How the United States Unmasked Foreign Agents in Our Midst

John Metcalfe, an employee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, joined the German-American Bund under cover. On August 12, 1938, he testifies that the leader of the Bund has a secret and powerful relationship with Nazi government. Photo credit: Library of Congress

For more than a year, a little-known part of the American criminal code, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), has been in the news. FARA requires people acting in the United States on behalf of foreign governments, political parties, or other entities to register with the US Department of Justice. But few Americans know about the Holocaust-era roots of the law.

Congress enacted FARA in 1938 to expose Nazi propagandists in the United States. Not long after Hitler came to power in January 1933, the Nazi regime began its efforts to shape international public opinion and behavior. The Nazis wanted to create a positive image of the new German state and counter reports of their brutality toward political opponents and Jews. The propaganda did not go unnoticed.

In October 1933, Representative Samuel Dickstein (New York), the chairman of the House Immigration Committee, announced that his committee would begin a preliminary investigation into Nazi propaganda activities. He informed the press that “we have enough material on hand to open the eyes of the American public to Nazi propaganda in this country. If we did in Germany one 20th of what they are doing here, we’d be shot.”

Dickstein regaled newspaper reporters with sensationalist stories of Nazi agents flooding the country disguised as immigrants or diplomats in order to distribute massive amounts of propaganda. Germany, he claimed, was establishing Nazi organizations, secret police units, and Storm Troopers operating in 15 states, and using German seamen to smuggle in Nazi pamphlets, books, and other materials. All this was part of a plot financed by Hitler’s Germany to overthrow American democracy and establish a Nazi dictatorship. At the preliminary hearings in November, he called a mysterious “Mr. X,” a former German citizen who had been in the United States for 22 years, to testify about organized Nazi activities.

Investigating German Propaganda

These provocative, and sometimes unsubstantiated, revelations helped to convince Congress to establish a House subcommittee in 1934 with broader authority to investigate Nazi propaganda. Although Dickstein served as a key member of the committee, he declined to serve as chairman citing his Jewishness as a factor, claiming it could be raised as a “Jewish-German issue.” The chairmanship instead went to Representative John McCormack (Massachusetts). The committee exposed to public scrutiny the German government’s hire of two prominent American public relations firms headed by two pioneers in the field, Ivy Lee and Carl Byoir. Lee, a former newspaperman, had earned a reputation for handling clients with bad image problems; and Nazi Germany certainly fit the bill. Byoir was perhaps a more interesting choice: a Jewish public relations expert who had served in the Committee on Public Information (CPI), America’s propaganda agency during World War I. The harsh light of public awareness caused by the congressional investigation ruined their usefulness in promoting German interests in the United States.

In 1935, the McCormack-Dickstein Committee made recommendations including that:

The Congress should enact a statute requiring all publicity, propaganda, or public relations agents or other agents or agencies, who represent in this country any foreign government or foreign political party or foreign industrial or commercial organization, to register with the Secretary of State of the United States, and to state name and location of such foreign employer, the character of the service to be rendered, and the amount of compensation paid or to be paid therefor.

Ultimately, Congress acted to address the mounting fears of Nazi, and other “foreign,” propaganda in 1938, with the establishment of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the passage of FARA. Under the chairmanship of Representative Martin Dies (Texas), HUAC launched investigations not only into Nazi activities in the United States, but also those carried out by the Soviet Union (through the Communist Party) and Imperial Japan. Ironically, Dickstein, who had helped to launch the congressional investigations into Nazi propagandists in the United States, was unmasked decades after his death as a paid agent of the Soviet secret police, nicknamed by his handlers as “the Crook.”

Like the congressional investigation, the Foreign Agents Registration Act aimed to expose Nazi and other propagandists in the United States by forcing those individuals or companies receiving funds from abroad to register with the State Department, which in turn would make such names public. Although some politicians, such as Dickstein, favored prohibiting the dissemination of “hate propaganda” aimed at whipping up religious or racial tensions, such efforts routinely failed. In passing FARA, Congress hoped that the “spotlight of pitiless publicity [would] serve as a deterrent to the spread of pernicious propaganda.”

To many American politicians and citizens, censorship conjured up negative memories of World War I and the governmental abuse of civil liberties that took place in 1917 and 1918. It was seen as a violation of America’s long-cherished freedom of expression. Exposing propagandists to public scrutiny seemed to be a better alternative. FARA did not prohibit propagandists from spreading their messages, it only required them to publicly disclose their relationships with non-American governments or companies.

A Law for the Ages

In 1941, as much of the world was engulfed in war and fears of Nazi agents and spies gripped the country, pressure increased in the United States to tighten the provisions of the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. A Justice Department investigation had shown that the act had not been rigorously enforced, in part due to a lack of manpower in the State Department, and that many foreign agents simply had not registered. A revised FARA went into effect in spring 1942.

The revised law placed the Department of Justice, not the State Department, in charge of enforcing the legislation. Not surprisingly, the number of investigations and convictions increased. By the end of World War II, federal prosecutors charged dozens of individuals with violating FARA and successfully prosecuted 23 cases.

FARA outlived Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. Since World War II, it has been amended to change with the times. Its coverage expanded from individuals or organizations that aimed to subvert or overthrow the government to the lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations consultants who sought to influence US governmental policies in the interests of their foreign clients. Today, hundreds of individuals or companies have voluntarily registered. In the age of the Internet, social media, and computational propaganda campaigns, FARA continues to operate as a legal tool to unmask foreign influence operatives in the United States.

Steven Luckert, PhD, is senior program curator in the Museum’s William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education.

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¹ Washington Post, October 26, 1933, p. 5.

² See New York Times, November 15, 1933, p. 1.

³ On Lee, see Stuart Ewen, PR!: A Social History of Spin (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

⁴ Cited in Francis R. O’Hara, “The Foreign Agents Registration Act — The Spotlight of Pitiless Publicity,” Villanova Law Review, Vol. 10, Issue 3 (1965), 435–56.

⁵ See Allan Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America — the Stalin Era (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), 140–150.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org

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