Cass Sunstein, The Unprincipled Man

In Sunstein’s worldview, we are all adrift in a lifeboat—without purpose, past or moral precept.

Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas
Cass R. Sunstein

Do people actually read Cass R. Sunstein? Millions, maybe, are vaguely aware of him as a talking-head on cable TV. Others might recall that Sunstein held an obscure but sinister-sounding sinecure in the Obama Administration (Administrator, White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, 2009-2012) or that he is frequently touted as some kind of esteemed legal scholar at Harvard Law School. A much tinier number might remember his odd name from one of the three dozen books he’s authored, edited, or otherwise put his name to.

But if you’ve read anything by him at all, it most likely wasn’t a book, but rather one of his many short commentaries or reviews, perhaps in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the New York Review of Books, or even Facebook, where he rejoices in playing Oracle of the Obvious (as Helen Lawrenson described Bernard Baruch), his public-policy insights as shimmering and insubstantial as tinsel:

Across a wide range of issues, a lot more people will support a policy if they think that the majority supports it.

For people to govern themselves, they need to have information. They also need to be able to convey it to others. Social media platforms make that tons easier.

A tireless self-promoter, Sunstein has a great knack for voicing the bien-pensant phrase-of-the-moment. For example, when he reviewed a couple of books in the NYRB about memories of Hitler Germany this past June, he titled it “It Can Happen Here.” This of course alludes to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 potboiler farce about a Huey Long-style politician rising to power in America, It Can’t Happen Here. Alas, neither the title nor the Lewis novel have anything to do with the books being reviewed, which describe citizens of Hitler Germany as having been meek and complacent folk mainly concerned about having a job and keeping out of trouble—Germans, in other words.

It’s not till the end of the review that Sunstein gets around to noticing that he still hasn’t made good on that humdinger of a headline, which clearly intimates that he’s going to make some comparison between the Trump Administration and the Third Reich. He finally comes up with something, but it’s not much:

With our system of checks and balances, full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here, but it would be foolish to ignore the risks that Trump and his administration pose to established norms and institutions…

In other words, it probably it can’t happen here after all . . . but why waste a good title?

Reading long-form Sunstein is a strain, like jogging through warm molasses; there is a sense of forward motion but the finish line never arrives. But he’s an ace at book-packaging. Every year we get two or three volumes with his name on the spine, an eye-catching title, and insides that are, well . . . viscous.

The new one this summer was a grab-bag of essays, mainly by others, and named, oddly enough, Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America. This was Sunstein’s entry into that popular non-fiction genre of 2018, Alarmist Anti-Trump Paranoia. True to form, his title promises but doesn’t deliver. We get Tyler Cowen recycling a Politico essay telling why it can’t happen here, and Sunstein’s wife Samantha Power in a dithering essay about how we must be on guard against “foreign” (i.e., Russian) interference in our elections. Meanwhile one of Sunstein’s Harvard Law colleagues moons over Japanese-American internment, 1942-45, and says it was bad, and sort of makes us think of our illegal aliens. A couple of other people stretch to find parallels between Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and the Trump Era. Which is pretty funny, because in Lewis’s satire the inept “dictator” Buzz Windrip ends in abject failure. Clearly Sunstein chose the title of the book before asking his friends to write the insides.

Usually Sunstein books show up and disappear like March snow, before you know they’re there. One exception is his 2014 compilation, Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas. Although somewhat stale in its references, the book still reverberates, mainly because of its 2008 title essay. There Sunstein seemed to posit that governments can and possibly should, ban or control narratives that run counter to their agenda—”conspiracy theories,” in Sunstein’s formulation.

The loudest alarm was sounded in 2010 by the quirky investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who took down Sunstein in Salon: “Obama Confidant’s Spine-Chilling Proposal.” Much more recently (December 2017) The New Yorker‘s Andrew Marantz revisited the matter, and characterized the anti-Sunstein protests from Greenwald and others as part of a mad Glenn Beck “right-wing conspiracy theory,” on a level with PizzaGate.

For the most part, the “conspiracy” essay was a nothingburger.  All Sunstein did was list some hypothetical solutions that a government might employ in controlling oppositional speech. Banning it entirely is one solution, one hardly unknown in the past century. Manipulating it through the press and social media, is another option, and particularly relevant today.

At the end of the day, though, Greenwald was basically correct. When you set forth a list of possible initiatives like this, and don’t exclude any on ethical grounds, you imply they are all equally okay. The ethical factor is what is missing in Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas. Cass R. Sunstein isn’t interested in issues of morality, tradition, national interest, or even fundamental notions of right and wrong. He seldom even mentions legal precedent. Our esteemed legal scholar spins his lofty theories without any reference to the underpinnings of the law.


But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, and it’s time to look at Sunstein’s list of government solutions to “conspiracy theories”:


What can government do about conspiracy theories? And among the things it can do, what should it do? Simply in order to understand the options (without endorsing any of them), imagine a series of possible responses.

  1. Government might ban conspiracy theories.

  2. Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.

  3. Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories.

  4. Government might hire or work with credible agents in the private sector to engage in counterspeech.

    (Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, p. 22)

Number 1 describes a totalitarian, Soviet solution, of course, and to a lesser extent the press control that was exercised in America and Britain during the First and Second World Wars. Number 2 (Tax the Truthers!) seems to be unworkable filler thrown in for sake of completeness.

As for 3 and 4, these merely describe actual solutions that the American government has used for many decades. “Credible agents in the private sector” of course refers to the mainstream media, in particular the “court journalists” who populated the press corps during the Obama Administration. And then of course there are covert propaganda initiatives, such as CIA’s promotion of such periodicals as the The Paris Review and Encounter, and its production of books and news stories during the 1950s and 60s. (These campaigns have been written about countless times;  a popular treatment Salon-style treatment is here.)

Sunstein merely states the obvious. Where his argument falls apart is in the shallowness of the examples he chooses, and his own biases toward controversies that are far from settled facts. He caricatures opinions he doesn’t like, and blames them on “crippled epistemology.” One of his most ludicrous examples:

As Robert Anton Wilson notes of the conspiracy theories advanced by Holocaust deniers, “a conspiracy that can deceive us about 6,000,000 deaths can deceive us about anything, and [then] it takes a great leap of faith of Holocaust Revisionists to believe World War II happened at all, or that Franklin Roosevelt did serve as President from 1933 to 1945, or that Marilyn Monroe was more ‘real’ than King Kong or Donald Duck.”
(p. 7)

One can be generous and grant that Sunstein really doesn’t know about the subject he cites here, including the salient fact that the Six Million story has evolved considerably over the decades. (Due in large part to those selfsame “Holocaust Revisionists,” I might add.) But it’s foolish for him to wade into this hazardous pool, cite Robert Anton Wilson as an authority, equate serious historical inquiry to a comparison of Marilyn Monroe and Donald Duck, and imply that a pulp treatment of this episode is somehow unimpeachable dogma.

Throughout the essay he dismisses his “conspiracy” bogeymen as low-information crazies. He lumps together all manner of beliefs as mutually supportive:

The best predictor of whether people will accept a conspiracy theory appears to be whether they accept other conspiracy theories. Those who accept one such theory (for example, that the FBI killed Martin Luther King Jr.) are especially likely to accept others (for example, that climate change is a hoax).

(p. 10)

He brackets together wacky ideas with plausible ones in order to dismiss them as as ridiculous. Thus, “the Apollo 11 moon landing was staged and never actually occurred” gets lumped in with CIA involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy, and “climate change” disagreements. (p. 3)

Rhetorically he asks himself whether conspiracy theories are even worth worrying about. “Perhaps only a handful of kooks believe that US government officials had any kind of role in the events of 9/11.” (p. 23) Then he knocks that idea down by associating conspiratorial thinking in general with acts of wanton violence:

Even if only a small fraction of adherents to a particular conspiracy theory act on the basis of their beliefs, that small fraction may be enough to cause serious harm, as in the 1995 truck bombing of the Alfred B. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Convicted perpetrators Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and Michael Fortier shared a set of conspiratorial beliefs about the federal government. Many others who shared their beliefs did not act on them, but those three people did, with terrifying consequences…

(p. 24)

In other words, a distaste for “climate change” huckstering, or doubts about the Warren Commission Report or 9/11, might somehow lead you to blowing up a federal building with a truckful of fertilizer. After all, they’re all “conspiratorial beliefs.”

Fortunately Sunstein’s thoughts about practical solutions are as superficial and woolly-minded as his description of the problem itself:

A potential approach…is cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. As used here, this admittedly provocative term does not mean 1960s-style infiltration with a view to surveillance and collecting information, possibly for use in future prosecutions… How might this tactic work? Recall that extremist networks and groups, including those that purvey conspiracy theories, typically suffer from a kind of crippled epistemology… [G]overnment agents and their allies might enter foreign chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic, or implications for action, political or otherwise. (p. 29)

There you have it. We can lick this conspiracy menace through government-funded concern-trolling!


But to what end? Why bother? (I mean, besides the bogeyman of conspiratorially inspired bombings.) Simply to advance public-policy positions that one happens to favor? Yes, that’s it, basically. But you have to slog through the rest of the book to unravel Sunstein’s peculiar whys and wherefores. It becomes apparent that he conceives of society as a fungible mass of atomized individuals, distinguished superficially by marks of race and sex and atavistic biases, but essentially the same and interchangeable. The overarching goal of public policy, it would seem, is elimination of social friction and individual differences. Everyone should be forced to just get along. In this he’s reminiscent of old-school Community Relations propagandists. Let’s wipe out prejudice. We’re all the same beneath the skin!

It’s as if we were all faceless passengers in a lifeboat, with no past or purpose or sense of how we got there. This explains Sunstein’s obsession with subduing those “conspiracy theories” he doesn’t really have a grasp of. Their truth or falsity don’t matter; the big thing is that they cause dissent and disharmony. Lifeboat captain Sunstein doesn’t want to see us muttering darkly amongst ourselves. Because we might rock the boat, or capsize it. Or worse yet, toss him over the gunwale.

There are ten other essays in the book, and Sunstein digresses on a grab-bag of subjects. Animal rights, health care costs/benefits, climate-change agreements, sex equality, marriage. Marriage as a state-sanctioned institution he doesn’t really believe in. He sees it as an accidental hand-me-down from an earlier age, a cozy tradition but not something society has any real interest in promoting. Obviously he has no problem with interracial or homosexual coupling. Such marriages are “rights,” upon which the state has no business intruding.

He’s very much in favor of climate-change agreements, as he is a globalist, a one-worlder, opposed to prioritizing the needs and productivity of America over those of China, India, and poor countries of the Third World. Global warming is an oncoming catastrophe that faces us all here in the global lifeboat. Since the past prosperity in the US of A is responsible for the majority of greenhouse gases (climate scientists all agree!), it is the responsibility of this country to take the lead, shrink its carbon emissions, and try to cajole other countries to do likewise. Sunstein doubts that we’ll have any strict international climate agreement anytime soon, because it is politically unattractive. But we should at least make soothing noises about how global warming is an existential danger, because—and this is just my educated guess—that will make the other countries’ Community Relations leaders happy.

He describes his own political philosophy as New Progressivism. Desired objectives include a rejection of economic protectionism, an emphasis on education (by which he means job training), a flexible labor market (everybody a temp!). Standard free-market globalism, in order words. But Sunstein’s agenda goes a little further. He wants a program of private and public incentives to encourage people to adhere to an ideal “normative” behavior. As illustrations he mentions anti-smoking initiatives and anti-obesity drives, but you know and I know what he’s really after: conformity of behavior, conformity of belief, a relinquishment of personal beliefs, heritage, identity.


Cass Sunstein, The Unprincipled Man

Revilo P. Oliver and F. P. Yockey: Some Aspects of Criticism

The writings of Francis Parker Yockey have fascinated the far Right for a half-century and more. I would argue that the person most responsible for this popularity is the late classics professor Revilo P. Oliver. While Prof. Oliver had little practical input in the distribution of Yockey writings (that credit would go more to Willis Carto and George Dietz), it was Oliver’s imprimatur that lent Yockey a gravitas that ensured he would be cherished as something other than the author of some controversial, obscurantist tracts.

This is true even though Oliver disagreed with Yockey on a number of key points. He championed Yockey even in the early 1960s when Oliver was writing for the John Birch Society and had to couch his praise in evasive words. Years later, when his critical essays were mainly limited to the small-run periodical Liberty Bell and he could write whatever he pleased (which often meant page-long footnotes explicating minutiae of philology, archeology and race), he still held Yockey in great esteem, someone whose errors were as worthy of explication as his insights.

Accordingly, anyone who studies Yockey very quickly runs into Prof. Oliver. Some highlights of the Yockey-Oliver connection:

RPO in the Yockey Biographies

We now have two big Yockey biographies at our disposal. There is Kevin Coogan’s Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International, published in 1999. And, new in 2018, Kerry Bolton’s Yockey: A Fascist Odyssey. Despite the somewhat similar titles, the books are very different, and hardly “synoptic” narratives. While offering many curious details of Yockey’s life, the Bolton book largely takes an historiographic view, reviewing how Yockey was seen and written about through the passing decades. For example, Bolton tells us that one notable American figure of the Right, Wilmot Robertson of The Dispossessed Majority and the magazine Instauration, did not care for Yockey at all. Yockey was too Spenglerian; he followed Spengler’s rather mystical and unprovable idea of historical cycles. Worst of all, he tried to evade the hard and essential factor of biological (or “vertical”) race. Yockey, like Spengler, instead emphasized what he called “horizontal race,” a kinship more of cultural spirit than blood.

As for Oliver, he shared some of these objections, but never ceased to endorse what he saw as the kernel of Yockey’s argument, which was the quasi-organic unity of (Western) culture. He knew of Yockey before Yockey’s Imperium was popularized in the early 1960s. He praised Yockey’s insights in the pages of American Opinion and The American Mercury during that decade. He assisted with the founding of the Yockeyite National Youth Alliance organization in the late 60s. He was still treating Yockey as a figure of serious analysis in the 1980s.

Conversely, in the Coogan study Oliver hardly appears at all. He is merely a name mentioned in passing, mainly with regard to the National Youth Alliance. Coogan ignores RPO’s extensive writing on Yockey. For that matter, Coogan does not seem to be much interested in Imperium—or even have read it, let alone Yockey’s other writings. For Coogan, Yockey’s “philosophy of history” exists mainly as a title of a big cult book that enraptured the far Right in the 1960s and beyond. It is most peculiar to attempt a biography of a philosopher without discussing his philosophy, let alone critics’ commentaries on it, but that is what we have here. And it explains why Coogan makes RPO no more than a minor, ancillary figure.

To digress a little: only about half of Coogan’s Dreamer of the Day pertains to Yockey’s writing or life events. There is little historiography or critical discussion, from RPO or anyone else. And yet the book is far longer than it needs to be (644 pp. in paperback), padded out with every stray rumor and scrap of research the author found. The biographical portion is derived in large part from FOIA files as well as various letters that an earlier researcher, Keith Stimely, received in the 1980s. The rest of the content is a hyperbolic exposition of what Coogan calls the “Fascist International”: a murky stew into which he stirs such extraneous, oddball characters as Chilean diplomat and mystic Miguel Serrano, and British occultist Aleister Crowley. Throughout the book Coogan throws in misinformed, lurid notions about such things as Yockey’s parentage (Coogan has the birthdate of Yockey’s father Louis wrong, and thereby implies Louis was a bastard, born years after his ostensible father died); and researcher Stimely’s personal life (based on allegations in David McCalden’s lively-but-scurrilous Revisionist Newsletter in the 1980s). Sensationalism was the main objective here.

RPO on Comparative Morphology

Much of Oliver’s writing on Yockey is a half-century old now, yet it is still the most trenchant and inclusive analysis. So far as I can tell, he is the only person who analyzed Imperium as a work in a definable genre, what one might call the philosophy of morphological history. In a very long 1963 essay, published in American Opinion (though very un-Birchite in scope and theme), he compares Yockey with a number of others in the school including, most obviously, The Decline of the West‘s Oswald Spengler, Lawrence R. Brown (The Might of the West) and Arnold Toynbee (A Philosophy of History).

Although RPO quibbles with some of Yockey’s factual asides—e.g., his apparent forgetfulness about the Thirty Years War when stating that Germany was fortunate to avoid most of the carnage that depleted the rest of Europe from the Middle Ages onward—he is generally appreciative of and laudatory toward Imperium. The basic reason for this seems to be that, whatever Oliver’s own doubts may have been about Spenglerian theories of historical morphology, or Yockey’s own quasi-mystical belief in Destiny, he agrees with the Yockey’s fundamental argument: that the Western civilization from the Middle Ages at least has been a unitary whole, and that the destructive conflicts of the 20th century amounted to a pathology exacerbated by outside elements:

[T]he culture of the West, like every viable civilization, is a unity in the sense that its parts are organically interdependent. Although architecture, music, literature, the mimetic arts, science, economics, and religion may seem at first glance more or less unrelated, they are all constituent parts of the cultural whole, and the disease of any one will sooner or later affect all the others. Your hands will not long retain their strength, if there is gangrene in the foot or cancer in the stomach.[1]

Writing in 1963, Oliver avoids mention of Yockey’s “culture-distorter” or the Jewish Question (although he makes a nod to that Birchite proxy, the International Communist Conspiracy). Years later, with the “Birch Business” well behind him, Oliver would be more explicit.

This brings us to “The Enemy of Our Enemies” (1981), which George Dietz’s Liberty Bell magazine put out in a fat issue that also contained Yockey’s own “The Enemy of Europe.” The two monographs were later republished together as a paperback book.[2] Yockey’s extended essay, translated back into English from a surviving German version, is nearly a hundred pages, an excoriation of American hegemony over the European culture-soul. The Oliver section is even longer, a brilliant and cranky, no-holds-barred fulmination. While beginning as an exegesis of Yockey, his influences and his errors, this commentary readily departs from that pretext, delivering instead RPO’s own, broader variation on the general theme:

In 1914, our civilization was worm-eaten at the core, but its brightly glittering surface concealed the corruption within from superficial eyes. It was taken for granted that the globe had become one world, the world of which the Aryan nations were the undisputed masters, while all the lesser races already were, or would soon become, merely the subject inhabitants of their colonial possession. This reasonable conception of the world’s unity oddly survived the catastrophes that followed and it conditioned unthinking mentalities to accept the preposterous notion of the current propaganda for “One World,” which is couched in endless gabble that is designed to conceal the fact that it is to be a globe under the absolute and ruthless dominion of the Jews—a globe on which our race, if not exterminated, will be the most degraded and abject of all.[3]

The Introduction to Imperium: A Question of Attribution

Finally, a note on a point that perennially comes up when Yockey and Oliver are discussed. Was the long foreword to the post-1960 editions of Imperium, signed Willis A. Carto, actually written by Mr. Carto, or by Prof. Oliver? Keith Stimely claimed the latter, in a furious booklet he distributed in the mid-1980s after he left Carto’s employ at the Institute for Historical Review.

When pressed, Oliver was vague on the subject, writing Stimely in 1984 only that he had given Carto permission to use material he had written as suggested introduction to a new reprint of the book. Stimely reproduced part of Oliver’s letter in his anti-Carto booklet, and Kerry Bolton also excerpt it in his Yockey biography:

I wrote a lengthy and signed memorandum on Yockey’s importance as a philosopher of history and a nationalist, hoping to inlist the support of persons who would subsidize a new edition of Imperium… I…told Carto to make whatever use he wished of what I had written for an intoduction by him or anyone he chose to introduce the new edition. I therefore gave him the material, and it would be dishonourable of me to try to reclaim it. [4]

This essay-memorandum seems to have vanished. Oliver wrote a review of Imperium some years later (1966) for The American Mercury [5] that bears some resemblance to the philosophical discussion in the Introduction, but is otherwise entirely different: i.e., not a “retread” of some older piece that was repurposed.

When the question was put to them, both Willis Carto and his wife (now widow) Elisabeth maintained that the Introduction was indeed written by Mr. Carto himself. Therefore, worrying through the problem, Kerry Bolton comes to a Solomonic compromise, and says that it

seems plausible, stylistically and philosophically…that Carto wrote the first biographical half of the ‘Introduction’ and Oliver wrote the second half, commenting on the Yockeyan doctrine of Culture-pathology.


[1] Revilo P. Oliver, “History and the Historians,” 1963; collected in America’s Decline, 1983, pp. 276-277.

[2] Yockey and Oliver, The Enemy of Europe/the Enemy of Our Enemies. Liberty Bell Publications, 2003.


[4] Kerry Bolton, Yockey: A Fascist Odyssey. Arktos, 2018.


Revilo P. Oliver and F. P. Yockey: Some Aspects of Criticism

On the Trail of the “Blue Boys” Hoax

In the late 1980s, some people I knew perpetrated a hoax in the Los Angeles local media. I believe LA Weekly was used, maybe LA Magazine as well.

Briefly, it was alleged that there was a roving gang of fag-bashers calling themselves the Blue Boys. Spokesmen for these Blue Boys gave out ludicrous quotes that any sane person should have recognized as a “troll.”

However, this was long before the days of web-media, and people simply didn’t expect hoaxes and fake news, the way they do now. Moreover, since there was no internet presence to speak of, the Blue Boys hoax left no easily discoverable footprints that would turn up today in search engines.

What one can find is very scanty, on the order of bibliographic listings and third-hand references in quasi-scholarly books. Here are some snippets of a book published by Oxford University Press in 1995, oddly titled Lesbian, Gay, And Bisexual Identities Over the Lifespan, by D’Augelli & Patterson. Scribd link here.

Further searching brings up the original article, from the issue of LA Weekly, 26 August 1988, reprinted in Hate Crimes: Confronting Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men, by Gregory M. Herek (SAGE, 1992). This means I saw the article shortly afterwards. Since I searched this on Google, I have only a portion of the “preview” version, saved in screenshots.
The above citations and reprint are by no means exhaustive. I’ve also found a crazy book from Routledge in London, called In the Name of Hate, cribbing the same quotes used in the top book, with mock-scholarly citations.
A point or two of textual criticism: the original piece from LA Weekly introduces “Matt” as “a true low-life.” Now, anyone who’s ever done any journalism, even on the LA Weekly level (I have), knows that you don’t bring in your primary contact at the top of the story and characterize him with a generic insult. As a practical matter it’s risky and unremunerative. If “Matt” is really a scary guy, he and his pals could likely come after you.
And even if you do have contempt for “Matt,” it would be stupid to show it. You would want to treat him leniently, and even flatter him. After all, he’s your meal-ticket and a possible introduction to further articles and maybe more profitable endeavors. A book contract perhaps.
The purported author of the LA Weekly article, “Michael Collins,” is posing as an investigative journalist, yet in this article he does nothing to invite the trust of his quarry. One has to wonder why and how “Michael Collins” got to meet “Matt,” and won his limited trust, in the first place.
Therefore: not only is writer “Michael Collins” a fake or at least a pseud, but “Matt” and his whole gang are invented.
Of course, going into this I knew that the story was made up out of thin air, in order to make a few bucks on the theme of gay-bashing. But it’s still astonishing that LA Weekly fell for this nonsense, and that the lefty idiots who cited our “Michael Collins” didn’t perceive the fakery.
Well…maybe they didn’t care about it one way or another.
Anyway, I invite the reader to research this “Michael Collins” and tell me about his background and any further work.
On the Trail of the “Blue Boys” Hoax

Lothrop Stoddard’s Re-Forging America (1927)

June 29 is the birthday of T. (for Theodore) Lothrop Stoddard (1883-1950)—scholar, lecturer, journalist, polymath, and author of many, many books.

Stoddard is best known for 1920’s The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy, discussed two years ago here. Along with Madison Grant (1865-1937), author of The Passing of the Great Race (1916), and Prescott F. Hall (1868-1921), eugenics crusader and founder of the Immigration Restriction League, Stoddard can rightly be considered a father of the sweeping Immigration Act of 1924 (aka Johnson-Reed Act).

This Act pegged annual immigration quotas to the American people’s national origins as of 1890. It was our basic immigration and naturalization law for over forty years, until those quotas were abolished by the disastrous Hart-Celler Act of 1965.

Passage of the 1924 Act was of course a great triumph for Lothrop Stoddard, and for the countless others who labored for the cause of racial sanity and national sovereignty. What is not widely known is that Stoddard wrote a follow-up book to celebrate the Act and detail its history. That is Re-Forging America: The Story of Our Nationhood, published in 1927 by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

This book soon went out of print and is nearly impossible to obtain today in its original edition. The single copy I found in a large research library is falling apart, its yellowing pages crumbling to the touch. Fortunately someone thought to digitize its tawny pages for posterity, and you may now read it online.

Stoddard explains its purpose in his Preface: “[H]ow the bright promise of our early days was darkened by the disaster of the Civil War and by the blight of alien factors… [W]e awoke to the peril and are to-day engaged in the inspiring task of fulfilling the early promise of American life.”

The problems of national reconstruction are many. The closing of the gates to mass-immigration is merely a first step. Alien elements in our population must be assimilated. Political and cultural dissensions should be harmonized.

Above all, our great negro problem must be realistically and constructively dealt with. The dilemma of color, at once the most chronic and the most acute of American issues, has long been regarded with despairing pessimism. In these pages we have suggested at least a tentative solution which we have termed Bi-Racialism: The Key to Social Peace. [1]

As you might guess, “Bi-Racialism” is his proposal for a form of apartheid, not dissimilar to that which then obtained in the South and elsewhere, but one codified more fully into national law, yet one providing fairness and dignity for the negro.

Altogether it’s a very sunny snapshot of 1920’s American optimism, in the immediate aftermath of the 1924 Act. Stoddard presumed that we would not be so foolish as to overturn the new Act a few decades down the road. He did not foresee that the history behind the Act would quickly be forgotten, along with this explanatory volume.

 *  *  *

The first section of Re-Forging America gives the familiar history of colonization and the nation’s founding, mainly by settlers from the British Isles, with a fair number of other participants from northwest Europe. From the time of the Revolution until about 1820 there was only minimal immigration to the new country. This was partly due to the almost incessant wars of the Napoleonic period, but it was mainly because of the difficulty of transporting oneself across the ocean.

The post-1820 story he breaks into two overlapping sagas, that of the Old Immigrants, consisting of “English, Scotch, Irish, German, Scandinavian, Dutch, and a few others of minor importance” (pp. 327-328)—essentially the same as the founding stock; and the New Immigrants, who began to arrive in great waves a couple of decades after the Civil War. While not necessarily “unassimilable” throughout, these newcomers had cultures, national origins, and patterns of arrival so different from the older groups that their alienation from the country at large was noticeable. For the first time, immigration, in both type and numbers, became a national concern.[2] And those numbers were huge:

It was in the period from 1890 to 1914 that immigration really inundated America. During those twenty-four years no less than 17,500,000 immigrants entered the United States! Furthermore, it was during just those years that immigration became most “alien” in character, since the bulk of these later millions were of South and East European or even of Asiatic origin; thereby bringing into America racial stocks, ideas, and attitudes toward life, which had previously been well-nigh unknown (p. 92).

Contrasting these the with the still-continuing Old Immigration, Stoddard makes the insightful observation that the “Anglo-Saxon” element (which he describes as English, Scots, Ulster Protestants, and English-speaking Canadians):

forms the most numerous and constant stream of immigration which has ever entered America… Its volume may be judged by the fact that the Anglo-Saxon “immigrant” stock constitutes between 11,000,000 and 12,000,000 of our population.

Why is there so little mention of the Anglo-Saxon element in immigration? For a very significant reason. The Anglo-Saxon immigrant usually fits into America so well and assimilates so rapidly that his great numbers pass almost unnoticed (p. 106).

Of course this is the same point made by Pat Buchanan in 1992, when he said it would be far easier for Virginia to take in a million Englishmen, rather than a million Zulus.

The next two largest Old Immigration streams in Stoddard’s scheme are the “Celtic Irish” and the Germans, both of whom are slightly smaller numerically than the “Anglo Saxons,” as of 1927. Although present in America from Colonial times, these groups’ immigration numbers famously surged during the 1840s. Stoddard falls back on the commonplace 20th century fallacy that this was due to a “potato blight” in the case of Ireland, and “political exiles” in the case of Germany. Utter nonsense. The great driver of immigration in the period was the growth of steam transport, by water and rail; which made the two main ports of embarkation, Liverpool and Hamburg, easily accessible from the hinterlands. Steam also cut the time of transatlantic crossings in half (for those who could afford the cost), and created a vast surplus of slower, obsolescent ships, thereby providing rock-bottom steerage fares (for those who couldn’t). Immigration from the United Kingdom as a whole accordingly surged during this period, as did that from northwest Continental Europe.

The next group Stoddard counts among the Old Immigration is the Scandinavian portion, who largely arrived after 1870 (4,000,000 in population as of 1927). Finally, the Dutch and Flemings, whom he numbers at about a half-million (pp. 110-111).

Preparing to dissect the “New Immigration,” Stoddard first makes a nod to the Chinese problem, which was almost entirely a Californian affair, from mid-century till the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The basic issue was not anti-Chinese prejudice, or even that the Chinese were taking jobs from whites. Rather, Chinese were rapidly colonizing, and threatening to transform, that section of the country beyond recognition, much as they colonized Malaysia and threatened to do to Australia. He avers that if the Chinese had come to the Atlantic coast rather than the sparsely populated Pacific, America would have awakened to the Chinese problem, and that of the New Immigration from Europe, much sooner (p. 117).

This threatened change of national character to something “Asiatic” is one of Stoddard’s main complaints against the New Immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. His racial codex seems embarrassingly rote today, with its talk of Nordic—Alpine—Mediterranean types; much like the fustier passages in The Dispossessed Majority.[3]

“Eastern Europe is next door to Asia… Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar” (p. 121).”The South Italians are a complex mixture of Mediterraneans with Asiatic and North African strains (chiefly Arab and Berber), together with a slight dash of negro blood” (p. 123).

Then we come to the Jews, and Stoddard is careful to parse out the differences: Sephardic versus Ashkenazic; German Jews versus Eastern Europeans. The Sephardic and German Jews are basically “no ‘problem'” (pp. 128-129). As for the Easterners: “They are very prolific, and now number well over 3,500,000,” and are roundly disliked by the others (p. 131). Stoddard treats the Jewish matter gingerly because he does not wish to upset the august publishing house of Scribner’s, or so we may assume. But he’s also repeating a cliché of his era, one that he probably heard at Harvard, and which persuasive German Jews were fond of encouraging: that they were upright and civilized, while the boychiks from Minsk and Pinsk were lowlifes who made people “anti-Semitic.”

Racial deficiencies, however, are not Stoddard’s core theme. He wants to make it clear that the flood-tide of New Immigration was not a natural influx of people seeking a better life, or wishing to live in the Land of the Free.  Rather, it was a byproduct of concerted, profitable maneuvers by special interests, most of them foreign:

The most prominent of these interests are the great steamship companies, which made enormous profits from the immigrant traffic, and which, being virtually all foreign-owned had absolutely no interest in what the immigrants they transported might do to America. The “steamship lobby” was one of the many selfish interests which long blocked effective immigration-restriction laws (p. 156).

And where else have we heard this routine? It sounds so much like the Agribusiness Lobby and their Congressional myrmidons, doesn’t it? Instructing that us we won’t have beefsteak tomatoes or Mother’s Day carnations if we don’t bring in another million mestizo peons this year.

 *  *  *

Looking toward the future, with the 1924 Act behind him, Stoddard becomes endearingly naïve as he addresses the negro problem. He sees that negro and mulatto agitators, with help from Bolshevik Russia, are forming secret societies and hope to cause riots and conflagrations. But the bulk of the negro people are peaceable, he notes, and they will see that it is in their best interests to reach an productive modus vivendi with the white folks. As example, Stoddard quotes some of these peaceable negro thinkers (Booker Washington and Jerome Dowd, inter alia) on the advantages of racial segregation:

“Segregation enables the negro to find among his own people as many opportunities in the higher walks as are found among the white people. He may be a merchant, banker, doctor, lawyer…” (p. 294, quoting Dowd)

I don’t mean to mock Stoddard’s noble sentiments. He saw the situation clearly, and named the dangers. What he probably couldn’t comprehend was how thoroughly the rot had already set in, even as we were celebrating the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act.


1. Lothrop Stoddard, Re-Forging America, p. viii. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927.)

2. The author skips over a legend beloved of today’s pro-immigration activists: the so-called “Nativist” and “Know-Nothing” movements that came and went in the 1840s and 50s, under the leadership of a Jewish gadfly named Lewis C. Levin. Stoddard merely notes in passing that as a political force the Know-Nothings were both misdirected and ineffectual.

3. Wilmot Robertson, The Dispossessed Majority. (Cape Canaveral Fl: Howard Allen Press, 1972.)  Robertson may have cribbed a lot from this book of Stoddard’s. Not only are the racial discussions similar, but there is even a curious, obtrusive mention of the Gracchi.

Lothrop Stoddard’s Re-Forging America (1927)


Herewith a beguiling column from the recent Chronicle of Higher Education.


When Neo-Nazis Love Your Book

Can a liberal education create enemies of liberalism?

Chronicle Review illustration by Scott Seymour
JUNE 22, 2018  PREMIUM

It would be nice to think that fields of academic study such as philosophy and political theory are innocent, and that one could teach them without the fear of breeding monstrosities. That comforting thought looks less reliable by the day, which is what prompted me to write a book called Dangerous Minds, about the influence of Nietzsche and Heidegger on today’s far right. The very first (uncomfortably positive) review came from someone who is himself a dangerous mind: Greg Johnson, who runs a white-nationalist website called Counter-Currents, where he published the review. Among other repellant views, Johnson has argued that Jews like me should be expelled from the United States to their own ethnostate.

How could someone with these extremist views have anything to do with a humanizing discipline like philosophy? Yet Johnson holds a Ph.D. in philosophy — he wrote his doctoral thesis on Kant and Swedenborg — and has taught at the college level. Evidently, Kant’s moral egalitarianism left little impression on him.

Can one raise the largest questions in political theory and philosophy without opening a door to dangerous extremes? It has been known since Socrates, who practiced philosophy in the company of dubious figures like Critias and Alcibiades, that there is an uneasy relationship between the life of the mind and the potentially violent vortex of the political. Plato, too, played with fire by putting himself in the service of Sicilian tyrants, and he most likely wrote The Republic out of an awareness that potential tyrants are drawn to philosophy’s root-and-branch questioning of established social conventions. To this very day, there are people who read ancient texts not in spite of the fact that the ancient world embodied slavery, imperialism, and ruthless cruelty but on account of a fetishizing fascination with those very things.

Can one raise the largest questions in political theory and philosophy without opening a door to dangerous extremes?

To be sure, many of political philosophy’s direst effects are unintended. When he wrote On the Social Contract, Rousseau could not have anticipated that his most enthusiastic political disciples would eventually be guillotining those they considered deficient in Rousseauian virtue. We might say the same of Marx: He surely could not have imagined that murderous regimes from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea would invoke his authority for their own tyrannical purposes.Theory, it is clear, can produce monsters. The problem of the monstrous potential of theory persists when one turns to the 20th-century canon. In The Reckless Mind, Mark Lilla judges a broad range of powerful contemporary thinkers — including Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojève, and Michel Foucault — too easily tempted by hazardous lines of political thought. Schmitt was a Nazi who remains a favorite of the contemporary radical right. Benjamin flirted with notions of revolutionary violence and was attracted to Schmitt, as intellectuals on the left still are. Kojève didn’t think there was any incompatibility in principle between the modern project of universal recognition and Stalinist tyranny. Foucault welcomed revolutionary theocracy in Iran as a way of giving the finger to the liberal West. Nor has the political irresponsibility of some of their ideological entanglements put the slightest dent in the popularity of these thinkers.

One can’t be true to the vocation of political theory without engaging, both intellectually and pedagogically, with the most radical minds, but one must do so always with the vivid awareness that many of these thinkers did contribute to, even if they weren’t directly responsible for, the terror and atrocity committed by those they influenced. Of course, we could solve the problem by resolving only to teach irenic theorists such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Mill. It’s telling that even Mill himself would be mightily unhappy with that “solution.”

Nietzsche is particularly problematic. Undergraduates love him and hence are all too vulnerable to his seductive rhetoric. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche openly confesses his goal of titillating and enticing the young: “What thrills them is the sight of the zeal surrounding a cause and, so to speak, the sight of the burning match — not the cause itself. The subtler seducers therefore know how to create in them the expectation of an explosion …. Reasons are not the way to win over these powder kegs!” For generations, scholars of Nietzsche have tried to minimize or play down his dangerousness, but he remains a potent resource for sinister ideologies that are currently gaining ground.

This, after all, is a thinker who celebrates slavery as a necessary condition of genuine culture, and who regards moralities that privilege dominant castes as decidedly superior to moralities that presume that all members of a society possess an inalienable human dignity. A year ago, in an undergraduate course on politics and religion in the history of political thought, I assigned Nietzsche’s The Antichrist, a rich text with lots of thought-provoking ideas but also lots of truly ugly and offensive rhetoric. Sure enough, one of my students, having picked this text as the topic for his final essay, cited the book directly off a neo-Nazi website. Despite the scholarly efforts to cleanse Nietzsche of all meaningful connections to fascism, it’s no surprise that contemporary Nazis love this text. As Conor Cruise O’Brien put it (writing in the late 1960s), it is not “consoling to think of what some future readers of this master may have in store for us” — as if he could already see today’s alt-right on the horizon.

Theory, it is clear, can produce monsters.

Nietzsche himself anticipated this problem when he wrote that “the sort of unqualified and utterly unsuitable people who may one day come to invoke my authority is a thought that fills me with dread. Yet that is the anguish of every great teacher of mankind: he knows that, given the circumstances and the accidents, he can become a disaster as well as a blessing to mankind.”Academics have been too easy on Nietzsche, either ignoring his ultra-reactionary politics or downplaying the relevance of that politics to his real philosophy. This lenient treatment might be related to the fact that Western liberal societies for the past 70 years have enjoyed the luxury (which perhaps we haven’t sufficiently appreciated!) of the far right being utterly discredited. But there are ample indications that this happy respite is over, as Nazis and fascists emerge horror-movie-like from the grave in which we thought they were buried.

Leo Strauss apparently doubted whether it was right for Nietzsche to write down, let alone publish, his dangerous thoughts. Before rushing to assume that Strauss is exaggerating the hazards of exposing the young to Nietzsche’s inflammatory texts, consider Richard B. Spencer, America’s most notorious white nationalist. Spencer attended three great universities, the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and Duke University; by his own account the decisive turning-point on the path that led him to celebrity with his “Hail Trump” speech soon after Trump’s election was a grad seminar on Nietzsche that he took at Chicago.

We would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t take with utter seriousness the Spencer trajectory, starting with Nietzsche seminars in grad school and ending with the torchlit white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville. To be sure, not many people taking graduate classes on the thought of Nietzsche will turn into neo-fascists. It doesn’t follow from that fact that there aren’t things in Nietzsche’s work capable of turning people into neo-fascists. When I teach a seminar on Nietzsche, is there any guarantee that a future Richard Spencer won’t be in the room?

If Nietzsche is a problem, Heidegger almost certainly poses an even bigger one, as wave after wave of Heidegger scandal demonstrates beyond question that he was far more compromised, politically and morally, than his apologists would have us believe. The scholar Emmanuel Faye has controversially suggested that the hundred volumes of Heidegger’s philosophy should be moved from the philosophy section in university library stacks to the history of Nazism section.

That would be the wrong response, though much of what Faye writes on the subject of Heidegger is on target. If we’re to teach these thinkers — and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that we stop doing so — we must teach them without sanitizing or whitewashing their most illiberal and appalling ideas. Nietzsche and Heidegger are towering thinkers, and we would be failing to educate our students about the summits of Western philosophy if we cut them out of the curriculum. Philosophy, from Plato to Spinoza to Rousseau to Marx, has always exposed the fundamental assumptions of established social and political life to radical questioning, and political theory would cease to be what it is and what it should be if radical thinkers (of both the left and the right) are deemed too dangerous to teach. We are not only citizens who have a duty to exercise prudent judgment about civic life; we are also human beings who have a duty to live fully reflective lives. While our vocation as citizens must make us wary of the dangerous minds in our theory canon, our vocation as reflective human beings requires dialogue with them. We must teach these books — but that doesn’t mean that we should teach them without anxiety.

The liberal arts are upheld by a kind of faith that engaging with ideas will indeed contribute to a more liberal, more generous-minded, moral consciousness. As a scholar and an educator, I’m not ready to surrender that faith. But political theory always has the potential to generate havoc or worse. The stakes are particularly high in a political world as unsettled as ours: where technological change is so rapid; where the boundaries between different societies and cultures are being renegotiated on an epic scale; where the internet unleashes political passions so little inhibited by norms of civility; and where the most powerful man on the planet is someone as volatile as Donald Trump.

Given all this, how can my confidence in the vocation of theory not be shaken a little (or more than a little) when I read the chilling words that conclude Greg Johnson’s review of my book?

[Beiner] did not anticipate what would happen if his book fell into the hands of Rightist readers like me. Dangerous Minds … is a very helpful introduction to Nietzsche and Heidegger as anti-liberal thinkers. Thus I recommend it highly. And if I have anything to say about it, this book will help create a whole lot more dangerous minds, a whole new generation of Right-wing Nietzscheans and Heideggerians.

Commitment to a liberal education doesn’t guarantee a commitment to liberalism. Higher education in a liberal society involves teaching great representatives of the liberal tradition as well as great enemies of liberalism. Is that the glory of liberal pedagogy, or is it its Achilles heel?

Ronald Beiner is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right, published earlier this year by the University of Pennsylvania Press.


Lord Haw-Haw of MI5

William Joyce at the microphone
Haw-Haw did nothing wrong.

William Brooke Joyce, the Berlin propaganda broadcaster known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” and the last man to be executed in England for treason, was an agent for MI5. He went to Berlin in August 1939 at the behest of an old friend and spymaster, and wound up becoming the English voice of Nazi radio. Then in 1945 he was brought back to London, tried as a traitor, and hanged on January 3, 1946.

This was done to please the Kremlin, and to protect communists in the British government and intelligence services. Haw-Haw needed to be made an example of. He was a man who knew too much.[1]

It all sounds like a premise for an alternative-history novel or docudrama. “Traitor” Joyce is, after all, one of the most vilified figures of his era. But the facts in the foregoing are not only a matter of record, they’ve been extensively written about for the past fifteen years, in a never-ending stream of books and articles.[2] The revelations are all part of a vastly bigger story about wartime intelligence that’s been unravelling for decades, particularly since declassification of MI5 files began in 1999.

The story as it stands now shows that Joyce was a longtime personal and professional friend of Maxwell Knight, the spymaster known as “M” of MI5. In the 1920s Knight was director of intelligence for the British Fascists (not to be confused with Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, which came later). From the BF, Knight was recruited to government intelligence, first MI6 then MI5, where he headed up his own section targeting Communist subversion in politics and trade unions.

In the early 1930s Knight attempted to recruit William Joyce, too, whom he’d known through the BF since 1924. Joyce was by now busy pursuing a PhD in psychology, and declined. Nevertheless by 1937 Joyce was on the MI5 books, not merely as expert on Communist groups, but on the internal politics of Mosley’s BUF, which he had just quit. Knight came up with the idea that Joyce should move to Berlin, become naturalized as a German citizen and a full-fledged Nazi—Our Man in Berlin. A double-agent of sorts, except his target wouldn’t be German intelligence itself, but the Soviets.

Joyce finally made this jump in 1939, right after the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. This was a time when the British intelligence services were being deeply penetrated by Moscow, and it was reasonably supposed that in Berlin the German and Soviet services were sharing information. He and his wife Margaret left for Berlin on August 26, and eventually found employment as broadcasters in Goebbels’s propaganda ministry. MI5’s Knight paid him a small retainer and maintained sub rosa communications with him, at least till mid-1940.[3]

The story of Joyce and MI5 intersects other famed spy and diplomatic crises of the era, notably the case of Tyler Kent, the American Embassy cipher clerk who copied illicit communications between President Roosevelt and Admiralty’s Churchill, and was imprisoned. The Kent case was a Maxwell Knight operation, in which suspected Nazi/Soviet assets were caught in a “sting” when they posted a coded message to William Joyce in Berlin.

While it mainly concerns British intelligence services, it’s ultimately an American story too; the American services at the time were little more than a junior adjunct of the British. And by birth, William Joyce was American.

Unique Venom

William Joyce may be honored someday as hero and martyr, but that may be a long time coming. He has been relentlessly demonized for over seven decades. There are many ironies here, beginning with the fact that his only real crime was lying on a British passport application. He said his birthplace was Galway, Ireland when really it was Brooklyn, New York—an offense meriting a fine of two pounds, as A.J.P. Taylor once noted.[4] Unlike such Soviet spies as Kim Philby, Klaus Fuchs, Otto Katz, Alger Hiss (etc., etc.), Joyce never sent Russian defectors or Albanian freedom-fighters to their deaths. Or stole atomic secrets. Or subverted British or American foreign policy. All William Joyce did was give Sunday night news commentaries over the wireless.

Joyce’s persecution and posthumous defamation has always seemed most peculiar. When he was brought back to England as prisoner in June ’45, Parliament rushed through a special new Treason Act, for the specific purpose of convicting and hanging him. This was still Churchill’s wartime coalition government, a very Soviet-friendly stew of Labourites and Tories, some of them actual Communists.[5] Joyce’s conviction and execution as British “traitor,” when it was clearly shown that he was American by birth and German by naturalization, was bizarre in the extreme. As is the unique venom showered upon him by journalists and history-scribblers over the past 73 years.

This spew began with an elegant essay by Rebecca West in The New Yorker, “The Crown vs. William Joyce,” in September 1945. It’s smooth and stylish, extremely readable; but it’s a tissue of lies, tabloid disinformation, and derogatory fiction passed off as rumor. And yet this profile of Joyce is still treated as a kind of primary source about the man. Collected and revised in The Meaning of Treason (Viking, 1947) and many subsequent editions and versions, it has never gone out of print. And what a source it is. Describing Joyce’s appearance in court, at the Old Bailey:

He was short and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so… His nose was joined to his face at an odd angle and its bridge and its point and its nostrils were all separately misshapen. . . His body looked flimsy yet coarse. . . There was nothing individual about him except a deep scar running across his right cheek from his lower lip to his ear. But this … gave a mincing immobility to his mouth, which was extremely small. His smile was pinched and governessy… [A] not very fortunate example of the small, nippy, jig-dancing type of Irish peasant. [6]

West goes on about her “small, nippy” monster for two or three hundred words, then proceeds to lay into the Joyce supporters who showed up at the trial. There’s an old blond floozy, there’s a tiny hunchback, there are people who look like gypsies or madmen. Elsewhere she tells a fabulous, unsourced story about an old toff who observes Joyce’s excellent horsemanship at a 1930s weekend party, and agrees that Mr. Joyce rides well, “but not like a gentleman.” [7]  Like Joyce, Rebecca West was of Anglo-Irish background; she clearly had issues.

Much more recently we have biographer Colin Holmes, who claims to have written the first “authoritative” and “fully sourced” biography of Joyce (Searching for Lord Haw-Haw, Routledge, 2016.). Holmes is a leftist historian who admires Rebecca West very much, and strives to emulate her invective. In his universe it’s still 1945. Joyce’s fundamental and  categorical fact—Comrade—is that Joyce is a Nazi beyond redemption, and deserves to hang. Holmes completely dismisses the significance of Joyce’s MI5 involvement, denouncing biographers who focus on that aspect as practitioners of “voodoo history.”[8]

Like West, Holmes concocts fake news in his “fully sourced” biography. He advances a fanciful and quite undocumented story of how Lord Haw-Haw got his famous facial scar. When he was 18 years old and guarding a Conservative Parliamentary candidate speaking in South London in 1924—a Jewish candidate, by the way, named Jack Lazarus—Joyce was jumped and razored by what he and his nearby friend Maxwell Knight called a gang of Communist thugs. That is the story that Joyce and Knight told, and the one reported next day in the press. But in the Holmes version, the culprit was actually an “Irishwoman” who supposedly had followed Joyce all the way from Galway, where the adolescent Joyce had done courier duty for the Black and Tans in 1921.[9] The purpose of Holmes’s tale is to paint Joyce as a liar and a coward. But the evidence is not there. Like West, Holmes likes to tell an anecdote then claim it as fact.

The popular press has had a hard time framing the Joyce-MI5 story. It’s too complex, there’s too much cognitive dissonance. If you say Lord Haw-Haw was an intelligence agent on a mission in Berlin, it must mean he was secretly an anti-Nazi all those years; and a quite brilliant one at that—but if he was, then why did he get a noose instead of a knighthood, or medal at least?

Why didn’t he tell somebody about the MI5 connection at his trials? [10] The evidence is that he did not do so either out of loyalty to Knight or acknowledgment of the brute fact that such a revelation wouldn’t matter. MI5 already knew his story, and the prosecution had already stitched him up on a fake charge—that as holder of a British passport till 1940 he was liable as a traitor. The fix was in.

All this is missed by the journalistic mindset, which sees only a black vs. white, “Newspeak” simplification, with little understanding of espionage or the political situation of the 1939-40 era. Here is one example, from a few years ago. Joyce’s daughter Heather, by then well into her 80s, petitioned to have her father’s case reopened on the grounds that MI5 records proved him a British operative. The writeup in the Daily Express was predictably goggle-eyed:

Aged just 17 at his death, [Heather] has just put her name to an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) which asserts that not only was her father not technically British, and therefore unable to be a traitor, but he was also a double agent for MI5 throughout the war, a protégé of the spy master who inspired Ian Fleming to create the Bond character M.

The latter is an extraordinary claim which, if true, would mean he duped both Goebbels and Hitler, and would raise new questions about the anti-communist sympathisers in Britain’s secret services.

(Daily Express, 22 May 2011)

Duped Goebbels and Hitler! What a movie this would make!

But Joyce didn’t dupe anyone. When he went to Germany he seemed to be sincere in his support for National Socialism. That was his selling-point as a spy. If you wanted to send someone who would completely pass vetting by Dr. Goebbels—who better than William Joyce?

The Joyce Mission

Joyce’s precise remit is not spelled out anywhere, and he undoubtedly destroyed his own papers pertaining to his mission. In the last weeks of the war, as he moved from Berlin to Apen, Holland, and to Hamburg, and finally to Flensburg, Germany, where he gave himself up, he seems to have taken no documents other than his diaries, his employment ID papers, and a new passport made out in the name of “Wilhelm Hansen.” A couple of days after he was taken into custody, he was debriefed in Germany by MI5’s Jim Skardon—the same smooth, pipe-smoking operative who six years later would interview suspected Soviet spy Kim Philby ten times. Like Philby, Joyce gave only his impenetrable cover story, and hinted at no other agenda: he went to Germany because supported National Socialism and he opposed the war between Germany and Britain. Inevitably, as with Philby, MI5’s Skardon must have known the truth even even if he couldn’t get it on the record.[11]

But working backwards from what we know, it’s possible to make a good guess about what William Joyce and Maxwell Knight were up to. Soviet penetration of the Security Service, MI5, was very much on Knight’s mind in the latter 1930s. In 1937 the Service was reorganized. Communist subversion, a priority in earlier years, was downgraded as a target. Knight was left with his own anti-Communist section, B5(b) (aka “M” section); but most of the other sections in the MI5 “B” department (domestic subversion and counter-espionage) were now focusing on far-right, fascist, and pro-Nazi groups in Britain.[12]

Knight was aware, or suspected, that the Service had been well and thoroughly infiltrated, much as British rightist groups had been. (E.g., both Guy Burgess and Kim Philby had joined the Anglo-German Fellowship in the mid-30s, on instructions from Moscow, for intelligence as well as to sanitize their own Communist histories since their days at Cambridge.)

The one clear instance where we have direct evidence of communication between Maxwell Knight’s end and Joyce’s is the Tyler Kent/Anna Wolkoff affair. Kent, an American Embassy code clerk, was a suspected Soviet and/or German asset; in 1939 he was transferred from Moscow to London. Wolkoff was a Russian dress designer who moved in far-Right London circles and met Kent in early 1940. Maxwell Knight put together a sting operation in which Wolkoff was asked to send a coded letter to Joyce at Berlin Radio, via neutral diplomatic delegations. This letter was then intercepted by MI5/Knight and used to arrest Wolkoff. In the course of this ruse, Wolkoff’s connection to Kent was uncovered; then his accommodation was raided, where MI5 found hundreds of secret Embassy communiqués, some between Roosevelt and Churchill, as well as the membership roster of The Right Club (an organization headed by Capt. Archibald Maule Ramsay, a right-wing MP).

American Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy waived Tyler Kent’s diplomatic immunity, and Kent was subsequently convicted and imprisoned for some years, as was Anna Wolkoff. The new Churchill coalition government then used these discoveries as a pretext to round up a thousand nationalists, fascists, and peace activists, from May 1940 onwards, and imprison them without trial or habeas corpus.

Some writers have speculated that the Tyler Kent arrest was actually part of a conspiracy to bring down Ambassador Kennedy.[13] No doubt there were some who welcomed the embarrassment to JPK and his Embassy, but this outcome could hardly have been foreseen at the start. MI5’s target was not Tyler Kent but Anna Wolkoff and her circle of presumed “pro-Nazi” conspirators, who might be passing information not only to Berlin but to Moscow. Tyler Kent’s packet of papers were just a windfall that fell into their lap. If there was any such anti-Kennedy initiative by MI5, it was poorly thought out, as it could well blow up in their faces. Kennedy could have decided to protect Kent, might even choose to publicize the secret FDR-Churchill communiqués, which were illicit to begin with.

A prime security concern, during late 1939 and early 1940—the time of the “Phony War” and the German-Soviet Pact—was that information going through German channels was getting to the Soviets; and dispatches from Red spies in Britain were getting to the Germans. The German and Soviet spy services had a history of cooperation, long preceding the Nonagression Pact. [14]

This is really what brought Tyler Kent down, not some sting operation against Ambassador Kennedy. And whatever the Soviets really had on William Joyce, there can be little doubt that they knew his MI5 background, and that they believed he was a spy sent to Berlin to trace Soviet moles. At war’s end he was a Person of Interest, and he had to be got out the way.


1. From Nigel Farndale’s Haw-Haw: the Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce (Macmillan, 2005), p. 318, discussing Joyce’s appeal before the Lords, and an emergency Cabinet meeting by the Home Secretary in December 1945, considering how to deal with the possibility that the Lord might overturn Joyce’s conviction:

“Joyce would no doubt have been honoured to know that he had been the subject of a Cabinet meeting. He would have been pleased, too, to learn that in Moscow the Kremlin was busy bringing pressure to bear on the British Ambassador regarding his case. The Soviets had been critical of the way the Anglo-Americans had conducted themselves at the Nuremberg Trial [i.e., the International Military Tribunal, which had begun a few weeks earlier] and had been monitoring the progress of the British treason trials for any signs of liberal weakness. As an MI5 memo phrased it that week: “We are worried about what the Russian reaction might be if the Lords quash his conviction.”

The Soviets had recently brought similar pressure upon the French, forcing them to condemn to death not only Pierre Laval and the ancient Philippe Petain, but such minor figures as the writers Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu de Rochelle. The 89-year-old Petain’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by his onetime protégé Charles de Gaulle, but even de Gaulle dared spare no one else.

2. “Lord Haw-Haw” was a nickname that a London tabloid columnist invented for another British broadcaster, who sounded like a comic P.G. Wodehouse figure; but it stuck primarily to William Joyce.

The most recent mainstream book dealing with the general subject of Joyce, Maxwell Knight, and MI5 is Henry Hemming’s biography of Knight, Agent M (PublicAffairs/Perseus, 2017), which has been tremendously popular and well received in England; it was recently Waterstone’s Book of the Month. The Knight/MI5 connection to Joyce has also been touched upon recently in Francis Beckett’s A Fascist in the Family, reviewed here last year, and Colin Holmes’s Searching for Lord Haw-Haw (both from Routledge, 2016). Haw-Haw: the Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce (Macmillan, 2005) was probably the first in-depth treatment of MI5’s use of Joyce, particularly in regard to the 1940 Tyler Kent/Anna Wolkoff case.  Stephen Dorril’s Blackshirt (originally published 2005, new imprint 2017) discusses the early connections between the British Fascist movement and MI5’s anti-subversion unit, and uses MI5/Joyce information on the internal politics of Mosley’s British Union. State Secrets by Bryan Clough (2001, 2005), an early distillation of the MI5 files, suffers from an overload of conspiracy hypothesis but makes insightful criticisms of other literature. The Defence of the Realm (2009) Christopher Andrew’s “official” history of MI5, is very “sanitised,” as the Guardian wrote, but is still useful for what it shows and doesn’t.

3.  Farndale, Ibid.

4. “Technically, Joyce was hanged for making a false statement when applying for a passport, the usual penalty for which is a small fine.” A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1964.

5. Pro-Soviets in the Churchill coalition included Stafford Cripps, a House Leader, aircraft minister and ambassador to USSR; and Ellen Wilkinson, a minister of education who was a onetime Communist Party member. The Foreign Office and SIS (MI6) meantime was famously shot through with spies, beginning with Burgess, Philby and Maclean.

Regarding the Treason Act of 1945, targeting Joyce, Americans will readily notice that it was both an ex post facto law and a “bill of attainder.” The bill’s sponsors and Learned Judges justified it with the laughable excuse that it was merely a modification to Treason Acts of 1351, 1695, etc., etc.!

6. Rebecca West, “The Crown vs. William Joyce,” The New Yorker, September 29, 1945.

7. West, Ibid.

8. Interviewed by a hometown paper in Sheffield, England, Colin Holmes gave some indication of his own peculiar outlook by comparing Lord Haw-Haw to Donald Trump:
“I remember when I was writing the book I mentioned to a psychiatrist friend that I was having difficulty in understanding Joyce,” says Prof Holmes. “He said, ‘Well, we would describe him as a narcissist.’ I realised that was it. And, of course, an American psychiatrist said the same thing about Trump.” (Sheffield Telegraph, 23 Nov 2016)

9. Holmes’s story about the scar has nevertheless been picked up, uncritically, by Francis Beckett in his biography of his father, Fascist in the Family (2016), and by Henry Hemming in Agent M (2017), about Joyce’s friend Maxwell Knight. While his version might be plausible by itself, he leaves too many evidentiary holes, such as failing to provide any corroboration or transcript. Furthermore the tale is opposed by every other account of the event, and dubiously claims a dubious source: the 86-year-old ex-wife of Joyce, now dead, who was not an eyewitness, did not then know Joyce, and supposedly waited nearly 70 years before vouchsafing this nugget to an unfriendly biographer.

10. Joyce did in fact play with the idea of declaring his MI5 ties, as he wrote his wife. Farndale, p. 315.

11. See J.A. Cole, Lord Haw-Haw and William Joyce: the Full Story. Faber & Faber (London), 1964. Also Farrar Straus & Giroux (New York), 1965. Joyce’s diaries, documents, and the Skardon debriefing are photographed and transcribed.

12. Antony Percy, Misdefending the Realm. University of Buckingham Press, 2017.

13. E.g., Bryan Clough, State Secrets, 2001, 2005.

14. Guy Liddell, 1940 Diaries.

Lord Haw-Haw of MI5

NOTES FROM ABANDONED DOMAINS: Maxwell Knight, William Joyce, Joseph Kennedy

Re-archived from the Wayback Machine, here is Bryan Clough’s website synopsis (circa 2001) of his book on the Wolkoff-Kent affair, which was published a few years later. The site was, which currently appears to be in use, but by someone else. The Wayback link is here.

Clough was one of many researchers who were sifting through declassified MI5 files that began to become available about 1999. As this was an “early pressing,” some of his conclusions may be far-fetched or misinformed. The notion that Ambassador Kennedy was the victim of a sting operation, designed to embarrass him and get him out of Grosvenor Square, may or may not be correct. It is certainly plausible. But such an action probably would not have originated within MI5; this Security Service would have been no more than a tool used by other parties.

Conversely, the idea that William Joyce was executed to hide something seems irrefutable.

Maxwell Knight (1900-1968) and his first wife, the former Gwladys Poole (1899-1935), were leading members of the British Fascisti, Britain’s first Fascist party, which started in 1923.

In 1927, he was deputy chief of staff and she was the director of the Womens’ Units.

From 1928, they both took a lower profile and, in 1931, Knight joined MI5 as head of ‘MS’ (for Maxwell’s Section). His mission was to place ‘penetrative agents’ (moles) in organisations believed to be under Communist influence.

On 24 August 1939, Knight tipped off William Joyce (1906-1946), an American-born academic and a former member of the British Fascisti, that he had been listed for internment under Emergency Regulations enacted earlier that day. This led directly to Joyce leaving for Germany two days later – eight days before war was declared – and his subsequent career as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, the most infamous broadcaster of Nazi propaganda.

In 1940, Knight stitched up two ‘spies’: Tyler Kent (1911-1988), a code and cipher clerk at the American Embassy in London, and Anna Wolkoff (1902-1973), a Russian-born dressmaker and artist. After secret trials, they were sentenced to 7 and 10 years’ penal servitude. Although the circumstances have aroused much subsequent commentary, it has never before been recognised that William Joyce could have exposed the frame up.

Joyce, Kent and Wolkoff had all been members of the Right Club, a secret anti-Jewish, anti-war organisation, founded by Captain Archibald Ramsay (1895-1955), the Conservative MP for Peebles.

Among the other members of the 250-strong Right Club were one Prince, two Princesses, one Duke, one Marquess, two Earls, five other Lords, two Professors, two Reverend Gentlemen, six Doctors, twelve MPs, nineteen retired Officers, and sundry others with ‘Sir’, ‘Lady’ or ‘Hon’ prefixing their names.

After the war, William Joyce’s own trial in September 1945 also aroused considerable controversy when he was found guilty of High Treason, despite being American by birth and German by naturalisation. After his case was discussed by the British Cabinet, Joyce was hurriedly ‘disposed of’ by execution, before the House of Lords had given their reasons for dismissing his appeal.

The same judge, Mr Justice Tucker, presided over the trials of Joyce, Kent and Wolkoff and, when sentencing Wolkoff in November 1940, he had pronounced Joyce a traitor. When Joyce came before him in 1945, Mr Justice Tucker had the unique opportunity of confirming his own earlier pronouncement.

State Secrets: The Wolkoff Files traces the careers of Maxwell Knight and William Joyce which continually intertwined during the twenties, thirties and forties.

After the war, Maxwell Knight also ventured into broadcasting and became a minor celebrity as a naturalist with both television and radio appearances. He is still remembered as ‘Uncle Max’, a children’s favourite.

Previous attempts to get at the facts behind the ‘Tyler Kent affair’ have been thwarted by official cover ups and even the incarceration of two inquisitive Canadian journalists. However, compelling evidence is now produced which shows that Kent could not possibly have been the ‘spy in the American Embassy’, as he had been portrayed, and that Anna Wolkoff was tricked by MI5 undercover agents, controlled by Knight, so that she could be categorised as an ‘enemy agent’.

This was Knight’s method of getting at Kent, although it is now evident that Kent was not the main target, just the means towards an altogether more important end.

Following privileged access to the Anna Wolkoff files at the Home Office – which had been classified as ‘Closed for 75 years’ – personal interviews with friends of Knight and Joyce, and a critical examination of different strands of information available within the public domain (including rare archive material), it is now possible to piece together a giant jigsaw which, after more than 60 years, clearly points to the real target of the exercise.

He was none other than Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador in London and patriarch of the famous clan. Hence the official actions and their subsequent sensitivity is finally exposed.

The research also firmly disposes of the long-standing myth that MI5 is merely an intelligence gathering organisation which never takes executive action and never acts outside the law.

In fact, the cases of Joyce, Kent and Wolkoff show that MI5 not only took direct executive action but it also instructed the judge on the verdicts to be delivered. It then contributed to the subsequent cover-ups.

NOTES FROM ABANDONED DOMAINS: Maxwell Knight, William Joyce, Joseph Kennedy