Nordic America Aggrieved

The Klan claimed "to speak for the great mass of Americans of old pioneer stock." Their ancestors, "hardy, adventurous and strong men and women," won a continent and created the American nation. Their "remarkable race character," passed on to their descendants, "made the inheritance of the old-stock Americans the richest ever given to a generation of men." In spite of this, "these Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed." What had gone wrong? Evans' initial formulation in "The Klan's Fight for Americanism" was intentionally vague:

There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping and hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years. There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing. Presently we began to find that we were dealing with strange ideas; policies that always sounded well, but somehow always made us still more uncomfortable.

Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades. One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding. The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.

Historians have difficulty taking such laments seriously save when made by fellow intellectuals, such as Joseph Wood Krutch. His The Modern Temper (1929) painted a similar picture of the loss of "clear, straightforward" purpose, of "futility" in religion, of the collapse of traditional morals. Krutch, the sort of "deracinated" intellectual Evans and the Klan scorned, had no solution, other than resignation, to offer. Evans and the Klan did.

For Krutch, the loss of purpose arose inexorably out of scientific research. Darwinism was a triumph of the random, a compelling argument against the belief that a beneficient Deity ruled over all. "Futility" in religion grew out of this and also out of historical and anthropological research. The more scholars knew about the origins of the Bible, the more they compared religious and mythological systems from around the world, the more difficult it became to hold to the faith of one's fathers. So too with the collapse of traditional morals. They had rested upon a biblical foundation, as interpreted by middle-class Victorians. With the Bible in doubt, with Victorian an epithet, and with middle-class verities shattered by the war, a new generation set out to find new rules. Krutch could, and did, bemoan these developments. He even speculated that "more primitive" societies, ones not so "palsied over with doubt," would likely come to the fore. He too, that is, saw a loss of American vitality in these developments.

Krutch cared deeply about ideas. Darwinism might undercut one's belief in a "clear and straightforward" purpose in human life, but that did not change its scientific validity. The "higher criticism" in Biblical Studies might challenge one's faith, but one could not ignore the evidence. Nor could one categorically deny the right of a new generation, dismayed by the carnage of WWI and its aftermath, to question received wisdom. Hence the pessimism of The Modern Temper.

For Evans, as we have seen, convictions trumphed ideas. Truth lay not in science, much less in historical investigations. It lay in "race instincts." What Nordic Americans felt, however inarticulately, was true precisely because they felt it. There was an kind of eugenics of ideas. Nordic Americans have learned, he wrote:

. . . that alien ideas are just as dangerous to us as the aliens themselves, no matter how plausible such ideas may sound. With most of the plain people this conclusion is simply based on the fact that the alien ideas do not work well for them. Others went deeper and [have] come to understand that the differences in racial background, in breeding, instinct, character and emotional point of view are more important than logic. So ideas which may be perfectly healthy for an alien may also be poisonous for Americans.

Similarly, although immigrants might use the same words as patriotic Nordic Americans, they could rarely, if ever, achieve genuine Americanism. "Americanism, to the Klansman, is a thing of the spirit, a purpose and a point of view, that can only come through instinctive racial understanding." Most "aliens" do not "understand those principles, even when they use our words in talking about them." On the other hand, Nordic Americans, even when unable to express their beliefs, still embodied the purest Americanism.

Not only was there a spiritual crisis, according to Evans, there was an economic one as well. "We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us." "We" could no longer guarantee our children's futures. Hence the declining birth rate of Nordic Americans. Who were these "strangers"? Evans did not specify. Readers of Henry Ford's The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem presumably filled in the blank for themselves.

Related was the claim that "they" dominated American politics. This was due to the bloc system of voting:

Every kind of inhabitant except the Americans gathered in groups which operated as units in politics, under the orders of corrupt, self-seeking and un-American leaders, who both by purchase and threat enforced their demands on politicians.

The most important instance of this was the opposition to McAdoo in the 1924 Democratic National Convention which Evans decried as a Catholic plot to take over the Democratic Party, one barely foiled by the Klan. As a consequence of these usurpations, "the Nordic American today is a stranger in large parts of the land his father gave him."

As a simple statement of fact, this was wildly incorrect. But it was true, as Klan recruiters kept reminding potential members, that Irish Catholics and others who were not "real" Americans dominated city government in Boston, New York, and other major cities. Irish Catholic women dominated the ranks of school teachers, their brothers the ranks of the police. Little wonder, Klan spokesmen charged, that Catholics had enjoyed such success keeping Bible reading out of the schools or that bootleggers openly flouted the Volstead Act.

Who were "they"? Who had stolen the Nordic Americans' patrimony? First and foremost, "they" were Catholics. The "Roman Church" is "fundamentally and irredeemably, in its leadership, in politics, in thought, and largely in membership, actually and actively alien, un-American and usually anti-American." "Old stock Americans . . . see in the Roman Church today the chief leader of alienism, and the most dangerous alien power with a foothold inside our boundaries," Evans wrote. [Click on handbill to view its complete text.]

This, like the Klan's appropriation of eugenics, sounded a theme broadly heard in American public life. William Robinson Pattangall, defeated Democratic candidate for governor of Maine in 1924, ran on a platform sharply critical of the Klan. He later admitted that he had seriously underestimated the salience of anti-Catholicism. "I did not even know it [hatred from "the long-dead days of the religious wars"] existed, did not realize at all how persistent such a hatred could be when there was nothing to excite it" except "the Klan's brilliant incendiarism." Yet Pattangall himself stated in a 1925 article in The Forum that the Klan's "complaints made against the Catholics and foreign-born are very largely true." More specifically:

The most valid of all the charges the Klan brings against the Roman hierarchy is that secretly it does not accept the American principle of the separation of church and state, but furtively goes into politics as a church and attempts to use its spiritual hold on its members as a means for political control.

The Forum had, in its preceeding issue, August 1924, sponsored an "impartial discussion of the Americanism of the Roman Catholic Church" and its reporter who most frequently wrote critically about the KKK, Stanley Frost, warned in the June 1928 issue that Al Smith's "inevitable" defeat, should he gain the nomination, would likely lead to the creation of a "Catholic Party" modelled on those of Europe. Similar discussions of the "Catholic influence" upon American politics filled the newspapers and magazines of the 1920s.

When not Catholic, "they" were often Jews. Interestingly, Evans steered clear of some anti-Semitic stereotypes. In 1923, when warning of "The Menace of Modern Immigration" at the Texas State Fair (on Klan Day), he conceded that Jews were a talented people who obeyed "eugenic" laws. They could not become real Americans, however, because centuries of persecution had engrained in them a congenital inability to feel patriotism. No Jew, no matter if he and his descendants lived in the U.S. for a thousand years, could experience the sentiments of love for his new country an immigrant from Britain might feel within a year. By 1926, in his North American Review essay, Evans conceded that some Jews might indeed become true Americans. The Jew's

abilities are great, he contributes much to any country where he lives. This is particularly true of the Western Jew, those of the stocks we have known so long. Their separation from us is more religious than racial. When freed from persecution these Jews have shown a tendency to disintegrate and amalgamate. We may hope that shortly, in the free atmosphere of America, Jews of this class will cease to be a problem.

Not so with "the Eastern European Jews of recent immigration." They were not "true Jews." Anthropologists "now tell us that these are . . . only Judaized Mongols — Chazers." Unlike the "true Hebrew," there was little hope that such people could assimilate. Evans' anti-Semitism was mild compared to that voiced by Henry Ford who turned his Dearborn Independent into an organ for the most vicious and irresponsible accusations. It was Ford who popularized the spurious Protocols of the Elders of Zion by using it as the basis for The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. Published first as articles in the Dearborn Independent and then in four volumes, The International Jew attributed all of the nation's ills and every feature of modern life of which Ford personally disapproved to a Jewish conspiracy. [It is widely available on the internet, as with the link above, courtesy of present-day anti-Semitic and white supremacist organizations.]

"They" were also all "low standard" immigrants, irrespective of religion. This was an old argument by the time Evans made it. Its first exponent was Francis Amasa Walker, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the Bureau of the Census, in the 1880s. He traced the declining birthrate of "old stock" Americans to the increase in immigration. Immigrants, he argued, undersold American labor. Desiring to protect his "American" standard of living, the "old stock" American had fewer children. Walker's argument was at the core of the fear of "race suicide" expressed by Madison Grant and others in the 1910s and 1920s and at the core of the eugenics movement. In Evans' version of it, which was perfectly orthodox, the Nordic American could "outwork" any other race but he could not overcome the alien's ability to "underlive" him. Evans quoted Madison Grant to the effect that "the mere force of breeding" of these "low standard peoples" would inevitably displace the Nordic. This led Evans to an apocalyptic prediction:

We can neither expel, exterminate nor enslave these low-standard aliens, yet their continued presence on the present basis means our doom. Those who know the American character know that if the problem is not soon solved by wisdom, it will be solved by one of those cataclysmic outbursts which have so often disgraced — and saved! — the race.

In the final analysis, "they" proved to be anyone whose view of America did not correspond to the "racial instincts" of the Nordic American as expressed by the Klan. "They" even included some Nordic Americans, those whose "liberalism" deviated from the Klan's own "progressive conservativism."

As Paxton pointed out, none of these propositions were original to the fascist agitators of the interwar period. They were literally "in the air," as their appearance throughout the developed world demonstrates quite clearly. So, even as Evans claimed to be seeking to articulate the "half conscious impulses" of the Klan's membership, he was sounding changes on very familiar themes. Why, we need to ask, did these changes on these themes resonate so clearly and so loudly for so many? Why, that is, were so many "Nordic Americans" so aggrieved?

MacLean puts considerable stress upon the economic upheavals occasioned by the war and the postwar recession. Wartime inflation had eaten away at the purchasing power of the average consumer. Then the sharp downturn in the economy during 1919-1920 had made a bad situation worse. Yet, the Klan grew most rapidly during the early years of the 1920s boom, in 1923 and 1924. This does not mean that economic stress was not a factor, merely that it cannot by itself explain the growth of the Klan.

Paxton, looking at European fascisms, emphasizes the fear of a left-wing revolution. Certainly the United States experienced such a fear, the Red Scare that accompanied the postwar wave of strikes and of bombings. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer warned of potential Bolshevik plots to overthrow the government. In a 1920 article in The Forum magazine, he wrote:

My information showed that communism in this country was an organization of thousands of aliens who were direct allies of Trotzky. Aliens of the same misshapen caste of mind and indecencies of character, and it showed that they were making the same glittering promises of lawlessness, of criminal autocracy to Americans, that they had made to the Russian peasants. How the Department of Justice discovered upwards of 60,000 of these organized agitators of the Trotzky doctrine in the United States is the confidential information upon which the Government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth. . . .

The Justice Department staged a nationwide series of raids on December 31, 1919 and arrested thousands of supposed revolutionaries. Most turned out to be innocent of anything worse than having a last name which suggested foreign birth. But Palmer did succeed in convincing many that a Bolshevik uprising was imminent. In this he had much help. Newspapers reported rumors as fact and editorialized stridently against "Reds" and "anarchists." Mayor Ole Hanson of Seattle annointed himself that city's savior when a five-day general strike ended, a strike he claimed was an initial step on the road to revolution. The leadership of William Z. Foster in the great Steel Strike of 1919 further impressed the image of Bolshevik-led revolution on the popular imagination.

Yet, through all of this, the Klan did not grow. The American Legion did. Legion members played active roles in breaking strikes in 1919-20; the Klan did not. It was after the left had been effectively demolished that the "Invisible Empire" came into its own. Again, this is not to suggest that Paxton is mistaken. He wishes to explain why some fascist movements succeeded in gaining power, something the KKK never even approached doing.

Paxton's analysis of European fascisms raises a related, and very important, question. Fascist movements in Europe fed off the perceived weakness of established conservative parties. Where those parties were strong, as in Great Britain, fascist movements did not attrack mass followings. In the United States, however, the Klan grew prodigiously despite the demonstrated ability of the Republican Party to govern according to a conservative agenda. This perceived strength of the Republicans, as I noted above, undoubtedly played a major role in preventing the Klan from establishing itself as a permanent part of the party system. But it does not appear to have inhibited its growth.

Slavs, Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians were not wanted by the  KKK.  Their whiteness was suspect and inferior to Nordic whites.  Their Catholic and Orthodox faiths were incompatible with Protestant religions and the great fear was that the Pope would be the object of loyalty for Catholics, not the USA.  [/font]