While one might think that the fake news mantra during and since the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a relatively new development, in fact, as you will see from this posting, America’s experience with fake news goes back at least 75 years to the Franklin Roosevelt presidency. It was during the initial phases of the Nazi occupation of Europe that Americans were exposed to a particularly nefarious bit of fake news.
First, let’s set up the situation. The date is October 27, 1941. Four months earlier, the Wehrmacht had begun their invasion of the Soviet Union and by December 1941, this is what Europe looked like:
President Roosevelt had hoped that the Charter would encourage the American people to back further U.S. intervention in the European war, however, public opinion remained strongly against such a policy.
“Five months ago tonight I proclaimed to the American people the existence of a state of unlimited emergency.
Since then much has happened. Our Army and Navy are temporarily in Iceland in the defense of the Western Hemisphere.
Hitler has attacked shipping in areas close to the Americas in the North and South Atlantic.
Many American-owned merchant ships have been sunk on the high seas. One American destroyer was attacked on September fourth. Another destroyer was attacked and hit on October seventeenth. Eleven brave and loyal men of our Navy were killed by the Nazis.
We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot.
America has been attacked. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman and child in this nation.
The purpose of Hitler’s attack was to frighten the American people off the high seas-to force us to make a trembling retreat. This is not the first time he has misjudged the American spirit. That spirit is now aroused.
If our national policy were to be dominated by the fear of shooting, then all of our ships and those of our sister Republics would have to be tied up in home harbors. Our Navy would have to remain respectfully-abjectly-behind any line which Hitler might decree on any ocean as his own dictated version of his own war zone.
Naturally we reject that absurd and insulting suggestion. We reject it because of our own self-interest, because of our own self-respect, because, most of all, of our own good faith. Freedom of the seas is now, as it has always been, a fundamental policy of your government and mine.
Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. But his submarines and raiders prove otherwise. So does the entire design of his new world order.
For example, I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government-by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America, as Hitler proposes to reorganize it. Today in this area there are fourteen separate countries. The geographical experts of Berlin, however, have ruthlessly obliterated all existing boundary lines; and have divided South America into five vassal states, bringing the whole continent under their domination. And they have also so arranged it that the territory of one of these new puppet states includes the Republic of Panama and our great life line-the Panama Canal.
That is his plan. It will never go into effect.
This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself….” (my bold)
You will notice that President Roosevelt mentions a secret map of South and Central America, made in Germany by Hitler’s government. Here is the map, complete with annotations in German and the word “Geheim” or secret marked in the top left corner:
It certainly looks convincing, doesn’t it?
Here’s what Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s propaganda minister had to say in response to Franklin Roosevelt’s accusations in an essay dated November 30, 1941:
It is clear to us that Mr. Roosevelt needed this grand swindle to whip up American public opinion. He needed the heaviest possible ammunition, since the American people are at the moment more intelligent than their government and want absolutely nothing to do with the war in Europe. We really are not all that interested in Mr. Roosevelt’s opinion of the intelligence of his people nor in what he thinks them capable of believing, and normally would see no need to reply to his bald-faced and outrageous lies which so clearly bear the signs of fabrication. In this case, however, it is a matter of a political falsification which seems to us to have a clear and ominous purpose, and gave us such an easy chance to show up the liars to the entire world that we could hardly let the opportunity pass. We had to overcome our moral scruples, however, to confront the liar and ask him where he got these alleged documents from, where they can be found, and if he was ready to show them to the public.
Things went as we expected. Mr. Roosevelt, the president of a nation of 130 million, dodged our questions. He claimed the authenticity of the documents was unassailable; he had them. They could not be published, however, since they were secret and publishing them would reveal the source. And the map in question that carved up Central and South America had markings in pencil that could compromise the source that provided them. He, Roosevelt, did not want to cause any difficulties for the poor chap who passed them along…
The Reich government published two formal denials on 1 November, which boxed Roosevelt’s ears so strongly that he had to chose between revealing his documents or proving himself a forger and liar to the entire world. He chose the latter. The U.S. press gave headline treatment to the German denials and asked for a response. Mr. Roosevelt accepted the blows, rubbed his cheeks, and said nothing. We made every conceivable suggestion to ease the publication of the documents, but the U.S. president preferred to be thought a liar and forger than to prove his absurd accusations.” (my bold)
In reality and while we certainly cannot trust Joseph Goebbels, we will never really know whether or not this map was key in persuading the voters of the United States to join the Allied forces, largely because the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour occurred relatively shortly thereafter. That said, research by William Boyd suggests that the map may well have been created by British Security Coordination (BSC)as part of their mandate to covertly convince the United States public that they needed to end their isolationist and non-interventionist stance and join the war in Europe. BSC was founded in May 1940 by Winston Churchill and headed by a Canadian, William Stephenson (aka A Man Called Intrepid), working on behalf of the British Secret Intelligence Services. An office was opened in the Rockefeller Center in downtown Manhattan under the guise of a Passport Control Office with the agreement of Franklin Roosevelt and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover. BSC planted pro-British and anti-German stories in the American media (at the time consisting of newspapers and radio). It even had its own shortwave radio station, WRUL, which was also used to broadcast anti-isolationist news stories and a press agency, the Overseas News Agency (ONA) that fed “news stories” to American newspapers. As I stated above, the goal of BSC was to make Americans think that joining the war was a positive thing, freeing President Roosevelt and Congress to act without fear of public backlash.
As you can see from this story, the parallels to today’s United States – Russia geopolitical influence peddling is stunning. An apparently fake Nazi map sourced from the British (not to mention BSC’s intervention in American media) was being used in an attempt to sway America, its president and its political leadership. While we’ll never know whether President Roosevelt knew that the map was possibly a fake, the British involvement in propagandizing America with fake news during the Second World War is undeniable. Apparently, as we can see from this story, the peddling of fake news is not just a phenomenon of the 21st century and has great potential to sway voters.
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