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Father Charles E Coughlin

Event of America-first committee against-war-1941- Father Charles E. Coughlin
Event of America-first committee against-war-1941. Source: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

The role of the America First Movement in the years leading up to WW2 does not often get much attention. Still, it was characterised by virulent antisemitism and active collaboration with Hitler’s Germany, including serious armed attempts to overthrow the Roosevelt government.

Father Charles E. Coughlin was a prominent figure in the America First Movement in the US in the 1930s. He was a Catholic priest who got involved in politics in the Detroit metropolitan region. Charles E. Coughlin was a right-wing extremist. He formed the social base of the radical right movements in Detroit. Coughlin oversaw radio broadcasts that attracted tens of millions of listeners, foreshadowing modern talk radio and televangelism. He televised religious services that had anti-Semitic connotations. Additionally, he expressed pro-Nazi views, which in 1942 attracted the attention of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

On October 25, 1891, Charles Coughlin was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. In 1911, Coughlin received his degree from the University of Toronto. In Toronto, he later enrolled in St. Basil’s Seminary. In 1916, he received his Catholic priestly ordination.

Father Charles E. Coughlin speaks at a political rally in Cleveland, Ohio, in May 1936. Source: Bettmann/Getty Images.
Father Charles E. Coughlin speaks at a political rally in Cleveland, Ohio, in May 1936. Source: Bettmann/Getty Images.

Father Charles’s Rise in Prominence

Charles Coughlin’s radio programme, The Golden Hour of the Little Flower, acquired a large following across the country, even among non-Catholics, because of his baritone voice and capacity to distil complex subjects into what he called “the language of the man-in-the-street.” He referred to his audience as his “radio congregation” and titled the programme The Shrine of the Little Flower after his place of worship.

Coughlin's church, the National Shrine of the Little Flower
Coughlin’s church, the National Shrine of the Little Flower

Coughlin, initially born in Canada, became a citizen of the US while living in Detroit and was a passionate and early admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Coughlin thought that only Roosevelt could save the country from the Great Depression and defend it against the alleged communist menace. Coughlin encouraged his supporters to support Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential elections by airing messages on his radio show, “The Hour of Power”.

In opposition to many of the administration’s programmes and irritated by what he saw as Roosevelt’s lack of appreciation, Coughlin gradually started organising his millions of listeners against the New Deal.

He established the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ), a political organisation with local branches across the nation, in November 1934. He started producing a weekly magazine called Social Justice more than a year later, in March 1936, to propagate his isolationism, anti-Communism, and antisemitism.

In this September 1940 issue of Social Justice, Coughlin called the passing of a peacetime draft bill a “new step to dictatorship.” US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In this September 1940 issue of Social Justice, Coughlin called the passing of a peacetime draft bill a “new step to dictatorship.” US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Father Coughlin enthusiastically supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt throughout the 1932 election season. Coughlin did not, however, gain the political influence or access he had hoped for once Roosevelt won the presidency. Years later, Coughlin claimed, “He [Roosevelt] said that he would rely on me. That I would be an important adviser. But he was a liar. He never took my advice. He just used me.”


Coughlin blamed Jews for the rise and spread of communism, an ideology he despised. He also regularly employed literary and religious themes to promote antisemitic prejudices. Coughlin said on November 30, 1930, that “modern Shylocks [an antisemitic epithet taken from a character in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice] have become fat and wealthy, praised and deified, because they have continued the ancient crime of usury under a modern guise of statesmanship.” Throughout his career, he claimed that Jews ran the economy, screaming against “international bankers” and “money changers” around the world.

Coughlin published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—an antisemitic pamphlet reportedly offering evidence of an international Jewish conspiracy to conquer the world—in many issues of Social Justice in 1938, even though it had already been proven to be a fabrication.

A public outcry occurred, but Coughlin defended his stance in an editorial: “When we resume printing the Protocols, we are not attributing them to the Jews. We are merely insisting on their veracity, whether they are plagiarised or not, whether they are satires—or not.”

Coughlin defended the Nazi atrocities as justified during his radio show on November 20, 1938, while reports of the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany were still on the front pages of many American newspapers. In the days and weeks following Kristallnacht, Coughlin defended the Nazi regime’s state-sponsored violence, claiming that Kristallnacht was justifiable as punishment for the Jewish persecution of Christians. On November 20, 1938, he told his listeners that the “communistic government of Russia,” “the Lenins and Trotskys,atheistic Jews and Gentiles” had murdered more than 20 million Christians and had stolen “40 billion [dollars]…of Christian property.” Following this transmission, some radio stations refused to air his programme unless pre-approved scripts were provided. A few New York radio stations cancelled his shows.

Coughlin listed supposed communist leaders, claiming that the vast majority were “atheistic Jews.” As a result, he contended, “Naziism, the effect of Communism, cannot be liquidated in its persecution complex until religious Jews in high places—in synagogue, finance, radio, and press—attack the cause, attack forthright the errors and spread of Communism, together with their co-nationalists who support it.”

Coughlin’s anti-Semitic statement was so divisive that a New York radio affiliate declined to broadcast his next show, a decision that a Berlin newspaper condemned under the banner “America is Not Allowed to Hear the Truth.” Yet, despite his now-explicit Nazi sympathies, Coughlin remained on the air in most of his markets and had a substantial following.

After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Coughlin urged his followers to resist any relaxation of immigration limits and any American involvement in the war, which he predicted would culminate in Hitler’s victory. In addition, Coughlin used fascist propaganda in his lectures and publications. In one Social Justice paper, he even stole entire lines from German Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.


From the start of his career, Coughlin was an isolationist. During WWII, he accused Jews of stirring European strife. He was vehemently opposed to any foreign action by the US government. Following the Japanese navy and air force striking Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Coughlin condemned America’s participation in World War II. He argued that Jews organised the war for profit and plotted to include the US.

This last message proved to be his undoing. The US government had pursued Coughlin well before Pearl Harbor. The US State Department declined Coughlin’s passport application in September 1941. The reason stated for the refusal was “reported pro-Nazi.”

Coughlin’s comments following Pearl Harbor and the shifting public mood for wartime entry provided the administration with an opportunity to limit his political activity. FBI agents stormed Coughlin’s church in 1942 and confiscated all parish records and personal files. During the investigation, US Attorney General Francis Biddle said that Coughlin’s periodical, Social Justice, had duplicated “the lines of enemy propaganda warfare being waged against this country from abroad” in the United States.

US authorities allowed Coughlin to carry on with publishing his magazine. However, he was restrained from using the US Postal Service to circulate it.

 On May 1, 1942, Archbishop E. Mooney, the leader of the Catholic Church in Detroit, commanded Coughlin to stop all non-pastoral activities for fear of being defrocked.


As Coughlin became even more unmistakably xenophobic and noninterventionist, his fame fell. Nonetheless, two or three million Americans were consistently tuning his radio address every week and reading Social Justice. Moreover, his allies became progressively striking in their discrimination against Jews.

However, the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Detroit requested Coughlin to stop all non-peaceful exercises or hazards from being banished.

Father Coughlin remained the area cleric at the Holy place of the Little Blossom until his retirement in 1966. He died in October 1979 of illness.


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