According to a poll taken after the 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom known as Kristallnacht, 94 percent of Americans disapproved of the Nazi regime’s treatment of Jews. A strong majority of US citizens viewed the Third Reich unfavorably, but some Americans still identified with aspects of Nazism. These included some well-known public figures, who were inspired by Nazi Germany and currents of racism, antisemitism, and isolationism in American society. This minority of Americans was sometimes able to influence Americans' responses to the Nazi threat, World War II, and the Holocaust.
Like interwar Germany, the United States in the 1930s faced economic insecurity, political turmoil, and social unrest.1 Following the widespread destruction of World War I, many Americans strongly opposed entry into another armed conflict in Europe. Economic and political uncertainty added to growing support for isolationism, increased social tensions, and opposition to immigration.2 The country experienced the worst financial crisis in its history during the Great Depression. Many Americans hoped for a rapid solution to desperate circumstances. Although much of the American public opposed fascism, many people considered communism a more immediate threat to the American way of life.3 Amid this upheaval, the Nazis' emphasis on extreme nationalism, economic renewal, and anticommunism resonated among some Americans.
Racism and antisemitism—core features of the Nazi agenda—had also been a part of the American landscape for a long time. In the early 20th century, the US became a world leader in the new field of eugenics.4 Supporters of eugenics argued that selective reproduction of genetically "fit" people would improve the "quality" of the overall population. Many eugenicists wanted to restrict immigration from anywhere except for northwestern Europe. Some American eugenicists also corresponded with eugenicists in Germany, as illustrated in this letter from a leading American eugenicist to a German university.5 The featured eugenics charts from the Kansas Free Fair show how Americans encountered these theories in their daily lives.
Although antisemitism was a problem in American society, it never approached the extremes of the Nazi regime.6 In the United States, Jews were informally excluded from certain neighborhoods and professions, and many universities had limits on Jewish enrollment.7 Such measures were not enforced by law in the US, but powerful public personalities did spread antisemitic ideas. For example, automotive tycoon Henry Ford promoted conspiracy theories about the "secret global power of Jews"—as shown by the featured article, The International Jew. Father Charles E. Coughlin—a well known antisemitic Catholic priest and radio personality—blamed Jews for many of America's problems in his broadcasts.
As the Nazi regime gained power in the 1930s, thousands of Americans joined organizations such as the Friends of New Germany or the German American Bund in order to promote and spread Nazi ideology. Members of these groups openly swore allegiance to Nazi Germany. The Bund's membership—largely drawn from German Americans and more recent German immigrants—prohibited Jews from joining. The group also recruited American youths through a network of summer camps modeled on those of the Hitler Youth. Included in this collection is a short film depicting one such camp.
By attempting to keep the US out of another European conflict, American isolationists aided the German war effort.8 One prominent isolationist group called the America First Committee tried to blame "foreigners" and "foreign interests" for trying to get the US to intervene in the war. "America First" became a popular slogan for isolationism, popularized in everyday objects such as the license plate attachment included in this collection.
This collection also explores responses from Jewish communities in the US. Jews in the US formed organizations, distributed publications, and held public demonstrations to convince other Americans to oppose Nazi Germany and its discriminatory and genocidal policies. A featured photo of a 1937 protest march organized by the American Jewish Congress illustrates efforts to wage a boycott of German-made goods.
Open support for the Nazi regime became socially and politically unacceptable after the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Expressing loyalty toward Nazi Germany was no longer just controversial—it was treasonous. There is little evidence of direct American support for the Nazi regime in the US after 1941. However, many Americans understood World War II as a fight against German and Japanese aggression rather than a campaign to defeat Nazi ideals. Black and Jewish soldiers, meanwhile, saw irony in confronting the Nazi regime in Europe while they faced racial discrimination and violence at home.9 Antisemitism and racism were major issues in American life, even among US soldiers fighting in Europe and liberating concentration camps.
Although the majority of Americans never voiced approval for the Nazi Party and came to back US participation in the war, Nazism did not face universal opposition from the American public. The items in this collection show how sympathy or support for core tenets of Nazi ideology emerged in US society during the 1930s and 1940s.