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Bush, the Nazis and America

by David Niewert

Original URL: http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2003_09_07_dneiwert_archive.html#106314632241306908
Saturday, September 06, 2003  
[Introducing a short series ...]

1: Falsifying History

I'd like to return, if I may, to the Rich Lowry column, "Among the Bush Haters," which I examined earlier as a prime example of the way conservatives are increasingly not only trying to revise history, but falsify it, by presenting a version of reality that stands fact on its head.

There was a snippet of this column that particularly caught my attention as an example of the way conservatives' propaganda elides factual history about prominent Republicans so as to tar their critics as extremist:

The anti-war Web site Takebackthemedia.com features a Flash movie complaining that "the media will not tell you of the Bush family Nazi association" and theorizing that in order "to offset their reputation as World War II traitors, former President Bush joined the U.S. Navy as a pilot." (Clever, those Bushes.)

Thus with a simple, sneering aside Lowry casually dismisses what should in fact be a serious question worth addressing. Other conservatives, notably Jonah Goldberg, have given this question more or less the same contemptuous treatment -- as if the accusation were too over-the-top, too ludicrous to even dignify with a serious response.

The problem is, it isn't. In fact, there is a great deal of factual truth to it.

The questions raised by the known facts about the Bush family's connections to the Nazi war machine should really be a matter of some national moment, because they raise serious issues about the relationship between America and Nazism and its atrocities, and the ramifications of those ties in today's world.

These are not only serious but deeply disturbing issues, which may be why there has been relatively little mainstream effort to address them. Unfortunately, the highly partisan way that they have been framed to date has done little to make the debate a serious or thoughtful one. And conservatives' attempts to pretend that the questions should not even be taken seriously are a sort of historical revisionism -- falsifying history by pretending it didn't even happen.

TakeBackTheMedia has already fired back at Lowry and other critics, including Fox News, by observing:
The point was that George W. Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, had the assets of the family business seized by the U.S. Government under the Trading With The Enemy Act of 1941. Much of the Bush family fortune was made by dealing with Nazi Germany -- both before and during World War II.

This in fact is entirely accurate -- more so, I might add, than the TakeBack's original description of the connection. More on that later.

The claim that some of Prescott Bush's assets were seized under the Trading with the Enemy Act for his dealings with Nazi Germany has been thoroughly documented. Here, for instance, is a copy of the 1942 Vesting Order naming Bush, among others.

Michael Kranish at the Boston Globe discussed this in an April 23, 2001 piece titled "Triumphs, Troubles Shape Generations," that explored some of the Bush family's past troubling connections. It began like this:
Prescott Bush was surely aghast at a sensational article the New York Herald Tribune splashed on its front page in July 1942.

"Hitler's Angel Has 3 Million in US Bank," read the headline above a story reporting that Adolf Hitler's financier had stowed the fortune in Union Banking Corp., possibly to be held for "Nazi bigwigs." Bush knew all about the New York bank: He was one of its seven directors. If the Nazi tie became known, it would be a potential "embarrassment," Bush and his partners at Brown Brothers Harriman worried, explaining to government regulators that their position was merely an unpaid courtesy for a client. The situation grew more serious when the government seized Union's assets under the Trading with the Enemy Act, the sort of action that could have ruined Bush's political dreams.

As it turned out, his involvement wasn't pursued by the press or political opponents during his Senate campaigns a decade later. But the episode may well have been one of the catalysts for a dramatic change in his life. Just as the Union Banking story broke, Bush volunteered to be chairman of United Service Organizations, putting himself on the national stage for the first time. He traveled the country raising millions of dollars to help boost the morale of US troops during World War II, enhancing his stature in a way that helped him get elected US senator. A son and grandson would become presidents.

The Globe story, however, manages to overlook some of the grave issues that are raised by Bush's connections to the Nazi regime. Foremost among these: To what extent is the Bush family fortune -- which is unquestionably one of the foundations of the current American presidency -- based upon the wealth engendered by its role in building the Nazi war machine?

However, a close examination reveals this is not so easy to answer as either side would suggest. What is clear is that the evidence that doing business with the Nazi regime substantially enhanced the Bush family fortune is nearly overwhelming.

The main remaining questions are: What proportion of the Bush fortune is based on this trade? And what were the family's ideological connections to the Nazis? These are much murkier issues that remain unresolved.

2: The Bush fortune

The bulk of the information about the Bush family's Nazi connections comes from a couple of books of varying quality: The Secret War Against the Jews, by John Loftus and Mark Aarons, which is generally quite accurate, though somewhat tendentious; and George Bush: The Unauthorized Biography, by Webster Tarpley and Anton Chaitkin. The latter is the text that is most commonly cited by critics who make the Bush-Nazi connection, but it is also decidedly the most problematic. Tarpley and Chaitkin are followers of the right-wing extremist Lyndon Larouche, and their book is primarily devoted to "exposing" George H.W. Bush, the current president's father, as a leading member of a secret cabal intent on enslaving mankind.

Like most Larouche texts, the Bush "biography" is a mélange of fact and distortion, written in a highly suppositional style that makes numerous leaps of logic and asserts connections where there is no real evidence to support it, at other times omitting exculpatory or contrary information that reveals a more complete picture. Sifting through it requires a great deal of work, but there are nuggets of fact woven into their text that are substantiated and which deserve proper consideration. (Here are the relevant chapters, two and three, from the book that cover this material. You can read the remaining chapters to see how it weaves a classic right-wing conspiracy theory about Bush.)

Loftus' work is thesis-driven and likewise does not take much into consideration exculpatory points; at other times it makes assertions supported by intuition but not hard evidence. However, it is considerably more reasoned and factually sound than the Tarpley/Chaitkin text. It is not available online, but Loftus maintains a Web site, including this piece: "How the Bush family made its fortune from the Nazis". (A piece by Toby Rogers, "Heir to the Holocaust," is largely derived from Loftus' work.)

The core facts, gleaned from both books and other sources, and which are completely documented and appear irrefutable, are as follows:

The current president's great-grandfather, George Herbert "Bert" Walker (the surname provides the "W" by which the president is widely known), was a close business associate of railroad magnate W. Averell Harriman. Walker was CEO and president of the W.A. Harriman & Co., their Wall Street investment firm. Over the years, the Walker/Bush and Harriman fortunes became closely interconnected.

In 1920, Walker and Harriman obtained the Hamburg-Amerika Line, reportedly the world's largest private shipping line, from the United States government, which had seized it during World War I. Among the people who reportedly facilitated this deal were Samuel Pryor, chairman of Remington Arms, the largest U.S. gun manufacturer; and Samuel Prescott Bush, an Ohio steel manufacturer who had been director of the arms and facilities division of the U.S. War Industries Board during World War I. S.P. Bush's duties primarily were a liaison between the government and various arms makers, notably Remington Arms. (Bush already had a long business relationship with the Harriman family, since his company, Buckeye Steel Castings, had provided much of the steel rail used by Union Pacific Railroad.)

Prescott Bush, his son, married Bert Walker's daughter Dorothy in 1921.

In 1924, Harriman and Walker set up the Union Banking Corporation, whose primary purpose was to funnel American capital to German industry. Walker was president of the company, and Harriman its chief stockholder. In just one three-year period, the Harriman firm sold more than $50 million of German bonds to American investors.

It is important to remember, however, that during these initial years of operation, Union Banking was primarily doing business with non-Nazi Germans. Fritz Thyssen, the German industrialist who was the company's chief client, in fact had helped finance Hitler's nascent organizational campaign in October 1923, but after the failure of the "Beer Hall Putsch" the next month, severed his ties with them. Hitler was jailed for a year, and the party remained in dire financial straits for the following four years. However, in 1928, Thyssen changed his mind and became a major benefactor of the Nazis. That clearly was when the Harriman-Nazi connection took root as well, though as we will see, there already were certain ideological commonalities.

In 1926, Walker named young Prescott Bush a vice president of W.A. Harriman, made him a director of Union Banking, and placed him in charge of overseeing the firm's German operations, particularly its capital investments in Thyssen's various industrial ventures, notably his Vereinigte Stahlwerke, or United Steel Works.

The Depression, however, hit the Harriman firm hard. It started losing money hand over fist, and as a 2001 Boston Globe profile of the Bush family dynasty (which noticeably mentions the 1942 Vesting Order, but then fails to give any further detail on Bush's dealings with Germany, though it does obliquely refer to Bert Walker's "dangerous dealings") revealed, Harriman used his family fortune to bail it out.

But beginning in 1931, the firm began recovering, in no small part because of Prescott Bush's successful work in Germany. In just one three-year period (1932-1934), the Harriman firm sold more than $50 million of German bonds to American investors. It was during this period, indeed, that investment in German industry was considered one of the most solid investments available; the reason for this, as the retrospective of history has shown, was the Nazi military buildup that was occurring then.

A 1942 U.S. government investigative report would later tally the industrial output that created the Nazi war machine, and determined that during the 1932-41 period, Vereinigte Stahlwerke had produced the following proportions of Nazi Germany's total national output: 50.8 percent of its pig iron; 41.4 percent of its universal plate; 36 percent of its heavy plate; 38.5 percent of its galvanized sheet; 45.5 percent of its pipes and tubes; 22.1 percent of its wire; 35 percent of its explosives.

In the meantime, the Hamburg-Amerika Line was playing its own significant role as a major pipeline for Nazi propagandists and American money. This paragraph from Tarpley and Chaitkin in fact is perfectly accurate (and can be confirmed at the source document, Investigation of Nazi Propaganda Activities and Investigation of Certain Other Propaganda Activities: Public Hearings before A Subcommittee of the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, United States House of Representatives, Seventy Third Congress, New York City, July 9-12, 1934, Hearings No. 73-NY-7):

According to testimony of officials of the companies before Congress in 1934, a supervisor from the Nazi Labor Front rode with every ship of the Harriman-Bush line; employees of the New York offices were directly organized into the Nazi Labor Front organization; Hamburg-Amerika provided free passage to individuals going abroad for Nazi propaganda purposes; and the line subsidized pro-Nazi newspapers in the U.S.A., as it had done in Germany against the constitutional German government.

Hamburg-Amerika also played a more insidious role in events unfolding within Nazi Germany. Hitler's notorious Brownshirts -- the armed "citizen" platoons of the Sturmarbteilung, or SA -- who were providing so much of the violent thuggery associated with its rise to power, particularly in such events as Kristallnacht, were in fact being armed primarily with American weapons, many of them made by Remington Arms.

Samuel Pryor, the Remington Arms chairman, was also a founding director of both the Union Banking Corp. and the American Ship and Commerce Corp., which was the company that controlled Hamburg-Amerika. In 1934, U.S. Senate investigators began examining the traffic in weapons from the United States to other nations where conflict was erupting, and they began looking into Remington after it entered into a cartel agreement with the German explosives firm I.G. Farben (which would go on to gain infamy for its notorious role in many of the Nazis' concentration camps, as well as in creating the Zyklon B poison gas that killed millions of victims in the Holocaust). Testimony produced in the so-called "Nye Committee" revealed that Remington guns were being unloaded from Hamburg-Amerika boats to the waiting arms of the SA.

A Col. William J. Taylor told the committee that "German political associations, like the Nazi and others, are nearly all armed with American ... guns.... Arms of all kinds coming from America are transshipped in the Scheldt to river barges before the vessels arrive in Antwerp. They then can be carried through Holland without police inspection or interference. The Hitlerists and Communists are presumed to get arms in this manner. The principal arms coming from America are Thompson submachine guns and revolvers. The number is great."

In any event, it is clear that Harriman's enterprises, with Prescott Bush playing at least a significant role, was an important player in providing the capital that produced the Nazi war machine during the 1930s, and its activities had also played a role in facilitating the violent eliminationist politics that were being practiced by the fascists throughout Europe (Harriman also had major dealings with Italy's Benito Mussolini).

After 1937, the picture becomes much murkier. Thyssen in 1939 fled Germany because he believed Hitler was about to turn on him, following the Fuhrer's first military invasions and the nightmare of Kristallnacht. The German government confiscated all of his holdings. That same year, Hitler invaded Poland and the German government took control of the United Steel Works plants in Silesia, which were a significant interest of Union Banking and W.A. Harriman & Co.

According to Loftus, Harriman's firm, with Prescott Bush in charge, nonetheless continued to oversee operations at the Silesian plant. Indeed, Loftus charges, Bush was involved in obtaining slave labor from the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp to work at the operation's mines and mills. His basis for making this charge is a 1941 memo from a Dutch intelligence agent, though Loftus' reporting does not evaluate the reliability of the memo or its contents.

However, the 1942 vesting memo that seized Union Banking Company's assets tends to at least corroborate the contention that the Harriman firm remained active in managing its German and Polish assets and in trading with Nazi industries. That is the basis, after all, of the seizure.

What is completely unknown is the extent to which the gains in wealth made during the 1928-37 period of heavy German investment by the Bush and Harriman families were significant. Certainly Loftus and others believe that the bulk of the Bush family fortune actually arose during that period, and it may be reasonable to surmise this, but there is simply no evidence to prove it definitively, mainly because the Harriman and Bush families' investments were extremely diverse. Germany was decidedly not the only place they invested. The family has never opened its books, and considering the extreme secrecy with which it has dealt with issues and records regarding the presidential behavior of George H.W. Bush, it is not likely to any time soon.

However, it is worth noting that when the Union Banking Company's assets were finally unfrozen in 1951 and distributed to the owners of the original shares, Prescott Bush received $1.5 million for his single share -- in those days, a large fortune in itself.

3: The Bush ideology

It must be said that none of their business dealings build any kind of case for the contention that either Prescott Bush or George Herbert Walker, the president's forebears, had anything more than a superficial ideological affinity for the Nazis. It is clear that from the majority of these actions that they primarily saw Nazi Germany as an excellent investment opportunity and had not the least hesitation about either doing business with Hitler, nor did they seem to consider the consequences of doing so very grave -- if anything, they were advantageous to their worldview.

This is grossly amoral, of course, but it is on a different plane than the enthusiastic and grotesque support for the Nazi ideology that was trumpeted by other American industrialists, including Henry Ford. Ford, of course, also invested heavily in German industry in a way that was later to haunt America deeply; his German motor plants, after being nationalized by Hitler, were later to produce the engines that propelled Nazi Messerschmitts and tanks.

Tarpley and Chaitkin make much of the Bush family's supposed connections to the eugenics movement, which played a major ideological role in Hitler's eliminationist policies, particularly his anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s. The problem is that they never definitively make such a connection.

It is an unquestioned fact that the Harriman family indeed was deeply involved in eugenics. The matriarch, Mary Williamson Averell Harriman, was one of the original benefactors of Charles Davenport's Eugenics Record Office; her $10,000 grant in 1910 had established the organization. On her death in 1932, Davenport delivered the eulogy at her memorial service, which included this observation:

"As she often said, the fact that she was brought up among well bred race horses helped her appreciate the importance of a project to study heredity and good breeding in man."

This bears a remarkable resemblance to a passage in Tarpley and Chaitkin:
She and other Harrimans were usually escorted to the horse races by old George Herbert Walker -- they shared with the Bushes and the Farishes a fascination with "breeding thoroughbreds '' among horses and humans.

The book cites "among other such letters, George Herbert Walker, 39 Broadway, N.Y., to W. A. Harriman, London, Feb. 21, 1925, in WAH papers," but neglects to detail any of the contents of these letters that could support this characterization. This is, unfortunately, typical of this text's propensity to make damning assertions without supporting evidence. Obviously, we know that the Walkers and Bushes were socially close to the Harrimans, but that does not necessitate that they shared views on race and eugenics. It's not an unreasonable surmise, but there is no hard evidence currently available to assume it is true.

Averell Harriman, too, was a major and reportedly enthusiastic contributor to various eugenics causes, including sponsorship of the 1932 International Congress of Eugenics, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Harriman also personally arranged for Hamburg-Amerika to bring Nazi eugenicists, notably the "scientist" most often fingered for inspiring the Holocaust, Dr. Ernst Rudin, who was then a psychiatrist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Genealogy and Demography in Berlin. (Rudin was elected president of the Congress at the New York gathering.) I have found one report that says Bert Walker was among the lesser contributors, but I have found no substantiation of this.

Beyond this, there has never been any hard evidence introduced that would substantiate any connection between either the Walkers or, particularly, Prescott Bush and eugenics. This has been a particularly persistent myth for the latter; it is common to find anti-Bush rants on the Web which claim that the elder Bush lost his campaign for the Senate in 1950 because his supposed connection to "the eugenics movement" had been uncovered.

This is afactual. What happened was that Bush, who had worked hard to recover his public image through his tireless USO work, had won the Republican nomination. But on the Sunday before the election, nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson intimated that Bush was president of the Birth Control Society, the predecessor of Planned Parenthood.

As the aforementioned Boston Globe profile details:
At the time, Connecticut was one of two states to ban the use of birth control, including condoms. (The other state was Massachusetts.)

Connecticut was then 55 percent Catholic, ''and the archbishop was death on this birth control thing,'' Prescott Bush recalled. Many voters phoned the Bush home, asking whether the story were true. Bush denied it all, but it was too late. He lost the Senate race by 1,102 votes, setting the family standard for razor-thin elections until his grandson, George Walker Bush, was elected president a half century later.

There is an important subtext to all of this: The eugenics movement, from its very origins late in the 19th century, was divided into two wings. "Positive" eugenics emphasized encouraging the healthiest and ablest people to reproduce. "Negative" eugenics stressed culling the "less fit" from the population as a means of improving the common stock.

The latter form of eugenics was that which was practiced by the Eugenics Record Office, which went on to gain notoriety not only for its ideological connection to the Nazis (who, following one of the "model laws" developed by Davenport's ERO colleague Harry Laughlin, established laws that led to the sterilization of 350,000 people in Europe) but for its own record in America, where the sterilization laws he promoted were responsible for the involuntary sterilization of some 60,000 Americans.

Vehemently opposed to this -- and particularly to the racialist orientation that was the thrust of so much of the "negative" eugenics that enjoyed so much popularity -- were the less-known "positive" eugenicists, who soon began abjuring the term altogether to avoid association with their ostensible cousins. Much of this latter philosophy gradually transformed from advocating sound reproduction for the "fit" to emphasizing sound and healthy reproductive choices for everyone, a decidedly more egalitarian approach. It was also, however, far more controversial, since it inherently argued for greater rights for women.

Foremost among these was the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, as well as other multiculturalists such as Margaret Mead and Franz Boas. These thinkers specifically and ardently rejected the tenets of white supremacism and "negative" eugenics. Of course, in subsequent years, all of these people have been tarred -- mostly by anti-abortion activists -- with guilt by association to the eugenics movement. (Planned Parenthood has a thorough and well-argued defense of Sanger up on its Web site.) But there was no mistaking the differences between them at the time.

And if subsequent history is anything to go by, Prescott Bush was ultimately drawn to this segment of the eugenics movement, in contradistinction with that favored by his family friends the Harrimans. There is in fact no evidence produced yet that Bush himself participated in the "negative" eugenics popular in the 1930s.

Indeed, Bush had in 1931 set himself apart politically from his father and his partners, who all were Democrats, by announcing that he was a Republican -- which, at the time, was decidedly the more progressive of the two parties on issues of race and civil rights. When his real political affiliations and beliefs became even more manifest in the 1950s and '60s, as a U.S. senator from Connecticut, it was clear that this progressivism was a central feature.

Prescott Bush was, in fact, the model of the patrician "progressive Republican" from the Northeast whose tradition continues in such moderates as Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island. In those days, of course, they were the predominant force in GOP politics; nowadays, in a GOP dominated by the politics of the Southern Strategy and the "conservative movement," they have been relegated to the party's powerless fringes. But in his day, Prescott Bush was an outspoken and effective advocate of civil rights, women's reproductive rights, and a number of other progressive platforms that earned him the enmity of the party's conservative wing. Indeed, it is one of the more grotesque ironies of the presidency of Bush's grandson that it has done its utmost to empower the same kind of religious extremists who once tormented his forebear.

For that transformation, of course, George H.W. Bush's craven capitulations to the religious right beginning in 1988 and throughout his administration are largely responsible. In many ways, it marked the death knell for any genuinely progressive wing of the Republican Party, and finalized the exodus of many former party stalwarts (myself included).

However, before then, George H.W. Bush's politics had primarily been modeled after his father's, which were decidedly progressive in nature. And his own combat service in World War II should lay to rest any questions about his relationship to the Nazis.

In that respect, one of the accusations hurled by the "Bushes were Nazis" theorists -- that George H.W. Bush signed up for service in the Pacific to deflect questions about the family's patriotism -- is fairly bothersome. TakeBackTheMedia put it this way:
To offset their reputation as World War II traitors, former President Bush joined the U.S. Navy as a pilot.

Tarpley and Chaitkin (and others as well) take this a step further: They argue that young Bush was specifically sent to the war in the Pacific because the war in Germany was viewed by many on the right at being against our "friends," while the war with Japan was being billed as a "race war," which would have meshed with the Bush family's ostensible white-supremacist views.

As a matter of fact, the Pacific war indeed was being widely portrayed as a fight against the "Jap race." Consider the following speech from John Rankin, the Mississippi Democrat, on the floor of Congress Dec. 15, 1941:
This is a race war! The white man’s civilization has come into conflict with Japanese barbarism. ... Once a Jap always a Jap. You cannot change him. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. ... I say it is of vital importance that we get rid of every Japanese, whether in Hawaii or on the mainland ... I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii, now and putting them in concentration camps... Damn them! Let’s get rid of them now!

While Rankin was a Democrat, these views were held across the range of American politics. And as one might infer, their broad acceptance in fact played a major (if not the decisive) role in causing 110,000 Japanese-Americans to be interned in concentration camps during the war. This project was clearly bipartisan in nature, and indeed many Republicans played leading roles in it. Prescott Bush, however, was not one of them.

In this regard, it is important to remember that there is no evidence that Prescott Bush himself was either a eugenicist or a racist. He may have been utterly amoral and conscienceless in his willingness to do business with Nazis and his eugenicist friends the Harrimans, but there is even yet no evidence he in fact shared their views. We might be able to surmise such views from the circumstances, but there is no real proof of them.

Likewise, there are no letters or statements even intimating that George H.W. Bush fought in the Pacific for any purpose other than patriotism, and there is no evidence he was shipped there instead of to Europe by any kind of deliberate efforts on his father's part or his own, let alone for any racist reasons. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, a groundless and careless smear.

In the end, it should be fairly clear that the grounds for claiming that the Bush forebears were "Nazis" are thin and largely nonexistent. However, that does not relieve them of culpability, moral and otherwise, for their roles in the rise of the Nazis.

4: Keeping Conscience

It is clear that, while the Bush/Walker clan was utterly conscienceless in its dealings with the Nazis, and at least a substantial portion of the Bush family's fortune is in fact built upon that blood-tainted business, there is no evidence that they had any serious ideological ties to them. In a literal sense, of course, it is silly to refer to them as "Nazis," since one had to be a German citizen and join the party to earn the name factually. But even in the generic ideological sense, the evidence of even an affinity, let alone an identification, with the Nazi ideology is very thin.

Yet when this aspect of the Bush family's history is raised by their critics, it almost inevitably comes attached to the notion that the "Bushes were Nazis." A site called Unknown News, for example, asks, "Were Bush's great-grandfather and grandfather Nazis?" and answers: "While there are no recorded incidents of them goose stepping or giving the 'Heil Hitler' salute, the short answer to the question is yes...." David Romm asks the identical question. Even a column devoted to debunking the notion (to which Romm was responding), Cecil Adams' "The Straight Dope,", asks, "Was President Bush's great-grandfather a Nazi?" (Of course, when you frame the question that way, it is a bit simpler to knock down.)

And those are all relatively reasonable sites that try to deal with the serious underlying issues. Even more responsible Web sites, including TakeBackTheMedia, which only focused on the "Bush-Nazi connection" (which, as I already noted, is a factually accurate characterization) indulged itself in the accusations about George H.W. Bush's military service, and moreover featured various pieces of parodistic altered photographs placing member of the Bush administration in Nazi regalia. This latter, of course, is also common at some of the more shrill and irresponsible sites attacking Bush as a Nazi, and is familiar to those of us who have seen the ridiculous "Bush=Hitler" signs.

All of these images underscore a crude misunderstanding of what actually is taking place. As I have argued in "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism," there is a significant difference between corporatists and fascists. I provided a general outline there, but let me try to delineate them more clearly:

Corporatists are typically mainstream conservatives who have been a feature of the American landscape since the onset of the Industrial Age. They are supremely self-interested, and their politics over the years (particularly in their resistance to communism and labor unions) have adapted accordingly to resist change in whatever privileged position they enjoy, and in recent years to roll back impediments to that privilege. Their alliances with various ideological factions have shifted accordingly over the years to reflect those interests, at times aligning themselves with extremist factions as a lever against left-wing radicalism, though since World War II corporatists have maintained a steady power-sharing agreement with mainstream liberals that has been closely associated with the rise of the American mass-consumer society. In recent years, that arrangement has become frayed as conservatives have become increasingly aggressive about rolling back features of the post-Depression rise of federal power, particularly progressive taxation and minority civil rights.

Fascists represent a distinct phenomenon related to the mass politics of the 20th century and beyond. At its core, fascism is a kind of ultranationalist populism in pursuit of the rebirth of a mythical national spirit, of which it claims be the sole true representative. Depending on social conditions, it typically is relegated to the fringe of the cultures in which it arises, especially in its nascent stages. Indeed, small proto-fascist groups can be found in nearly every democratic society.

What is essential to remember is that, historically speaking, fascism has only ever taken root as a genuine political power when it has formed an alliance with mainstream corporatist conservatives. While proto-fascist elements have had their moments in the sun in America -- particularly the ascendant Ku Klux Klan of the early 1920s -- they have fallen short mainly because the nation's corporatist conservatives have not deigned to ally themselves with them. This was not true in Germany or Italy, where corporatists such as Fritz Thyssen were all too happy to ride the fascist tide until it began to reveal its true nature and turn on them -- by which point, of course, it was all too late to do anything about it.

In that respect, today's mainstream corporatist conservatives -- and I think it is clear that not only President Bush but the bulk of his administration fit that description -- do not resemble Hitler and the Nazis so much as they resemble the Thyssens and Hindenburgs, the fools who believed that by co-opting their nation's growing extremist contingent, they could control it. And they resemble the Prescott Bushes and Averell Harrimans who only saw the chances for increased profits and consolidation of their power in underwriting the Nazi military machine. In the process, they all combined to unleash one of history's greatest nightmares.

And to the extent that today's Republicans pander to and traffic in extremism within their own ranks, the more they create the actual conditions that give rise to fascism. Especially troubling in recent weeks has been the increasing repetition of the meme that dissent is treason and that therefore liberals are seditious traitors. This ranges from Ann Coulter's attempts to revive McCarthyism to Donald Rumsfeld's charge that critics of the administration are "opposition to the U.S. President was encouraging Washington's enemies and hindering his 'war against terrorism'."

This really is why the questions around the Bush family's connections to the Nazi regime are relevant today. The episode does not point to some secret ideological affinity for fascism so much as it reveals a willingness to empower them if it furthers their ends. The really interesting question raised by the "Bush-Nazi connection" is not so much a hidden skeleton in the family closet as what the episode says about American society's willingness to ignore inconvenient truths of history, and how that affects the ethos of current public policy.

Cecil Adams, in his attempt to debunk the connection, alludes to this when he argues:
So, did Bush and his firm finance the Nazis and enable Germany to rearm? Indirectly, yes. But they had a lot of company. Some of the most distinguished names in American business had investments or subsidiaries in prewar Germany, including Standard Oil and General Motors. Critics have argued for years that without U.S. money, the Nazis could never have waged war.

While this is quite accurate as far it goes, for some reason, Adams considers this an excuse of some kind: "Hey, everybody did it, and we still do it." This elides the larger question of the real moral culpability that exists for aiding and abetting not just the Nazi nightmare, but violent totalitarian regimes through succeeding years. While it is true that certain American figures -- notably Henry Ford -- faced even greater degrees of culpability for their overt support of fascism, the people who gladly profited from providing essential cogs to the Nazi war machine cannot escape accountability by merely claiming that it was "just business." This defense for all kinds of atrocities is common among American capitalists, and it is at base corrupt and amoral. Indeed, it continues to serve as a handy excuse for the kind of foreign policy that has been practiced ever since the war, and which was specifically shaped by the same self-interested forces that gave way to the Holocaust.

Two other texts -- both balanced, accurate and reliable -- have tackled the larger issue of the role of corporate America's investment in and financial and logistical support for the Nazis, both in their nascent and military-building phases: New York Times reporter Charles Higham's groundbreaking 1983 book, Trading With The Enemy; The Nazi American Money Plot 1933-1949, and Christopher Simpson's 1993 The Splendid Blond Beast: Money Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century.

Both books -- which deal at least tangentially with the Harriman-Bush connections -- focused on the question of why these captains of industry never had to confront their culpability in the Nazi nightmare. According to Higham, investigations were begun by international tribunals to look into this matter but "the government smothered everything during and even after the war." Higham contended that government officials believed "a public scandal ... would have drastically affected public morale, caused widespread strikes and perhaps provoked mutinies in the armed services," and thought "their trial and imprisonment would have made it impossible for the corporate boards to help the American war effort."

Simpson delves even deeper into this point and ultimately concludes that when it came time for accountability in the mass genocide sponsored by corporatists, international tribunals were stymied by the same machinations of privilege and power that were in fact responsible for the problem. The elites whose fortunes were at stake found that the structure of international law was weak and easily manipulated so that they could simply "get on with business."

As Phil Leggiere argues persuasively in his 2002 article, "The Indiscreet Charm of the Bush Nazi Web Conspiracists":
What … Aaron-Loftus and Simpson substantiate with more detail and in a far wider historical context, is that the relationships between Harriman Bank and other corporations and Nazi-era Germany need to be understood as part of a larger pattern. There is little evidence that the free-form meta-diplomatic modes of international financial deal making developed by Harriman, Bush and company in the 1920s and '30s signaled pro-Nazi or pro-fascist political ideology. However, it did help form a template for U.S. international finance and politics in which support for dictatorships, (financially in the '30s, financially and politically-militarily during the cold war) would become business as usual in U.S. foreign policy. One of the most interesting aspects of both the Simpson and the Aaron and Loftus books is their examination of how the private sector style of international affairs pioneered by Dulles, Harriman, Lovett and Bush in the '30s gradually metaphorphosed, during and after World War 2, into the official realpolitick of the U.S. government, often under the guidance of these same men. The ruling precepts of anti-communism and free trade that guided the international banking elite in the '30s in their dealings with Hitler would become the official policy through which the U.S. would support a wide variety of corporate-friendly dictators throughout the world, from the '50s to the present.

Leggiere's exegesis, by the way, is easily the most thorough and considered account of the matter on the Web, and I recommend it as essential reading for anyone wanting a balanced examination of the facts. I only came across it late in my research for this piece, and was pleased and slightly astonished to see he reached exactly the same conclusion as I had [I should also note that he is a superior writer]. This is its essence:
There are sharp distinctions between the "Bush is a Nazi" vulgarizations of the conspiranoia-ists, and the documented corporate-Nazi connections delineated by Simpson or Aaron. Where one sees ideology, the other sees opportunism. Where one sees intention, the other sees unintended consequences. The theorists who see this historical episode not as evidence of Nazism but of business-as-usual are clearly the more sophisticated of the bunch, but this is small comfort. The results were (and are) the same.

The vast majority of the Bush-Nazi conspiracy discourse is eccentric and clearly over-the-top. However, it is these web-based amateurs, and not our allegedly working professional journalists, who have kept alive a significant, largely ignored, body of evidence. This evidence is only partly about the Bushes. More significantly, it traces the origins of the cavalier, amoral relationship between American and global financial elites and genocidal dictatorships that has characterized U.S. policy for decades.

Americans have a well-noted tendency toward convenient historical amnesia -- witness the broad lack of awareness of such episodes in American history as the lynching era, or for that matter the current popular tendency toward the easy dismissal of minority grievances as "identity politics," which is clearly based on forgetting where such politics originated.

Coming to terms with the American role in unleashing the Nazi death machine is not a matter of "guilt" or self-hating recrimination: It is a matter of conscience, of keeping faith with real American ideals, such as decency and fair play. It is important to understand that having a conscience affects not only our views of the past but our present behavior. The relevance of the "Bush-Nazi connection" is what it says about the kind of politics being pursued by present and future administrations.

It is unfortunate, of course, that a discussion of the "Bush-Nazi connection" is inspired by the kind of partisan attacks that not only afactually assert the nature of the ties but, in doing so, muddy the waters so that the important underlying issues are obscured. Regardless of how the issue arises, however, it is such a serious matter with far-reaching implications, that eventually serious-minded Americans must confront it.

In this respect, the reaction of the mainstream right to the issue has been particularly telling: Rather than deal with the facts of the matter honestly, conservatives have simply tried to pretend that they don't exist. This is a falsification of history that smacks of the same kind of intentional omissions practiced by Holocaust revisionists or the Communist regimes who were, as Milan Kundera put it, dedicated to "obliterating memory."

George Santayana's famous admonition, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," has become such a commonplace that we seem now not to even recognize it when it manifests itself in public view. And when we dismiss the "Bush-Nazi connection" with a sneer and a roll of the eyes, we partake in nurturing the stuff of nightmares.

David Neiwert is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. His reportage for MSNBC.com on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000. He is the author of In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: Hate Crimes and the American Landscape (Palgrave/St. Martin's, summer 2004) and the forthcoming Strawberry Days: The Rise and Fall of the Bellevue Japanese-American Community (publisher pending). His freelance work can be found at Salon.com, the Washington Post, MSNBC and various other publications. He can be contacted at dneiwert@hotmail.com.