Wednesday, July 12, 2017

America's Long History of Fake News

Updated January 2019

While one might think that the fake news mantra during and since the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a relatively new development, in fact, as you will see from this posting, America's experience with fake news goes back at least 75 years to the Franklin Roosevelt presidency.  It was during the initial phases of the Nazi occupation of Europe that Americans were exposed to a particularly nefarious bit of fake news.

First, let's set up the situation.  The date is October 27, 1941.  Four months earlier, the Wehrmacht had begun their invasion of the Soviet Union and by December 1941, this is what Europe looked like:

Since July of 1940, the newly appointed U.K. Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had begged a neutral United States after the Germany Navy had destroyed 11 British destroyers over a ten day period.  In the 1940 presidential election campaign, Franklin Roosevelt had promised voters that "...your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."  By January 1941, the sentiment had changed somewhat after Churchill stated that if Britain had the tools, they could finish the job against the Nazis.  As such, the Lend-Lease Act of March 1941 was enacted, lending American military and other supplies to nations whose security was vital to the United States.  This led to the formation of the "Atlantic Charter", an policy statement/declaration dated August 14, 1941 which broadly stated the aims of both the United States and Britain in the European war and in its aftermath.  Both countries agreed not to expand their territory, to establish freedom of the seas and to restore self-government for all nations occupied during the war.  Here is the document:

President Roosevelt had hoped that the Charter would encourage the American people to back further U.S. intervention in the European war, however, public opinion remained strongly against such a policy.     

Never one to give up easily, Franklin Roosevelt tried another tactic to get American voters to back participation in the Second World War in the fall of 1941.  On October 27, 1941, just over one month prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour and two and a half months after the Atlantic Charter was signed, President Roosevelt addressed the nation on the radio stating the following:

"Five months ago tonight I proclaimed to the American people the existence of a state of unlimited emergency.

Since then much has happened. Our Army and Navy are temporarily in Iceland in the defense of the Western Hemisphere.

Hitler has attacked shipping in areas close to the Americas in the North and South Atlantic.

Many American-owned merchant ships have been sunk on the high seas. One American destroyer was attacked on September fourth. Another destroyer was attacked and hit on October seventeenth. Eleven brave and loyal men of our Navy were killed by the Nazis.

We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot.

America has been attacked. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman and child in this nation.

Illinois, Alabama, California, North Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arkansas, New York, Virginia-those are the home states of the honored dead and wounded of the Kearny. Hitler's torpedo was directed at every American whether he lives on our sea coasts or in the innermost part of the nation, far from the seas and far from the guns and tanks of the marching hordes of would-be conquerors of the world.

The purpose of Hitler's attack was to frighten the American people off the high seas-to force us to make a trembling retreat. This is not the first time he has misjudged the American spirit. That spirit is now aroused.

If our national policy were to be dominated by the fear of shooting, then all of our ships and those of our sister Republics would have to be tied up in home harbors. Our Navy would have to remain respectfully-abjectly-behind any line which Hitler might decree on any ocean as his own dictated version of his own war zone.

Naturally we reject that absurd and insulting suggestion. We reject it because of our own self-interest, because of our own self-respect, because, most of all, of our own good faith. Freedom of the seas is now, as it has always been, a fundamental policy of your government and mine.

Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. But his submarines and raiders prove otherwise. So does the entire design of his new world order.

For example, I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler's government-by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America, as Hitler proposes to reorganize it. Today in this area there are fourteen separate countries. The geographical experts of Berlin, however, have ruthlessly obliterated all existing boundary lines; and have divided South America into five vassal states, bringing the whole continent under their domination. And they have also so arranged it that the territory of one of these new puppet states includes the Republic of Panama and our great life line-the Panama Canal.

That is his plan. It will never go into effect.

This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself...." (my bold)

You will notice that President Roosevelt mentions a secret map of South and Central America, made in Germany by Hitler's government.  Here is the map, complete with annotations in German and the word "Geheim" or secret marked in the top left corner:

It certainly looks convincing, doesn't it? 

Here's what Joseph Goebbels, Germany's propaganda minister had to say in response to Franklin Roosevelt's accusations in an essay dated November 30, 1941:

"Mr. Roosevelt claimed that he had proof in his hands that the Axis powers were planning to reorganize South and Central America. They were planning to transform the existing fourteen countries into five states that would be under their control. His proof was a secret map allegedly produced by the Reich government. The American government also claims to possess another Reich document. According to it, the Reich government plans to abolish the existing religions of the world once it has won the war — Catholicism, Protestantism, Mohammedanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. They are to be replaced by an international National Socialist church, the cross by the swastika, and God by the F├╝hrer. That is what he claims.

It is clear to us that Mr. Roosevelt needed this grand swindle to whip up American public opinion. He needed the heaviest possible ammunition, since the American people are at the moment more intelligent than their government and want absolutely nothing to do with the war in Europe. We really are not all that interested in Mr. Roosevelt’s opinion of the intelligence of his people nor in what he thinks them capable of believing, and normally would see no need to reply to his bald-faced and outrageous lies which so clearly bear the signs of fabrication. In this case, however, it is a matter of a political falsification which seems to us to have a clear and ominous purpose, and gave us such an easy chance to show up the liars to the entire world that we could hardly let the opportunity pass. We had to overcome our moral scruples, however, to confront the liar and ask him where he got these alleged documents from, where they can be found, and if he was ready to show them to the public.

Things went as we expected. Mr. Roosevelt, the president of a nation of 130 million, dodged our questions. He claimed the authenticity of the documents was unassailable; he had them. They could not be published, however, since they were secret and publishing them would reveal the source. And the map in question that carved up Central and South America had markings in pencil that could compromise the source that provided them. He, Roosevelt, did not want to cause any difficulties for the poor chap who passed them along...

The Reich government published two formal denials on 1 November, which boxed Roosevelt’s ears so strongly that he had to chose between revealing his documents or proving himself a forger and liar to the entire world. He chose the latter. The U.S. press gave headline treatment to the German denials and asked for a response. Mr. Roosevelt accepted the blows, rubbed his cheeks, and said nothing. We made every conceivable suggestion to ease the publication of the documents, but the U.S. president preferred to be thought a liar and forger than to prove his absurd accusations." (my bold)

In reality and while we certainly cannot trust Joseph Goebbels, we will never really know whether or not this map was key in persuading the voters of the United States to join the Allied forces, largely because the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour occurred relatively shortly thereafter.  That said, research by William Boyd suggests that the map may well have been created by British Security Coordination (BSC) as part of their mandate to covertly convince the United States public that they needed to end their isolationist and non-interventionist stance and join the war in Europe.  BSC was founded in May 1940 by Winston Churchill and headed by a Canadian, William Stephenson (aka A Man Called Intrepid), working on behalf of the British Secret Intelligence Services.  An office was opened in the Rockefeller Center in downtown Manhattan under the guise of a Passport Control Office with the agreement of Franklin Roosevelt and the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover.  BSC planted pro-British and anti-German stories in the American media (at the time consisting of newspapers and radio).  It even had its own shortwave radio station, WRUL, which was also used to broadcast anti-isolationist news stories and a press agency, the Overseas News Agency (ONA) that fed "news stories" to American newspapers.   As I stated above, the goal of BSC was to make Americans think that joining the war was a positive thing, freeing President Roosevelt and Congress to act without fear of public backlash.

According to the research of William Boyd, it appears that the supposed Nazi map of a divided South America and German-controlled Panama Canal is a forgery created by BSC with the purpose of convincing America that the Nazis would soon be on their doorstep.  The public story of the map was that it had been stolen from a German courier's bag in Buenos Aires, Argentina after he was involved in a car accident.  The courier was being followed by a British agent who managed to grab the map from his bag and forward it to Washington.  Mr. Boyd is convinced that the map was created by BSC's department of forgery known as Station M, located across the border in Canada.

As you can see from this story, the parallels to today's United States - Russia geopolitical influence peddling is stunning.  An apparently fake Nazi map sourced from the British (not to mention BSC's intervention in American media) was being used in an attempt to sway America, its president and its political leadership.  While we'll never know whether President Roosevelt knew that the map was possibly a fake, the British involvement in propagandizing America with fake news during the Second World War is undeniable.  Apparently, as we can see from this story, the peddling of fake news is not just a phenomenon of the 21st century and has great potential to sway voters.       


  1. Good post.
    This statement from your 1941 quote caught my eye: ...since the American people are at the moment more intelligent than their government...

    This might have been true "at the moment" but in the long run, governments everywhere reflect the mood and intelligence of a good portion of the general population.
    Not always a good reflection.

  2. Super exposure, as Goebbels also surmised: "The lies will one day break down under their own weight and we shall stand as pure and un-defiled as we have always been."

  3. Being asked to give a speech is a great honor. Being asked to give a speech that is going to deliver bad news to part or all of business is not such an honor. However, in order to be a truly good speaker, this is exactly the type of speech that you need to be able to step up and give. The keys are knowing how to organize this type of speech and what not to say... Fove