Editor’s note: we’re delighted to publish the following essay from author Anita Mishook who has just published a new historical novel called Helen. Mishook uses factual events of an American Nazi organization that came to power in Orange County in the 1930s along with sordid types from the KKK and the John Birch Society. Reading the story and realizing Orange County went for Hillary Clinton for president about 80 years later shows the progress we’ve made from where we were to where we still have to go. Anita’s essay is below.
In the 1930s, the German American Bund, an American Nazi organization, actively promoted the Nazi cause. They established major headquarters in New York and Los Angeles, with tendrils spreading into most other areas of the United States. Although debate continues about the number of active members of the Bund, with estimates from 5,000 to 50,000, no debate exists about the perceived threat to democracy that the group presented, including subversive activity and espionage. How, if at all, did Orange County, far more sparsely populated and more agricultural than its urban neighbor, Los Angeles, play any role in this?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, investigated the Bund. By 1939, the FBI captured the Bund’s mailing list of sympathizers. Additionally, the FBI received reports from other agencies, including postmasters, about the questionable affiliations of citizens.
On October 22, 1940, Hoover sent a report to the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, of the House of Representatives, which was the predecessor of the House Un-American Activities Committee, listing the names, addresses, and occupations of persons in the wider Los Angeles area who were of interest for possible pro-Nazi affiliations. Under the Freedom of Information Act, that report is now available for all to see.
Logan Jackson, then the Sheriff of Orange County, had “numerous references in the FBI files.” He made the FBI’s list of persons-of-interest because of a pamphlet, “Liberation,” he gave to the then Postmaster in Santa Ana, who subsequently reported the transaction to the FBI. Sheriff Jackson is also known for actions he took during the citrus workers’ strike of July 1936. Ill-treated and under-paid, the predominantly Hispanic workers picketed and refused to work, allegedly under “Communist influence.” Sheriff Jackson deputized an additional 170 men to deal with the strikers and gave “shoot to kill orders.” Nineteen strikers were hospitalized and over 100 were arrested. All but one was released when Orange County decided that it could not afford the estimated $200,000 to bring each arrested striker separately to trial.
The city of Orange was home to the rest of the few identified sympathizers. Two ministers, Reverend Bode and Reverend Webbeling, made the list. Reverend Bode held the pulpit at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Walter Newohner’s brother-in-law, Louis Weber, and Weber’s wife were “suspected of subversive activity in Orange County.”
During this same time period, the Ku Klux Klan actively persecuted people of color, Catholics, and Jews in Orange County. “White supremacy” formed a tight link between the two groups’ toxic pursuit of those they hated.
Later, Orange County was home to the John Birch Society and even now witnesses Ku Klux Klan activities.
Anita Mishook is the author of Helen, a historic novel that tells the story of 1930’s California, where pro-Nazism took hold and led the Anti-Defamation League to spy on extremist individuals and organizations. She weaves historical accounts into her own family’s history.