American Nationalist Youth Groups: The Silver Shirts


Figure 1.--Here we see the Chief of the Covington Kentucky Police department with a unidentified youth group. We believe thst they are Silver Shirts from the appearance of the shirts. Unfortunately the badge on their caps are not clearly shown. We do not see the red 'L' on the shirts the Silver shirts wore. Perhaos this was only awarded to adult members. The Chief is showing off a sub-machine gun, something that vthe boys would have seen in many popular gangster films of the era. The photograph is undated but was probably taken in the mid-1930s. A reader thinks it is premature to identify the group as Silver Shirts. We would appreciate any insights that readers may have. Click on the image for a fuller duscussion.

William Dudley Pelley's Silver Shirts Legion or simply Silver Shirts are sometimes mentioned in documentaries about the 1930s. Pelley began as a newspaper publisher, but failed. He tried his hand at movie making. He wrote 16 silent film plots which he couldn't sell. He of course blamed Jews for his failure. He had a vision of angels leading him to heaven (April 1928). He then went back to publishing. He founded the pseudo-religious white supremacy The New Liberator. [Lavine, pp. 178-180.] He then moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and founded the Silver Legion of America. He was an admirer of Adolf Hitler and European Fascism. On the same day that Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germay, Pelley created the Silver Shirts. Pelley saw himself as seizuing power in a silver revolution and becoming the American dictator. They were of course a knock off of Hitler's Brown shirts. [Heym ] This was more of an attempt at a para-military group than a youth organization. We know nothing about an actual youth orogram, if any. The group's emblem was a a bright scarlet 'L'. It had a three-fold meaning: Loyalty to the American Republic, Liberation from materialism, and, of course, the Silver Legion itself. The uniform of the Silver Legion was a cap like the worn worn by the Hitler Youth and U.S. Army. They also wore a destinctive silver shirt--completely unsuitable for a youth group. The shirts had a scarlet red emblem. Members wore a solid-colored tie, we are not sure about the color. The uniform was completed with blue corduroy trousers and leggings. The size of the group is not known with any surity. Some estimate suggest about 10,000 people may have joined. Another estimate suggests that by 1934 there may have been as many as 15,000 members. We believe that all of the boys involved were the children of Legion members. Most members were working-class, affected by the Depression. We are not sure about ethnicity. Membership declined after 1934 when President Roosevelt's New Deal begann to generate more optimism among unemployed Americans. Just before the outbreak of World War II, menbership had declined to about 5,000 members. And inthecaftermnath of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United Srates in the War, the Silver Shirts ceased to exist. Pelley had more influence with the Skyland Press, which may have distributed 1 million Fascist oriented publications annually. [Lavine, p. 185.] After the outbreak of World War II, Pelly was arrested for sedition and received a 15 year sentence. [Hoke, pp. 222-223.] Pelley died in 1965. His final effort group before he died was Soulcraft which still exists on-line.

William Dudley Pelley (1885-1965)

William Dudley Pelley's Silver Shirts Legion or simply Silver Shirts are sometimes mentioned in documentaries about the 1930s. (Pelley usally wrote ' Silvershirts '.) His father was a Methodist minister. He is variously described as a Congresationlist and a Christian. He reportedly worked with the YMCA in Siberia during World war I. He had a basic public school education which I tyhink meand he graduated from highschool, although I am not sure about that. He began publishing newspapers just before World war I, but not very sucessfully. He wrote about a wide range of issues on which he had no knowledge. He tried his hand at movie making. He wrote 16 silent film plots which he couldn't sell. He of course blamed Jews for his failure. He had a vision of angels leading him to heaven (April 1928). He then went back to publishing. He founded the pseudo-religious white supremacy The New Liberator. [Lavine, pp. 178-180.] He then moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and founded the Silver Legion of America. He was an admirer of Adolf Hitler and European Fascism.

Foundation

On the same day that Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germay, Pelley founded the Silver Shirts (January 31, 1933). He was a strong believer in mysticism. He though that the date had mystical significance, the fulfillment of the Pyramid Prophecy. [Gurr, p. 137.] Pelley saw himself as seizing power in a silver revolution in America just as Hitler was doing bin America. He dreamed of becoming the American dictator. They were of course a knock off of Hitler's Brown shirts. [Heym ] The Brown Shirts or Storm Troopers played a key role in the NAZI seizure of power in Germany. Pelley orhanized the first meeting at Kreutzer Hall, East 86th Street, New York City (November 3, 1933). He legally incorporated the group in Delaware as a patriotic fraternity (February 1934).

Depression

The Wall Stree Crash (October 1929) led to the Great Drepression of the 1930s. This caused many in America to question free market capitalism, leading to extremist groups like the Silver Legion on the right as well as the Commuists and related groups on the Left. Economists still debate the causes of the Depression and the Government reaction to it. Modern research suggests that inadequate Government regulation was a factor in the initial crash. But the Depression itself was the result of major mistakes by the Hoover Administration. The popular imafger is that he did nothing, but in fact he did a great deal, turning an ordinary recession into the Great Depression. President Roosevelt's early action stabilized the economy. Importahnt modern economists now believe thst the New Deal as a whole, however, probably prolonged the Depression. While relief efforts were needed and some of the New Deal programs were beneficial (CCC, REA, and Socical Security), the New Deal as a whole probably prevented economic or at least slowed revovery. An important factor to consider, however, is social stability. Groups like the Silver Shirts, German-American Bund, Communists, ect remained fringe groups. Rabel rousers like Father Coughlin achieved large radio audiences. The President himsel was particularly concerned about Lousians Senator Huey Long and his 'share the wealth' campaign. The fact that these threats failed was in large part becuse President Roosevelt restored confidence of the public in the Goverment and Ameerica. Had the President not achieved this, the lurch to extremism could have seriously destablized the American Republic.

Anti-Semitism

Pelley and the Silver Legion was vehemently anti-Semetic. This ravid anti-Semitism is not apparent in his early writing, but comes out just before he founded the Silver Legion. We are not sure why this, was at about the same time that Hitler and the NAZIs emerged as a major force in Germany. Anti-Semitism became one of the strongest themes in the organizations literature. Typically retoric was claims to save the United States from a "state of Sovietism into which the Jews are leadding the country." Or to ward off "the Money Power wielded by ourstanding leaders of the 'predatiory people', the Jews. Pelly inisisted thst "a people who constitute only 2.5 percent of the population to be held down to a 2.6 percent influence in the American government, an we propose to see thast it is brought about, race prejudice or no!" It is interesting to see the lack of logical consistence in Pelley. He screams that Presudent Roosevelt is violating the Constitution, but has no difficulty rejecting law for the goals he favors. A notable excerpt is, "It is the order of things that those wicked and malignant spirits who have incarcerated in certain sections of the Hebrew race trying to bring the downfall of the Christ Peoples, should meet afearful fate in this closing of the Cycle of Cosmic Event. That contest is on-the-make and Hirler's job is has been to do the advance work. But Hitler is not going to finish that work. THE FINISH OF IT COMES RIGHT HERE IN AMERICA!"

President Roosevelt

After President Roosevelt was inagutated, Pelley began attacking the President and the New Deal as a violation of the Constitution. He wanted laws to be approved by referndum. One of the major criticim of President Roosevelt was the appointment of Jews to the administration.

Youth Involvemnent

The Silver Shirts was more of an attempt at a para-military group than a youth organization. We know nothing about an actual youth orogram, if any. We believe that all of the boys involved were the children of Legion members. We see children at some of the Silver Legion fubctions. They seem to be just accompanying their parents. One Silver Legion publication indicated that the age of joining was 18 years old. This would mean the children here do no belong to the organization (figure 1). We wonder, however if they are some kind of youth auxilery.

Emblem

The group's emblem was a a bright scarlet 'L'. It appeared on their uniforms and banners which were flown along with the American flag. It had a three-fold meaning: Loyalty to the American Republic, Liberation from materialism, and, of course, the Silver Legion itself. Some times Love is also added to the liost.

Uniform

The uniform of the Silver Legion was a cap like the worn worn by the Hitler Youth and U.S. Army. They also wore a destinctive silver shirt--completely unsuitable for a youth group. The shirts had a scarlet red emblem. Members wore a solid-colored tie, we are not sure about the color. The uniform was completed with blue corduroy trousers and leggings. The size of the group is not known with any surity.

Association with the German American Bund

The Silver Legion was not formally connected with the German-American Bund or the various other names by which the Bund was variously. There were string ties because of the membership and goals of the two organization. Pelley proudly disclosed to the Silver Legion members, "And on July 25 the Deutsche Zentrale of the Germanischer-Bund, or Germanuc League, whose headquarters are in Chicago, extended to Commander Pelley an Honorary Membership in the League in recognition of his work for the purging of our nation of its subversive elements maliciously undermining the Federal Constitution."

Membership

Some estimate suggest about 10,000 people may have joined. Another estimate suggests that by 1934 there may have been as many as 15,000 members. Most members were working-class, affected by the Depression. We are not sure about ethnicity. Assessments of mnembership varied. We have noted references to both working class and middle class. Most appeared to have northern European, especially German, backgrounds. Protestants especially Protestants were very important. The membership was overwealming men. Membership declined after 1934 when President Roosevelt's New Deal began to generate more optimism among unemployed Americans.

Organization

The Silver Legion was organized into nine districts and at its peak had chapters in 22 states, Pelley was the leader and essentially preached to the members in his periodic missives. They were particularly popular on the west coast, in Califirnia and Washington. Each chapter was obligated to buils a Silver Lodge, a simple cabin for meetings. Local groups which composed the various chapters were named "Councils of Safety" and were to consist of about 10 members. An important part of the program was to read Pelley's weekly newletter. They met in member homes. Here we see some children, but not in uniform. They apparently were the children of the family who sat in on the meetings. My guess is that the children would have found the meetings rather boring and the images with the children were posed for publicity, giving the meeting a healthful family look.

Investigations

The rise of European Fascism in Europe resulted in Fascist groups being organized in America. This mostly occurred after the Wall Street Crash (October 1929) and the onset of the Depression. The group of greatest concern was the German-American Bund. Congress began to look at their activities. The first investigation ws the McCormack-Dickstein committee. Pelley stopped his active promtion of the Silver Shirts for a short time. He reactivated the group when he ran for president with the Christian Party banner (1936). The House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee conducted another investigation (1940). Pelley was called go appear and testified that he had asigned 25,000 membership credentials. He also claimed that there wrre 75,000 sympathizers.

Disappearance

Just before the outbreak of World War II, menbership had declined to about 5,000 members. And in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United Srates in the War, the Silver Shirts ceased to exist.

Subsequent Activities

Pelley had more influence with the Skyland Press, which may have distributed 1 million Fascist oriented publications annually. [Lavine, p. 185.] After the outbreak of World War II, Pelly was arrested for sedition and received a 15 year sentence. [Hoke, pp. 222-223.] Pelley died in 1965. His final effort group before he died was Soulcraft which still exists on-line.

Sources

Heym, Stefan. (1938). Heym was a German Jewish refugee. He edited a German-language anti-Fascist newspaper in New York (1937-39).

Hoke, Henry. Itís a Secret (Pamphlet Press, 1946).

Lavine, Harold. Fifth Column in America (New York: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1940).

Gurr, Ted Robert. Violence in America: Protest, Rebellion, Reform.






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Created: 6:38 PM 3/8/2011
Last updated: 9:18 PM 3/9/2011