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Women of the Far Right: The Mothers' Movement and World War II

Glen Jeansonne

University of Chicago Press, $29.95

by Gene H. Bell-Villada

The official, storybook "line" on the immediate prehistory of World War II goes roughly as follows:

During the 1930s, German expansion posed a grave challenge to the West. Although President Roosevelt wished to face up to the totalitarian threat in Europe, his efforts were hampered by the activities of isolationists, who, deluded and naive, refused to recognize the extent of the Nazi menace and who, moreover, were unwilling to accept America's mission of defending democratic freedoms abroad. It was only the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that finally brought the isolationists to their senses and made them see the error of their ways.

Such a blandly comforting myth evokes no villains, only mistaken souls and the occasional crank like Charles Lindbergh. The real, hidden history is more complex and disquietingly sinister. While there were influential individuals from the liberal and left camps (such as Norman Thomas and Edmund Wilson) who believed the United States should mend its own socioeconomic crisis and steer clear of foreign involvements, the bulk of hard-line, isolationist opinion came from a broad front of anti-Roosevelt conservatives, who loathed the New Deal and saw in the fascist states a noble bulwark against Bolshevism and a force they could do business with.

Women of the Far Right by Glen Jeansonne, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, helps exhume this important but virtually forgotten episode in the United States's philo-Nazi past. From 1939-41, somewhere between one and five million right-wing women mobilized nationwide to oppose US involvement in the war against Hitler. The "Mom's Movement" comprised a few dozen regionally-based, grassroots organizations, among them the National Legion of Mothers of America (Los Angeles), Mothers of the USA (Detroit), United Mothers of America (Cleveland), and the We the Mothers Mobilize for America (Chicago). The leaders and publicists of this movement were overwhelmingly white, Republican, well-off, and mostly middle-aged. While they may have fumed rhetorically against "male stupidity," they were not feminists: They fully accepted patriarchy and worked within traditions of motherhood, sometimes invoking what are now called "family values." (One complained that, at Cornell University, students read books about masturbation, homosexuality, and condom use, and that its library contained 47 titles by "Red Jew" Sigmund Freud.) Nor were they pacifists. While one group used the white dove as a symbol on its lapel pins, what the movement really objected to was war against Nazi Germany, which they praised for its anti-communism. Peace Now, an affiliated isolationist outfit in New York, argued that the Soviets were more dangerous than the Nazis, and called for a negotiated peace with the Axis powers.

Before becoming professional isolationists, the leaders of the Mothers' Movement had been staunch anti-New Deal conservatives. One of the most influential, Cathrine (sic) Curtis, was an heiress and successful financier--she advocated women's economic independence as a means of opposing communism--who had started out her public career lobbying against higher taxes, labor unions, and sit-down strikes, before turning to foreign policy in 1939. Another, Elizabeth Dilling, lived off her real-estate inheritance as she grew into a one-woman propaganda machine, becoming a regular speaker on the lecture circuit and author of several well-publicized volumes, including The Red Network: A Who's Who and The Roosevelt Red Record and Its Background. Still another was the colorful aviatrix Laura Ingalls, whose commitment to the Nazis earned her a monthly stipend from the German Embassy; in September 1939 she made an illegal two-hour flight over the White House, dropping "peace" pamphlets addressed to members of Congress.

The crudest anti-Semitism figured prominently in the movement's sloganeering and analyses--they singled out Jews in FDR's "Jew Deal," mimicked Eleanor Roosevelt with a Yiddish accent, and claimed that Jews had started the American Civil War, that Polish Jews had encouraged the Nazi invasion, and that American farmers were being relocated to Brazil so that Jewish refugees could get their farms. One full-time activist, Agnes Waters, lobbied forcefully and successfully in 1939 to bar 20,000 German-Jewish children from finding safe haven in the United States.

The Congressional debate over Lend-Lease drove the movement into high gear. With the aim of lobbying senators, almost a thousand women came in busloads to Washington, where they held mass meetings, staged sit-ins inside the Capitol, and adopted disruptive tactics that produced forcible ejections and arrests. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany's declaration of war on the United States, most respectable conservatives had little choice but to go along with FDR's interventionist policies, but the leaders of the Mothers' Movement persisted in their opposition. In 1942, the federal government initiated legal proceedings against pro-Nazis, including several of the militant Mothers. The trial dragged on for years; government prosecutors could tender no proof that the far-right groups had actually conspired with Nazi Germany or undermined US military morale, and their ideas and organizations, however repellent, were protected by First Amendment guarantees. Finally, in 1946 a district judge dismissed the entire case on technical grounds. Most of the movement subsequently blended in with the mainstream conservatism of Cold War America, but the ex-leaders continued to hew to their lost cause. Dilling remained active until her death in 1966, pouring out incoherent attacks on both political parties ("Ike the Kike," "the Jew frontier").

Jeansonne, author of books on Gerald Smith and Huey Long, has performed a valuable service in telling this story. Of the two dozen or so figures examined, only Dilling and Curtis had left papers. No membership lists for the groups were available, and many descendants of members refused to cooperate. His major sources hence are dry journalistic and courtroom accounts, or hostile reports from Jewish advocacy groups and the FBI. Precious little was to be found regarding the personal, pre-activist lives of these women, which partly accounts for the unfortunate one-dimensionality of their biographies as presented in Women of the Far Right.

Were the leaders of the Mothers' Movement a "gallery of grotesques," as historian Ellen Schrecker has termed them? Or can they be more accurately described as an exaggerated form of 1930s conservatism? The movement received favorable coverage at the time from the Hearst press and the Chicago Tribune, and some of the organizations received funding from such businessmen as Hearst and Henry Ford. Moreover, contemporary documentary evidence--see for instance the New York Times Book Review's October 1933 piece on Mein Kampf, in which Hitler is praised for his "destruction of communism" and his "protection of the right to private property"--show that the Mothers' pro-Nazi sympathies were not so far from the mainstream. Although Jeansonne's flatly-descriptive approach and tendency toward pop-psychologizing do not do justice to the more bizarre aspects of the movement and its leaders, he is to be commended for giving us the unvarnished facts in this fascinating, overlooked chapter of US history.

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review

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