Historian seeks to follow trail of Nazi money in Pa.

Documents indicate state politicians got $160,000 from Hitler

September 08, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA - Did Nazi Germany deliver $160,000 in cash - an astronomical sum in those times - to people connected with the Pennsylvania Democratic Party shortly before the 1940 elections in a vain plot to prevent President Franklin D. Roosevelt from winning his third term and to defeat an anti-Hitler U.S. senator?

The truth of the shocking claim - buried in German diplomatic papers seized by Allied troops after World War II - will never be known, since anyone who might have knowledge of the alleged scheme is long dead.

But a German official's report that he funneled the money to Pennsylvania's delegates to the 1940 Democratic Convention in Chicago shows how the time-honored concept of "street money" in local politics predates the current generation of ward pols.

'A very real effort'

"There was a very real effort - I don't think there's much doubt," said Gerhard Weinberg, the University of North Carolina history professor considered the top authority on Adolf Hitler's efforts to keep America out of the war by influencing its politics.

Although Weinberg notes that wartime currency issues would have made it hard for the Nazis to raise that many American dollars, he said it's likely that some effort was made to funnel money to the Pennsylvania politicians, possibly through pro-German citizens.

The German documents studied by Weinberg and other academics have long been translated and largely gathering dust in university libraries, including several in Philadelphia.

However, there has been a surge of interest in the issue this year - because of allegations that China and other Asian interests tried to influence the 1996 re-election of President Clinton.

Weinberg's research, and the wartime diplomatic papers, have been featured in the New York Times and elsewhere showing that attempts by overseas powers to influence a U.S. election are nothing new.

Given the sometimes outlandish nature of Pennsylvania politics, some pundits find it more than a little ironic that what was probably the Nazis' most brazen effort to influence American politics started here.

On July 8, 1940, a German diplomat stationed in Mexico City wired Berlin and said that about $160,000 had been channeled to unnamed people in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party for "buying the approximately 40 Pennsylvania delegates to vote against Roosevelt."

Despite Roosevelt's popularity and concern about the global conflict already under way in Europe and Asia, the president's renomination in 1940 was not a foregone conclusion, largely because no American leader had ever been elected to a third term.

More questions than answers

According to the German communique, the money that was allegedly passed to Pennsylvania Democrats also was aimed at preventing the re-election of U.S. Sen. Joseph Guffey, a New Deal Democrat who was considered close to Roosevelt and hostile to the Nazi regime.

However, the discovery of the document after the war raises more questions than it answers.

If there was such a scheme, there is no way of knowing exactly who the money went to, whether it was passed through intermediaries, or how it was paid out. And, Weinberg and others have noted, there is at least one inaccuracy: Pennsylvania sent 72 delegates to the Chicago convention that year, not 40 as the document suggests.

It's probably even more important to note that if there was such a plot, it failed spectacularly. Roosevelt, as we now know, was renominated with no serious opposition - from Pennsylvania or ,, elsewhere - and then defeated Wendell Wilkie in November. And Guffey also was re-elected to represent the state in Washington.

Philadelphia was the site of the Republican convention that year, and so the city may have figured in a second German attempt to influence that year's election. In June 1940, the top German diplomat on U.S. soil wired Berlin saying that an unnamed congressman needed money to bring isolationist allies to Philadelphia and for full-page newspaper ads here urging that the U.S. stay out of the war.

Similar ads, sponsored by a committee headed by New York Congressman Hamilton Fish, did actually appear during the Philadelphia meeting, and the GOP adopted a party platform that opposed American involvement in foreign wars.

The idea that Berlin would have chosen Pennsylvania for such a plan rings true with several academics.

With its two booming industrial meccas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state probably ranked second to New York in its political influence in the pre-Sun Belt era, they noted. "Guffey" was a very strong supporter of Roosevelt - he would have been a natural target for the foreign money," noted Millersville University history professor emeritus Richard Keller.

Keller said that Guffey wrote in his autobiography that he rebuffed then-Postmaster General James Farley, who wanted his backing for the White House that year. Keller speculated that Farley may have in turn aided Guffey's unsuccessful Democratic primary foe.

Ironically, perhaps, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party has taken some heat this year from accepting campaign money from Democratic donors linked to foreign business interests. Records show that four key figures in the Asian fundraising scandal, at the apparent direction of party fundraiser John Huang, gave $95,000 to the state party last year to aid the Clinton re-election campaign.

A local political consultant, Jack Collins, said the two far-removed episodes reminded him of a famous quote from the manager of President William McKinley's 1896 campaign who said, "There are two things you need in politics - the first is money, and I forget what the other thing is."

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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