The Absent Presence: Enduring Images of Jews in United States Military History

By Bendersky, Joseph W. | American Jewish History, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Absent Presence: Enduring Images of Jews in United States Military History


Bendersky, Joseph W., American Jewish History


In the December 1920 issue of The Menorah Journal, Nathan Isaacs launched a trenchant refutation of the image of the perilous and pernicious "International Jew" then circulating widely across America. Although this image had been gradually emerging since the end of World War I, the idea of international Jews fomenting insurrection, upheaval, and revolution received a tremendous publicity boost in 1920 with the appearance of Boris Brasol's Protocols and World Revolution and Henry Ford's International Jew--The World's Foremost Problem. Isaacs, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, also identified himself as a former captain in the Military Intelligence Division (MID) of the U.S. Army. Isaacs' credentials as an officer recently engaged in secret intelligence work inside the General Staff in Washington, D. C., was important for the veracity and authoritativeness of his key arguments, for the promoters of the Protocols and the notion of the "International Jew" claimed to have found a receptive audience within "the secret departments" of the U.S. Government. (1)

Isaacs implied intimate knowledge of such internal government affairs. Throughout late 1918 and 1919 he had tried to counteract reports about Jewish conspiracies that MID received from secret agents at home and abroad. Among these were as yet unpublished versions of the Protocols and Brasol's "Judaism and Bolshevism," an alarmist document claiming Bolshevism was a worldwide conspiracy of Jews. Isaacs apparently left MID confident that he had clearly discredited such bogus antisemitic intelligence within that organization. The support of certain fellow intelligence officers reinforced Isaacs' false sense of accomplishment and security. Captains Edwin P. Grosvenor and Carlton J. H. Hayes, noncareer officers serving in MID during the war, had joined Isaacs in condemning such reports not only as worthless antisemitic tirades but emanating from "a fanatical if not disordered brain." (2) Like Hayes, the well-known progressive historian from Columbia University, Isaacs held a tremendous faith in the progressive, democratic traditions, people, and institutions of the United States. Both men believed that American governmental institutions staffed by rational, well-educated individuals would surely be resistant to infection by such vicious conspiratorial antisemitism imported from Europe. Certainly, one would expect no less from the military institution in which they served.

Thus Isaacs could assure Jewish readers that "all this agitation by imported Russian methods" of the antisemitic Russian emigre Brasol had definitely failed to penetrate the institutions of government. Isaacs' dismissal of any prospects that these "European propagandists" might meet with success bordered on ridicule. The entire campaign was a "Search for a Fool," and Americans were not "fools." Moreover, the American government did not have any "secret departments" comparable to those in the ubiquitous Czarist state. "We have no secret police spying on the civilian population." Even the offices of Military and Naval Intelligence "were concerned solely with such intelligence as had to do with the military and naval efficiency of the United States." Isaacs conceded that perhaps, now and then, propaganda like the Protocols did penetrate such institutions and poison the mind of the occasional "clerk." But the worst consequences he envisioned would be "an injustice done to this or that Jew by withholding a promotion, a passport, an appointment." The overall campaign was doomed to failure because "men trained in the common law system of testing allegations and administering justice" would surely ignore such conspiratorial nonsense. (3)

In reality, it was Isaacs who worked under a serious misapprehension. He clearly had a much higher opinion of army officers than the officers had of Jews. Though he perceived himself to be an insider, many of them considered him, as well as other Jews, as so existentially different that they would never earn the confidence or acceptance of the inner circle reserved for true Americans.

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