Sunday, June 15, 2008
John Roy Carlson is a name mostly forgotten, though it deserves to be remembered. In brief, Carlson was the pen name for a guy named Arthur Derounian, an Armenian from Alexandropolis, Greece who moved to the US as a young man with his family in 1921. Having experienced life in a region of war-torn ethnic strife, Carlson (for simplicity, I will refer to him by the name he wrote under) fell in love with America, with democracy, with all the nation stood for (and, as his later career would show, became a philosemite). He made good, worked hard, and attended the Columbia J-school (in the days before it turned you into the enemy, haha).
An incident in 1933 was formative. He witnessed the assassination of a beloved Armenian priest right there in the aisle of a New York church perpetrated by members of an Armenian political party. The incident hammered home to Carlson that two oceans were not enough to keep the political violence of the Old World away from his beloved new home. That home needed active protection on the part of those, like himself, who knew the dangers that were out there.
So Carlson was well prepared as the 1930's wound on, and Fascism arose, casting its choking vines westward. Under the assumed identity of "Italian-American" George Pagnanelli, Carlson spent the late 1930's and early '40s infiltrating American fascist organizations, culminating in his most well-known book, written in 1943, Under Cover; My Four Years in the Nazi Underworld of America -- The Amazing Revelation of How Axis Agents and Our Enemies Within Are Now Plotting to Destroy the United States. It reads like a mystery novel, and contains a history with so many rhymes with the present that the public square deserves a recitation.
In the same way that I did with Anne Applebaum's Gulag, I thought I'd blog a few of the passages as time allows. Our own Hillel Stavis will likely be favoring us with more about Carlson at some point in the near future as he has been doing some original research on him and turning up some extremely interesting material, so I am intentionally keeping my description of this extraordinarily colorful character brief for now.
Arthur Derounian passed away in 1991 at the age of 82 while doing research in the library of the American Jewish Committee in New York.
But 54 years earlier, in 1938, at the age of 29, Carlson had had his second life-changing experience, and this one put him on the trail of Fascism in America [p. 22]:
In the fall of 1938 while riding in a New York subway, I picked up a leaflet entitled Why Are Jews Persecuted for Their Religion? It was printed on cheap, gray newsprint and included four pages of bitterly anti-Semitic quotations and distorted passages from American History. The leaflet urged "American patriots" to "rise up as one man and clean house politically and economically." It bore the imprint of the Nationalist Press Association, 147 East 116th Street, New York. Pricked by curiosity I decided to look up these headquarters of "Americanism."
And that he did, which began his journey into the world of Fascist publishing houses, personalities and secret organizations waiting for the right time to launch, and help push along, the Rightist revolution that would sweep Democracy aside. As George Pagnanelli, Carlson even started publishing his own racist rag to earn street cred and help his infiltration efforts. He joined groups, marched and trained with them -- groups like the Christian Front -- that were aiming to copy the tactics the Nazis found successful...to go out on the street and look for trouble, then claim later they were victims [pp. 68-69]:
We moved along to Times Square and stopped in front of Nedick's orange drink stand at the corner of 42nd Street to watch five Social Justice salesmen in operation. [Social Justice was Father Coughlin's paper. -S] Pete Stahrenberg was there, waiting for Dan and me. After a while Dan displayed the National American and began to call out his slogans.
"I'll be watching you if anything happens," Pete told Dan.
Then it suddenly happened...
A Jewish youth with thin features and large eyes, goaded by the insults the hawkers were screaming, knocked down the pile of National American from Dan's hand. Dan swung with his free right hand and the blow caught the youth on the shoulder. A crowd gathered instantly and I saw the goon squad coming down on the run -- eyes blazing, fists ready to pummel the Jewish youth into a bloody pulp. I turned away my face.
"C'mon, c'mon, keep moving you. Break it up."
By the Grace of God the cops got there first, surrounded the Jewish youth, protectively backing him up against a taxi-cab fender, and pushed Dan away. More police stepped in and dispersed the crowd. Dan and the Jewish youth were then led away, followed by Pete.
When the salesmen for Social Justice resumed their hawking, the goon squads glared menacingly at Jewish passersby.
"Those Goddam cops beat us to it," they muttered. "We gotta get there first next time."
"Yeah. It ain't no fun if you don't do nuthin'."
I stood there alone, leaning against a building, stunned by the nightmarish scene. Again I had that curious feeling of unreality. I kept saying to myself: "This is New York. This isn't Berlin. This is the City of New York, in the United States. You are not in Turkey. You are in New York."
I looked up. The clock atop the Paramount Building pointed to midnight.
[All posts in this series are collected on this page.]
Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: John Roy Carlson: Under Cover.
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