The Right-Wing Mothers of Wartime America

By Jeansonne, Glen | History Today, December 1999 | Go to article overview

The Right-Wing Mothers of Wartime America

Jeansonne, Glen, History Today

Glen Jeansonne describes the anti-war, anti-liberal and antisemitic Mothers' Movement that attracted a mass following in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.

THE SECOND WORLD WAR broke out as Adolf Hitler's Panzers rolled into Poland on September 1st, 1939. In the United States there arose a mass movement of women outraged not by Hitler's atrocities, but by the inclination of the American government to aid those in peril. `What this country needs is an American revolution' declared Agnes Waters, one of their leaders. `A good old-fashioned revolution of mothers'.

A confederation of groups coalesced known as the Mothers' Movement. Most of the organisations had the word `mother' in their title: the National Legion of Mothers of America, the National Blue Star Mothers, We the Mothers Mobilize for America. Like contemporary far-right militants, the Mothers were true believers, neither dupes nor hypocrites. The Mothers combined maternal rhetoric and antisemitism, love of Jesus and hatred of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. They had substantial clout by virtue of their numbers and fanaticism: they claimed 10 million members at their peak and in reality had five or six million. Moreover, they were part of an even larger non-interventionist movement. They made common cause with men of the extreme right such as Father Charles Coughlin, the Roman Catholic Detroit `Radio Priest', notorious for his antisemitic, anti-Roosevelt ranting in a weekly radio programme that was syndicated across America. Gerald L.K. Smith; Col. Robert McCormick, the Anglophobe owner of the Chicago Tribune newspaper; isolationist senators Burton K. Wheeler, Gerald P. Nye, and Arthur H. Vandenberg, and Representatives Clare E. Hoffman and Hamilton Fish.

Upper-middle-class, college-educated, the Mothers were neither socially deprived nor impoverished. Rather, they were alienated and frightened, manipulated by demagogic leaders such as Agnes Waters, Elizabeth Dilling, and Lyrl Clark Van Hyning, who were more fanatical than the rank and file. The leaders were ambitious, angry, energised, and charismatic. They were motivated by super-patriotism, love for sons and husbands who might be called to war, and virulent hatred of Communists and Roosevelt as well as the Jews.

Nor were they neutral about Hitler: they applauded the Nazi leader as a barrier to Communism.

The motivations of the leaders overlapped but were not identical, and the leaders had distinctive personalities although commonalities existed in their worldview. It was a world filled with plots and conspiracies.

The viciously antisemitic Waters, for example, became convinced that FDR wanted to rule the world as a communist dictator in league with Jews. Possibly a Jew himself, Waters alleged, Roosevelt was duping America into fighting Germany, the only nation capable of defeating Communism. Waters testified before congressional committees to oppose repeal of the arms embargo, conscription, extension of the period of service of conscripts, Lend-Lease, the use of the Navy to convoy British vessels, and the admission of Jewish refugees to the United States.

Waters's invention of bizarre conspiracies confounds the aphorism that truth is stranger than fiction. Lacking a first-rate mind, she did possess a first-rate temper. Her speeches were volcanic eruptions overflowing with bigotry. Waters claimed that the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had invited Hitler to attack Britain so Chamberlain could raise taxes on the British.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, she alleged, who also needed an outside threat, had invited Hitler to attack the U.S.S.R. Further, Roosevelt and the Jews had conspired to restore the United States to the British Empire, merge it with the Soviet Union, eliminate Christianity, and create a world government ruled by Roosevelt and Hitler. Hitler would declare himself a Bolshevik at the end of the war. This ambitious scheme was plagiarised from the alleged Jewish masterminds who wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous antisemitic forgery. …

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