Lawrence Dennis was an outsider in a movement of outsiders, a unique and largely solitary figure whose career as a writer—and notorious “seditionist”—embodies the tragedy and bravery of the Old Right, the pre-World War II “America first” generation of conservative intellectuals and activists. In many important ways, Dennis is the prototype of modern “paleo conservatives.” His career as a controversialist and the leading American nationalist intellectual of his time charts the rise and fall of the Old Right—and, perhaps, holds a lesson for us today.
Born in Atlanta in 1893, Dennis had what historian Justus Doenecke describes as “a varied career,” which included a stint as a “boy evangelist.” In 1901, after the death of his father, the eight-year-old Dennis traveled to Europe with his mother, where he became conversant in French and German. After four years, he returned to America, a young cosmopolitan. His mother envisioned him in the pulpit, but Dennis was meant for other things. He applied to Exeter, an incubator of the elite, and was accepted. “Before that,” he recalled, “I had never been to college; I had never been to school.” He had no formal schooling, “although I had plenty of education.” Young Dennis entered Harvard in 1915. When Eastern bankers and an Anglophile fifth column succeeded in dragging us into the European war, he joined the Army and was sent to Brest, France, where he was put in charge of a company of military police. He returned to Harvard and earned his degree in 1920: two years of prep school, a little over two years of college, and he stepped readily into the elite circles he had somehow penetrated as a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps.
That Dennis did not really belong in those circles is only hinted at in the remarkably oblique interview he gave, in 1967, to William Keylor for the Columbia University Oral History Collection. While the leftist Keylor attempted to indict him for sedition all over again, asking about William Dudley Pelley, Father Coughlin, and the German-American Bund, the subtext of Dennis’s recollection of his life is that of an outsider “passing” for an insider—and doing a remarkably good job of it. His answers, when asked about his early life, and especially his relationship with his parents, are revealing for what they do not say. Dennis never names his parents and never even claims that they were married. When Keylor asks him about his mother’s influence on his polities, Dennis not only denies any influence but declares: “I never had much association with her after I passed fourteen or even thirteen.” She lived in Washington, D.C., and sent him “about $100 a month.” How Dennis had the money to attend Exeter and Harvard, without any formal education or family connections, is a mystery.
When the State Department sent Dennis to Haiti, where the U.S. army of occupation was enforcing stability’ at gunpoint, he was really in his element. As the assistant to the minister, an old “New Orleans aristocrat,” he had “the run of the town.” This meant he belonged to the American Club, where he socialized with other diplomats and military personnel, and he also was a fixture at the Haitian Club, or Cerele Belle Vue, owned by a German who had married a Haitian—”an octoroon, of course”—and the whole thing was “a very broadening experience,” said Dennis. “I was on both sides of the fence.” This theme of duality, of cultural ambidexterity, continued after he was assigned to die American legation to Romania: “There again I played both sides of the street. I went to Romanian parties and I also went to Jewish parties. The Romanians were very anti-Jewish and wouldn’t take a Jew into any of their clubs. But I went to the best Jewish club there,” he said. “I played both sides of the street and I got along very happily.”
In 1927, Dennis resigned from the diplomatic service in protest against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, and became an economic consultant to various investment banking firms with Latin American interests. He had served as the American troubleshooter in Nicaragua, and the experience made him a confirmed opponent of foreign loans south of the border and of a foreign policy in which American gunships were dispatched by New York banks to make good on their bad investments. He burst on the national scene in 1930, in a series of articles for the New Republic in which he exposed the foreign-bond racket and predicted that the bubble was about to burst. Dennis’s first book, Is Capitalism Doomed? (1932), established him as a much more acerbic and perceptive critic of capitalism than any of the leftist ideologues who threw their lot in with Marxism.
Unlike the Marxists, Dennis protested that his critique of capitalism was “not destructive.” In the midst of the Great Depression, he sought to “prolong and render more pleasant the old age of capitalism.” The system was caught in a dilemma: With no new worlds to conquer, and no new markets, there was no way for the profit motive to lead us out of the crisis. “In its old age, a senile capitalism must be nurtured by the state, not with war profits, necessarily, but on an even diet of 2 percent gruel.” Powerless to create markets for itself decrepit capitalism must depend on the state to keep the masses from idleness. It is either that or war: “Keeping six to eight million men unemployed,” he warned, “is the best known way to prepare for war. The day a war starts somewhere in the world, millions of unemployed . . . will heave a grateful sigh of relief. As American business picks up, American idealism will get acquainted with the moral issue of the New Armageddon and history will repeat itself”
Ten years before James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, Dennis argued that capitalism was doomed and that something that was neither socialism nor capitalism would take its place. He saw himself as an observer, an objective commentator on trends that had their own internal dynamic. Technological and social changes had revolutionized the old order, and laissez faire was no longer viable. But the Soviet Union was not necessarily the wave of the future; as an alternative to Marxism, Dennis held out the prospect of a distinctively American nationalism. His program for ameliorating the crisis of market senility included protective tariffs, anti-monopoly legislation, restrictions on credit, and a return to small-scale production for a domestic market.
Unlike Burnham and other prophets of modernity, Dennis did not exult in the triumph of the new order; his elegy for the Old Republic was touched with nostalgia for a lost world. “The point of view of this book,” he wrote, “is not unlike that which a citizen of Rome might have taken a century or so before the fall of the empire. He would not have regretted the doom of prevailing leaders, but he would have been saddened by the contemplation of the loss of many of the values of Roman civilization.” For Dennis, “the opening of an era of economic dictatorships will be tantamount to the revival of the Dark Ages.”
Dennis developed this theme in The Coming American Fascism (1936), a tide that did not describe the author’s ideology so much as his predicament. If the choice was between an American corporate state and an American Soviet, Dennis chose the former as more humane: This was preferable, he argued, to the liquidation of America’s kulaks. Owing allegiance to no party or “ism,” Dennis saw himself as an objective “student, observer and interpreter of current trends” who steered a middle course between the Scylla of Marxist socialism and the Charybdis of economic chaos. The only alternative to war, be argued, was a political and spiritual renewal of the ruling elite at the helm of a centralized state. The revolution against finance capital was already here, and the only choice was whether it would be Marxist or native American.
hi opting for the latter, Dennis called his .system “fascism,” but this was confusing to his readers and, later, injurious to his own career and reputation. He never advocated a one-party state, but saw political repression as uniquely European and unlikely to take root in America.
Dennis developed his thesis still further in The Dynamics of War and Revolution (1940): Roosevelt’s drive to war was fueled by the need to get the nation out of the Great Depression. With the frontier gone, the crisis of capitalism could only be resolved in a new corporatism at home or war abroad. The irony, he pointed out, was that the United States would “go fascist fighting Fascism.” Roosevelt’s war-time dictatorship would “solve” the problem of unemployment by paving the way for national socialism, American-style. But Dennis argued that there was a less bloody, less brutal way to accomplish the same ends—and still preserve the values unique to the American character.
While differing with Dennis’s domestic prescription, Freda Utley expressed the hope that his views would be evaluated objectively, in the same spirit in which they were given. It was a vain hope: the left reacted with anger and fear—and eventually the “mailed fist of the state.”
Max Lerner, the arbiter of fellow-traveling liberalism and the loudest drumbeater for war, attacked Dennis as a “barbarian” and decreed that no self-respecting liberal could have truck with him. Dennis’s dictum that fascism was just another variant of socialism hit Lerner too close to home. The Communist Party—temporarily antiwar because of the Hitler-Stalin Pact—billed Dennis as “the Leader of Fascism in America” and an “American Hitler.” It did not matter that there was no trace of racism or antisemitism in Dennis’s works: William Z. Foster, the mini-Stalin of the American Communist Party, averred that Dennis had to “soft-pedal anti-Semitism and anti-Negroism, which are organic to his fascist thesis,” so as “not to arouse the antagonism of the workers by talking plainly on this matter.”
For Dennis to be anointed leader of a racist fifth column in America was just another irony in a life rich with them. For Dennis hardly fit the Aryan mold. Charles A. Lindbergh, for whom Dennis is said to have written a few speeches, described him as having a “rugged,” dark-complexioned look that made him seem as if he would be more at home at a frontier trading post. Dennis’s archenemy, the notorious agent provocateur John Roy Carlson, noted that “Dennis’ hair is woolly, dark and kinks. 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 mystery of his parentage and the subtle racial subtext of his playing “both sides of the street,” combined with rumors that have persisted through the years, point to the probability that Lawrence Dennis was of mixed race. In Dennis’s youth, the ministry was a major entrance point into the black middle class. Of his days as a “boy evangelist,” he merely says, “I got over that.” But Carlson’s dig at Dennis was deadly accurate: The man Life magazine called, in a picture caption, “America’s No. 1 intellectual Fascist . . . brain-truster for the forces of appeasement” was almost certainly an African-American.
The revelation of Dennis’s ethnicity is unlikely to rehabilitate him in liberal quarters—quite the contrary. Liberals were deaf then to his argument that Anglo-American policy “assume[d] that certain races like the Germans and Japanese can be treated as we treat the negroes or the British treat the darker races under their rule,” and they are unlikely to be convinced at this late date. The notion that “Germans can no more enjoy equality of opportunity in a liberal, capitalistic Anglo-Saxon world order than negroes can enjoy equality in white America” so enraged liberals that they determined to shut him up for good.
Carlson’s book Under Cover, published in 1943, was a key element of a campaign to criminalize opposition to the President’s war plans. Working as an “undercover agent” in the America First movement while on the payroll of such groups as the “Friends of Democracy,” Carlson posed as the publisher of an antisemitic rag, the Christian Defender, and spread race hate in the name of “exposing” it. Quoting a fanciful conversation with Dennis verbatim, Carlson depicted him as the intellectual Svengali of the Nazi fifth column, the link between America First and the pro-Nazi fringe; his book was essentially a dramatization of the charges filed by the Justice Department against Dennis and 27 other defendants in the mass Sedition Trial of 1944.
The trial had its genesis in early 1941. At the close of a Cabinet meeting, FDR took Attorney General Francis J. Biddle aside. After the others had left, the President took out a packet and laid on the table a number of pamphlets, newspapers, and leaflets. It was a miscellaneous assortment of literature denouncing the President as a warmonger and calling for his impeachment.
The President leaned forward in his chair and asked, “What are you going to do about this?”
“Mr. President,” replied Biddle, “nothing can be done.”
The attorney general, who came from a distinguished Virginia family—his mother’s ancestors included John Randolph of Roanoke and Edmund Randolph, the first attorney general of the United States—may have been under the illusion that he was still living in a free country. The President quickly disabused him of that quaint notion, shouting across the table: “I want something done about these cases—and you go ahead and do it!”
For months on end, the President bullied Biddle in Cabinet meetings, demanding to know, “when are you going to indict the seditionists?” The attorney general patiently explained that it was necessary to build a case. As Biddle put it in his memoirs, FDR “was not much interested in the theory of sedition, or in the constitutional right to criticize the government in wartime, he wanted this antiwar talk stopped.”
William Power Maloney, a left-wing New York lawyer and ardent New Dealer, was put in charge of the investigation. By the summer of 1941, Maloney began to round up the “suspects” and call witnesses, including Carlson and scores of isolationist and “far-right” activists, from the prominent to the obscure. In the summer of 1942, the President finally stopped badgering the befuddled Biddle: The first indictment was handed down, naming 28 individuals. A second indictment, handed down in January of the following year, expanded the scope of the case, naming five more individuals, 30 publications, and 26 organizations, including the America First Committee, the National Committee to Keep America Out of Foreign Wars, the Constitutional Educational League Bulletin, and Scribner’s Commentator.
A cooperative judge, E.G. Eichner, a former Democratic congressman and 100-percent New Dealer, was lined up. There was only one problem: The government had no case, and Biddle knew it. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT), who had stood up to pro-war mobs as a county attorney during World War I, stormed into Biddle’s office and threatened a congressional investigation of the department’s misconduct. Biddle reined in Maloney, replaced him with another prosecutor (over the President’s protests), and dropped the America First Committee and the more mainstream conservative groups from the indictment. However, he added eight more individuals and scores of publications—including Lawrence Dennis, The Dynamics of War and Revolution, and Dennis’s Weekly Foreign Letter, which had continued to blast away at FDR’s war mania after Pearl Harbor.
The defendants were a diverse lot who had only one belief in common: their opposition to the idea that it was the moral duty of the United States to go to war with Germany in order to save the British and Soviet empires. Some, like Elizabeth Dilling, author of The Red Network, were militant anticommunists; others, like William Dudley Pelley, organizer of the Silver Shirts, were antisemitic agitators; others, such as Dennis, were isolationists or nationalists. Some were simply crackpots who represented a threat to no one but themselves.
A “conspiracy” hatched by defendants with only the most tenuous affiliation had to be a conspiracy of ideas: As Dennis and Maximilian St. George, one of the defense lawyers in the case, put it in their book, A Trial on Trial (1945), the case marked “a trend toward application here in America of the theories and practices of the totalitarian states, in which people are tried, convicted and often sentenced to death for having been on the losing side in a political fight.” The key to understanding the meaning of the trial, and the motives of its sponsors, was a full-page advertisement placed by Freedom House in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune on January 30, 1943, declaring: “First, we must win the war. Second, we must destroy isolationism forever.”
From the beginning, Dennis insisted that the government had no case. As the trial dragged on, the mountain of “evidence” amassed by prosecutor O.J. Rogge amounted to nothing more than the various public statements of the defendants—leaflets, articles, books, and speeches. The jury, the defense lawyers, and the defendants, all wilting under this daily bombardment, developed a sense of camaraderie and began to think of themselves as fellow prisoners of the prosecutor’s elaborate delusions. In the lunchroom, the jurors, freely mingling with the defendants, were often heard to complain that they still had no idea what the case was all about.
Dennis set the tone for the defense in his two-hour opening statement, pointing out that the evidence—the defendants’ opposition to the war—did not fit the charge, which was that their actions were designed to “counsel, urge and cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and refusal of duty by numbers of the military and naval forces of the United States.” None of the defendants had ever been in touch with members of the Armed Forces, and no attempt was made to show otherwise. The prosecution claimed in the indictment that the defendants had “disseminated . . . oral, written, and printed statements . . . asserting among other things that in substance: democracy is decadent,” and that “the acts, proclamations, and orders of the public officials of the United States and the laws of Congress are illegal, corrupt, traitorous and in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States.” Among their crimes was the view that “President Roosevelt is reprehensible, a warmonger, liar, unscrupulous,” and entirely the servant of “Communists and Plutocrats.” In short, the defendants had dared to tell the truth about PDR, who was now the virtual dictator of the country, and for that they would pay a high price.
The price would be higher for some. The elderly Elmer J. Garner—editor of Publicity, one of the proscribed publications—met his maker just as the trial got under way; he died with 40 cents in his pocket. Others, such as Dennis, had even more to lose. Before the Sedition Trial of 1944, he had always found a platform for his views; after it was over, he was relegated to the margins and virtually forgotten, except to be dredged up by his old enemies even once in a while as an example of unreconstructed evil. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., depicted Dennis as having “Goebbels-like qualities” because he was “clever, glib and trenchant”—but “Goebbels-like” more truly describes the quality and character of the propaganda campaign unleashed against Dennis and the other defendants. Rogge smeared Dennis as “the Alfred Rosenberg of the Nazi Fifth Column in the U.S.,” although the only evidence presented against him was the fact that his books and articles had been quoted seven times in the publications of the German-American Bund.
With the whole weight of public opinion, the media, and the system of legalized repression bearing down on his shoulders, Dennis went on the offensive. Against a charge of conspiracy, most lawyers would deny that their client was part of any such conspiracy. But from his opening statement, Dennis challenged the central premise of the prosecution: Such a conspiracy, he asserted, had never existed. The Nazi party, unlike the Soviet, was not an international movement; there was a Comintern, but no Nazintern, for the simple reason that German national socialism was a strictly nationalist ideology, without any real appeal outside of a Greater Germany. There never was a Nazi fifth column of any significance in the United States—although there was, as recent work by historians such as Thomas F. Mahl has revealed, a substantial and influential British fifth column in this country run directly by British intelligence.
Most of the defendants, too poor to hire legal counsel, had been assigned separate lawyers by the court. These draftees were naturally resentful that they had been conscripted to represent clients who could not pay, and after the trial had dragged on for weeks, without the government presenting even a scintilla of real evidence, this resentment began to boil over. Inspired and organized by the combative Dennis, the defense rallied—and turned the tables. They objected to the introduction of every single piece of irrelevant evidence—all of them, singly and in unison. They filed motions to impeach the judge, and several were admonished from the bench: Two were thrown out of court. The paper tiger Rogge and his political police crumbled under their combined assault. Judge Eichner pounded his gavel almost continuously, as if to drown out the rising chorus of protests—not only from the defense lawyers but from the media, which demanded to know why he had permitted the defendants to turn his courtroom into a circus. As historian Wayne S. Cole put it, the defense “exhausted his energies, his skills, and his health.”
On November 30, 1944, Judge Eichner spent all day fuming because the defendants were defiantly addressing envelopes stuffed with copies of a speech by Sen. William Langer (R-ND) demanding their release, and he contemplated citing them all—including Langer—for contempt of court. He decided to sleep on it—and never woke up. With the death of Eichner, a mistrial was declared: Much to the dismay of the Daily Worker and Dorothy Thompson, the ease was never retried.
Dennis returned to a semblance of the life he had known. His Weekly Foreign Letter was revived under a new tide, the Appeal to Reason, which was published until very near the end of his long life. (He died in 1977.) But the trial had devastated him financially and spiritually. Many intellectuals, writers, and activists suffered greatly as a result of the anti-isolationist purge of the professions, including John T. Flynn, Garet Garrett, Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, publicist Joe Kamp, and actress Lillian Gish. But none suffered as much as Dennis, who was left virtually penniless by the ordeal and only survived due to the support of those few who admired his work. The Appeal to Reason, with fewer than 900 subscribers, nonetheless reached an influential circle of conservative activists and politicians, the hard core of the dwindling Old Right.
In the Appeal and in his 1967 book, Operational Thinking for Survival, Dennis surveyed the political landscape with the same penetrating vision that had informed his earlier writing. As the most consistent and uncompromising of all the old isolationists, he opposed every step in the escalation of the Cold War. In 1946, he wrote that the elites required “a war unity against foreign devils. Yesterday it was Hitler; soon it will be Stalin.” He was right. Having been the victim of a political frame-up, he disdained McCarthy and the “anti-red squealers” and “neurotic, nutty apostates” who were leading the new crusade.
By the sheer logic of his utterly uncompromising “isolationism” and his view of war as the great collectivizer, Dennis reverted to an earlier belief in laissez faire. Militarism was at the core of the new American socialism: The military was “the most socialist institution of the State in America today,” he wrote at the height of the Cold War. The liberal internationalists who were calling for a holy war against Soviet Russia would turn this country into a “socialist society by conscription, controls and rationing.” At the end of his life, the “Alfred Rosenberg of America’s Fifth Column” was preaching peace and denouncing the growth of a “police garrison state.”
Dennis deserves far better than the smears of the court historians. Once rescued from the likes of John Roy Carlson and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., his legacy will enrich and inspire a new generation of the American right.
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