Alex Constantine - October 4, 2021
A version of this article appears in print onJuly 23, 1997, Section A, Page 17 of the National edition with the headline: How Nazis Tried to Steer U.S. Politics.
One day in June 1940, with much of Europe under the Nazi boot and Britain ready to fight to the death, a German diplomat in Washington wired Berlin on how to keep the United States out of the war by giving money to American politicians.
The timing was both auspicious and delicate for Germany, Hans Thomsen, the charge d'affaires at the German Embassy here, argued in his June 12 message to the Foreign Ministry. True, German troops seemed invincible, but their victories were stirring ''intervention hysteria'' in the United States.
So, Mr. Thomsen said, ''a well-camouflaged lightning propaganda campaign might well prove useful'' at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia two weeks later. He asked Berlin for $3,000 to help a Republican Congressman take about 50 isolationist members of his party to Philadelphia to push for an antiwar platform.
What is more, Mr. Thomsen said, the Congressman, who was never named, was forming a committee that would publish full-page newspaper advertisements during the convention bearing the message ''Keep America Out of War.'' The advertisements would cost $60,000 to $80,000, Mr. Thomsen said. (That would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in today's money.)
With Washington today caught up in Senate hearings into possible efforts by China to buy influence in American political affairs, Mr. Thomsen's words from long ago are haunting. They tell of an elaborate scheme to interfere in the American political system.
''It was at the time the most extensive foreign intervention -- direct intervention -- ever into an American election campaign,'' said Gerhard L. Weinberg, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina who fled Germany with his family just before World War II. Professor Weinberg has written extensively about the war and is one of the few who have studied Mr. Thomsen's dispatches.
The communiques of Hans Thomsen and other officials were among thousands of German Government documents seized by the Allies at the end of World War II and translated into English by the State Department and the British Foreign Office. For a half-century, they have sat in select libraries, including that of Georgetown University here, attracting little attention.
Laws were different then, and American politicians who accepted foreign money would not necessarily have committed a crime. But the stakes for the country, and the world, could hardly have been higher.
Germany knew that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was committed to helping Britain and sensed that he was girding the American people for war. If Germany had to go to war with the United States one day, Professor Weinberg said, it wanted do so when its own Navy had been built up and while the United States Navy was weak. Those factors made Roosevelt, who had been Assistant Navy Secretary, the wrong President from the German perspective.
Even if Roosevelt could not be beaten in the 1940 election, he might have been hamstrung if the Democratic Party adopted a peace platform, or if the Republicans recaptured Congress. Isolationist fervor was generally stronger in the Republican Party than among Democrats.
Unlike the Germans, the British stayed out of American politics, Professor Weinberg said. They dearly wanted Roosevelt to win in 1940, but they feared that even a hint of meddling would further arouse the isolationists, who tended to blame Britain for involving the United States in the First World War. The British were also leery of stirring resentment among big-city Irish politicians whose support Roosevelt counted on.
Realizing that he was asking for a lot of money in that June 12, 1940, communique, Mr. Thomsen assured his Foreign Ministry that half the money the Congressman needed for the newspaper advertisements ''will, in all probability, be borne by his Republican friends.''
On June 25, 1940, during the Republican Convention, full-page newspaper advertisements urged delegates to adopt an antiwar platform. The advertisements were sponsored by the National Committee to Keep America Out of Foreign Wars, whose chairman was Representative Hamilton Fish, a Republican from upstate New York who detested Roosevelt personally and politically.
Other committee members were Representative Harold Knutson, Republican of Minnesota, and former Representatives Samuel B. Pettingill of Indiana and John J. O'Connor of New York, both Democrats.
Pettingill had been elected in 1930 and had chosen not to run again in 1938. O'Connor had been head of the House Rules Committee and had done his best to block New Deal legislation until Roosevelt helped to engineer his defeat in 1938.
As it turned out, the Republican convention nominated Wendell L. Willkie, a former utility executive, for President. Willkie was no isolationist, but his running mate, Senator Charles L. McNary of Oregon, was. And the party platform, while calling for ''preparedness,'' opposed American involvement in foreign wars.
Germany also tried to interfere in the Democratic National Convention in July. A German envoy in Mexico City wired Berlin on July 8, 1940, that ''about $160,000'' had been funneled to someone in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party for ''buying the approximately 40 Pennsylvania delegates to vote against Roosevelt'' at the Chicago convention. The money was also intended to help defeat Senator Joseph F. Guffey, a Pennsylvania Democrat the Germans considered hostile to their interests.
Senator Guffey was re-elected anyhow. Roosevelt was renominated by near acclamation after coyly feigning disinterest in a third term. He had already confounded the Republicans by shrewdly naming two prominent ones to his Administration: Henry L. Stimson as Secretary of War and Frank Knox as Navy Secretary. Both leaned toward intervention in the war.
The Pennsylvania delegates (there were 72, not about 40) voted for the President. But isolationist Democrats, led by Senators Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and David Walsh of Massachusetts, successfully pushed for a plank pledging to keep the United States out of overseas conflicts ''except in case of attack,'' the latter phrase added at Roosevelt's insistence.
Riveting as they are, the German communiques must be read with several caveats. The American isolationists were not so much pro-Nazi as antiwar (Hamilton Fish had fought with distinction in World War I), and if it is clear now that they were on the wrong side of history it was less so then.
It is not known how much money Berlin actually sent to the United States, or what was done with it. Nor is it known whether Mr. Thomsen was exaggerating when he boasted of his contacts among journalists and politicians.
Moreover, in 1940 it was not illegal per se, as it is today, for American politicians to accept foreign money, said Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and an expert on campaign finance. (But a 1938 law demanded that anyone accepting foreign money for propaganda in the United States register with the State Department.)
''Who knows who was getting what,'' Mr. Potter said, noting that then as now there were plenty of ways for ''soft money'' to find its way to a candidate, perhaps without his knowing its precise source.
Mr. Thomsen certainly knew the value of discretion. One message to Berlin emphasized that payments for propaganda were ''through trusted go-betweens.'' Nevertheless, he feared that disclosure of the payments ''would mean political ruin and have other grave consequences for our political friends.'' So he asked that the embassy be allowed to dispense with record-keeping.
On June 19, 1940, Mr. Thomsen assured his Berlin handlers that the embassy press aide was constantly in touch with cooperative American lawmakers to help them get good publicity. ''In this manner,'' he wrote, ''German influence is not visible to the outside and, thanks to the privilege of free postage enjoyed by American Congressmen, the cost of this large-scale propaganda can be kept disproportionately low.''
Senator Gerald P. Nye, a fervent isolationist Republican from North Dakota, is mentioned in a July 18, 1940, top-secret dispatch by Mr. Thomsen. The Senator had spoken favorably in the Senate about an antiwar book of the time -- so favorably that excerpts from the Congressional Record were being sent by isolationist groups to some 200,000 ''specially selected persons.''
''This undertaking is not altogether easy and is particularly delicate,'' Mr. Thomsen wrote, ''since Senator Nye, as a political opponent of the President, is under the careful observation of the secret state police here.''
Senator Rush Holt, an isolationist Democrat from West Virginia, was mentioned in a good light, having delivered a speech against ''British propaganda'' in the summer of 1940.
About 100,000 ''interested persons'' got copies of Holt's speech through the Congressional Record, Mr. Thomsen said, and the Senator had let it be known that he could arrange to have an additional 250,000 copies printed.
''For this operation we would have to contribute $3,000,'' Mr. Thomsen told Berlin, adding, ''Holt is also being subsidized from another direction.''
After Roosevelt was re-elected, Mr. Thomsen told Berlin that the President would continue to play ''on the easily excitable character of the American people.'' He added, presciently, ''The supreme law of his actions -- and we shall have to adapt ourselves to that during the coming four years -- is his irreconcilable hostility to the totalitarian powers.''
Editor's Note: An article on July 23 described historical research on papers detailing a 1940 Nazi plan to finance a propaganda campaign in the United States. The article, headlined ''How Nazis Tried to Steer U.S. Politics,'' appeared with a photograph of Representative Hamilton Fish, Republican of New York, who was chairman of the National Committee to Keep America Out of Foreign Wars. The committee sponsored isolationist newspaper advertisements during the Republican Convention of 1940, but the research has found no evidence that Mr. Fish had any connections with the Nazis or was directly influenced by them. The use of the photograph suggested a connection, and it should not have appeared.