For many Americans the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing provided their first inkling of the existence of an armed, radical, violent, right wing counterculture in their country. Suddenly the magazines and newspapers were full of stories about "Militias" and "Patriots", Midwest churches preaching bizarre doctrines of racial purity, and survivalists hoarding ammunition in anticipation of a coming struggle between the forces of Good, as embodied in themselves, and Evil, which took the form of a global conspiracy of Jewish bankers which secretly controlled the Federal government. Perhaps emboldened by the attention given these groups by respected journalists, some apparently mainstream civic leaders began publicly sharing their own theories regarding black helicopters and secret germ warfare experiments being conducted on American citizens.
The roots of these movements and their ideas are various and deep, but the beginnings of the modern gun-toting, bunker-building, minority-hating, kill-a-Jew-banker-for-Jesus millennialist can be found in one organization that rose to prominence during the Great Depression: William Dudley Pelley's Silver Shirt Legion.
Pelley was born in Massachusetts in 1890, the son of a Methodist minister. As an adult he worked as a newsman and editor in Massachusetts and Vermont and eventually became a correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post in Russia at the end of World War I. He later said that the horrors he witnessed there, acts of brutality perpetrated by the newly-installed Bolshevik government against its own citizens, turned him into a "grim crusader" against Communism.
Pelley married and had one child, who died young. Seeking to further his writing career he moved to Los Angeles where he wrote novels and screenplays as well as magazine articles and several short stories. However, his fortunes began to decline, and his wife divorced him in 1921. In 1925, Pelley had a life-changing experience that he came to call his "Seven Minutes in Eternity". Though details are sketchy, it appears that the struggling writer had an out-of-body experience, finding himself translated to a heavenly plane where the nature of his life's wrong turns were revealed to him by the ascended beings he encountered there. He returned as a man with a mission.
Pelley devoted himself to writing about his mystical visions and his analysis of the world's problems, which he believed were caused by a cabal of international bankers financing world Communism, which was a Jewish plot to enslave the Christian nations of the globe. Members of America's political and economic establishment were pawns of or even outright collaborators with this conspiracy. The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent economic depression reinforced these beliefs.
In 1930 Pelley moved to Asheville, North Carolina where he began self-publishing magazines, newspapers, and tracts advancing his theories. He also started a correspondence school, the Galahad Bible College, in the old Asheville Women's Club building. In a country struggling with social and economic turmoil and enamored of metaphysical figures (especially when, as the Nazis did, they aligned their "secret wisdom" with modern science and "advanced" social theory), he soon found an avid audience. In 1931 he founded a group called the League of the Liberators, but Pelley's vision of a "Protestant militia" that would stand against the evil of godless Communism didn't really take form until January 30, 1933.
That day, Pelley was stunned at the news that vocal anti-Semite Adolf Hitler -- just a few years ago an obscure and struggling artist-turned-rabble-rouser like himself -- had been sworn in as chancellor of Germany. Pelley took this as a divine sign of the approaching return of Christ and the final battle between Good and Evil and resolved to enter the fray. The next day he founded the Silver Shirt Legion, or "Silver Shirts", as a militant wing of the Liberators. He designed a flag, white with a red 'L' in the center standing for Legion, for Loyalty, and for Liberation. And uniforms, of course there were uniforms: a German Stormtrooper cap, short blue corduroy trousers, gold leggings, tie, and a silver shirt with the red 'L' on the breast. (One account I've read says the pants were long khaki trousers, which makes the ensemble sound slightly less goofy.)
The ranks of the SS (get it?) contained many who would become notable figures in extremist politics for the rest of the century. Richard Butler, later head of Aryan Nations, was one of the "Silver Rangers" as was Gerald L. K. Smith, Louisiana’s lieutenant governor under Huey Long. Posse Comitatus founder Henry Lamont "Mike" Beach served as the group’s state liaison officer in Portland, Oregon in the early 1930s.
The philosophical underpinnings of the movement practically covered the whole spectrum of crazy ideas floating around at the time. The Second Coming of Christ to earth and His millennial reign was immiment, and true believers (as opposed to race traitors and Jewish sympathizers) needed to ready themselves for Armageddon, which would be a battle against the forthcoming Red revolution. A bit of Anglo-Israelism (the idea that the true Chosen People of the Bible are not Jews but rather the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons) crept in via recruit David Davidson.
Davidson's belief in Pyramidology, also known as Great Pyramidism, was a huge influence on Pelley. Just as other occultists did before him (including Jehovah's Witnesses founder Charles Taze Russell) Pelley attempted to numerologically predict the date of Christ's return using the measurements of the interior passages of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. After Jesus consistently refused to get with the program and show up at the announced times, Pelley finally set the date at a comfortably distant September 17, 2001.
The economic program proposed by the Silver Shirts was likewise one that was being floated in a number of quarters during the Depression. The United States would become incorporated, and its shareholder-citizens would draw a regular stipend.
Pelley claimed that the Silver Shirts were dedicated to achieving their goals through "peaceful" means, and said his violent rhetoric (such as the suggestion that all Jews holding public office should be forcibly removed) was meant only to heighten the impact of his message. His followers seem to have not made the same distinction: SS posts all over the country stockpiled weapons and drilled military-style to ready themselves for armed uprising. In 1935 the San Diego chapter obtained weapons from the nearby Navy depot, planning to lay siege to the city and execute Jewish leaders.
As the country edged closer to war with Germany, the Silver Rangers' facist ideology and stormtrooper garb increasingly failed to win them friends among the American people. Jewish organized crime syndicates took direct action to protect Jews from the threat posed by the SS. When Minneapolis mobster David Berman learned that the Silver Shirts were holding a rally at a nearby Elks’ Lodge, he and some of his boys decided to attend. Just when the speaker announced that the city's "Jew bastards" should be driven out of town, Berman and his men came through the door and started busting heads. Berman took the stage amid the carnage. "This is a warning," he announced. "Anybody who says anything against Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse." There were no more public Silver Shirt meetings in Minneapolis.
Eventually Pelley was subpoenaed by the Special House Sub-Committee on Un-American Activities, before which he testified in 1939. In 1942, he was arrested on charges of insurrection and sedition under the Smith Act and was tried and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He was released in 1952, but by then the day of the Silver Shirts was long over. William Dudley Pelley died in 1965. His ideas, unfortunately, live on.