Monthly Archives: September 2012

Broadcasting Extremism: The Rise of Fr. Coughlin                             by Edward T. O’Donnell

Fr. Coughlin delivers his national radio broadcast.

On October 5, 1930, Fr. Charles E. Coughlin delivered his first nationally broadcast radio address.  Given the strength of anti-Catholic sentiment still prevalent in the United States, it was an extraordinary moment for Irish America.  Within a few months Coughlin would become one of the most widely known and influential voices in the depression-ravaged nation.  His weekly broadcasts on the economy and social policy would play a key role in popularizing the idea that only radical policies could overcome the economic crisis – a sentiment that paved the way for the New Deal a few years later.  And yet, Fr. Coughlin had a dark side that would later emerge and overshadow these earlier, impressive years.

Charles E. Coughlin was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1891, the descendant of immigrants from County Cork.  His father worked on the boats and waterfronts of Lake Ontario, but earned enough to ensure his only child a solid education.  Coughlin entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1916.  His first joined the faculty at Assumption College in Sandwich, Ontario where he taught English, Greek, and History.

In 1923, he requested a transfer to regular parish duty and was sent to nearby Detroit.  After three years of itinerant parish work, he was chosen to organize a new parish, the Shrine of the Little Flower (named for the recently canonized St. Therese), in Royal Oak, a suburb near Detroit.  The parish consisted of just 32 families and it struggled to remain financially solvent.  Worse, it faced bitter denunciation from evangelical Protestants and the local chapter of the KKK burned a cross in front of the church.

The resourceful Coughlin decided to turn his troubles to his advantage.  He arranged to have Detroit radio station WJR broadcast a speech detailing his struggle against bankruptcy and bigotry.  On Sunday October 17, 1926, speaking from the altar of his humble church, the thirty-four year old Coughlin delivered a rousing address denouncing religious hatred and the KKK.  Possessing a powerful baritone voice and years of experience as a public speaker, he proved an instant hit.  When letters of praise poured in from all over Michigan, WJR gave Coughlin a regular Sunday time slot, making him the first Catholic “radio priest.”

The Shrine of the Little Flower, built by Coughlin with the funds raised from his radio broadcasts.

Coughlin’s weekly addresses became more popular every week.  In January 1927 he conducted the first ever mission and novena on the air and mail poured in from two-dozen states.  Coughlin quickly organized these followers into his Radio League of the Little Flower.  Their one dollar per year contributions to help keep Coughlin’s parish solvent and defray the cost of his broadcasts brought in $500,000 by 1929, allowing Coughlin to built a massive Shrine of the Little Flower, replete with his own radio broadcasting studio.

Then came the Great Depression.  By 1930 a quarter of the nation’s workforce was unemployed and thousands of businesses and banks in tatters.  While the nation’s political leaders struggled to comprehend the magnitude and meaning of the crisis, Coughlin strode into the national spotlight.  He switched from speaking on purely religious topics to addressing social issues and became a fiery populist orator unafraid to denounce those whom he deemed responsible for the economic turmoil: greedy bankers, heartless industrialists, and cowardly politicians.  “[B]oth the laboring and agricultural classes of America,” he told his listeners, “are forced to work for less than a living wage while the owners of industry boastfully proclaim that their profits are increasing.” He railed at Wall Street, oil companies, President Hoover, and Prohibition, and called upon the federal government to abandon laissez-faire in favor of a program to boost employment and regulate big business.

In addition to his weekly broadcast, Coughlin reached a vast audience with his publication, Social Justice.

By early fall 1930 Coughlin landed a contract with the CBS radio network.  It aired his first nationally broadcast weekly address on October 5, 1930. Soon Coughlin was known from coast to coast.  His mail topped 80,000 letters per week, necessitating the hiring of dozens of clerks to handle it.

Although Coughlin in these early years enjoyed wide appeal among Protestant and Jewish Americans, the foundation of his following was Catholic, especially Irish Catholic.  In the decades leading up to the Great Depression, millions of Irish Catholics had climbed steadily up the socioeconomic ladder into the middle class.  Because this status was so recently won, they were among the hardest hit in the wake of the Crash of 1929.   Their turmoil left them looking for a leader – one of their own — who could help them make sense of their situation.  As historian William Shannon described it, “Fr. Coughlin provided Irish Catholics during the crisis of the depression with a religious justification for their strongly felt but intellectually undefined impulses toward radicalism and rebellion … He made religion suddenly and sharply relevant by drastically emphasizing the socially revolutionary aspects of Christian teaching.”

Coughlin’s stock among Irish Americans rose even further with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.  Coughlin’s vague pronouncements about government programs to boost employment and a major reform of the banking system seemed prophetic when FDR rolled out the New Deal agenda.  But FDR was wary of the fiery priest and though he met with him on several occasions, he kept him at arm’s length. Coughlin in turn enjoyed his role as populist too much to throw his unconditional support to FDR and the New Deal.  Indeed, by 1935 he became increasingly critical of the president’s reform agenda and cast his support to the populist Huey Long of Louisiana.  After Long was assassinated, Coughlin helped found a third party, the Union Party, to challenge FDR in 1936.

By this time Coughlin had begun to express growing admiration for fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini and a not-so-subtle anti-Semitism in his incessant denunciation of “international bankers.” In 1938, as Hitler’s anti-Semitism became more aggressive and overt, so too did Coughlin’s.  “Must the entire world go to war,” he asked, “for 600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, nor French, nor English citizens, but citizens of Germany?” In addition to uttering more explicit anti-Jewish statements, Coughlin publicly praised and encouraged support for a rightwing paramilitary organization called the Christian Front.  Many chapters, especially those in New York and Boston, engaged in anti-Jewish campaigns such as boycotting Jewish-owned businesses.  They took inspiration from statements by Coughlin like, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.”

As early as 1936 Coughlin faced a mounting effort by the Roosevelt administration, Vatican officials, and major political and religious figures to drive him off the airwaves. But despite tightened broadcasting regulations, Coughlin managed to air on the air. But increasing numbers of stations, responding to public pressure, began to drop his broadcast.  By the outbreak of World War II in 1939 Coughlin’s rapidly shrinking audience finally led to the demise of his radio program in 1940.  Two years later, his newspaper Social Justice ceased publication and Fr. Coughlin retreated into permanent obscurity.  He retired in 1966 and died in 1979.

Coughlin’s long gone, but the two traditions he helped establish — broadcasting of religion and extremist politics — continue on the radio, television, and the web.

Sources and further reading:

Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression (Vintage, 1983)
Ronald H. Carpenter, Father Charles E. Coughlin (Greenwood, 1998),
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (Oxford, 1999)
Sheldon Marcus, Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower (Little, Brown, & Co., 1973)
William V. Shannon, The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait (MacMillan, 1963)
Donald Warren, Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio (Free Press, 1996)

The Battle of Antietam, Photography, and the Visualization of Modern War                             by Edward T. O’Donnell

Historians like to describe the American Civil War as the first “modern” war, in large measure

Photography was relatively new when the Civil War began. This is one of the cameras used by Mathew Brady.

Photography was relatively new when the Civil War began. This is one of the cameras used by Mathew Brady.

because of the central role played by new industrial technology. The telegraph, for example, allowed for instant communication across vast territory. Railroads made it possible to shift thousands of reinforcements hundreds of miles in less than a day. Ironclad ships revolutionized naval strategy, while hot air balloons held out the possibility of high altitude reconnaissance. Above all, what made this war different from all previous ones was the level of carnage made possible by advances in weaponry. Artillery became more accurate and deadly, while antipersonnel landmines appeared for the first time. Both armies used improved rifled muskets capable of killing a man 400-500 yards away (vs. 100 yards for traditional muskets). Little wonder then, that the four year conflict claimed the lives of more than 700,000 men.

But not all technological innovations that shaped the Civil War were military in nature. Great advances in photography allowed Americans to see what traditionally had been left to the imagination or an artist’s pen or brush: actual images of war’s carnage and destruction. Photography was first invented in the late 1830s in France and gained popularity in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. At first, owing to the long time needed for exposure, most photographs were indoor studio portraits.

Mathew Brady was America's foremost photographer in the 1850s and 1860s.

Mathew Brady was America’s foremost photographer in the 1850s and 1860s.

America’s leading studio photographer at the time of the Civil War was Mathew Brady. Born in upstate New York in 1823, he first studied painting before turning in the early 1840s to a form of photography called the daguerreotype. In 1844 Brady opened a lavish Daguerrean Miniature Gallery on lower Broadway in New York. Business boomed, and within five years Brady became a highly regarded portraitist. In 1849 he opened a studio in Washington, D.C., and the next year published Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a book featuring the portraits of 24 prominent individuals, including U.S. presidents, inventors, and writers. By 1860 he owned large galleries in Washington and New York.

When the war came, Brady assembled his team of more than thirty assistants and sent them to photograph the conflict. Initially, they mainly photographed Union officers or scenes of camp life. That changed with the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, an epic clash between Union and Confederate forces that saw nearly 25,000 men fall dead or wounded. The next day Brady sent two of his assistant photographers, Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson, to the battlefield. There they took hundreds of photographs of the battle’s aftermath. Most focused on the bleak landscape littered with thousands of fallen soldiers.

Alexander Gardner's photograph of the aftermath of Antietam. Here fallen soldiers lie strewn on the ground with a Dunker church in the background.

Alexander Gardner’s photograph of the aftermath of Antietam. Here fallen soldiers lie strewn on the ground with a Dunker church in the background.

Gardner’s and Gibson’s photographs shocked the American public.  The grim scenes of carnage and destruction challenged the romanticized visions of war shared by many citizens when the conflict started.  They delivered a blunt unambiguous message to their viewers: the men pictured here may have died gallantly, but they also died in a brutal manner, shredded by cannon fire and pierced by bullets, and then splayed in irregular and undignified poses in the cold dirt.

Currier & Ives issued this print of the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Its romanticized view of war was typical of the era.

Currier & Ives issued this print of the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Its romanticized view of war was typical of the era.

Note the contrast between the Gardner and Gibson photographs and this popular Currier & Ives illustration of the First Battle of Bull Run published one year earlier when most Americans still held to the belief that the war would be short, glorious, and victorious. Unlike the brutal scenes of death captured by the camera, the artist’s depiction of war shows several men who have fallen, but their uniforms remain spotless, with no trace of blood. The print’s caption describes the scene as a “Gallant charge,” reflected the popular notion that war romantic and heroic.

A few weeks after the Battle of Antietam, Brady put the grim collection of photographs on

Dead soldiers lie about the "sunken road."

Dead soldiers lie about the “sunken road.”

display in his New York gallery under the title “The Dead of Antietam.”  Tens of thousands paraded by the exhibit in astonishment.  For generations people on the home front had relied upon writers and artists like the one employed by Currier & Ives to convey the scenes of conflict and carnage. Now photographers could capture such images in unprecedented detail and realism. “The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams,” commented the New York Times, “We see the list [of casualties] in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee … Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought the bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

The world would never “see” war in quite the same way again.

Gardner captioned this photo, "A Contrast: Federal buried, Confederate unburied, where they fell on the Battle-field of Antietam."

Gardner captioned this photo, “A Contrast: Federal buried, Confederate unburied, where they fell on the Battle-field of Antietam.”

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Sources and Further Reading:

William C. Davis, The Civil War in Photographs (Seven Oaks, 2008)

Alexander Gardner, Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War (Dover, 1959)

Mary Panzer, Mathew Brady and the Image of History (Smithsonian Books, 2004)

Theodore P. Savas, Brady’s Civil War Journal: Photographing the War 1861-1865 (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008)

Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (Ticknor & Fields, 1983)

Wayne Youngblood, Mathew B. Brady: America’s First Great Photographer  (Chartwell Books, 2008)

The Boston Post announces the strike on September 9, 1919

The Red Scare and The Boston Police Strike of 1919                                                                by Edward T. O’Donnell

The Red Scare and the Boston Police Strike of 1919

Members of the Boston Police Department, 1919

The year 1919 was one “those years” in American history — like 1776, 1860, 1946, 1968, and 2001 — one racked by social upheaval and fear. Indeed, 1919 ushered in a two year period known as the “red scare” that saw a wave of anti-radical hysteria sweep the nation in response to record numbers of strikes and mysterious bombings. One of the events that year that suggested to many Americans that radicalism was threatening the nation was the Boston Police Strike.

It all began on September 9, 1919 when more than eleven hundred members of the Boston Police Department (72%) went out on strike. For years the city’s policemen had labored under dreadful conditions for low pay. But all their pleas for reform over the years had fallen on deaf ears.  Matters reached the breaking point in 1919 when nineteen officers were suspended from the force for their role in establishing a policemen’s union.  As an act of solidarity, nearly three out of four policemen took part in the strike.  It was a bold maneuver for such men in a city dominated by a conservative elite that was hostile to labor unionism. And to make matters worse for the police, that elite was comprised of wealthy Protestants (“Brahmins” as some called them) while the police force was made up largely of Irish Catholics, a group the elite loathed.

The men employed by the Boston Police Department had been forced to endure harsh working conditions and abysmal pay for decades before 1919.  In 1906 Police Commissioner Stephen O’Meara founded the Boston Social Club, a fraternal organization dedicated to improving this situation.  Unfortunately, all their calls for reform fell on deaf ears.  By the summer of 1919 the Club’s leaders concluded that their only hope lay in forming a union and joining the American Federation of Labor.  They founded the Boston Policemen’s Union in mid-August 1919.

Their decision made sense on one level.  The AFL was the nation’s largest labor organization with a proven record of successful organizing workers and winning strikes.  Yet there was one problem: 1919 was a year of unprecedented labor strife.  The end of World War I in late 1918 signaled the end to a period of robust economic growth.  It also meant that many employers who had been pressured by a federal government eager for labor peace during the war to recognize unions, reduce hours, and increase pay now withdrew these concessions.  Outraged and determined not to let their wartime gains slip away, some four million of workers went on strike in 1919.  Wealthy and middle-class Americans were alarmed by the scale of working-class discontent and many believed it was a sign that anarchism, socialism, and communism were on the march in America.  Labor leaders were castigated as dangerous radicals and arrested by the thousands.  By mid-1919 the nation was convulsed not only in worker strife, but also a counter-reaction that came to be known as the Red Scare.   In short, forming the Boston Policemen’s Union in August 1919 was an extraordinarily risky decision.

That fact quickly became evident.  Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis, a member of the Yankee elite, announced that he would not recognize any policemen’s union.  Indeed, in anticipation of the union’s formation, he changed the Police Department’s regulations to forbid policemen from being members in any outside organization.  On August 26, Curtis notified nineteen policemen that they would face disciplinary hearings regarding their membership in the new union.  Two weeks later, on September 8, he announced that the men were suspended.  The Policemen’s Union called a meeting where the men overwhelmingly voted to go on strike.

The Boston Post announces the strike on September 9, 1919

The strike began the next day at 5:45 p.m. at the nightly shift change and roll call.  Things began to go awry for the strike almost immediately.  As word of the strike spread across the city, crowds gathered downtown.  Shortly after 8:00 p.m. a group of young men kicked in the door of a tobacco store and looted it.  Immediately hundreds more followed suit, smashing windows, looting stores, and attacking passersby.  With only slightly more than one-fourth of the police force on duty, the rioting spread in all directions.

And here’s where the Boston Police Strike had a major impact on U.S. history. The governor of Massachusetts, a little-known man named Calvin Coolidge, mobilized the state regiments of the national guard and sent them to restore order in Boston.  President of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, telegraphed Coolidge and suggested a compromise: the striking policemen would return to work if the city agreed to address their grievances.  Coolidge answered with a terse statement that would soon make him famous: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.”

Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge inspects members of the state militia he ordered into Boston to restore order.

The rioting and mayhem lasted for three days and left eight dead.  Proper Bostonians seethed with anger at the striking policemen, anger that was fueled to a significant degree by the longstanding animosity that existed between the city’s Protestant Yankee establishment and the immigrant Irish.  The former cheered when Boston officials announced that all the striking policemen were fired and their places taken by “husky Yankee boys,” many of them World War I veterans.  “Good American Yankees,” asserted one official, “do not strike!”

The strike, which ended in total defeat for the policemen, played a key role in national politics.  Few Americans had ever heard of Calvin Coolidge before the strike, but his iron-fisted handling of the dispute made him a national celebrity among those fearful of the rising tide of labor radicalism.  Eager to recapture the White House after eight years of Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s administration, the Republican party put Coolidge on the national ticket in 1920 as the vice-presidential candidate with Warren G. Harding.  The conservative duo won the election and when Harding died eighteen months later, “Silent Cal” Coolidge was sworn in as President of the United States.

President Calvin Coolidge being driven to his inauguration in 1925

Sources and Further Reading:

Thomas H. O’Connor, The Boston Irish: A Political History (1997)

Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (2003)

Francis Russell, A City in Terror: The 1919 Boston Police Strike (1977)