social Justice that seemed to be anti-Jewish—not really and openly, but by implication and innuendo.
Social Justice went on, once more under Father Coughlin’s personal editorship. It licked the priestly wounds, explained the retirement, pointed out how many enemies were after the Father’s blood, and printed dozens of grief-stricken letters from the leaderless thousands. Most of them wailed that he couldn’t go off the air; he must come back. With so many Communists talking freely, his voice must be heard. An Aroused Mother wrote from Stoughton, Massachusetts, exclaiming against a radio speaker she had heard who sounded like a Communist. “He had a strong foreign accent which he seemed to be trying to control as he talked, but which sneaked out and showed itself unclothed when the speaker became excited.”
Father Coughlin had lost much, but he still had a considerable following and he still had Bishop Gallagher. And in a world where speakers were allowed to go around revealing unclothed foreign accents, Coughlin’s duty was clear. On January 1, after retirement of only six weeks, he delivered a radio New Year message. Social Justice was already hinting that if members wanted him badly enough, he might return to the air.
On January 18 he promised to return if his followers would build up the circulation of Social Justice to a million and a quarter. On January 27 he spoke on a nationwide hookup for Red Cross flood relief, and on February 1, without anything like his million and a quarter circulation, he was back with a weekly broadcast. But on that day his strongest support was taken from him: Bishop Gallagher died.
Now Father Coughlin was non-political perforce. For a while he let his organization rest; then he reconstituted it as a loose confederation of Christian study clubs. If Ben Levin had wanted to go on meeting with the old group from Codman Square where his shop was, he would have been barred. The crowd came around his shop sometimes, but he didn’t get the same feeling of marching along up toward something he had had before. And though he still listened to Coughlin on the radio, he was troubled by what he heard.
Father Coughlin was still bucking the Roosevelt administration, throwing most of his eloquence against the Supreme Court-packing proposal. And he was bucking the unions. The sit-down strikes were a “black plague”; the CIO was run from Moscow. Social Justice provided evidence of its friendliness to the dictators when it gave Mayor LaGuardia of New York the weekly “Ill Will Prize” for condemning Hitler and Mussolini and “breeding international bad feeling.”
Political defeat had clarified Father Coughlin as a public figure, and made the direction of this thinking clearer. No substantial part of the American press defended him, and when his attacks on the CIO reached a point of frenzy, and he claimed that no Christian could support that instrument of Red Communism, the new Archbishop of Detroit took pains to deny Father Coughlin’s words. In an article in the Michigan Catholic he deplored Coughlin’s remarks about both Roosevelt and the CIO, denied that they represented the attitude of the Church, and denied that the National Union, now posing as a religious organization, had any churchy backing. And he refused to let Coughlin reply.
This was not a rebuke from Baltimore or Boston or Cincinnati, from some Cardinal or Monsignor who could be told to mind his own business. This came directly from upstairs. So Father Coughlin, on October 10, 1937, canceled a contract for a new radio series, and when the ownership of Social Justice came under scrutiny, he backed away as editor and publisher. One of his stooges, Walter M. Baertschi, carried on, crying, “My leader is silenced!”
Now, finally, responsible Catholic authorities had done what anti-Coughlin forces had been clamoring for them to do over a period of years. When the Apostolic Delegate, Amleto Cicignani, approved Archbishop Mooney’s action, there was a happy uproar from the press. “The Holy See regards as just and timely the correction which the Archbishop of Detroit made in reference to the remarks of Father Coughlin published October 5, 1937,” said the Apostolic Delegate on November 29.
Yet on December 27 Social Justice was able to announce that in mid-January Father Coughlin would be on the air again over more than sixty stations. It seemed fairly clear that the Church did not want to silence him so long as he promised to stop making remarks that might be interpreted as involving the policy of the Church.
Father Coughlin’s audience had shrunk. His organized labor followers, both Catholic and Protestant, were pretty well gone; his Jews had been deliberately excluded; the liberals and radicals among middle-class Americans who had followed him at first had long since given him up as a dangerous crackpot; the split in the Catholic hierarchy over his activities had taken away some of his more thoughtful Catholic listeners; the Townsendites and Share-the-Wealthers might still be with him, but their loyalty was divided.
What he had left was mainly the discontented reliefers, the patriotic riffraff, the belligerently “American,” the haters of foreigners and Jews, and borderline tough guys, and the hoodlum offspring of broken and disorganized homes. A good proportion of them were Irish and Catholic; some were German and Italian; some were old-line Americans picked up from the ruck of the Black Legion and the KKK, whose normal anti-Catholicism was redirected by the priest against the “Communistic Jews” and the “Jewish International Bankers.”
In August, 1938, Father Coughlin began calling for action. He organized the Christian Front in “platoons” of twenty-five. Whatever the avowed purposes, the real purposes were Jew baiting, union baiting, and Communist baiting. The tactics were the tactics of terror: strong-arm methods borrowed from the Brown Shirts. The Christian Front was an American condottiere with the same purposes of division and disruption the European models had had. And the tone of Social Justice, low enough already as a vituperative smear sheet, bent ominously to the paranoid obsessions of little and violent minds.
At the same time it lost whatever claim to journalistic accuracy it had ever possessed. It announced that Kuhn Loeb and “other international Jewish bankers” had financed the Russian Revolution; that twenty-four out of the first twenty-five commissars were Jews; that the Jewish Communists and the Jewish bankers were one and the same crowd, working for Jewish domination of the world.
None of this, naturally, was true. It came pretty directly from the World Press Service, a Nazi propaganda agency distributing poison in a half-dozen languages, though Coughlin said he had taken it from a “British White Paper” and an “American Secret Service Report.” There never was a Secret Service Report as he quoted, and the British White Paper did not say what he said it said. The list of commissars was a Nazi fabrication. And an article in Social Justice on December 5 proved on examination to have been taken almost paragraph by paragraph from a speech by Joseph Goebbels.
Allied with Nazis and the German-American Bund, fighting Franco’s war in Spain, spreading racist lies, leading an organization of militant thugs, Father Coughlin had come a long way. When Social Justice reprinted the notorious Protocols of Zion, a disreputable anti-Jewish forgery detailing an international Jewish plot, he had reached his own natural level. Every digit of rise in the business index had lost him followers; every attack on unemployment had weaned people away from his slogans; and every loss of prestige, every drop in his influence, had increased his intemperate and arrogant violence. Now, in 1938, with something like good times back again for most of the nation, he was where his logic and his ambitions had led him.
His organized labor followers, both Catholic and Protestant, were pretty well gone; his Jews had been deliberately excluded; the liberals and radicals among middle-class Americans who had followed him at first had long since given him up as a dangerous crackpot.
In Mattapan, Ben Levin began to have trouble with the boys from the old NUSJ unit who dropped into his shop. They stuck Social Justice under his nose and said, “Here, you’re a Jew, Levin. You ought to read about what your pals have been doing lately. Take a look how your investments in Russia are coming.” In Mattapan, too, and Dorchester and Roxbury, walls were taking on signs in red paint, and windows were being broken late at night, and Jewish residents were beginning to have trouble with gangs of hooligans who forced them off sidewalks and showered them with insulting remarks. One morning Ben Levin came down to his shop to find it broken open and its contents wrecked.
In 1939 a “Christian Index” listing non-Jewish shops and advocating boycott of Jewish merchants was circulating New York. Father Coughlin was cheered to the echo in a Bund meeting in Madison Square Garden. The platoons of the Christian Front were spreading; there were supposed to be twelve thousand Frontists in New York. The New York police blotter showed two hundred and thirty-three criminal prosecutions arising out of racial meetings and sales of racial literature in 1939.
Irish hatred of Britain, American hatred of war, middle-class hatred of Communism, all the fears and manias that beset unhappy people were manipulated to create an effective group of terrorists and an even larger group of sympathizers. The Nation charged that the police, strongly Irish Catholic, were discriminating in favor of Fronters in street clashes, and inaugurated the movement that was ultimately to bring on an investigation of the police force for Front affiliations.
Other action was afoot, too. The code proposed by the National Association of Broadcasters in July contained a provision that radio time would not be sold for controversial discussions, but would only be given, and to all sides. Father Coughlin was one of the obvious targets; his current campaign on the arms-embargo issue was certainly controversial. In October, just after the outbreak of war in Europe, the NAB adopted the new code and stations began canceling Coughlin off the air. For a while he struggled on, managed to renegotiate contracts for another year, to November, 1940. Social Justice’s back cover and sometimes other whole pages were devoted to appeals for funds. Ten thousand dollars a week, a total of two hundred thousand dollars, had to come in before the year’s broadcasts would be assured.
The radio talks went on until April, and then Coughlin quietly withdrew. Presumably he had found his public no longer willing to support so expensive a luxury. The voice that had been golden with promises and vital with hope in 1930 went dead at the beginning of the forties. The Coughlin program, which with varying interpretations could have meant anything, had proved to mean rioting and race hatred.
It would mean those things for more than two years longer. In January, 1940, the FBI picked up seventeen Brooklyn Fronters and confiscated a formidable arsenal, along with evidence of a plot for an armed coup. Coughlin, spiritual father of the prisoners, blew hot and cold. One week he denied having anything to do with the Christian Front. The next he said his connection was with a “genuine” Christian Front. The next he “took his stand” belligerently beside the defendants, guilty or innocent. When the seventeen were acquitted, Social Justice gave the decision triumphant space.
Though the magic had gone out of Father Coughlin’s activities with the closing of the airwaves, he could still make speeches to mass meetings and testimonial dinners. As war feelings intensified, the dinners and other celebrations had a tendency to go underground; admittance came to be by card and ticket only, and the pro-Nazi, anti-British character of the speeches became pronounced. In Boston, Francis Moran, the local Christian Front führer, twice showed the Nazi propaganda film Victory in the West and advocated resistance to the draft. In Codman Square, Ben Levin’s frame shop, catching the overflow from the Front meetings at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, was broken open and wrecked a second time. In New York Jews were knifed in brawls and beaten.
The riots and fist fights on Times Square, on Fifth Avenue, in the Bronx, multiplied and grew in violence. Women and girls were often used as agents provocateurs, and when the insulted Jews replied, the brass-knuckle boys moved in. Their technique was smooth and well practiced, and the cops often looked the other way or arrested the wrong parties while the hoodlums blew. The elevator operators who had listened to Father Coughlin in their rooms under the stairs developed a habit of slamming the doors viciously behind Jewish passengers. Social Justice rang all the changes, all the varieties of possible sneer and insult, upon the word “Jew.”
Father Coughlin was now, and would remain until several months after Pearl Harbor, the center and sparkplug of the nationalist, isolationist, pro-Nazi groups. His program through 1940 and 1941 looked considerably different from his sixteen principles of social justice—a defense of a sort could have been made for those.
His preachments now said (1) that a British-Jewish-Roosevelt conspiracy had caused the war; (2) that Germany and Italy were have-not nations forced into struggle with the anti-Christs, the big haves; (3) that the United States was fighting to save the British Empire; (4) that the increased taxes were not for defense but for solidifying the bureaucracy; (5) that Great Britain was going Communist; (6) that Russia was the aggressor against Germany; (7) that Britain was likely to deal to save her Empire, leaving us holding the bag; and (8) that Roosevelt was run by the Jews, whose war it was.
The elevator operators who had listened to Father Coughlin in their rooms under the stairs developed a habit of slamming the doors viciously behind Jewish passengers.
Sense and objectivity and positiveness had all departed; these were the preachments of a divisive frenzy. On their face, some of them would seem to be clearly seditious. But the constantly called-for arrest was never made, and the priest went on with his program of anti-Semitic terror, anti-British propaganda, anti-war harangues. His position brought him some new allies: by now, whenever he made a speech, Hearst papers had begun a curious habit of reprinting it verbatim. And though Coughlin had failed to unite the depression-struck millions behind him in 1936, he apparently still felt that the emotional and goonish fringe could be welded into a formidable organization. Until the bitter end he went along his fascist line, with three quarters of America yelling for his scalp and his reputation for any sort of integrity or honesty utterly gone.
Many people believed, and still do, that he was taking Nazi money to run his machine. Whether he took money or not, he took Nazi ideas and Nazi methods, and evidence at the Nuremburg war-guilt trials later attested Germany’s intense interest in promoting Father Coughlin’s activities. His gangs were on the loose in a dozen cities; Jewish mothers were afraid to send their children to school for fear of the young hoodlums, influenced by their Christian Front elders and companions, who made a practice of beating up every Jewish boy they could catch alone.
The men who hung around Codman Square had quit joking with Ben Levin and sticking Social Justice under his nose. Their kidding had dwindled away into hostile silence; they didn’t recognize him on the street. In the fall of 1941 his shop was wrecked for the third time, and he reluctantly closed it up and took a job in downtown Boston.
Coughlin’s activities were clearly, after Pearl Harbor, intolerable. There was a point, at least in wartime, where division and disruption had to be stopped. In April, 1942, Attorney General Biddle charged Social Justice with violation of the Espionage Act, and Postmaster General Walker simultaneously barred it from the mails. Father Coughlin did not show up to defend his paper in court, and finally agreed with the court decision that Social Justice cease publication.
Even then, silenced over the air and with his newspaper dead, Father Coughlin showed an ugly, sinister vitality. The testimonial dinners to “the greatest priest in America” went on; the faithful still met and talked and encouraged each other’s hatred; the dirty and malicious jokes about Jews still circulated on mimeographed sheets and printed cards through war plants; the threats about what the boys in the Army were going to do to the Jews when the war was over kept cropping up, and Christian Fronters unwillingly in uniform carried them to ends of the earth.
The beatings of Jewish children in Dorchester and Mattapan and the Bronx and Brooklyn and Philadelphia went on. Ben Levin’s oldest son raised up on a patrol on Guadalcanal and took a Japanese rifle bullet between the eyes; a few months later his youngest brother was run off a South Boston beach by a gang of Irish kids who taunted him with what would happen to the cowardly Jews as soon as the war was over.
Many people believed, and still do, that he was taking Nazi money to run his machine. Whether he took money or not, he took Nazi ideas and Nazi methods.
And this was not a propaganda story devised by a do-good organization to show the evils of race feeling. This was sober truth. This happened to real people. I have talked a good deal with Ben Levin and Ben Levin’s youngest son, and I have inspected the official announcement of the oldest son’s death and fingered his Purple Heart.
The taproot of Coughlin-inspired hatred lives on, though to all appearances the radio priest has been politically and publicly dead since April, 1942. The other fascist demagogues, more successful for a time, fell further when they fell, and instead of retirement to the duties of a simple parish priest, found their end in a burning city, or hung by their heels in a public square.
Father Coughlin was lucky in that he didn’t have a real and enduring desperation to play with; the depression was brutal and hard and long, but it did not go deep enough to give a demagogue real anguish to manipulate. Discomfort, want, hunger, but not quite anguish, not quite hopelessness or despair. And Father Coughlin was fortunate, too, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was his contemporary. The presence of a leader with all the personal magnetism of the führers, but without their venality or their vanity or their incurable lust for a white horse, robbed Coughlin of his chance to hang himself and possibly ruin the nation in the process.
But it would be well to ponder the enormous following he had at his peak. It would be well to consider how vague, misty, unformed, contradictory, and insincere his program was, and yet how it won the unstinting belief of hundreds of thousands, even millions. It would be well to remember that even a people like the Americans, supposedly politically mature and with a long tradition of very great personal liberty, can be brought to the point where millions of them will beg to be led, and will blindly follow when a leader steps forward. It would be well to mark, too, the reputed four hundred thousand names which have been sent in to Father Coughlin by wives and mothers of service men, so that he may pray for them to St. Sebastian. That “St. Sebastian Brigade,” so called, is being closely watched as an incipient veterans’ organization of some strength.
It is not likely that Father Coughlin or any of his American imitators can ever again be more than public nuisances, vermin in the national woodwork. But let conditions again become as bad as they did in the deep thirties, and the vermin will reappear.
On the other hand, there will be thousands of Americans, burned by this one experience with fascism under an American and Christian label, who will be warier when the next demagogue arises. The last ironic act of Ben Levin’s real-life drama was symbolic, and like the death of his son it had almost too pat a moral. When the contents of his dead son’s pockets were sent him by the War Department, he donated the money not to any golden-tongued radio orator or any leader with a panacea, but to a Good Neighbor Association formed to resist the racial hatreds that the leader had brought on.
Wallace Stegner’s books include The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Angle of Repose (winner of the Pulitzer Prize, 1972), and The Spectator Bird (winner of the National Book Award, 1977). Stegner died in 1993