Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front by Charles R. Gallagher (Harvard University Press)
Last year, the white supremacist militia the Patriot Front (PF) marched through the streets of Boston two days before annual July 4th celebrations. About one hundred PF members in a tight phalanx carried American flags and marched past many of the historical sights of the Revolutionary War and Abolitionist eras. They also attacked and injured an African-American man before they rallied outside the majestic Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
Holding two large banners that proclaimed “Reclaim America” and “Strong Families Make Strong Nations” they rallied under the LGBT flags that festooned the library entrance. The PF march produced a panic in the city, where everyone from the Boston Police to Anti-Fascist organizers were caught off-guard and embarrassed by the Patriot Front’s bold move. One local civil rights leader called them “the children of the KKK.” But that isn’t quite right. The KKK was never welcome in Boston, but the Christian Front was.
Charles R. Gallagher’s book Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front
Book tells the story of the fascist inspired Christian Front birthed by the “Radio Priest” Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit. The have been popular biographies of Coughlin before—notably Sheldon Markus’ Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower and Donald Warren’s Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio, but Gallagher breaks new ground by diving deep into new ground, especially the Christian Front’s activities in Boston.
Coughlin was extremely popular. His radio broadcasts garnered an immense following that dwarf the most popular broadcasters today on any medium. Beginning in the late 1920s, Coughlin’s smooth, soothing voice took to the airwaves and his audience grew with his homilies about Christian living. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, he became more political and an ardent supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Yet, he broke with the New Deal and became something of an hysterical critic of it. When asked about the future of the country after the 1936 landslide election triumph of Roosevelt, he replied, “I’ll take the road to fascism.”
And Coughlin did. In 1939, according to Gallagher,
“He called for the creation of a Christian Front. He hoped the group would act as a counterpoise to the Popular Front…In his broadcasts and his publications, Coughlin pushed his millions of followers to reject atheistic Communism in the name of Christ and country, and he saw a Christian Front as the key means of resistance.”
Coughlin’s antisemitism—with priestly approval on the parish level in many cities—gave the Christian Front a stamp of legitimacy and made it a serious political influence, especially in the Irish Catholic communities of New York and Boston. The front was particularly popular among the Irish dominated police forces in both cities. Gallagher, himself a priest and an historian at the historically Catholic Boston College writes:
Priests provided political cover, theological leadership, and ecclesiastic approval for the far-right Christian Front movement. Although the front was a lay organization, priest advisers enabled its growth and prosperity, whether by promoting the front’s mission or by defending its members against their critics.
Gallagher name’s names. He writes:
Coughlin, the most famous priest of the 1930s, was the spiritual leader of the front, but he did not work alone. Fathers Edward Lodge Curran of Brooklyn and Edward F. Brophy of Queens both dedicated their energies to building up the Christian Front in New York and Boston from 1938 to 1945. The Jesuit Michael Ahern of Boston played a key role in preserving the front when it was under threat.
All of this was known at the time. James Wechsler, a writer for The Nation magazine and future columnist for The New York Post, recounted in his autobiography:
Everywhere the fascists and their fellow travelers seemed to be riding high. Frankly emboldened by the Nazi successes, the Coughlinites for a brief period really appeared to be making headway in several neighborhoods; the street brawls, sluggings and anti-Semitic forays that we once stamped as strictly European were finally being enacted in our own country.
But, Gallagher argues, rightly so, that it has largely been scrubbed or muffled from popular histories of the years leading up to the Second World War.
The Coughlinite priests nurtured the leadership, according to Gallagher, of “now-forgotten lay acolytes like John F. Cassidy of New York and Francis P. Moran of Boston. The people who formed the Christian Front saw themselves as the advance guard in a holy war against Communists and Jews—groups whom they perceived as one and the same, under the rubric of what scholars have called Judeo-Bolshevism.”
The myth of Judeo-Bolshevism made the Christian Fronters close political cousins, if not comrades-in-arms with the Nazis. What made Catholics, especially a sizable minority of Irish-Catholic Americans embrace not just demonstrably wrongheaded ideas about the world but ideas that would align oneself with the most dangerous political party in human history? The answer lies in the historic antisemitism of the Catholic Church and the well-founded Irish hostility to the United States growing alliance with the British Empire.
Jews in public life—from trade union officers and radicals to mainstream business and political figures—and those hidden, according to the Judeo-Bolshevik mythology, manipulated gentile political leaders in service to the Kremlin and international bankers. Like the QAnon conspiracy theory today, it was a world view that seemed to explain everything from the march of armies across Europe to the economic distress in Christian Fronters lives. It was a road, however, that led into the arms of the Nazis.
In New York City, the Christian Front led by John F. Cassidy, stockpiled weapons and engaged in military training in the half-assed plot to overthrow the United States government. Their federal trial in 1940 made headlines across the country. Cassidy and his cohorts were found not guilty, however. The outcome of the trial emboldened the Christian Fronters, while slowing federal and state investigations into their illegal activities and ties to Nazi Germany.
In Boston, the Christian Front was led by Francis Moran. Moran was the child of Irish immigrants. He was deeply religious and studied to be a priest but dropped out of the seminary before he was ordained. Moran barely made it out of the lower rung of the working class into the lower rung of the middle class by selling insurance, when he lost his job and faced economic destitution. He enthusiastically embraced Coughlin’s call for a Christian Front.
Moran was a clever bigot, however, and unlike many Christian Front leaders avoided using overt Anti-Semitic slurs preferring to speak in more coded terms that enabled him to dodge charges of bigotry. His large audiences in Boston were made up of people like himself, largely drawn from the insecure lower middle class and working class in South Boston and other Irish neighborhoods, including many union members. Moran’s activities soon drew the attention of the German and British intelligence services.
The United States was seen as a battle ground by both powers. The British pushed for U.S. intervention and Germany pushed for it to remain neutral. Moran began a working relationship with the German consul in Boston and started showing Nazi propaganda films, though not illegal, it drew the attention of the Boston police and the FBI. Moran’s activities startled the British. It was an important city and with a powerful presence in the federal government and Moran appeared to have their sympathetic ears.
A post war assessment of the British intelligence operations in the United States revealed that they had a sophisticated understanding of the divisions within the Irish-American community. Gallagher quotes them extensively, another example of what is new and interesting in his book. “The most amenable Irish-Americans for aid to Britain are in the organized labor groups,” British operatives reported. While many union leaders were willing to support aid to Britain, many rank-and-file members were not. “In the labor unions, Coughlin’s Social Justice is widely sold around the union Halls,” British operatives wrote, “this helps generate the following for Moran.”
Here’s an example of how Moran operated in Boston. In the fall of 1939, Alfred Duff Cooper, a Tory politician and former first lord of the British Admiralty toured the United States hoping to shift U.S. public opinion towards supporting Britain. Cooper was singled out in Nazis propaganda as a dangerous warmonger. “All this made Cooper a conspicuous adversary for the Christian Front and other anti-Semitic isolationists, who claimed his intervention in the US scene was a ploy by Jewish bankers to push the country into Europe’s war. As Cooper’s Boston visit neared, Moran stoked such sentiments, while playing up anti-British views within the heavily Irish-American Christian Front,” wrote Gallagher.
“Moran, always shrewd, wanted to take advantage of Irish bitterness without appearing provincial, which would limit the appeal of his message. So he primed the front with universalist arguments, “ according to Gallagher. “We have great sympathy for the people of England, France, Germany, and India—for their governments are not true democracies,” Moran intoned. “But this is their battle.” For Gallagher, “Moments like these demonstrated a kind of rhetorical genius, as Moran managed to strike a pose of principle while disclaiming any US interest in the war, reminding listeners of odious British imperialism, and suggesting that nothing separated Britain and Germany politically.”
When Cooper spoke at Boston’s Symphony Hall, Moran was only mustered fifty picketers outside, but it was inside the hall where the action took place. “Before Duff Cooper finished, the entire Hall was in an uproar,” an FBI source reported. Cooper faced what the Boston Herald described as a “barrage of hostile questions.” “How about Palestine? What about India? What is England doing with the Arabs?” rang from the balcony, according to Gallagher, while the hecklers meticulously kept clear of the Irish question.
This faux anti-imperialism of the Christian Fronters held great appeal for many Irish Catholics in the United States. Yet, not all were buying it. The hero of this story is Frances Sweeney. A very religious Catholic and daughter of Irish immigrants, her Catholicism took her in the opposite direction of Moran. She organized the Irish American Defense Association (IADA) to counter the Christian Front’s propaganda and activities. Unbeknownst to her, the IADA in its early stages of formation received some covert help from British intelligence agents. Sweeney, however, mostly led a pretty lonely struggle against the Christian Front.
U.S entry into the Second World War pushed the Christian Front activists underground. Father Coughlin was censored by the Catholic Church and his Social Justice newspaper was shut down, though Anti-Semitic violence by Irish youth gangs reached a crisis point during 1943. According to Gallagher, Sweeney,
started an anti-Fascist and human rights–oriented monthly newspaper called the Boston City Reporter. Sweeney headquartered the paper in the same office as IADA. She also collaborated with William Gavin, her friend from the Herald and Herald-Traveler, to produce a weekly column called Rumor Clinic. Life magazine ran a photographic, multipage article on Sweeney’s Rumor Clinic, which helped galvanize support for her style of investigative reporting. Throughout 1943 she tracked down the origin of divisive rumors and analyzed disinformation. Much rumor tracking was connected to Catholic-Jewish relations and anti-Semitism.
“Divisive rumors” is what we would call Fake News today. Frances Sweeney died young in 1944 from what her friend believed was a long standing heart condition. “Her fiancé mourned her with poignant words,” according to Gallagher,
It just doesn’t seem right that one who could see so much evil around her, and spared neither time nor courage to fight it, should suddenly be taken away. To those of us who are left behind, her deeds should be a challenge to carry on the good work she started.
The Nazis of Copley Square is a great book that should be read by all.