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All Posts, Frontline Books, Military History

Author Guest Post: Norman Ridley

William Dudley Pelley; An American Fascist

‘The time has come for an American Hitler,’ said William Dudley Pelley while campaigning for the United States presidency in 1936. As leader of the Christian Party, he campaigned under the banner of ‘For Christ and the Constitution’ and went on to say, ‘When I’m president…I’ll do away with the Department of Justice [and form] a Christian government.’ The party’s manifesto called for disenfranchisement of Jews and limitations placed on their rights to employment.2 When the votes were counted, he had won a paltry 1,598 against Rosevelt’s 27,757,333.

Pelley had been born into a deeply religious family in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1885. During his childhood, he later said, he had been ‘perpetually hungry, shabbily dressed [and] non-too-happy’. An impoverished childhood and a lack of formal education, however, did not prevent his taking up a career in journalism when he edited and published Philosopher Magazine. He grew up to be a ‘slender, distinguished-looking man’ and later went on to become a police reporter with the Boston Globe in his late twenties.

Pelley was heavily in debt when he moved to southern California and set up the Pelley and Eckels Advertising Agency in 1928 hoping to commercialise his obvious literary talents. These also saw him taken on by Warner Brothers as a screen writer for famous actors of the day such as Tom Mix, Lon Chaney and Hoot Gibson. Two of his books were made into films with religious themes depicting a ‘common man’ who would rise up to lead the nation.

It was while he was living in Altadena that he claims to have had what he called an ‘ecstatic interlude’, a transformational experience and a revelation. It was similar to one he claimed in his autobiography to have had as a child. In that one, he says that he was sitting on a hilltop outside East Templeton when ‘a corner of the veil of Eternal Mortality was flashingly lifted’. In 1929, in his second ‘hypo-dimensional’ experience he claimed to have died and gone to heaven for seven minutes. While he was there he met with God and Jesus, who instructed him to undertake the spiritual transformation of America. He later claimed that the experience gave him the ability to levitate, see through walls, and have out-of-body experiences at will. He was endowed with the ability to ‘unlock hidden powers’ within himself and was chosen to give inspiration to the whole human race.

Working late in his office on the evening of 31 January 1933, Pelley received a copy of the local newspaper reporting on the elevation of Hitler to the Chancellorship of Germany. In his biography, he wrote that ‘I looked at the lines. I read them again. I sought to comprehend them. Something clicked in my brain!’ He had long admired Hitler for his opposition to ‘the Jewish menace’ and the news of his success sparked a reaction in Pelley’s mind akin to those of his spiritual revelations. At that moment he conceived the idea of the Silver Legion of America, later called the Silver Shirts and claimed that it was all part of his divine revelations.

Pelley (in dark coat) with a group of Silver Shirt fascists in Washington State

Pelley, now described as a short man with a magnetic personality, intense eyes, striking facial hair and a clipped Van Dyke goatee, spread the word travelling across the continent giving lectures and making speeches expounding his religious and political beliefs that borrowed from Pythagoras, the Manicheans, William James, the Rosicrucians, Pyramidology and Madame Blavatsky. His message was that a cataclysm was approaching, a notion that appealed to Christian fundamentalists, in which the Jews and Communism would ultimately be defeated in a final battle that would bring in a new Christian Commonwealth. His revelations, he said, were supported by secret prophesies foretold in the design of the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

Moving to Asheville, North Carolina in 1930, and, supported by a wealthy backer, he founded the Galahad Press but in April 1934 it filed for bankruptcy and Pelley was hauled up before a grand jury to face sixteen charges including selling stock in the press without first registering its sale with the state, advertising stock for sale with prior knowledge that the Galahad Press was insolvent and diverting $100,000 of its funds for his own personal use.

The Grand Jury found Pelley guilty and sentenced him to two years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine, suspended on condition of good behaviour. Pelley called it political persecution because of his ‘personal admiration for, and moral support of, that great and wise man who at the present writing dominates the German nation and had caused it to take the first great step towards the accomplishment of those aims that appeal to me strongly as a political philosopher.

Pelley had long been in the sights of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and, in 1939, they eventually issued a summons for him to appear before them. For three days he answered questions and made front page news in all the national newspapers. He was arrested in Connecticut on 4 April and charged with twelve counts of sedition by publishing material whose purpose was the ‘dissemination of false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies; and obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States by distributing certain publications to persons eligible for military service’. Dorothy Waring who had been infiltrated into the ‘Order of ‘76’ and later became Pelley’s personal secretary described to the committee how Pelley would carry two guns wherever he went, one on his hip and the other in a shoulder holster. Pelley would boast to her that the Silver Shirts would one day march on Washington and take over the government when he would be made dictator.

If events had turned out differently. If, for instance, Britain had been forced to come to terms with Germany after the debacle of Dunkirk and the Luftwaffe onslaught during the Summer of 1940 the political climate in the US, already isolationist, might well have evolved into one more amenable to cooperation with the Nazis rather than confrontation. If that had become the case, then Pelley’s links with Berlin would have been of much more importance. What might have flowed from that scenario is open to speculation.

Hitler’s U.S. Allies is available to order here.