When historian Charles R. Gallagher learned that a Boston-based leader of a right-wing Christian group secretly met with a Nazi intelligence official to plot against the United States joining the Allied forces in World War II, he was shocked.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, now there’s a story,’” said Gallagher, an associate professor of history at Boston College who is also a Jesuit priest.
This real-life spy drama is part of Gallagher’s new book, “Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front,” published by Harvard University Press. The organization named in the subtitle had chapters in New York and Boston, with the latter branch initially operating out of the Copley Square Hotel.
With an anticommunist and antisemitic platform, the Christian Front worked to prevent the U.S. from joining the Allies, which included Great Britain and the Soviet Union. As the book details, New York group leader John Cassidy plotted an armed insurrection that was thwarted by the FBI, while the Boston leader – Francis Moran – met clandestinely with Nazi spymaster Herbert Scholz. Both groups were dismantled, but in Boston, the pro-Nazi activism had a dangerous repercussion: a wave of antisemitic violence from 1942 to 1943.
Overall, Gallagher said, “What I tried to do was to show how serious the group was.” He calls the group “forgotten because it was not taken seriously.”
The author takes the group very seriously, as he does the right-wing violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“I read the news on Jan. 6,” Gallagher said. “My only thought was about how seriously Jan. 6 ought to be taken. We cannot afford to neglect, downplay, push it aside.
“More research needs to be done into the history of the right wing. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book. Historians are not just overlooking, but simply neglecting, this organization, the Christian Front.”
According to the book jacket, the front “traced its origins to vibrant global Catholic theological movements of the early twentieth century.” However, one of the front’s most effective opponents in Boston was a Catholic journalist and activist named Frances Sweeney.
The front was one of an estimated 800 right-wing groups operating in the U.S. between 1930 and 1940. As Gallagher explained, many Americans supported isolationism and neutrality, while anticommunism was also on the rise.
He noted that the front grew from the words of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest based in Detroit who had a nationally popular radio show and “became more and more antisemitic” in the mid-1930s.
In New York, Cassidy worked to stockpile weapons for an insurrection against the U.S. government. Gallagher’s career trajectory helped him understand the danger of the threat. Before becoming a priest, he trained with weapons as a summer police officer on Nantucket.
As Gallagher recounts, Boston leader Moran was a former seminary student who worked at an insurance company but had a run-in with his Jewish boss that cost him his job during the Great Depression.
“[He] feels all of this bad luck, all of the financial stuff, his entire family, being the main breadwinner there, all of this has crumbled because of the Jewish boss,” Gallagher said.
The author said that Moran found an outlet in running the local Christian Front, attracting tens of thousands of supporters.
“Moran never divulged [to his followers that] he was meeting secretly with a Nazi agent, a Nazi SS officer,” Gallagher said. “If he did that, he would have lost constituents as a public face … In New York, they had no idea Cassidy wanted to overthrow the government by force of arms. Only military cells and central committees were in on the work. The public gatherings in the meeting halls had no idea.”
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Boston Police Commissioner Joseph Timilty persuaded Moran to shut down the local Christian Front. But the deal contained a loophole that allowed Moran to go underground, running a cell that counted just 12 members, according to Gallagher.
The FBI was able to infiltrate Moran’s cell with a female operative codenamed G1 following antisemitic violence across Boston.
This violence “was concentrated in areas where the Christian Front had been most effective,” Gallagher said, listing Mattapan, Blue Hill Avenue, Dorchester, and South Boston. “There was a kind of border war going on between Jews and Catholics. It was kept quiet for eight months. There was an explosion, finally, at the end of 1943 in terms of publicity [that] involved everyone – the governor, the police commissioner, the mayor, to the cops, to rabbis. It was a time of real violence against Jews in Boston.”
Gallagher laments the decisions taken by authorities against Moran, including forcing him underground.
“In my view, he became almost more lethal underground than above ground,” Gallagher said, adding that when the FBI infiltrated his cell, “It was too late for the Jews of Boston. The antisemitic crisis had already occurred.”