The Inside Story of How General Motors Helped Mobilize the Third
by Edwin Black
Global Research, May 5, 2007
HNNHistory News Network
Part 1 __James D. Mooney thrust his arm
diagonally, watching its reflection in his hotel suite mirror.
Not quite right. He tried once again. Still not right. Was it
too stiff? Too slanted? Should his palm stretch perpendicular
to the ceiling; should his arm bend at a severe angle? Or should
the entire limb extend straight from shoulder to fingertips? Should
his Sieg Heil project enthusiasm or declare obedience? Never mind,
it was afternoon. Time to go see Hitler.
Just the day before, May 1, 1934, under
a brilliant, cloudless sky, Mooney, president of the General Motors
Overseas Corporation, climbed into his automobile and drove toward
Tempelhof Field at the outskirts of Berlin to attend yet another
hypnotic Nazi extravaganza. This one was the annual "May
Tempelhof Field was a sprawling, oblong-shaped
airfield. But for May Day, the immense site was converted into
parade grounds. Security was more than tense, it was paranoid.
All cars entering the area were meticulously inspected for anti-Hitler
pamphlets or other contraband. But not Mooney´s. The Fuhrer´s
office had sent over a special windshield tag that granted the
General Motors´ chief carte blanche to any area of Tempelhof.
Mooney would be Hitler´s special guest.
As Mooney arrived at the airfield, about
3:30 in the afternoon, the spectacle dazzled him. Sweeping swastika
banners stretching 33 feet wide and soaring 150 feet into the
air fluttered from 43-ton steel towers. Each tower was anchored
in 13 feet of concrete to resist the winds as steadfastly as the
Third Reich resisted all efforts to moderate its program of rearmament
Thousands of other Nazi flags fluttered
across the grounds as dense column after column of Nazis, marching
shoulder to shoulder in syncopation, flowed into rigid formation.
Each of the 13 parade columns boasted between 30,000 and 90,000
storm troopers, army divisions, citizen brigades and blond-blue
Hitler Youth enrollees. Finally, after four hours, the tightly
packed assemblage totaled about 2 million marchers and attendees.
Hitler eventually arrived in an open-air
automobile that cruised up and down the field amid the sea of
devotees. Accompanied by cadres of SS guards, Hitler was ushered
to the stage, stopping first to pat the head of a smiling boy.
This would be yet another grandiose spectacle of Fuhrer-worship
so emblematic of the Nazi regime.
When ready, Hitler launched into one of
his enthralling speeches, made all the more mesmerizing by 142
loudspeakers sprinkled throughout the grounds. As the Fuhrer demanded
hard work and discipline, and enunciated his vision of National
Socialist destiny, the crisp sound of his voice traveled across
an audience so vast that it took a moment or two for his words
to reach the outer perimeter of the throng. Hence, the thunderous
applause that greeted Hitler´s remarks arrived sequentially,
creating an aural effect of continuous, overlapping waves of adulation.
General Motors World, the company house
organ, covered the May Day event glowingly in a several-page cover
story, stressing Hitler´s boundless affinity for children.
"By nine, the streets were full of people waiting to see
Herr Hitler go meet the children," the publication reported.
The next day, May 2, 1934, after practicing
his Sieg Heil in front of a mirror, Mooney and two other senior
executives from General Motors and its German division, Adam Opel
A.G., went to meet Hitler in his Chancellery office. Waiting with
Hitler would be Nazi Party stalwart Joachim von Ribbentrop, who
would later become foreign minister, and Reich economic adviser
As Mooney traversed the long approach
to Hitler´s desk, he began to pump his arm in a stern-faced
Sieg Heil. But the Fuhrer surprised him by getting up from his
desk and meeting Mooney halfway, not with a salute but a businesslike
This was, after all, a meeting about business
- one of many contacts between the Nazis and GM officials that
are spotlighted in this multipart JTA investigation that scoured
and re-examined thousands of pages of little-known and restricted
Nazi-era and New Deal-era documents.
This documentation and other evidence
reveals that GM and Opel were eager, willing and indispensable
cogs in the Third Reich´s rearmament juggernaut, a rearmament
that, as many feared during the 1930s would enable Hitler to conquer
Europe and destroy millions of lives. The documentation also reveals
that while General Motors was mobilizing the Third Reich and cooperating
within Germany with Hitler´s Nazi revolution and economic
recovery, GM and its president, Alfred P. Sloan, were undermining
the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt and undermining America´s
electric mass transit, and in doing so were helping addict the
United States to oil.
For GM´s part, the company has repeatedly
declined to comment when approached by this reporter. It has also
steadfastly denied for decades - even in the halls of Congress
- that it actively assisted the Nazi war effort or that it simultaneously
subverted mass transit in the United States. It has also argued
that its subsidiary was seized by the Reich during the war. The
company even sponsored an eminent historian to investigate, and
he later in his own book disputed many earlier findings about
GM´s complicity with the Nazis. In that book, he concluded
that assertions that GM had collaborated with the Nazis even after
the United States and Germany were at war "have proved groundless."
A fascination with four wheels
Hitler knew that the biggest auto and
truck manufacturer in Germany was not Daimler or any other German
carmaker. The biggest automotive manufacturer in Germany - indeed
in all of Europe - was General Motors, which since 1929 had owned
and operated the long-time German firm Opel. GM´s Opel,
infused with millions in GM cash and assembly-line know-how, produced
some 40 percent of the vehicles in Germany and about 65 percent
of its exports. Indeed, Opel dominated Germany´s auto industry.
Impressive production statistics aside,
the Fuhrer was fascinated with every aspect of the automobile,
its history, its inherent liberating appeal and, of course, its
application as a weapon of war. While German automotive engineers
were famous for their engineering innovations, the lack of ready
petroleum supplies and gas stations in Germany, coupled with the
nation´s massive depression unemployment, kept autos out
of reach for the common man in Nazi Germany. In 1928, just before
the Depression hit, one in five Americans owned a car, while in
Germany, ownership was one in 134.
In fact, just two months before Mooney´s
meeting at the Chancellery, Hitler had commented at the Berlin
International Automobile and Motor Cycle Show: "It can only
be said with profound sadness that, in the present age of civilization,
the ordinary hard-working citizen is still unable to afford a
car, a means of up-to-date transport and a source of enjoyment
in the leisure hours."
Even if few Germans could afford cars
- GM or otherwise - the company did provide many in the Third
Reich with jobs. Hitler was keenly aware that GM, unlike German
carmakers, used mass production techniques pioneered in Detroit,
so-called "Fordism" or "American production."
As the May 2, 1934, Chancellery meeting
progressed, Hitler thanked Mooney and GM for being a major employer
- some 17,000 jobs - in a Germany where Nazi success hinged on
re-employment. Moreover, since Opel was responsible for some 65
percent of auto exports, the company also earned the foreign currency
the Reich desperately needed to purchase raw materials for re-employment
as well as for the regime´s crash rearmament program. Now,
as Hitler embarked on a massive, threatening rearmament program,
GM was in a position to make Germany´s military a powerful,
modern and motorized marvel.
The quest for the ´people´s
During the meeting with Mooney, Hitler
estimated that if Germany were to emulate American ratios, the
Reich should possess some 12 million cars. But, Hitler added,
3 million cars was a more realistic target under the circumstances.
Even this would be a vast improvement over the 104,000 vehicles
manufactured in Germany in 1932.
Mooney told Hitler that GM was willing
to mass produce a cheap car, costing just 1,400 marks, with the
mass appeal of Henry Ford´s Model T, if the Nazi regime
could guarantee 100,000 car sales annually, issue a decree limiting
dealer commissions and control the price of raw materials. Many
automotive concerns were vying for the chance to build Hitler´s
dream, a people´s car or "volkswagen," but GM
was convinced it alone possessed the proven production know-how.
An excited Hitler showered his GM guests with many questions.
Would the cost of garaging a car be prohibitive
for the average man? Could vehicles parked outdoors be damaged
by the elements? Mooney answered that the same vehicle built to
withstand wind, dust and rain at 40 mph to 60 mph could stand
up to overnight exposure outdoors. To promote automobile ownership
Hitler even promised something as trivial as legalized street
Of course, Hitler had already committed
the Reich to expedite completion of the world´s first transnational
network of auto highways, the Autobahn. Now, to further promote
motorcar proliferation, Hitler suggested to Mooney that the German
government could also reduce gasoline prices and gasoline taxes.
Hitler even asked if Opel could advise him how to prudently reduce
car insurance rates, thus lowering overall operating costs for
The conference in Hitler´s Chancellery
office, originally scheduled for a quarter hour, stretched to
The next morning, May 3, 1934, an excited
Hitler told Keppler, "I have been thinking all night about
the many things that these Opel men told me." He instructed
Keppler, "Get in touch with them before they leave Berlin."
Hitler wanted to know still more. Mooney spent hours later that
day ensconced in his hotel suite composing written answers to
the Fuhrer´s many additional questions.
Clearly, Hitler saw the mass adoption
of autos as part of Germany´s great destiny. No wonder Mooney
and GM were optimistic about the prospects for a strategic relationship
with Nazi Germany.
A few weeks after the prolonged Chancellery
session, the company publication, General Motors World, effusively
recounted the meeting, proclaiming, "Hitler is a strong man,
well fitted to lead the German people out of their former economic
distress... He is leading them, not by force or fear, but by intelligent
planning and execution of fundamentally sound principles of government."
Ironically, Hitler´s famous inability
to follow up on ideas caused GM officials to wonder if they had
been too revealing in their company publication´s coverage
of the Chancellery meeting. Copies of General Motors World were
seized by Opel company officials before they could circulate in
Germany. Mooney later declared he would do nothing to make Adolf
For Mooney, and for Germany´s branch
of GM, the relationship with the Third Reich was first and foremost
about making money - billions in 21st century dollars - off the
Nazi desire to re-arm even though the world expected that Germany
would plunge Europe and America into a devastating war.
Typical of news coverage of events at
the time was an article in the March 26, 1933, edition of The
New York Times, headlined "Hitler a Menace."
The article, quoting former Princeton
University President John Hibben, echoed the war fear spreading
across both sides of the Atlantic. "Adolf Hitler is a menace
to the world´s peace, and if his policies bring war to Europe,
the United States cannot escape participating," the article
opened. This was one of dozens of such articles that ran in American
newspapers of the day, complemented by continuous radio and newsreel
coverage in the same vein.
However, the commanding, decision-making
force at the carmaker was not Mooney, GM´s man in Nazi Germany,
but rather the company´s cold and calculating president
Alfred P. Sloan, who operated out of corporate headquarters in
Detroit and New York.
Who was Sloan?
Sloan lived for bigness. Slender and natty,
attired in the latest collars and ties, Sloan commonly wore spats,
even to the White House. He often out-dressed his former GM boss,
billionaire Pierre du Pont. An electrical engineer by training,
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate was a strategic
thinker who was as driven by a compulsion to grow his company
as he was compelled to breathe oxygen.
"Deliberately to stop growing is
to suffocate," Sloan wrote in his 1964 autobiography about
his years at GM. "We do things in a big way in the United
States. I have always believed in planning big, and I have always
discovered after the fact that, if anything, we didn´t plan
big enough. I put no ceiling on progress."
For Sloan, motorizing the fascist regime
that was expected to wage a bloody war in Europe was the next
big thing and a spigot of limitless profits for GM. But unlike
many commercial collaborators with the Nazis who were driven strictly
by the icy quest for profits, Sloan also harbored a political
motivation. Sloan despised the emerging American way of life being
crafted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sloan hated Roosevelt´s
New Deal, and admired the strength, irrepressible determination
and sheer magnitude of Hitler´s vision.
For Sloan, the New Deal - with its Social
Security program, government regulation and support for labor
unions - clanged an unmistakable death knell for an America made
great by great corporations guided by great corporate leaders.
In a 1934 letter to Roosevelt´s
Industrial Advisory Board, Sloan complained bitterly that the
New Deal was attempting to change the rules of business so "government
and not industry [shall] constitute the final authority."
In Sloan´s view, GM was bigger than mere governments, and
its corporate executives were vastly more suited to decision-making
than "politicians" and bureaucrats who he felt were
profoundly unqualified to run the country. Government officials,
Sloan believed, merely catered to voters and prospered from backroom
Sloan´s disdain for the American
government went beyond ordinary political dissent. The GM chief
so hated the president and his administration that he co-founded
a virulently anti-Roosevelt organization, and donated to at least
one other Roosevelt-bashing group. Moreover, Sloan actually pressured
GM executives not to serve in government positions, although many
disregarded his advice and loyally joined the government´s
push for war preparedness.
At one point, Sloan´s senior officials
at GM even threatened to launch a deliberate business slowdown
to sabotage the administration´s recovery plan, according
to papers unearthed by one historian. At the same time, Sloan
and GM did not fail to express admiration for the stellar accomplishments
of the Third Reich, and went the extra mile to advance German
Indeed, Sloan felt that GM could - and
should - create its own foreign policy, and back the Hitler regime
even as America recoiled from it. "Industry must assume the
role of enlightened industrial statesmanship," Sloan declared
in an April 1936 quarterly report to GM stockholders. "It
can no longer confine its responsibilities to the mere physical
production and distribution of goods and services. It must aggressively
move forward and attune its thinking and its policies toward advancing
the interest of the community at large, from which it receives
a most valuable franchise."
In ramping up auto production in the Nazi
Reich, Sloan understood completely that he was not just manufacturing
vehicles. Sloan and Hitler both knew that GM, by creating wealth
and shrinking unemployment, was helping to prop up the Hitler
When explaining his ideas of mass production
to Opel car dealers, Sloan proudly declared what the enterprise
would mean: "The motor car contributes more to the wealth
of the United States than agriculture. The automobile industry
is a wealth-creating industry." What was true in America
would become true in Germany. Ironically, GM chose the alliance
with Hitler even though doing so threatened to imperil GM at home.
Just days after Hitler came to power on Jan. 30, 1933, a worldwide
anti-Nazi boycott erupted, led by the American Jewish Congress,
the Jewish War Veterans and a coalition of anti-fascist, pro-labor,
interfaith and American patriotic groups. Their objective was
to fracture the German economy, not resurrect it.
The anti-Nazi protesters vowed not only
to boycott German goods, but to picket and cross-boycott any American
companies doing business with Germany. In the beginning, few understood
that in boycotting Opel of Germany, they were actually boycotting
GM of Detroit. Effectively, they were one and the same.
Part 2 __Hitler's Carmaker: As the Nazis
Amassed Power, What Did GM Know and When? __By the spring of 1933,
the world was beginning to learn about the lawlessness and savagery
of the Nazi regime, and the Reich's determination to crush its
Jewish community and threaten its neighbors. On March 27, 1933,
a million protesters jammed Madison Square Garden in New York,
and millions more around the world joined in a coordinated show
of protest against Nazi brutality. By May 10, 1933, Nazi-banned
books were being torched in public bonfires across Germany. The
corporate library at General Motors' Opel in Germany was purged,
as well, of Jewish-authored publications and other undesirable
Beginning in the late spring of 1933,
concentration camps such as Dachau were generating headlines reporting
By June 1933, Jews everywhere in Germany
were being banned from the professional, economic and cultural
life of the country. As state-designated pariahs, they were forbidden
to remain members of the German Automobile Association, the popular
organization for the general German motorist. Hitler's anti-Semitic
demagoguery and the daily, semi-official, violent attacks against
Jews were discussed in the American media almost daily.
GM's president Alfred P. Sloan knew what
was happening in Germany. Sloan and GM officials knew also that
Hitler's regime was expected to wage war from the outset. Headlines,
radio broadcasts and newsreels made that fact apparent. America,
it was feared, would once again be pulled in.
Nonetheless, GM and Germany began a strategic
business relationship. That relationship is largely the focus
of a JTA investigative series that re-examines the company's conduct
on both sides of the Atlantic before, during and immediately after
World War II. GM has declined comment for this story. The company
has steadfastly denied for decades that it actively assisted the
Nazi war effort.
Unleashing the Blitzkrieg
Opel became an essential element of the
German rearmament and modernization Hitler required to subjugate
Europe. To accomplish that, Germany needed to rise above the horse-drawn
divisions it deployed in World War I. It needed to motorize, to
"blitz," that is, to attack with lightning speed. Germany
would later unleash a Blitzkrieg, a lightning war. Opel built
the three-ton truck named "Blitz" - to support the German
military. The Blitz truck became the mainstay of the Blitzkrieg.
Quickly, Sloan and James D. Mooney, GM's
overseas chief, realized that the Reich military machine was in
fact the corporation's best customer in Germany. Sales to the
army yielded a greater per truck profit than civilian sales -
a hefty 40 percent more. So GM preferred supplying the military,
which never ceased its preparations to wage war against Europe.
In 1935, GM agreed to locate a new factory
at Brandenburg, where it would be geographically less vulnerable
to feared aerial bombardment by allied forces. In 1937, almost
17 percent of Opel's Blitz trucks were sold directly to the Nazi
That military sales figure was increased
to 29 percent in 1938 - totaling some 6,000 Blitz trucks that
year alone. The Wehrmacht, the German military, soon became Opel's
No. 1 customer by far. Other important customers included major
industries associated with the Hitler war machine.
Expanding its German workforce from 17,000
in 1934 to 27,000 in 1938 also made GM one of Germany's leading
employers. Unquestionably, GM's Opel became an integral facet
of Hitler's Reich.
More than just an efficient manufacturer,
Opel openly embraced the bizarre philosophy that powered the Nazi
military-industrial complex. The German company participated in
cultic Fuhrer worship as a part of its daily corporate ethic.
After all, until GM purchased Opel in 1929 for $33.3 million,
or about one-third of GM's after-tax profit that year, Opel was
an established carmaker with a respected German persona. The Opel
family included several prominent Nazi Party members. This identity
appealed to rank-and-file Nazis who condemned anything foreign-owned
For all these reasons, during the Hitler
years, Sloan and Mooney both made efforts to obscure Opel's American
ownership and control. As a result, the average storm trooper,
Nazi Party member or German motorist accepted the company's cars
and trucks as the product of a purely Aryan firm that was working
toward Hitler's great destiny: "Deutschland uber alles."
Opel became an early patron of the National
Socialist Motor Corps, a rabid Nazi Party paramilitary auxiliary.
Ironically, most of the members of Corps were not drivers, but
Germans seeking to learn how to drive to increase national readiness.
Opel employees were encouraged to maintain membership in the Motor
Corps. Furthermore, Opel cars and trucks were loaned without charge
to the local storm trooper contingents stationed near company
headquarters at Russelsheim, Germany. As brownshirt thugs went
about their business of intimidation and extortion, they often
came and went in vehicles bearing prominent Opel advertisements,
proud automobile sponsor of the storm troopers.
The Opel company publication, Der Opel
Geist, or The Opel Spirit, became just another propagandistic
tool of Fuhrer worship, edited with the help of Nazi officials.
Hitler was frequently given credit in the publication for Opel's
achievements, and was frequently depicted in Der Opel Geist portraits
as a fatherly or stately figure.
Hitler's voice regularly echoed through
the cavernous Opel complex. His hate speeches and pep rallies
were routinely piped into the factory premises to inspire the
workers. Great swastika-bedecked company events were commonplace,
as Nazi gauleiters, or regional party leaders, and other party
officials spurred gathered employees to work hard for the Fuhrer
and his Thousand-Year Reich. Opel contributed large cash donations
to all the right Nazi Party activities. For example, the company
gave local storm troopers 75,000 reichsmarks to construct the
gauleiter's new office headquarters.
In the process, Opel became more than
a mere carmaker. It became a stalwart of the Nazi community. Working
hard and meeting exhausting production quotas were national duties.
Employees who protested the intense working conditions, even if
members of the Nazi Party, were sometimes visited by the Gestapo.
SS officers worked as internal security throughout the plant.
Order was kept.
Of course, GM's subsidiary vigorously
joined the anti-Jewish movement required of leading businesses
serving the Reich. Jewish employees and suppliers became verboten.
Established dealers with Jewish blood were terminated, including
one of the largest serving the Frankfurt region. Even long-time
executives were discharged if Jewish descent was detected. Those
lower-level managers with Jewish wives or parentage who remained
with the company did so stealthily, hiding and denying their background.
To conceal American ownership and reinforce
the masquerade that Opel stood as a purely Aryan enterprise, Sloan
and Mooney, beginning in 1934, concocted the concept of a "Directorate,"
comprised of prominent German personalities, including several
with Nazi Party membership. This created what GM officials variously
termed a "camouflage" or "a false facade"
of local management. But the decisions were made in America. GM
as the sole stockholder controlled Opel's board and the corporate
Among the decisions made in America beginning
in about 1935 was the one transferring to Germany the technology
to produce the modern gasoline additive tetraethyl lead, commonly
called "ethyl," or leaded gasoline. This allowed the
Reich to boost octane that provided better automotive performance
by eliminating disruptive engine pings and jolts. Better performance
meant a faster and more mobile fighting force - just what the
Reich would ultimately need for its swift and mobile Blitzkrieg.
As early as 1934, however, America's War
Department was apprehensive about the transfer of such proprietary
chemical processes. In late December 1934, as GM was considering
building leaded gasoline plants for Hitler, DuPont Company board
director Irenee du Pont wrote to Sloan: "Of course, we in
the DuPont Company have always recognized the propriety and desirability
of closely cooperating with the War Department of the United States.
In any case, I know that word has gone to the War Department and
have the impression that they would be adverse to disclosure of
knowledge which would aid Germany in preparing that chemical."
The profits were simply not worth it, argued du Pont.
Sloan had already bluntly told du Pont,
"I do not agree with your reasoning to this question."
Days later, Sloan appended that GM's commercial rights were "far
more fundamental than the question of making a little money out
of lead in Germany."
GM moved quickly - in conjunction with
its close ally Standard Oil. Each company took a one-quarter share
of the Reich ethyl operation, while I.G. Farben, the giant German
chemical conglomerate, controlled the remaining 50 percent.
The plants were built. The Americans supplied
the technical know-how. Captured German records reviewed decades
later by a U.S. Senate investigating committee found this wartime
admission by the Nazis: "Without lead-tetraethyl, the present
method of warfare would be unthinkable."
Years after the war, Nazi armaments chief
Albert Speer told a congressional investigator that Germany could
not have attempted its September 1939 Blitzkrieg of Poland without
the performance-boosting additive.
Dwarfing the competition
Within a few years of partnering with
the Hitler regime, Opel began to dwarf all competition. By 1937,
GM's subsidiary had grown to triple the size of Daimler-Benz and
quadruple that of Ford's fledgling German operation, known as
Ford-Werke. By the end of the 1930s, Opel was valued at $86.7
million, which in 21st-century dollars, translates into roughly
In the meantime, GM was responsible for
stunning growth in Germany's economy. As most economists of the
day knew, and as Sloan himself bragged, automobile manufacturing
created thousands of factory jobs, hundreds of suppliers, numerous
dealerships, widespread motorization and an attached oil industry.
Moreover, the growth of the highway network,
from local roads to the Autobahn, spurred a construction boom
that spawned thousands of additional jobs and necessitated hundreds
of additional suppliers. Even GM's own sponsored expert historian,
who decades later examined Hitler-era documentation, concluded:
"The auto industry spearheaded the remarkable recovery of
the German economy that boosted the popularity of the Nazi regime
by virtually eliminating within a few years the mass unemployment
that had idled a quarter of the workforce and contributed so importantly
to Hitler's rise."
But Reich currency restrictions obstructed
the outflow of cash for profits or even the purchase of raw materials
to build trucks. GM in America circumvented those regulations
through the overseas sales of German pencils, sewing machines,
Christmas tree ornaments and virtually any other exports that
would earn foreign currency internationally. Those sales proceeds
were then exchanged for profits or raw materials through complicated
On the homefront
Ironically, while GM's Opel was a deferential
corporate citizen in Nazi Germany, going the extra mile to comply
with Reich requirements and making no waves, Sloan helped foment
unrest at home as part of the company's efforts to undermine the
For example, the GM president was one
of the central behind-the-scenes founders of the American Liberty
League, a racist, anti-Semitic, pro-big business group bent on
rallying Southern votes against Roosevelt to defeat him in the
1936 election. The American Liberty League arose out of a series
of private gatherings organized in July 1934 by Sloan, du Pont
and other businessmen. Some of those meetings were even held at
GM's office in New York.
The businessmen sought to create a well-financed,
seemingly grass-roots coalition that du Pont declared should "include
all property owners the American Legion and even the Ku Klux Klan."
Sloan served on the American Liberty League's national advisory
board and was one of a number of wealthy businessmen who each
quietly donated $10,000 to its activities. The American Liberty
League, which raised more money in 1935 than the National Democratic
Party, in turn, funded an array of even more fanatical, racist
and anti-Jewish groups.
One such group funded by the American
Liberty League was the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution.
With help from the du Pont family fortune, the Southern Committee
circulated what it called "nigger pictures" of Eleanor
Roosevelt with African-Americans. Sloan sent a $1,000 check directly
to the Southern Committee after those pictures were distributed,
according to congressional testimony.
Racist diatribes found in Southern Committee
literature included an anti-union screed that complained: "White
women and white men will be forced into organizations with black
African apes whom they will have to call 'brother' or lose their
jobs." The Southern Committee also jointly organized protest
marches with the American Nazi "Silver Shirts."
The American Liberty League also financed
the Sentinels of the Republic. The Sentinels of the Republic,
in turn, orchestrated incendiary, anti-Semitic letter-writing
campaigns, and otherwise provoked a backlash against Roosevelt
and what was sometimes derisively labeled his "Jew Deal."
True, the Sentinels of the Republic bore
all the earmarks of a rabble-rousing extremist group. But behind
it were some of the nation's most affluent and well-heeled, supplying
the operating cash and direction. Among them: Sun Oil President
Howard Pew, investment banker Alexander Lincoln who served as
the group's president, and the president of Pittsburgh Plate Glass,
John Pitcairn. Sloan himself wrote a $1,000 check directly to
the Sentinels of the Republic.
Only after an April 1936 congressional
investigation was Sloan's financial involvement in the Sentinels
outed. Just days after the disclosure, Sloan issued a statement
to an inquiring Jewish newspaper in Louisville, promising, "Under
no circumstances will I further knowingly support the Sentinels
of the Republic." He added, ambiguously: "I have no
desire to enter into any questions involving religious or political
Although Sloan backed away from further
financing of the Sentinels, the GM chief continued to fund and
fund raise for another anti-Roosevelt-agitation group, the National
Association of Manufacturers. Founded in 1895 as a pro-business
organization and still prominent more than 100 years later, NAM
sowed anti-union and anti-New Deal discord among Americans in
the 1930s through clandestinely owned and operated opinion-molding
Roosevelt openly acknowledged that Sloan,
GM, the du Ponts and other corporate giants hated him for his
reforms and his efforts to relieve Depression-era inequities.
In his final 1936 campaign speech, the president threw down the
gauntlet, shouting to an overflow Madison Square Garden crowd,
"They are unanimous in their hate for me - and I welcome
Roosevelt added that he wanted his first
four years to be remembered as an administration where "the
forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match."
Fearing Roosevelt's possible re-election,
several of Sloan's top executives at GM actually considered deliberately
extending the financial woes of the Depression, presumably in
retaliation against the entire nation. In the final days of the
1936 election campaign, several GM officials met with W.H. Swartz,
a Lehman Brothers investment banker, according to a historian
who studied the incident.
The GM officials apparently planned to
stop investing in and expanding their company in the event of
Roosevelt's expected victory. Swartz's Nov. 4, 1936, confidential
memo about the GM meeting asserted, "Certain General Motors
people also felt further capital expenditures could not be expected
now, in view of Roosevelt's possible re-election." Based
on their plans, Swartz predicted "a break in general business
next year ... mid-summer is the logical time to expect it,"
adding, "I would suggest that the rather intense political
emotions of certain of these men may have colored their thinking
more than they themselves may have realized."
Despite the lush opposition funding by
Sloan and other affluent anti-New Deal nemeses, Roosevelt was
re-elected by a landslide.
While no capital slow-down was actually
implemented by GM, Sloan did continue to battle the administration.
The conflict was not subtle. Washington knew that Sloan and GM
were powerful adversaries. For example, in 1937, when Sloan telephoned
Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins to renege on a promise made
to meet with labor strikers, Perkins lashed out bitterly at the
Shocked at the reversal, Perkins shouted
into the phone, "You are a scoundrel and a skunk, Mr. Sloan.
You don't deserve to be counted among decent menYou'll go to hell
when you die Are you a grown man, Mr. Sloan? Or are you a neurotic
adolescent? Which are you? If you're a grown man, stand up, and
be a man for once." A flabbergasted Sloan protested, "You
can't talk like that to me! You can't talk like that to me! I'm
worth 70 million dollars and I made it all myself! You can't talk
like that to me! I'm Alfred Sloan."
Edwin Black is the author of the award-winning
IBM and the Holocaust and the recently published Internal Combustion:
How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and
Derailed the Alternatives.