The recent Rachel Maddow podcast “Ultra” is shocking, if you retain the ability to be shocked by American politics. Moreover, it’s shocking in both a regular sense and a meta-sense. In the regular sense, it recounts how several dozen members of Congress collaborated with Nazi Germany to try to prevent the U.S. from entering World War II — even as saboteurs seem to have blown up various American munitions plants, including one explosion in New Jersey that killed 52 people. What’s shocking in the meta-sense is that before this podcast, all of this incredible story had completely fallen out of history.
However, one thing that even “Ultra” does not include is the subsequent political trajectory of Rep. Hamilton Fish III, a key figure in the aforementioned Nazi conspiracy. Fish was born in 1888 and lived until 1991, remaining unrepentantly hard right to the end of his long life. Most notably, during the 1980 presidential campaign, he became a boisterous supporter of Ronald Reagan. He even authored a short book titled “Americans, Save Your Freedom and Your Lives,” featuring a cover with an illustration of a mushroom cloud and the tagline “Peace Through Strength and Reagan!”
Hamilton Fish III usually went by “Ham,” so let’s start by acknowledging that “Ham Fish” is funny. It’s like being named Drumstick Cow or Sirloin Antelope.
Also, Ham Fish was one of six Hamilton Fishes in a prominent New York political family. During the mid-1850s, Hamilton Fish #1 was governor of New York, then a U.S. senator from New York, and then secretary of state during the Ulysses S. Grant administration. Confusingly, there were two Hamilton Fish IIs. One was the son of Hamilton Fish #1 and father of Hamilton Fish III. Another was Hamilton Fish #1’s grandson, a son of another one of Hamilton Fish #1’s children. (Hence this supplemental Hamilton Fish II and Hamilton Fish III were cousins.) Politically, the family has been all over the place; for instance, Hamilton Fish V was once publisher of The Nation and the New Republic before becoming one of the many men to resign in 2017 following harassment allegations.
And please do not confuse any of them with Hamilton “Albert” Fish, aka the Brooklyn Vampire and a notorious 1920s cannibal and serial killer. This whole subject is what Wikipedia disambiguation pages were made for.
Ham Fish III went to Harvard and then fought in World War I. When the war was over, he was intimately involved in the founding of the American Legion, co-authoring the preamble to the Legion’s constitution. If the political orientation of the American Legion has slipped your mind, here’s how its National Commander Alvin Owsley described it in its early days: “The American Legion stands ready to protect our country’s institutions and ideals as the Fascisti dealt with the destructionists who menaced Italy. … Do not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” So you can see where this is headed.
Fish was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican in 1920. During the 1930s, he became a ferocious opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Fish later said, “I don’t hate Roosevelt — but frankly, I despise him,” whatever that distinction means.
That brings us to the period covered by “Ultra.” Soon after Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, Fish contributed to a book sympathetic to Nazism, which had (according to Fish) saved Germany from the menace of international communism. Fish headlined a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1938. By the beginning of World War II, Fish was ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a prominent isolationist, and, as Maddow puts it, “kind of the team captain for the America First movement in the House.” The America First movement was founded in 1940 to keep the U.S. out of World War II. Some of its eventual 800,000 members were principled anti-interventionists, and some were antisemites who felt Hitler had a lot of promising ideas.
In September 1941, a federal prosecutor had convened a grand jury to investigate Nazi activities in the U.S. It investigated Sen. Ernest Lundeen, a Republican from Minnesota, who’d been paid by a Nazi agent named George Sylvester Viereck to deliver speeches on the Senate floor and elsewhere written by Viereck. Federal agents raided the apartment of one of Viereck’s employees — but before they did, a man was witnessed absconding with huge bags of material that were transported to a storage room on Capitol Hill and to the D.C. headquarters of America First.
That man was George Hill, a top staffer for Fish. And the storage room was controlled by Fish. The Washington Post published a story on the front page: “Fish’s Office Helped Remove Data Wanted in Nazi-Agent Inquiry.” Some of the papers that went to America First had been promptly set on fire.
It turned out that Fish’s office was the center of a German plan to enlist members of Congress to spread Nazi propaganda across the country, all using the congressional “franking privilege,” a term which sounds dirty but is not. It just means that members of Congress have the right to mail material to their constituents for free. Envelopes from Fish’s office were used to send out order forms so recipients could get copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” As Nancy Beck Young, one of the historians featured on “Ultra,” puts it, “Fish worked to sabotage American democracy from the center of American democracy, the U.S. Capitol” — with it all paid for by the U.S. government.
Hill denied it all and was convicted of corrupt perjury. Eventually, he confessed that he’d done everything on Fish’s orders. Fish was subpoenaed by the federal prosecutor but evaded legal accountability. However, the publicity was so bad that after 24 years in the House, he was defeated in 1944. In a speech bidding farewell to Congress, he said, “It took most of the New Deal administration, half of Moscow, $400,000, and [New York] Gov. [Thomas] Dewey to defeat me.” This period is where “Ultra” ends.
But this was not the end of Fish’s political engagement. After the Allied victory in the Second World War, the tallying of the dead, and the opening up of the concentration camps and crematoria, you might think Fish would have reconsidered his general perspective. You would be wrong.
In 1946, he published a book titled “The Challenge of World Communism,” followed by “The Red Plotters” the following year. He then kept his hand in during the 1970s with several more works, including the awkwardly named “An American Manifesto of Freedom in Answer to the Manifesto on Communism (1848).” Another, “FDR, the Other Side of the Coin: How We Were Tricked Into World War II,” excoriates Roosevelt for the U.S. alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union during the war. Yet Fish was curiously solicitous of the Nazis’ 1939 pact with the Soviets, writing, “Hitler would not have made an alliance with Stalin and communism, not if he could have avoided it.”
It seems fair to refer to Fish’s next work, “Americans, Save Your Freedom and Your Lives,” as a screed. It includes all of the right’s peculiar bugaboos circa 1980.
Here’s a sample of its prose:
I have written this book so that the people might know the truth which has been deliberately kept from them by the Carter Administration for the past three years. The main issue is the survival of the American people and our own country. … There is no substitute for the truth to enable you to act in your own defense, before you are led as sheep to the slaughter in a Soviet holocaust.
For instance, did you know that “The Soviet Defense is Thirty Times Stronger Than Ours”? Perhaps you did not, given that the Soviet Union no longer exists. We also must be extremely concerned about “Trilateralism and the Panama Canal.” (Horrifyingly enough, the globalists were plotting to give away the Panama Canal to Panama.) The book also includes “An Appeal to the Blacks to Return to the Party of Abraham Lincoln.” “The Blacks” did not do this, with Reagan winning a rousing 14 percent of the African American vote.
Fish certainly was a recognizable representative of a large faction of America’s conservative movement.
The point here is that Ham Fish III was absolutely not an outlier on the U.S. right. He was not completely predictable — for instance, he was a strong, sincere proponent of the integration of the U.S. military. He opposed the Vietnam War (although he supported the Gulf War and America’s invasion of Panama). Plus, when he was 96 years old, his third wife divorced him when he 1) didn’t get her any presents for Christmas and 2) tried to make her host chickens on her property. Then he squeezed in one last wife before dying.
But Fish certainly was a recognizable representative of a large faction of America’s conservative movement. He was neither the first nor the last member to play enthusiastic footsie with fascism. His Reagan book features the right’s standard mania for conspiracism, presenting all issues as apocalyptic threats, threats destined to be forgotten when the apocalypse fails to materialize.
On Fish’s 100th birthday in 1988, one of his descendants remarked that “the resurgence of conservatism in the last 10 years or so in the country has given him enormous pleasure.” Given Fish’s perspective, he was right to feel satisfaction. But the rest of us should listen to “Ultra” and consider exactly what the renaissance in Fish’s worldview signifies.