Invitation to a Nazi
By James Tobin
Should he be allowed to use a University facility to shout his diatribe?– U-M student Lloyd Graff
Chapter 1 The Announcement
The fall semester of 1964 had barely begun when a small advertisement appeared on a page inside the Michigan Daily. It said:
“U. of M. Union wishes to announce the appearance of Cmdr. George Lincoln Rockwell on Campus in October.”
The Union, not to be confused with the building of the same name, was the student organization that sponsored many of the school year’s major public events. Its operations were largely independent of the administration and the faculty. Its student officers chose the speakers, organized the concerts, booked the venues and sold the tickets.
Probably few readers of the Daily recognized the name of this guest. But at least one did — Lloyd Graff, a student who wrote occasionally for the Daily. In a brief editorial, he said he had experienced the announcement as “a piece of shrapnel boring into my spine.”
“How can a student organization dignify Rockwell, an avowed Nazi, with an invitation to appear on campus? This is a man whose symbol is the twisted cross of Hitler. He shouts his adherence to the hideous Nazi creed.”
Graff had it right. Before the term “neo-Nazi” became familiar, George Lincoln Rockwell was the prototype. Tall and handsome, a glib and effective speaker, Lincoln had been inciting attention as the self-declared leader of the “American Nazi Party” since the late 1950s.
Graff conceded that the First Amendment protected Rockwell’s right to speak — somewhere. But on the stage of Hill Auditorium? “Should he be allowed to use a University facility to shout his diatribe?”
His question set off a debate that lasted several weeks. In a time before the internet and social media, the discussion played out largely on the editorial page of the Daily, and in language far more civil than is customary in today’s public controversies.
Long before free-speech debates consumed campuses in the 21st century, the contest over George Lincoln Rockwell’s appearance at Michigan became a classic battle in microcosm over the proper role of the First Amendment on a college campus, even about the mission and purpose of a university.
Chapter 2 The Context
On the day of Graff’s protest, the Daily‘s pages carried the customary news and notices of a pleasant fall. The Wolverines were preparing for their home opener against Air Force. Cinema Guild was urging students to attend Thursday and Sunday movie nights because Friday and Saturday crowds always overflowed. The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” was playing a long run at the State.
But it was also a time of jitters and fear. It was not yet a year since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A coup d’état had just unseated the government of South Vietnam. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, protesting a university ban on all political activities on campus — even invitations to outside speakers — had battled with police.
Race and racism dominated the headlines. Southern whites appalled by the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act, which had been strongly supported by President Lyndon Johnson, were backing the presidential candidacy of Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, an avowed segregationist. The non-violent strategy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had paid dividends, but younger Black leaders were calling for more confrontational tactics in the struggle for equality.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy was dead, but the fear of Communism persisted, fueling the rise of Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the most conservative presidential nominee in memory, whose campaign was entangled with the far-right John Birch Society.
In short, the country was in a state of unrest that demagogues like George Lincoln Rockwell dream of.
World War II was not even 20 years gone. It lay square in the middle of living memory for most faculty and staff. Undergraduates of 1964 were too young to remember it, but they had grown up in the war’s shadow. In the wake of Israel’s 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key organizer of Adolf Hitler’s effort to exterminate European Jewry, Americans were coming to a deeper understanding of the Holocaust.
So for many students, the Union’s invitation to an American who called himself a Nazi offered a chance to observe a monster. The organizers would have no trouble filling Hill Auditorium.
Chapter 3 The American Nazi
George Lincoln Rockwell’s father was a rapid-fire vaudeville comedian and magician, just 5′ 4″ tall. His son grew to 6′ 4”, with leading-man looks, and styled himself a great leader of men. But he, too, was at base a showman, a purveyor of stunts and sleight-of-hand to dazzle a crowd.
Searching for the roots of Rockwell’s paranoid ideology in his family of origin, his biographers have found only conventional strains of white racism and antisemitism, though they also found a deeply troubled relationship with his cruel and distant father. His turn toward extremism came in his early 30s, after spells as a naval aviator in World War II and as a professional illustrator and advertising man.
In 1950, with his own marriage wrecked, he reentered the Navy at the start of the Korean War. In the next few years, wrote the historian Frederick Simonelli, “Rockwell went from an eccentric crank with oddball political notions, a hatred for authority figures of all stripes, a hair-trigger temper, a conviction that some great conspiracy was afoot to deny him glory and prosperity, and a visceral dislike for Jews and Blacks to a committed revolutionary who advocated race war and genocide.”
During isolated postings in Iceland, Rockwell devoured Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other racist tomes. He convinced himself the United States had committed a historic blunder by bringing down Hitler. Then, out of the Navy, he settled outside Washington, D.C., where he started a one-man advertising firm and began to associate with anti-Communist ideologues. But even they, he believed, were too timid to expose the true enemy — the Jewish cabal behind the global Communist conspiracy.
So in 1958, with financial support from wealthy antisemites, he declared himself the head of a new American Nazi Party. Though he was never charged, the FBI linked him to the bombing of an Atlanta synagogue and publicized the connection. That alerted the press to the presence of a bona fide Nazi on the American scene.
The “American Nazi Party” was more a brand name than an actual political organization. It was simply a vehicle for Rockwell himself, who directed a few dozen acolytes in the distribution of his leaflets and the staffing of his publicity stunts.
He picketed the White House to protest President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pro-Israel positions. He and his boys picketed the premiere of the movie “Exodus,” a dramatization of the founding of Israel. In 1960 he raised the stakes by petitioning to hold a Nazi rally in New York City’s Union Square on the Fourth of July. Jewish groups opposed it; the American Civil Liberties Union backed Rockwell; and his name was suddenly well known.
Rockwell would later say he used the word “Nazi” chiefly for its shock value. The word drew press attention, which he counted on to build awareness and support. Yet the word also repelled wealthy U.S. racists whom Rockwell hoped to tap for funding. Later he would try to “denazify” the party by changing its name to the Nationalist White People’s Party and emphasizing a new brand, “White Power,” that would live on among his ideological descendants.
He considered African Americans no more than a subhuman irritant compared to humankind’s great nemesis, the Jews. But he also perceived that more Americans would embrace an anti-Black crusade than an anti-Jewish one. So he railed against both.
The American Jewish Congress responded to Rockwell with a two-pronged “quarantine” strategy to minimize his audience. They urged Jewish groups to avoid public clashes that would provoke news stories. And they gave press outlets information about Rockwell to persuade them he was no leader of a movement but just a lonely nut-job unworthy of coverage.
The quarantine proved effective to a degree. On a national tour in 1962, Rockwell’s hopes of provoking Jewish protesters into violent clashes largely fizzled. News outlets covered him only in brief reports. They seldom quoted his nightmarish speeches, laden with promises to exterminate “Jewish traitors” and “encourage” Black Americans to move to Africa once he became president — an outcome he promised for the election year 1972.
So, in the fall of 1962, Rockwell turned to a new source of publicity and income — the college-lecture circuit.
At each stop he could speak to a young, impressionable audience that might yield a convert or two. Every appearance brought $300 plus expenses. More important, it brought publicity, often for weeks in advance of a speech, even when invitations were withdrawn under pressure from critics. And for an hour, he could bask in a spotlight and the attention of a crowd.
The 'American Nazi Party' was more a brand name than an actual political organization. It was simply a vehicle for Rockwell himself.
Chapter 4 The Debate
The discussion at U-M began with disagreement among the Daily‘s own editors just a day after Lloyd Graff’s initial cri de coeur.
The Union “is expected to invite speakers who will stimulate thought and debate, who will convey knowledge and wisdom,” wrote Edward Herstein, the Daily‘s editorial director. “Rockwell will not do this … He does not come to preach a viewpoint rationally, and people do not listen rationally to what he has to say.”
Ken Winter, the managing editor, took the Union’s side. “Even if his talk amounts to nothing more than the hate-infested diatribe his detractors expect,” Winter wrote, “the phenomenon will be educational — if shockingly so.”
In the coming days, students wrote in on both sides. Most opposed the invitation. None contested Rockwell’s right under the First Amendment to give his views. It was providing a University pulpit that bothered them. To give Rockwell the stage at Hill, they said, would violate the University’s mission or legitimize Rockwell or both.
Scott Saulson, a freshman, called the invitation “utterly and thickly disgusting.” Four co-writers said Rockwell should be free to speak in Ann Arbor, but only if he rented his own hall for the purpose.
The Union wants students to learn about Nazism? Hire a historian, said Michael Nash, not a purveyor of “his own brand of racism, hatred, and toy-soldier fanaticism.”
Lawrence Okrent said, “this is the kind of nourishment a cancer needs to grow.”
Those critics drew the Union into the fray.
Jack Warren, chair of the Union’s Special Projects Committee, and apparently the prime mover behind the invitation, tried to dispel the “recent confusion.”
Students had no first-hand knowledge of either World War II or “present-day Nazism,” he said — thus the invitation, providing “ample opportunity for each student to form his own opinions and conclusions.” Furthermore, while neither Rockwell nor his party constituted an actual threat to American democracy, “the concept behind Rockwell, a concept of totalitarianism, racism and hate, is a threat … Any creed emphasizing these traits is a menace, and one meriting awareness to guard against its proven influence on today’s mass mind.”
The Union’s most thoughtful defender was a student, Neil Berkson, editor of the Daily, who wrote a regular column. In a free market of ideas, he said, the truth would inevitably gain the upper hand over lies.
“We must make a choice,” Berkson wrote. “Do we allow ideas to come before us, depending on our own judgment to evaluate them, or do we allow some arbitrary authority to determine what is credible and what is not? There is absolutely no middle ground.”
He declared his own choice by quoting the English poet John Milton (1608-1674), author of Paradise Lost and an early advocate of republican rule over monarchy: “And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple: who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.”
It was likely the first and last time a Daily editor quoted John Milton in the newspaper. But it was a classic civil-libertarian argument in favor of the First Amendment, a forerunner of a famous dictum by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In the face of “falsehoods and fallacies,” Brandeis wrote, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Deeply considered critiques came from two members of the faculty.
The first was Paul Ilie, professor of Romance languages. He acknowledged faculty colleagues who would argue that if university officials silenced certain speakers, then “who would watch the watchers? Yet the truth is that professors throughout the ages have been guardians of humanism and judges of what should or shouldn’t take place in their domain.” But in the wake of McCarthyite attacks on faculty, “the fear of being politically repressive has inhibited the University … If Rockwell’s message did attain [a] minimal level of intellectual quality, the doors would have to be opened. But genocide is no more a debatable topic than is rape.”
The second was Rudolf Schmerl, a professor of English whose Jewish parents had fled Germany shortly before the war. He contested the Union’s Jack Warren point by point and took on the free-market-of-ideas argument for unrestricted free speech.
“A university neither can nor should attempt to view knowledge democratically, as if knowledge were composed of so many individual subjects, each with an equal claim to representation,” Schmerl wrote. “To argue that we cannot know what is good unless we first taste what is evil is to pretend that we are still living in the Garden of Eden … [N]o case can be made for the notion that the University has a responsibility to its students to let them hear the Nazi, any more than could be made for the idea that it has the responsibility to let them witness an act of sexual perversion for the sake of broadening their experience.”
* * *
University administrators, whatever their views as individuals, refused to kill the invitation.
Leaders of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit, following the “quarantine Rockwell” plan, wrote privately to U-M President Harlan Hatcher “to record with you our strongest protest against the use of our University for this kind of appearance.” In the case of an avowed proponent of mass deportation and extermination, “we cannot perceive the remotest parallel with the goals of academic inquiry or intellectual freedom.”
Hatcher’s reply referred to the policy adopted by all of the state’s universities in 1962: “Officially-recognized student organizations may invite outside speakers provided that the speakers do not urge action contrary to university rules or federal law.”
Critics had argued that Rockwell’s vicious platform “did not fit under any stretch of policy,” Hatcher noted. “But if so, how far beyond the bounds of admissibility, under the policy, does Mr. Rockwell stand? Who stands between Mr. Rockwell and the boundary, and who on the line, and who just within? You see the dilemma we would fall back into by starting to make exceptions to the carefully and thoughtfully drawn policy.”
* * *
If the Union’s officers had second thoughts, they were debated in private and set aside. They sought support from other student leaders and got it. The Council of the Women’s League announced that it supported the invitation. So did the Student Government Council (SGC).
Only one member of SGC dissented — Barry Bluestone, an early leader of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), son of the United Auto Workers leader Irving Bluestone, and later an influential labor economist. Asked recently about his long-ago vote, Bluestone recalled that Rockwell was “a vicious racist and antisemite. While I am a firm believer in free speech, there are some boundaries, particularly when it comes to inciting such hatred … If I were still on student government, I would vote the same way today.”
The invitation stood. Rockwell was coming.
If Rockwell’s message did attain [a] minimal level of intellectual quality, the doors would have to be opened. But genocide is no more a debatable topic than is rape.– Paul Ilie, professor of Romance languages
Chapter 5 The Speech
On the evening of October 13, anti-Rockwell picketers with placards moved back and forth on the sidewalk in front of Hill. Across the auditorium’s facade, protesters had spread a giant banner that linked Rockwell directly to the Jim Crow South: “Rockwell Racism Realized … Mississippi.”Thirty Ann Arbor police officers stood by.
Students arrived in droves, filling the cavernous auditorium.
On the stage, Jack Warren of the Union did the introduction.
“Many issues have been raised and discussed,” he said, “and while not completely resolved, these issues have stimulated much thought on campus. Not only questions concerning Nazism past and present, but other more basic issues have been brought into view — the limits of academic freedom, the role of the University within the society, an actual reevaluation of the goals of education, the moral and political obligations of the University and its students, and of course the freedom of speech. These are some of the byproducts of tonight’s program.
“Textbooks can provide many sides of a subject, and a good professor is worth many textbooks. Yet in many cases an advocate of a particular concept or belief can provide an audience with unique insights into the background, philosophy, ambitions, even the personality requisites of that particular creed.”
Then Rockwell stood up, went to the microphone and began.
If those in the crowd expected him at his most outrageous, they were disappointed. He withheld the vicious language he used at rallies of fellow believers. He saved his threats of race war, mass deportations and gas chambers. He knew college audiences. For them he chose to appear the apostle of reason, merely asking questions and challenging with “facts.”
A recording of the event suggests how Rockwell might appeal to some Americans. He was articulate, fast on his feet when challenged, glib. He spoke in plain American idioms, loud and clear, using the manner and style of a popular high school football coach, say, or a sharp speaker at the local Jaycees’ luncheon.
“I do not expect to make any converts here,” he began. He simply wished to present the same “facts and ideas” that had set him, as a young man, on a new course of thinking that would lead to “the world Nazi revival.”
But there were no facts and few ideas. The speech quickly became a loose collection of barbs aimed chiefly at the news media and the other sources of information on which the students depended, including their professors.
“You cannot arrive at intelligent political decisions if you are being manipulated,” he said, “and if you are denied information it’s even more impossible. You have got to know what’s going on.”
But the entire structure of information and culture, he said, was in Jewish hands, and the Jews were leading the worldwide Communist conspiracy to dominate the world — or so he implied by quoting Winston Churchill, who, according to Rockwell, had once said all the leaders of the Russian revolution except Lenin were Jews. “How do you explain that you never heard that fact before?” (He was distorting Churchill’s remark.)
“In this country you can talk about the Negro question. You can talk about the Italian problem — the Mafia … In this country you have absolute freedom of speech on any subject, even pornography. There’s only one that you cannot discuss, and for which you have to face audiences of people hollering, throwing eggs, and that is the Jewish problem … I say that’s wrong. Let’s discuss it. If I am wrong, prove it to me and I’ll quit.
“Now, the reason that you are not able to find out what’s going on in this country, ladies and gentlemen — the reason for it is that the Jewish people have, through commercial genius — I’ll give ’em credit, they are the best businessmen in the world — through commercial genius they have been able to win control of your media of information and entertainment.”
Then he issued his predictions: President Johnson would defeat Senator Goldwater in the coming presidential election. Johnson would preside over four disastrous years, whereupon Goldwater would be elected in 1968. But Goldwater, because his father was Jewish, would betray all his conservative promises. Then depression and racial warfare would ensue, “and I’ll be right there in the middle of it.” Finally, to restore order amid chaos, the American people would elect him president in 1972 and bring a new generation of Nazis to power.
Hecklers yelled only now and then — the details are inaudible on the tape — drawing cheers from the audience. Rockwell brushed them aside. When he asked, “How many people want me to keep speaking?” many clapped their approval. Mostly the students listened. After a few questions, he was done in under an hour. The sense of anticlimax was palpable.
Off the main microphone he muttered, “Well, that wasn’t so bad … Now, let’s take off.”
I do not expect to make any converts here.– George Lincoln Rockwell
Chapter 6 The Aftermath
Later in the year, the celebrated poet Donald Hall, a member of the English faculty from 1957 to 1975, said Rockwell’s invitation had been an exercise in “sensation-seeking,” not in learning.
It’s hard not to suspect he was right. Whatever the Union leaders said, their motives surely had less to do with hearing Rockwell’s message than with the chance — as children of the World War II generation who had grown up amid their parents’ memories and a battery of movies about the war — simply to get a look at an actual Nazi, to satisfy the same base curiosity that drew some people to “freak” shows at the circus.
But the Union’s Jack Warren had gotten one thing right. Intended or not, a thoughtful exchange of views about the nature of the University and free speech had preceded Rockwell’s speech. If the debate in the Daily prompted any late-night discussions in the quads and the rooming houses, then something good came out of it after all.
* * *
Three years later, on Aug. 25, 1967, Rockwell was shot to death in the parking lot of a strip mall in Arlington, Va. The assassin was his former chief lieutenant. Rockwell had slept with the man’s wife and expelled him from the leadership.
* * *
President Harlan Hatcher had made no public comment about Rockwell’s appearance. But a week after the Nazi’s death, Hatcher suggested his speech had symbolized the University’s commitment to free speech.
On the verge of retirement, Hatcher went to the lectern at Hill to give his last convocation address to entering freshmen. “The University is a free place and we prize it that way,” he said. “George Lincoln Rockwell, Stokely Carmichael [the radical leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and Timothy Leary [the psychologist who became a troubadour for the liberating power of LSD] have all spoken from the very podium from which I address you now.”
* * *
Rockwell’s little band in Arlington reorganized, changed their name to the New Order and moved to Wisconsin and Michigan. With other neo-Nazis and white-power advocates of various stripes, they perpetuated Rockwell’s tropes in obscure newsletters and sheltered meetings, then on the internet and social media.
Among the believers, Rockwell in death took on the revered status of a founding father. When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” a Washington Post reporter, Michael E. Miller, heard the echoes of Rockwell.
“He is the grandfather of the white racialist movement as it exists today,” the New Order’s leader, Martin Kerr, told Miller. “To see these many hundreds of racially conscious white men on the streets of Charlottesville, I’m sure he would have been pleased.
“We’re not at the end of the Rockwell wave,” Kerr said. “We’re at the beginning.”
Sources included the Michigan Daily; George F. Simonelli, American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party (1999); William H. Schmaltz, Hate: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party (1999); Ben Bagdikian, “The Gentle Suppression,” Columbia Journalism Review, Spring 1965; Michael E. Miller, “The shadow of an American Nazi commander hangs over Charlottesville,” Washington Post, 8/21/2017; the papers of the Vice-President for Development and University Relations, Bentley Historical Library.
Listen to George Lincoln Rockwell’s speech at Hill Auditorium.