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Interview'I wanted to show how lethal this organization really was'

FBI files shine light on homegrown Nazi plot to overthrow US government during WWII

In ‘Nazis of Copley Square,’ historian Charles R. Gallagher argues that the widely overlooked Christian Front posed a true threat – and he’s got newly released intel to prove it

  • Boston Police Commissioner Joseph Timilty displays two books distributed by the Christian Front, which were declared Nazi propaganda and banned from sale in the city on January 5, 1942. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)
    Boston Police Commissioner Joseph Timilty displays two books distributed by the Christian Front, which were declared Nazi propaganda and banned from sale in the city on January 5, 1942. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)
  • Father Coughlin (right) receives a headdress, making him chief of the Tea Party group of Massachusetts, August 17, 1936. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)
    Father Coughlin (right) receives a headdress, making him chief of the Tea Party group of Massachusetts, August 17, 1936. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)
  • Father Charles Coughlin shakes hands with Massachusetts Governor James Michael Curley at the State House, Boston, on August 13, 1935. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)
    Father Charles Coughlin shakes hands with Massachusetts Governor James Michael Curley at the State House, Boston, on August 13, 1935. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)
  • Boston Christian Front leader Francis Moran shows off the group’s pamphlets. In January 1942 police seized these and other materials from Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)
    Boston Christian Front leader Francis Moran shows off the group’s pamphlets. In January 1942 police seized these and other materials from Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)
  • The Christian Front trial in New York on April 9, 1940. Seated left to right: LaRoy Keegan, John Viebrock, Leo Healy (the attorney defending 11 of the Christian Front members), and John Cassidy. Back row left to right: John F. Cook, Nick Ernecke, Macklin Boettiger, Francis Malone, Edward Walsh, Michael Vill, John Graf, William Bushnell. (AP Photo)
    The Christian Front trial in New York on April 9, 1940. Seated left to right: LaRoy Keegan, John Viebrock, Leo Healy (the attorney defending 11 of the Christian Front members), and John Cassidy. Back row left to right: John F. Cook, Nick Ernecke, Macklin Boettiger, Francis Malone, Edward Walsh, Michael Vill, John Graf, William Bushnell. (AP Photo)
  • Charles E. Coughlin attacking the Roosevelt administration in a speech before the Townsend National Convention, July 17, 1936. (AP Photo)
    Charles E. Coughlin attacking the Roosevelt administration in a speech before the Townsend National Convention, July 17, 1936. (AP Photo)
  • Charles E. Coughlin addressed a mass meeting of his followers in Cleveland, Ohio, May 11, 1936. (AP Photo)
    Charles E. Coughlin addressed a mass meeting of his followers in Cleveland, Ohio, May 11, 1936. (AP Photo)

During the 1930s, an estimated 30 million Americans regularly tuned into Father Charles Edward Coughlin’s controversial radio broadcasts, which promoted antisemitic views to a loyal legion of Christian listeners. In the summer of 1939, the Canadian Roman Catholic priest called, on the airwaves, for the creation of what would become the Christian Front, a pro-Nazi organization with the stated aim of combating communism and promoting anti-Jewish boycotts.

In private, says Charles R. Gallagher — who conducted extensive research parsing newly accessible intelligence files — the group had an even more nefarious agenda. And although this would eventually lead to 17 members being put on trial for plotting an armed overthrow of the United States government, efforts to shrug the group off as buffoons meant that few people actually took them seriously — until now.

“The Christian Front firmly believed that the Sovietization of America was not only a threat against democracy and capitalism, but it would eventually exterminate Catholicism too,” Gallagher, author of the recently published “Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front,” told The Times of Israel over a Zoom call from his home in New Hampshire.

Gallagher, a 55-year-old Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and associate professor of history at Boston College — whose 2008 book “Vatican Secret Diplomacy” won the John Gilmary Shea Prize from the American Catholic Historical Association — spent a decade researching his current tome. Much of that research period was spent carefully studying intelligence files such as the FBI’s file for the Christian Front, which amounts to some 2,500 pages.

“Historians, before I looked at this topic, did not have access to the FBI files,” Gallagher says. “And so they all aligned themselves with the narrative of the Christian Front being this clownish, playful [organization].”

“That version of the story says: There was this trial, everybody got acquitted, and then their history gets lost because World War II comes about,” says Gallagher. “But I wanted to show just how lethal this organization really was.”

Father Charles Coughlin shakes hands with Massachusetts Governor James Michael Curley at the State House, Boston, on August 13, 1935. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)

Gallagher’s book charts how the idea for the Christian Front first appeared in Coughlin’s newspaper, Social Justice, in June 1938, alongside a giant photograph of Pope Pius XI.

Coughlin envisioned the organization as a militant force that would help in a global effort to defeat atheistic communism, which had already infected revolutionary Russia and even Catholic countries such as Spain and Mexico, where many Christian priests and other clergy members had been murdered by communists for their religious beliefs.

The Christian Front was also meant to provide a strategic counterpoise to popular fronts — grassroots groups dedicated to antifascism that were composed of moderates, liberals and socialists in addition to communists, and that were officially endorsed by the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in 1935.

Charles Gallagher, author of ‘Nazis of Copley Square.’ (Courtesy Harvard University Press)

Gallagher notes how Coughlin’s extremist far-right Christian views drew heavily from two main ideas: the age-old Christian concept of “the deicide,” which claims that Jews bear eternal responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ; and Judeo-Bolshevism, a conspiracy theory that said communism was created as part of a Jewish plot to destroy the nations of Europe.

Gallagher says the Catholic clergy were instrumental in enabling the Christian Front’s growth and prosperity. Roman Catholic priests in New York and Boston provided political and legal cover, theological leadership and ecclesiastic approval, which they used “to rationalize and justify evil for the far-right Christian Front movement,” the historian says.

But it was ordinary laypeople who primarily saw themselves as the advance guard of the Christian Front in a holy war against communists and Jews. Two figures play an important part in Gallagher’s story: John F. Cassidy of New York and Francis P. Moran of Boston.

Trial and error

The heyday of the Christian Front in New York would prove brief. The group began consolidating under Cassidy’s leadership in fall 1938. Gallagher notes that by late 1939, extremist Christian Front members were following in the footsteps of Adolf Hitler.

Records of a September 1939 Christian Front meeting in New York show one member, Joe Leveque, expressing how “Christians, especially Catholics, should exterminate the Jews just like Hitler is now doing in Poland.”

Shortly after that meeting, the Christian Front took its first steps toward becoming a paramilitary group.

‘The Nazis of Copley Square,’ by Charles Gallagher. (Courtesy Harvard University Press)

It was a small-scale operation consisting of less than 20 individuals; nevertheless, the New York branch of the Christian Front collected rifles and military-grade machine guns, as well as building pipe bombs, all of which were intended for use in a seditious underground political-theological revolution. By the winter of 1940, some of the Christian Front’s most aggressive members were under federal indictment on charges of seditious conspiracy and weapons theft.

The mainstream American press gave extensive coverage to the 1940 sedition trial of Cassidy and a small group of his New York Christian Front followers. Gallagher says their goal was unequivocal: to install in the United States a temporary dictatorship and incite a revolution that would eliminate Communists and Jews.

The Christian Front investigation was one of the three largest the bureau ever undertook.

“I produce many documents in the book which show how president [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt was also interested in monitoring the group, and that’s what [ultimately] brought in a lot of the intelligence activity against the Christian Front,” says the historian. Gallagher also stresses how British intelligence “worked hard to take the Christian Front down” and there is also “reason to believe Soviet spies tried [to do the same].”

The Christian Front trial in New York on April 9, 1940. Seated left to right: LaRoy Keegan, John Viebrock, Leo Healy (the attorney defending 11 of the Christian Front members), and John Cassidy. Back row left to right: John F. Cook, Nick Ernecke, Macklin Boettiger, Francis Malone, Edward Walsh, Michael Vill, John Graf, William Bushnell. (AP Photo)

In 1940, when the members of the Christian Front were on trial, Catholic leadership in the US swept the organization’s deeds under the rug. Gallagher says Catholic media spread much the same message, distancing the men from the Church and suggesting that they were merely crackpots, as hapless as they were deluded. Remarkably, prosecutors also participated in this project, the historian says.

On June 24, 1940, the jury in the sedition trial of the Christian Front produced a verdict: Nine of the defendants were acquitted and charges were dropped against five more, although the possibility of a retrial remained in their cases. This came after two defendants had their charges dismissed entirely. This meant that 16 of the 17 defendants in the trial were found not guilty.

The final defendant did not live to see the verdict. Less than 10 days into the trial, Claus Ernecke, who had tried to recruit a machine gun instructor for the Christian Front’s terrorist plot, was found hanging dead in the cellar of an apartment building two blocks from his home. Ernecke’s lawyer claimed that his client had been kidnapped and murdered on the way to the courthouse. There was no investigation into his death.

Moving on up

Following the Christian Front’s 1940 terrorist plot in New York, the organization’s seditious activity moved to Boston. Gallagher says it’s likely that the aforementioned Moran was officially installed as chief of Boston’s Christian Front following Cassidy’s trial in New York.

Moran would keep the Christian Front operating in Boston for another five years; according to the book, one Christian Front rally at the Boston Arena on September 8, 1939, reportedly attracted a crowd of between 8,000 and 12,000.

In the Boston Globe, Moran publicly defended the Christian Front at this time against what he called a “false allegation” of antisemitism. But Moran’s speeches at Christian Front rallies were a little less benign. Gallagher’s book points to a Christian Front meeting in June 1940 in Boston, where Moran celebrated Adolf Hitler in glowing terms and encouraged “the confiscation of Jewish property.”

Francis Moran, New England director of the Christian Front, on January 16, 1940, the day after the New York Christian Front arrests were reported in the press. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)

Moran was soon given some unexpected aid by a Nazi spy and SS officer named Herbert Wilhelm Scholz, who took up duties as Germany’s consul in Boston in 1938. The first known meeting between Scholz and Moran took place in late July 1940. They were joined by Dr. Heribert von Strempel, a German aristocrat and first secretary of the German Embassy in Washington.

Strempel was the chief administrator of a fund called “the Schmiergeld,” which the Nazis used to make payments to their US agents. Strempel’s fund began to stabilize the Christian Front’s finances and Moran became a useful agent for Scholz in Boston. Gallagher says Moran played a vital role in assisting Scholz with Nazi propaganda work in Boston and the wider region.

“Having an American citizen working closely with a Nazi SS officer to carry out Nazi policies against Jews is a very significant story,” says Gallagher.

He says that under Scholz’s careful guidance, Moran’s aggressive attitude and leadership style within the Christian Front changed markedly. Moran spent the second half of 1940 “blazing from his pulpit on behalf of Hitler,” the historian says.

Moran’s work with Scholz coincided with a period when US politics was moving slowly in the direction of the Allies. As the challenge of securing US neutrality became more pressing, Moran’s Nazi activism became more vehement and more dangerous.

“Scholz was a very capable, devious spy who was able to recruit targets, using a psychology that moved them towards Nazi lines,” says Gallagher. “Scholz’s aim was to use the Christian Front as an operation of SS intelligence, and he was pretty successful at doing that.”

“Scholz moved Moran from a man who was pretty [ambivalent in his attitudes to] racial antisemitism, into a [committed] Hitlerite who began to believe in Nazi racial ideas about extermination,” Gallagher adds. “And in accomplishing that, Scholz also moved [the Christian Front] in that same direction.”

It was at this point that the Christian Front morphed “from a religious organization into a Nazi-controlled political [organization],” says Gallagher. He also notes how, in supporting the Christian Front, ordinary Roman Catholics in Boston were unconsciously aiding a state with which their own state would soon be at war.

Violence on the streets

On June 16, 1941, Roosevelt ordered the closure of all German consulates in the US. Moran, meanwhile, spent the rest of 1941 working with Germans in Boston, castigating Jews and calling on his clerical supporters to preach the gospel of antisemitism.

That same month, in downtown Boston, the Christian Front put on a private screening of “Sieg im Westen” (“Victory in the West”), a German propaganda film that portrayed the expanding Third Reich in noble terms, and which also compared Jews to rats. During the showing of the film, Moran spoke several times, emphasizing the hopelessness of a US army fighting a mechanized Nazi army. Word of this Nazi propaganda screening made it as far as Berlin, where the chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, Joseph Goebbels, and his Nazi comrades privately noted how the film had been shown to an enthusiastic American audience.

Boston Christian Front leader Francis Moran shows off the group’s pamphlets. In January 1942 police seized these and other materials from Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)

On October 20, 1941, at another packed meeting of the Christian Front, Moran described the Jews as a “hindrance and a source of evil to any country that held them.”

It was under these circumstances that antisemitism in Boston began to rise.  Gallagher says the “anti-Jewish violence in Boston became pervasive in 1943.” The violence was perpetrated largely by Irish Catholic gangs, some of whom were former Christian Front members. Gallagher says the Boston Police abetted crimes against Jews by turning a blind eye, arresting Jewish Bostonians, and sometimes even directly joining in and participating in the beatings of Jews.

By the end of 1943, the violence came to an end in Boston. Over time, so too did Moran’s career and the Christian Front, disappearing from both daily life and historical memory. The hero of Gallagher’s book, Frances Sweeney, was a key figure in bringing Moran and the Christian Front down.

Boston Police Commissioner Joseph Timilty displays two books distributed by the Christian Front, which were declared Nazi propaganda and banned from sale in the city on January 5, 1942. (Photo Credit: Boston Herald- Traveler Photo Morgue/ Boston Public Library/ Courtesy of Harvard University Press)

Another Irish Catholic from Boston, Sweeney — a journalist and activist — was well connected among Boston’s liberal intelligentsia and had solid contacts in the news business. This led her to contest Moran’s antisemitism and expose his work as a Nazi propagandist, which continued even after Germany and the United States had declared war on each other.

Sweeney launched a crusade against Moran in the Boston press that led local police to demand that Moran disband his organization, forcing him to retreat from public life.

Recalling a conversation he had as a young academic with his then-professor,  Gallagher says he asked if he could write a research paper on the Christian Front.

“He told me there’s nothing there — they were a farce, they never amounted to anything or did anything, and it’s not even worthy of a research paper,” says Gallagher with a smile, indicating that all his years spent quietly researching has been worth the wait.

“But I like to look at those anomalies in history and to see if there is anything more meaningful there,” he says.

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