The Color of Fascism: Lawrence Dennis, Racial Passing, and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism in the United States, by Gerald Horne, New York University Press, 2007: 227 pp.
Few figures in the history of American political movements and ideologies are as mysterious as Lawrence Dennis. Seditionist, “fascist ideologue,” child preacher, ideological and racial changeling, Dennis’s career was not just variegated – it was surreal. He is mentioned, if at all, in histories of the 1930s and 40s as America’s foremost intellectual proponent of fascism, and this characterization has stuck to him like mud right up to the present day. This reputation is based entirely on two incidents in his career: the publication, in 1936, of a volume entitled The Coming American Fascism [.pdf], and his indictment, in 1944, for sedition, along with 30 other defendants, all of whom were accused in engaging in an “intellectual conspiracy” with the leaders of Nazi Germany to cause “insubordination in the armed forces,” as the indictment read.
Hauled into court by assistant United States attorney general O. John Rogge, who acted at FDR’s vehement insistence, the defendants in what has come to be known as the Great Sedition Trial of 1944 included Gerald L. K. Smith, the proto-Christian Rightist fundamentalist preacher, William Dudley Pelley, neo-pagan mystic and founder of the American Silver Shirts, and the voluble Elizabeth Dilling, author of The Red Network, plus an odd assortment of minor pamphleteers and miscellaneous cranks. No wonder that Dennis – who conducted his own defense rather brilliantly – made a motion at the beginning of the trial to have three of his co-defendants take sanity tests. One imagines that this was, for Dennis, the ultimate insult: the graduate of Exeter and Harvard, a former diplomat who turned against America’s dollar diplomacy, quit to work for one of the top New York banking firms, published in such respectable outlets as The New Republic and The Nation, put in the dock with a gaggle of harmless cranks.
His acerbic, unsentimental style, his pellucid analysis of the tumultuous era in which he lived—the 1930s and 40s when the capitalist system seemed to have been consumed by an inner flaw, some inherent condition that had finally exploded into financial catastrophe for much of the nation and the world – commanded attention from both the left and the right.
In those days of economic depression and political turmoil, every ideologue with a soapbox shouted from the nation’s street corners, calling for some version of “share the wealth,” some economic nostrum that would cure the nation of the dire affliction that had befallen it, and put us back on the right path: Technocracy, the Townsend Plan, the doctrines of Marx and Lenin, the Khaki Shirts, the Silver Shirts, and several other color-shirted movements besides; the Communists, the Socialists, the Trotskyists, and the European ultra-left “council communists” – all these competing panaceas jockeyed for intellectual and political prominence, and yet all agreed on a very important point: capitalism was doomed.
Each sect and vanguard party, either of the left or of the right, believed that they and they alone were on the side of History – and, more importantly, that History “unfolded” in a certain direction – away from capitalism, and toward some version of collectivism. The great debate, in those days, wasn’t over the virtues of the market versus the necessity of socialism. No one disputed the latter point: the only question was whether American socialism was going to be organic and nationalistic, as Dennis and some others advocated, or internationalist, i.e. centrally-directed from Moscow.
Dennis, like other writers on this subject, such as James Burnham, protested that he was an impartial observer, a recorder of objectively determined events, and that he was simply offering to ameliorate the inevitable tragedy of history as it unfolded. Capitalism was crumbling, the old society of relative freedom and prosperity was giving way to the new, rather threadbare centrally-planned and rationalized society to be administered by a self-conscious and revitalized elite. Industry had to be brought into line if it was to survive at all, the tendency of gigantism in the farm industry had to be arrested by radical measures, and American industry had to be protected by a high tariff wall. Without taking radical measures to stem the rising tide of unemployment, economic pressures would inevitably result in the outbreak of another world war. And this would surely lead to a far more repressive internal regime in the long run: we would fight National Socialism in the trenches, while a quite similar doctrine triumphed on the home front.
If the United States was going to go socialist, if collectivism was the wave of the future, then Dennis wanted to see that it would be less bloody, more localized, and not devoted to futile “crusades of righteousness” to stop the same redistributive processes from occurring abroad as were – inevitably, he thought—occurring in America.
While Dennis believed that force ruled the world, and that it was necessary for elites to assert their power utilizing the instrument of the State, he never endorsed the brutal methods of the European fascists, and never exhibited even a hint of anti-Semitism. There is no doubt that Smith, Pelley, Dilling, and some of the others had openly expressed admiration for Hitler, as well as hatred of Roosevelt and the Brits – although this hardly established the existence of a conspiracy directed by the German government to cause insubordination in the ranks of the army, as government prosecutors argued.
If you read accounts of the trial, however, and specifically A Trial on Trial, by Dennis and his lawyer, Maximilian St. George, which contains large hunks of the prosecutors’ arguments in court, it quickly becomes clear that the government didn’t make any real argument at all: what they did was read large portions of the defendants’ writings and other public statements into the record, and then cite similar quotations from the official German media, as well as statements made by Nazi officials. Noting the supposed similarities, prosecutors averred that this constituted an intellectual conspiracy that was, in effect, directed from Berlin. According to this unique legal theory, it wasn’t even necessary for the defendants to have either known or had any dealings with the others – it was only necessary to establish a certain congruence in a cherry-picked selection of quotations. The defendants were guilty of thoughtcrime.
The entire government case against Dennis rested on a grand total of seven citations of his work in the newspaper of the German American Bund. For this crime, it was claimed by the prosecution that Dennis deserved the title of “the Alfred Rosenberg of the American fifth column.”
The trial was the product of a literary campaign waged by the Communist party and its political and intellectual satellites to frame up the leaders of the isolationist movement as traitors. An entire genre of “The Nazi-fifth column in America” books and pamphlets streamed forth from the left-liberal and fellow-traveling press, “proving” that the America First Committee – the leading anti-interventionist organization, with some 800,000 members—and its allies had built a “transmission belt” for Nazi propaganda in America. The most successful and widely read of these polemics was John Roy Carlson’s Under Cover: My Four Years in the Nazi Underworld of America – The Amazing Revelation of How Axis Agents and Our Enemies Within Are Now Plotting to Destroy the United States , a first person account of the author’s experiences in infiltrating the isolationist-antiwar movement. (The sequel, The Plotters, appeared in 1946).
Under Cover is the classic case of smearing one’s opponents by creating an amalgam: the author “exposed” the antics of insignificant cranks, such as Pelley and the Bund, while grouping them together with the America First movement, Charles Lindbergh, John T. Flynn [.pdf], and antiwar members of Congress, such as Senator Burton K. Wheeler. On the subject of Dennis, Carlson – whose real name was Avedis Derounian, and whose Communist connections were not at all concealed – prefigured the prosecutors’ case. Under Cover depicted Dennis as the brains behind a burgeoning native fascist movement, whose alleged views – distorted beyond recognition—proved that “no breach exists between those who are dismissed as ‘crackpot’ and the Park Avenue grave-diggers of our Democracy.”
Carlson’s’s rhetoric and that of his fellow members of the “Smear Bund,” as John T Flynn called them, invariably dipped their poison pens in the tincture of class struggle. However, one line of attack, odd for a leftist, but allowable in the hate-filled atmosphere of the pre-war years, was the implication that Dennis, this supposed Goebbels of the American Nazis, was not of the Caucasian race. You could hear the snicker in Carlson’s prose as he described Dennis’s physical appearance:
“Born in Atlanta, “of a long line of American ancestors,’ Dennis’ hair is woolly, dark and kinky. The texture of his skin is unusually dark and the eyes of Hitler’s intellectual keynoter of ‘Aryanism’ are a rich deep brown, his lips fleshy.”
The Commies and other defenders-of-democracy weren’t above a little race-baiting if it served the interests of the War Party and Uncle Joe Stalin.
This question of Dennis’s race is raised anew by the first, and, as far as I know, the only book-length biography of this enigmatic and intensely private man; The Color of Fascism, by Gerald Horne, the subtitle of which states a theme repeated ad inifinitum and ad nauseum in the book: “Lawrence Dennis, Racial Passing and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism in the United States.”
This slim tome is hardly the biography Dennis deserves: indeed, it is hardly a biography at all, but a polemic that endlessly repeats itself—paragraph after turgid paragraph—to the effect that everything about Dennis – his ideology, his personality, his successful efforts to escape the circumstances of birth and rise to a position of some influence in “white society” – was due to his success in “passing” for Caucasian.
The essential—albeit unspoken—theme of Horne’s jargon-clotted prose is that Dennis was a race-traitor, a light-skinned racial mix who passed for white, and, instead of transcending the boundaries of race and prejudice, paid “obeisance” to the supremacy of “whiteness.” His cultivated accent, his high intellect, his elite connections, his economic position, all added up, in Horne’s book, to “ethnic impersonation.” His intellectuality, the cool assertiveness of his written works, and particularly his acceptance by the higher echelons of white society, all these were evidence of Dennis’s flight from authentic blackness.
Rarely has a biographer hated his subject as intensely as Professor Horne apparently does, although there is occasionally a grudging respect for Dennis’ sheer boldness in pulling off his role as a racially subversive mole in the citadel of pure “whiteness” – i.e., the Old Right movement, which, of course, Horne smears as “isolationist” and racist.
I frankly prefer the prose of Avedis Derounian – himself an ethnic (Armenian) asquerading as the WASPy-sounding “John Roy Carlson”—who, at least, spoke in the vernacular: Horne’s book spends so much time exploring the concept of “whiteness” and “passing,” and the latter’s supposed mystic significance in explaining everything about Dennis, that he neglects or passes over quickly the most interesting details of his subject’s fascinating life. Instead of delving into the manner in which, for one example, the young Dennis finagled his way into Exeter, we are regaled with long disquisitions on the theology of racial identity politics (left-wing version), such as:
“‘Isolationism’ is not an inappropriate characterization of Dennis’s ideology but this term also, ironically, points to his social position. For because of the desire to remain tight-lipped about his ancestry, he kept himself isolated socially ….”
A more nonsensical metaphor would be hard to come up with:
Like Carlson, however, Horne tries to confirm the prognosis of the Roosevelt Justice Department that Dennis was a paid German agent, basing his assertions on dubious sources, and ignoring Dennis’ denials both at the trial and in an interview conducted in 1967. Dennis, scolds Horne, “should have known” that the government would crack down on dissent – and that the warlords of Washington would feel particularly threatened by his racially-tinged taunts that the Axis powers were merely imitating Anglo-Franco-American colonialism. He “should have known” that “his incendiary rhetoric … would lead to his indictment.” Talk about blaming the victim!
Horne quotes from numerous FBI reports on the snooping activities of J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men, who interviewed Dennis’s neighbors, opened his mail, and kept track of his phone calls. Reports flowed in from “volunteer” informants that Dennis had “many mysterious visitors,” and that he made suspicious trips up and down the East coast, his gas tank “filled by Nazi sympathizers.” The FBI was also as obsessed as Horne with Dennis’s racial identity: a full-scale investigation of this question of his ancestry was launched. Apparently, Roosevelt’s political police were afraid that Dennis might make an appeal to African-Americans and other minorities who might have been skeptical of the Allies’ claim to be fighting Nazi racism while enforcing their own rigidly hierarchical view of race relations on the segregated home front. The hypocrisy was on a scale large enough to drive a tank through, and the authorities knew it: they were terrified not only of their vulnerability on this question, but of Dennis’s persuasive powers, which were considerable.
Although he had never advocated insurrection, and kept himself apart from the “nationalist” herd that populated the outer fringes of the antiwar America First movement, he was considered dangerous enough by J. Edgar Hoover that the FBI director – who was “passing” himself, albeit in another sense – recommended that Dennis be held in preventative detention in the event of war. When he went to visit a doctor for carbuncles, the FBI wanted to know if he paid by check or in cash.
As the war hysteria grew more militant – with the far Left in the vanguard of the War Party – the Carlson book brought Dennis to the attention of the general public and the authorities. Carlson, interviewed by Bennett Cerf on radio station WXQR in New York, characterized Dennis as “one of the most sinister men of our wartime unity,” and wondered why he was “still at liberty.” Although Dennis had said nothing incriminating when the professional sneak Carlson – masquerading as an ideological soul-mate – met with him. and had, in fact, denounced both the racialism of the Nazi regime and anti-Semitism in particular, Carlson averred that his one encounter with Dennis had been “my most sensational interview during my four years of investigating.” Appropriately enough, Cerf’s program was called “Books Are Bullets” – and this particular projectile was aimed right between Dennis’s “rich deep brown” eyes.
Dennis was called in by the FBI for an interview, and grilled on every aspect of his beliefs, his political activities, his speeches and publishing activities, and most of all his finances. No evidence of funding by the German consulate was uncovered by Hoover’s boys, although a suspicious arrangement with the Readers Digest, that subversive Iskra of the isolationists, was duly noted.
Having generated 25,000 pages of transcript in eight months, the Great Sedition Trial came to an abrupt halt when the judge, a Roosevelt-appointed political hack, died (perhaps of boredom, as prosecutor John O Rogge droned on endlessly, trying to prove his “intellectual conspiracy” thesis was anything other than a rationalization for a witch-hunt). Long before this rude interruption, however, the trial had effectively ground to a halt, in part due to the thousands of exhibits and dozens of witnesses assembled by the prosecution, as well as the antics of the defense lawyers – with each defendant having his or her own, this amounted to a crowd scene that at times resembled a circus of surrealistic design.
The media had started out as the Justice Department’s enthusiastic cheerleaders, headlining the opening of the proceedings as the start of a domestic offensive against a subversive and dangerous “fifth column,” but soon lost interest as the flimsiness of the government’s case – underscored by Dennis, whose ringing courtroom speeches, comparing prosecutor Rogge to Andrey Vyshinsky, the chief inquisitor in the Moscow purge trials, evoked cheers in the assembled defendants. By the time the judge croaked, the trial had long since become a running – if tiresome – joke, and an embarrassment to those pro-war liberals who piously assured the American people that we were fighting for the righteous cause of liberty and democracy against the Nazi-totalitarian hordes.
Although there were several abortive attempts to revive the trial, there was no breathing life into an already dead cause: as much as our totalitarian liberals wanted to use the occasion of the “Brown scare” to jail their right-wing opponents, by 1944, when the trial ground to a halt, there was little interest in the case: the public wasn’t as enthusiastic about the settling of old scores as Walter Winchell, Max Lerner, and the no-longer-fashionable Communist Party, which was already itself the subject of official and unofficial scrutiny. The Brown Scare, hailed and in large part created by Stalin’s American henchmen, was soon to take on a distinctly reddish hue, as Carlson-ism gave way to McCarthyism.
Financially ruined, and professionally stigmatized by the sedition trial, Dennis retired to his Cape Cod farmhouse, and bitterly lamented the rise of a new international crusade that draped the age-old policy of imperial expansionism in the bright new garb of liberal internationalism. Both liberals and conservatives were enamored of the prospect that we should become the inheritors of the British empire, and take up the white man’s burden. Stalin, formerly known as “Uncle Joe,” would take Hitler’s place in the pantheon of Western villains, and the Communist Party would stand in the same dock where once the alleged “seditionists” of 1944 stood.
During the run-up to Pearl Harbor, Dennis had regularly published The Weekly Foreign Letter, which the authorities had found so provocative as to qualify it as seditious, and he continued his newsletter under the title Appeal to Reason, issuing regular epistles to a small-but-elite readership from his Cape Code haven. Dissenting from the conservative-Truman Democrat cold war consensus, and disdaining the militant anti-communism of his former comrades on the Right, he was to be found declaring in 1946: “I could today write ‘The Coming American Communism’ exactly as I wrote ‘The Coming American Fascism.’” His critique of the cold war was similar to the Old Right’s stance on the war with Germany, Japan, and Italy: in the process of “winning,” we would lose the real fight to retain our American heritage and preserve our old republic.
Dennis was never a fascist, but merely a chronicler of events he viewed with the impartial curiosity of a scientist examining a specimen under a microscope. In the postwar era, however, his understanding of economics improved, and, as Ronald Radosh pointed out in his classic study Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of Globalism,
“Dennis no longer considered himself an exponent of fascism. He had returned to a classical laissez-faire economic theory of a premonopolistic age. He saw himself as an old-fashioned capitalist, a follower of the free market, an exponent of the capitalism of ‘the dissenters, the rebel and the nonconformists whose main motivations were not profit or money-making, but either religious or intellectual self-expression, freedom and independence.”
The sophisticated Dennis, who had actually worked in the world of investment banking, and had a clear power elite analysis of how the world works, had no illusions about the nature, loyalties, and methods of American big businessmen: they been in favor of the New Deal, and, he realized, weren’t heroic figures out of Ayn Rand’s imagination, but “the entering wedge for the socialist or statist bureaucracy.”
America, Dennis declared, had become a modern Sparta: a socialist, militarist state. As the “defense” budget skyrocketed, and the cold war heated up, Dennis saw the US morphing into an Americanized version of national socialism: “The most socialist institution of the State in America today is that of the armed forces: the free market or freedom of contract is out. The members of the armed forces, their dependents and their widows and orphans must be virtual wards of a paternal state.” The military build-up and the militantly interventionist foreign policy that fueled it was “the most obvious and practical way imaginable to convert America to a totalitarian socialist basis.” Dennis wryly observed that conservatives joined liberals in endorsing Winston Churchill’s call for a new crusade to pierce the “iron curtain” – an edifice whose original architects, after all, were Stalin and Roosevelt, acting in concert. Such a grand scale undertaking, he noted, would do more to socialize America than decades of leftist propaganda.
Professor Horne ignores this ideological evolution, and says nothing further about Dennis’s economic views. Instead, he carries on with his amateur psychologizing , and we are treated to endless harping on the “ethnic impersonation” theme, which supposedly dominated Dennis’s personality and determined his politics: the Cold War years “were not good to Lawrence Dennis,” opines Professor Horne, not because he was broke, not because he had been the victim of a vicious smear campaign and had his name dragged through the mud by leftist blabbermouths like Walter Winchell— who pursued him long after the trial had faded from the headlines – but because “his white identity had been too deeply encrusted for him to retreat from it and take advantage of the newly emerging racial enlightenment.” Oddly, Horne attributes this Great Enlightenment to “the competition with the then Soviet Union,” which supposedly “pushed this nation toward a retreat from the more egregious aspects of Jim Crow.” Is this why Hoover’s political police tracked the civil rights movement of the 1960s nearly as closely as Bush’s spies conduct surveillance on today’s antiwar movement?
The alleged seditionist and intellectual provocateur, whose X-ray vision pierced the veil of illusion and self-delusion that obscured the real sources of militarism and a foreign policy based on waging perpetual war, carried on, in spite of everything. He was the most consistent of the old “isolationists,” opposing the Marshall Plan as a corporate subsidy on a gigantic scale, and denouncing NATO as an alliance with the discredited European empires of Western Europe. In Asia, too, the tripwires of another world conflict were being set. Would American soldiers wind up dying to stop the Chinese reds from taking Hong Kong? Unlike Henry Wallace and the supposedly pro-Communist Progressive Party, Dennis opposed the Korean war, which he saw as a civil war in which we had no business meddling. He accurately predicted that it would turn out to be unwinnable, ending in stalemate at best. The best policy would be to unilaterally withdraw all our troops from the Korean peninsula — and this at a time when the editors of the left-liberal New Republic could taunt the Chicago Tribune of the anti-interventionist Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick with the charge of being in bed with Joe Stalin. Dennis was nothing if not brave.
As Dennis argued during his later years, American intervention in what was then called the Third World would merely fuel the fires of nationalism, particularly in Asia. While others on the Right were loudly demanding to know “Who lost China?” Dennis was practically alone in wondering aloud what we thought we were doing messing around with the Kuomintang and meddling in a civil war in favor of what was bound to be the losing side? The followers of Chairman Mao, upon their ascension to power, were bound to be anti-Russian, and his prescience in this matter is just one example of a remarkable ability to stand back from the immediate and see the pattern of long-term trends.
The somewhat tone deaf Professor Horne is seemingly deaf to the clear implications of his own prose, when he writes of Dennis’s opposition to interventionism in the prewar years:
“To New Dealers and their allies, much of this was not just a simple political disagreement. No, as far as they were concerned, Dennis was engaging in mischievous defeatism, bordering on treason and moral bankruptcy. While FDR was seeking to mobilize the nation against the Nazi hordes, Dennis – as they saw it – was playing into Berlin’s hands: Was this an accident? Asking the age-old question of ‘who benefits,’ New Dealers concluded easily that only the Axis would profit if Dennis’s ideas gained in popularity. Did not this dangerous man belong behind bars?”
While the good Professor is no doubt aware of the ominous parallels with our own time, he does not see fit to mention it, so fixated is he on other, far less interesting aspects of a fascinating, complex man.
Horne can’t forgive Dennis the alleged sin of “ethnic impersonation.” One wonders if the learned Professor thinks Barack Obama is black enough—or is he, too, a “closet case,” as Horne indelicately described Dennis and his condition of acquired “whiteness”?
Hounded by the government, mercilessly smeared by the War Party, and now trivialized into an ethnic changeling in flight from his “true” racial identity, one has to ask: is Lawrence Dennis to be spared nothing?
Dennis deserves better, and certainly he merits a much better book-length biography than he has so far received. Horne’s ignorance of the Old Right, within which Dennis was a respected and highly idiosyncratic figure, is the second most annoying aspect of his book. Blithely asserting that the America First Committee was “putatively pro-fascist” because, after all, it opposed US entry into the war, does not inspire much confidence in the author’s knowledge—either of America First, or the history of the era. Horne neither knows nor cares about the history of the Old Right, and fills in the gaps with leftist canards that seem to have originated in the feverish imagination of the propagandist Carlson, and his fellow conspiracy theorists, who agitated for the sedition trial – and would have indicted America First, if they’d had their way.
(By the way, the first prosecutor on the sedition case, William Power Maloney, was taken off the case when he prepared indictments that targeted America First, Lindbergh, and several antiwar members of Congress, as well as a wide range of conservative organizations whose stance was deemed “treasonous” by the New Dealers in the Justice Department.)
Dennis was a prophet without much honor in his own time. His influence was often indirect, and, in any case, was exercised behind the scenes, such as his colloquy with Lindbergh, for whom he reportedly wrote some speeches. The subscriber list of The Weekly Foreign Letter, and, later, the Appeal to Reason, was a veritable who’s who of the American right during the 1940s and 50s. His later evolution into a libertarian whose foreign policy of no entangling alliances, and a foreign policy that puts America first, while disdaining a globalist vision of empire, foreshadowed the development of a significant anti-interventionist movement on the right. This new trend is exemplified today by the rise of Ron Paul as the alternative to the neoconservative zealots who are currently driving our military and our national interests off a Middle Eastern cliff.
As a prophetic voice, Dennis has rarely been listened to, and, when heard, his words have often been misinterpreted and deliberately distorted. Rescuing him from the dark recesses of libraries and the dusty pages of long-unread tracts unearths some hidden treasures that dazzle us with their brilliance and light the way forward.