Francis P. Moran hardly seemed the sort to become a Nazi agent. He was a devout Irish Catholic from Boston and a former student at a Franciscan seminary, well known for his patriotism. But in 1935, he lost his job at the John Hancock Life Insurance Company after friction and possibly a scuffle with a boss who was a Jewish war veteran. Twenty-six years old, handsome and articulate, he was adrift in the midst of the Depression.
Moran latched onto Fr. Charles Coughlin’s radio preaching, which spread a politics of resentment that was hugely popular among Boston’s Irish Catholics and spellbound a large audience across the country on Sunday afternoons. Moran soon became a Coughlin political operative, then found his niche as head of the Boston chapter of the Christian Front, a national organization of “platoons” that Coughlin created and then backed away from after the FBI arrested seventeen members of its Brooklyn chapter in 1940, alleging a nascent terrorist plot.
The German consul in Boston, Herbert Scholz, noted Moran’s activism and the large audiences he was drawing as an effective public speaker. Scholz was no ordinary diplomat: he was an SS man, with close ties to SS chief Heinrich Himmler. Moran was an ideal asset for Scholz, who hoped to build on the anger that Irish Catholics, an important voting bloc, held against the British for their mistreatment of Ireland.
Moran’s story is the heart of this well told, expertly researched, and much-needed history of the Christian Front, an organization that presages today’s far-right activity. Charles R. Gallagher, a historian at Boston College, skillfully documented his account with records from Freedom of Information Act requests and from dozens of historical archives. As the narrative builds pressure in the book’s second half, it becomes riveting. I found the result startling.
That was so even though I had already done quite a bit of reading on Coughlin and the Christian Front, for both personal and professional reasons. My personal interest is in trying to understand the journey my German Jewish grandparents and father took in September 1938, when they escaped from the Nazis and moved to a heavily Catholic neighborhood of Brooklyn. Journalistically, I’ve been interested in Coughlin as predecessor to today’s far-right Catholic media.
The first three of the book’s ten chapters focus on the better-known story of John F. Cassidy and the fiery Christian Front chapter he led in Brooklyn. It leads to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s January 1940 arrests of Cassidy and sixteen other members of the organization’s Brooklyn unit on charges of seditious conspiracy. The defendants were ultimately acquitted, although evidence at the trial showed they were in the early stage of forming a “Christian” militia, gathering weapons from a National Guard depot and conducting training sessions in the woods.