Financing of racist, anti-Semitic groups fails to sink FDR

At the same time GM’s German division was making millions of dollars selling trucks to the Nazis, at home its president was doing his utmost to undermine the Roosevelt administration.

Alfred P. Sloan Jr. was one of the central behind-the-scenes founders of the American Liberty League, a racist, anti-Semitic, pro-big business group bent on rallying Southern votes against FDR to defeat him in the 1936 election.

The American Liberty League arose from a series of private gatherings organized in July 1934 by Sloan, DuPont Co. board director Irenee du Pont and other businessmen. Some of those meetings even held at GM’s office in New York.

The businessmen sought to create a well-financed, seemingly grassroots coalition that du Pont declared should “include all property owners, the American Legion and even the Ku Klux Klan.”

Sloan served on the American Liberty League’s national advisory board and was one of a number of wealthy businessmen who each quietly donated $10,000 to its activities. The league, which raised more money in 1935 than the national Democratic Party, in turn funded an array of even more fanatical, racist and anti-Jewish groups.

One was the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution. With help from the du Pont family fortune, the Southern Committee circulated pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt with blacks. Sloan sent a $1,000 check directly to the Southern Committee after those pictures were distributed, according to congressional testimony.

Among other things, the committee issued racist diatribes and jointly organized protest marches with the American Nazi “Silver Shirts.”

The American Liberty League also financed the Sentinels of the Republic, which, in turn, orchestrated incendiary, anti-Semitic letter-writing campaigns, and otherwise provoked a backlash against Roosevelt and what was sometimes derisively called his “Jew Deal.”

True, the Sentinels of the Republic bore all the earmarks of a rabble-rousing extremist group. But behind it were some of the nation’s most affluent and well-heeled, supplying operating cash and direction. Among them: Sun Oil president Howard Pew; investment banker Alexander Lincoln (who served as the group’s president); and John Pitcairn, the president of Pittsburgh Plate Glass. Sloan himself wrote a $1,000 check directly to the Sentinels of the Republic.

Only after an April 1936 congressional investigation was Sloan’s financial involvement in the Sentinels outed. Just days after the disclosure, Sloan issued a statement to an inquiring Jewish newspaper in Louisville, promising, “Under no circumstances will I further knowingly support the Sentinels of the Republic.”

Although Sloan backed away from further financing of the Sentinels, the GM chief continued to fund and fundraise for another anti-Roosevelt agitation group, the National Association of Manufacturers. Founded in 1895 as a pro-business organization and still prominent more than 100 years later, NAM sowed anti-union and anti-New Deal discord among Americans in the 1930s through clandestinely owned and operated opinion-molding arms.

Roosevelt openly acknowledged that Sloan, GM, the du Ponts and other corporate giants hated him for his reforms and his efforts to relieve Depression-era inequities.

In his final 1936 campaign speech, the president threw down the gauntlet, shouting to an overflow Madison Square Garden crowd, “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

Roosevelt added that he wanted his first four years to be remembered as an administration where “the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match.”

Fearing Roosevelt’s possible re-election, several of Sloan’s top executives at GM considered deliberately extending the financial woes of the Depression, presumably in retaliation against the entire nation. In the final days of the 1936 election campaign, several GM officials met with W.H. Swartz, a Lehman Brothers investment banker, according to a historian who studied the incident.

The GM officials apparently planned to stop investing in and expanding their company in the event of Roosevelt’s expected victory. Swartz’s Nov. 4, 1936, confidential memo about the GM meeting asserted, “Certain General Motors people also felt further capital expenditures could not be expected now, in view of Roosevelt’s possible re-election.” Based on their plans, Swartz predicted “a break in general business next year … mid-summer is the logical time to expect it.”

Despite the lush opposition funding by Sloan and other affluent anti-New Deal nemesis, Roosevelt was re-elected by a landslide.

No capital constriction was implemented by GM.