HomeBook ReviewsThe First Blueprint for American Fascism: William Dudley Pelley’s ‘No More Hunger’
June 26, 2022
The First Blueprint for American Fascism: William Dudley Pelley’s ‘No More Hunger’
William Dudley Pelley wasn’t the first political grifter that ever existed, but he’s certainly one of the first people to use third way or “fascist” ideologies as a grift. Within the span of a few decades, Pelley was a journalist, screenwriter, novelist, college founder, presidential candidate, and alleged “insurrectionist.” Unfortunately for Pelley, most of his grifts ended in failure.
The subject of this book review is the work that best outlines Pelley’s foray into politics and fascism, his 1936 exposition No More Hunger. The book contains Pelley’s explanation of what’s wrong with American capitalism and how his proposed new government would work.
If one were to read No more Hunger without context, they might scratch their heads at the suggestion that it was a “fascist” manifesto. After all, Pelley doesn’t explicitly define himself as a fascist or his ideology as fascist in the book despite the fact that he founded the Silver Legion of America, an explicitly fascist political movement, just three years before book’s publishing.
In fact, Pelley went as far as to write that “Capitalism, Socialism, Fascism, or Communism” were inadequate “social systems.” This is strange considering that, at the time Pelley wrote the book, he was openly supporting Adolf Hitler and it was no secret that the Silver Shirts, as they were called, were modeled after Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts and Hitler’s SS. Pelley boasted a couple years later that he “was the first man in the United States to step out and support Adolph Hitler and his German-Nazi Program.”1
Despite his burgeoning affinity for European fascist movements, he was different from his far-right counterparts from across the pond in his deeply held Christian beliefs (Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were anything but the typical Christian), which was the obvious inspiration for a lot of his arguments in No More Hunger. There is some important context to keep in mind here. As said before, Pelley was a professional grifter — just years before founding the Silver Legion of America, he declared himself as the high priest of a Christian cult which was referred to as a “church of Christian Democracy.”2 Officially, Pelley’s political thought was referred to as the “Christian Commonwealth” throughout No More Hunger.
Despite the confusion around Pelley’s ever evolving grifts, No More Hunger is decidedly fascist, even if it’s not explicitly self-described as such. Discontented with the political responses from both capitalists and socialists to the Great Depression, Pelley outlined his economic vision for America and his plans to stick it to “the Jew” and “bankers.” Pelley also offered a solution for the some of the minorities in America, which echoed 19th century discussions about ending slavery: make them wards of the state and disallow their participation in society without the state’s permission.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression and how best to solve the economic crisis was on the minds of everyone — it was an inescapable part of everyday life. The height of the Great Depression was in 1933, only three years before No More Hunger was published. During that time, 24.9% of the total work force of the United States was unemployed. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pelley’s main economic goal was to end hunger, given the economic climate and the title of the book.
Before diving into Pelley’s economic arguments, it should first be said that he was not well-versed in economics or politics. This makes Pelley’s book a much different read than something like The Greater Britain, which was written by Pelley’s British counterpart, Oswald Mosley, a few years earlier. This results in some unintentional contradictions and downright falsehoods, which can make the read quite frustrating for those who are more well-versed in economics.
Despite Pelley’s primitive understanding of economics and politics, the economic arguments in No More Hunger are worth a read because it is the foundation of the first large fascist movement in the United States. The book reflects how the American far-right was beginning to formulate a uniquely American ideologically dissident underpinning and how they planned to react to economic and social problems that would be exacerbated in the coming century. In other words, even though Pelley might have been off the mark, it can be useful to see where he was coming from.
Pelley’s main goal was to end hunger but ending the perceived Jewish influence in economics was just as important to him. In fact, Pelley would likely argue that two issues are inextricably related. In No More Hunger, Jews were mentioned over 90 times, and it was usually in relation to capitalism.
Pelley’s solution to capitalism boiled down to simply eliminating capital as we know it. According to Pelley, “the Jew” was the one “who taught us to use bank cheques” in order to “horde our specie in his personal possession.” Now, he argued, “the joke is on the Jew” because he was going to create a system that destroyed capitalism, which he believed the Jews benefited from.
In Pelley’s proposed state, “the only true value of all the good produced must be the sum-total of all the wages paid, assuming that such wages represent all the human effort that has gone into making them available for public consumption.” Under Pelley’s system, he hoped that productivity would remain the same while people earn “wages” in proportion to how much effort they put in.
Does that sound familiar? In case it does, you’re probably thinking of the labor theory of value, which was a theory, debunked by the time of Pelley’s book, that was used by Karl Marx to criticize capitalism.
However, Pelley’s ideas aren’t a complete rehash of Marxism. There are also elements of Mosley’s conception of the “Corporate State” in the book. Pelley’s version, named the “Great Corporation,” would be a collective entity of all businesses and corporations, and every citizen would be a shareholder. This would result in a form of universal basic income, where shareholders would be paid out in dividends.
Pelley believed that it was very important not to mischaracterize his plan to end capitalism as a form of socialism. In Pelley’s view, socialism was just as Jewish as capitalism. According to Pelley, socialism was inherently “confiscatory,” which he insisted was different from his not-socialist form of wealth distribution and collectivism. Despite his (accidental?) embrace of antiquated Marxist critiques of capitalism, Pelley still believed the right to private property was inalienable. In Pelley’s Christian Commonwealth, “the division of wealth is not equal,” which he saw a differentiating factor from socialism.
Despite every citizen being a shareholder in the Great Corporation, not all citizens would receive the same dividends from the mega-conglomerate. In Pelley’s economic plan, there were 10 tiers of income, starting with the 1-Q tier making $1,000 annually, ending with the 10-Q tier making $100,000 annually.
The Racial Arguments
While Pelley went into great detail about Jews in No More Hunger, he completely ignored the elephant in the room until the last chapter. The elephant in the room, of course, is the question of black Americans, Native Americans, and Mexicans. In the final chapter, Racial Qualifications For Benefits, he outlined a solution to “the Negro Problem, the Mexican Problem, the Alien Problem, the Indian Problem, and the problem of the constitutionally improvident.”
Pelley believed that Mexicans and African Americans were “primitive” and fought “all attempts to introduce them to facilities of modern sanitation.” In kinder words, Pelley was concerned that former slaves and Mexicans were not assimilating well into white European society.
Pelley already outlined his pseudo welfare state, so now the question to be addressed was:
“Are we to shovel out monthly benefits to hordes of persons, just because a lucky accident caused them to be born in the United States, supporting them in idleness if they do not choose to work, patiently tolerating those types and temperaments that drift along from year to year, satisfied to make enough just to keep body and soul together and not bothering their pates over anything better?”
According to Pelley, many non-whites, particularly those that lived in the south, were not “thrifty,” “industrious,” or “law-abiding” enough to be included in the Great Corporation. It would be “imbecility” to give them a monthly dividend. However, the logistical issues and costs associated with deporting them would be insurmountable.
In Pelley’s view, some non-whites were redeemable, particularly Mexicans and black people from northern states. With deportation out of the question, Pelley’s solution was “to create some sort of structure that provides attention, education, and physical sustenance for such castes and classes without enslaving or regimenting them.” He looked to Indian Reservations as an example:
“The castes and classes represented by the indolent Southern negro, the Mexican Indian, the undeportable alien; the illiterate and improvident backwoods white, the constitutionally improvident and shiftless known to be such by their more industrious and respectable neighbors in any district, become wards of The Commonwealth under the Department of the Interior, precisely like our internal administrative machinery for the handling of residents of Indian Reservations of the present!”
It’s important to note that Pelley stops short of condemning all members of a specific race to the fate of wardship. He went out of his way to specify “indolent” and “southern” black people, as well as “backwoods” white people. Pelley’s arguments were certainly racial in nature, but his reluctance to generalize further created some issues. How would you find out which black people were “indolent” and which were worthy of being free? He wrote a solution for that as well.
Pelley planned to have a compulsory census, and those who refused to take it would automatically become wards of the state. According to Pelley, it would be a “simple matter to determine from such data those who qualify under the stipulation of the Christian plan.”
Ultimately, wardship would be good for both the wards and members of the Commonwealth, according to Pelley. Wards would be assigned to work much-needed “unskilled labor” jobs and they would be compensated for their efforts. Pelley saw this solution as the intelligent way to improve the “great slovenly mass of the indolent and illiterate negro populations of the South” compared to “devil-may-care, rule-of-thumb methods obtaining since the break-up of the Confederacy.”
At its peak, it’s purported that the Silver Legion of America had around 15,000 militants.3 Pelley hoped to win the presidency in 1936 under the Christian Party banner, but he failed to translate his following into votes — he failed to garner more than 2,000 votes. In the following years, Silver Legion membership would dwindle until it was disbanded after the Pearl Harbor attack.
One can point to many different reasons why Pelley’s political ambitions ended in failure, but his inability to offer a coherent platform certainly didn’t help. To this day, Pelley’s platform is mischaracterized and lied about. For example, academics often claim that Pelley planned to exclude all non-whites from his proposed state, but a reading of No More Hunger would show that Pelley had more respect for northern black people than “backwoods” white people. Pelley’s incoherency and inability to assert himself was a disservice to the Silver Legion and undoubtedly led to confusion about his beliefs.
However, it could be argued that the deck was stacked against Pelley. Even in the 1930s and the 1940s, the American federal government was powerful and would not take kindly to even the slightest hint of sedition. In April 1942, the government finally took action against Pelley. He was charged with 12 counts of high treason and sedition after speculating that the government was covering up information related to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was found guilty of being an insurrectionist and sentenced to 15 years in prison, of which he served eight before being released.
Kevin J. Harty, “William Dudley Pelley, An American Nazi in King Arthur’s Court,” Arthuriana 26, no. 2 (2016): 69.
Suzanne G. Ledeboer, “The Man Who Would Be Hitler: William Dudley Pelley and the Silver Legion,” California History 65, no. 2 (1986): 128.
About The Author
Matthew Townsend is the editor-in-chief of Washington Echo. He's a historian that specializes in American history and political history. Townsend was raised in the Midwest and can trace his ancestry to England, Ireland, and Germany.