Gerald L. K. Smith

Gerald L. K. Smith
Gerald L. K. Smith

From the 1940s until his death in 1976 Gerald Lyman Kenneth Smith was one of the most outspoken and prolific antisemitic conspiracy theorists in the United States. Smith stands out, not so much for the originality, quality, or even the consistency of his ideas, but rather for his ability to communicate them.

Born in Pardeeville, Wisconsin, in 1898, Smith was the scion of a fundamentalist Christian family who adhered to a literal interpretation of the Bible based upon the New Testament. After graduating from university in 1922, Smith became a preacher and, following a meteoric rise through a succession of ministries in the Midwest, arrived in Shreveport, Louisiana, during the 1929 Stock Market Crash.

Thereafter Smith rose to prominence as the charismatic chief lieutenant to Huey P. Long, the demagogic governor of Louisiana, on whose behalf he ran the Share Our Wealth organization, which gave him access to its 200,000-strong mailing list, his most vital asset in future years. However, when Long was assassinated in 1935, Smith proved incapable of rallying his political legacy.

Shedding his populist support for the New Deal, Smith became increasingly led by antisemitic conspiracy theories, veering rightward and fiercely criticizing President Roosevelt. In 1937 Smith formed the Committee of One Million as a vehicle for his alternative brand of Christian “Americanism.”

By 1942 the organization had brought Smith 3 million followers and an impressive range of influential and wealthy backers, including Henry Ford, who shared his analysis of the impending danger of “Jewish Communism,” which mirrored that of Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

As his admiration for Nazism grew, Smith briefly joined William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts. He was also associated with Dr. Francis Townsend and Father Charles E. Coughlin, the antisemitic “radio priest,” with whom he founded the Union Party and which made him a truly national figure.

However, Smith was expelled from the party in 1942 because of his allegedly disruptive behavior. That same year Smith went public with the “call” he had received to save Christian America from the “enemies of Christ.”

Smith’s obstreperous support of the Dies Committee’s investigation of “un-American” activities ensured that, unlike many less prominent antisemites, he escaped indictment during the Grand Sedition Trial in 1944.

Unscathed, Smith reemerged after the war at the head of the Christian Nationalist Party (CNP), envisaged as a continuation of the isolationist America First Party upon whose founder, Captain Earl Southard, Smith had exerted considerable influence.

The CNP was complemented by the formation in 1947 of his personal vehicle, the Christian Nationalist Crusade (CNC), whose mouthpiece, Cross and Flag, drew upon the Committee of One Million’s all-important subscription lists.

Smith’s tireless evangelizing was remarkably successfully in weaving together Judaism, communism, and civil rights as part of one vast conspiracy, which he traced back to the Order of the Illuminati. However, while this gave the politics of McCarthyism an added antisemitic dimension, Smith never regained his prewar stature.

Although he continued his wide-ranging correspondence with many public figures, his antisemitism, not to mention his personal idiosyncrasies, had effectively pushed him beyond the pale. His once powerful voice continued to be muted by the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) policy of “dynamic silence,” which effectively smothered his access to the media by depriving him of publicity.

Smith retired to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in the late 1960s where, despite the objections of the AJC, he built a religious theme park centered upon a seven-story statue of Jesus, Christ of the Ozarks. Smith died and was buried at the foot of this crumbling edifice in 1976, the title of his posthumously published autobiography, Besieged Patriot, an unconscious commentary on his subsequent descent into political oblivion.

However, despite this litany of personal failure his longevity ensured that Smith provided a formative influence for successive generations of far-right activists whose influence continues to resonate today. Having moved to Los Angeles in 1953 Smith, the CNC, and its youth movement became the organizational focus for a burgeoning clique of Christian Identity preachers centered in Southern California.

Paradoxically derived from some elements of philosemitic British Israelitism, the vehemently antisemitic theology of Christian Identity believes that Christians, not Jews, are God’s “chosen people,” the true descendants of Abraham, while Jews are viewed as the literal “seed of Satan” descended from Cain, the progeny of an unholy union between Eve and Satan in the Garden of Eden. At a stroke, world history became the titanic struggle between two diametrically opposed bloodlines representing good and evil, Aryan and Jew, God and the Devil.

While Smith played a prominent role in popularizing Christian Identity and linking it to political extremism, he was not responsible for the antisemitic perversion of British Israelite theology. This had occurred earlier under the influence of Howard Rand and William J. Cameron, the latter the editor of Henry Ford’s infamous Dearborn Independent.

Smith’s importance for the evolution of Christian Identity is to be judged not by his ideas, but by the coherence of the sophisticated modern propaganda network that he bestowed upon its adherents.

Indeed, many influential Christian Identity preachers like Wesley Swift, who often accompanied Smith on his speaking tours and acted as his bodyguard, first achieved prominence through CNC-sponsored Bible lectures. This ideological transmission traveled both ways and Swift appears to have had a powerful reciprocal influence on Smith, whom he introduced to the fundamental “truth” of Christian Identity.

In this respect Smith held a position of pivotal importance, forming a personal and ideological bridge between the traditions of Depression-era antisemitism and the violent neo-Nazi groups of the 1970s like Aryan Nations and the Christian Defense League, whose leaders saw themselves as heirs to Swift’s ministry and, by implication, to that of Smith himself.