The Info Wars of World War II

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Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Before we began a quick note. This episode contains World War Two era recordings of offensive language. In his first fireside chat after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt didn’t try to put a positive spin on things.

Speaker 2: So far, the news has been all bad. The casualty lists of these first few days will undoubtedly be long.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The president vowed that he would always tell the truth about the war, regardless of how troubling the reports turned out to be. But he said that his fellow citizens would need to stick to the facts.


Speaker 2: To most earnestly, I urge my countrymen to reject all rumor these ugly little hints of complete disaster. Fly thick and fast in wartime.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: FDR was worried that gossiping Americans might give up real valuable information to Axis spies that loose lips might sink ships. But the government also wanted to clamp down on phony rumors made up stories that could damage morale on the home front. And in 1942. That kind of misinformation was everywhere. There were conspiracy theories about the Japanese putting glass and people’s food, about a war worker punching holes and gas masks and about barns getting painted to make them easier targets for axis bombers.

Speaker 3: Rumor mongering could destroy unity in thinking that maybe someone is not playing their fair share, doing their part, somehow aiding the enemy.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Tracey Campbell is the author of The Year of Peril America in 1942.


Speaker 3: Information is critical at all times, but particularly when you’re facing a common enemy. All these rumors you can imagine had a great deal of power.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: For the American people to stay united. The Roosevelt administration needed to slow down the rumor mill. So in 1942, they built a whole new bureaucracy to take on essentially fake news.

Speaker 3: The Office of War Information created something called the War Rumor Project. It consisted of a considerable network of people who were reporting back to their local officials, who would then report back to Washington about what they were hearing.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The war rumor project was a nationwide surveillance program. The people running it believed that rumors traveled along social networks. So the project sought out volunteers who had a lot of connections.

Speaker 3: There was one in Louisville, Kentucky, named Betty Cartwright, who was a beauty parlor operator, and there was a dentist in San Francisco, George Peters, who said that his patients weren’t telling him a lot when they were in the chair, but he would go to the local YMCA to see if he could hear more.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Those beauty parlor operators and dentists collected more than 5000 rumors in 1942. Gathering all that scuttlebutt was phase one. Phase two was debunking it.


Speaker 3: At the heart of it was the notion that ignorance was the root of it all. And therefore, if you could get out in front of that and inform people by giving them the correct information, that that would stop it in its tracks.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The Office of War Information tried to correct the record on its own by distributing educational materials. The government also collaborated with some of the entertainment world’s most creative minds.


Speaker 2: The hot air is blowing. A rumor is growing on Obama’s air about the bombing.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: A cartoon produced by Warner Brothers showed a character named Private SNAFU, wrapped in a straightjacket driven mad by wartime lies and rumors.


Speaker 2: Nice way to put a rumor. Amos e.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Newspapers also launched their own fact checking operations known as rumor clinics. And in March 1942, a new nightly radio show hit the airwaves all over the country.

Speaker 2: This is Station Debunk, the station of all free American. If you know how to write shorthand, we suggest you take down all our programs and type them out on your typewriter.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The goal of Station Debunk was to correct all the lies getting tossed around about America’s involvement in World War Two. At least that’s what it said it was doing. But the real story of that nightly show was a whole lot stranger and more devious than it appeared. Station Debunk was a weapon in a global information war, and the man pulling the trigger wasn’t who he claimed to be. This is one year 1942, the info wars of World War Two.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: In 1942, everyone in America wanted to know what was happening overseas as soon as they possibly could. Newspapers didn’t bring that kind of immediacy. And newsreels seemed to emphasize patriotism more than journalism. But radio was different. It felt like the perfect medium for World War Two.

Speaker 2: Time now for an early morning roundup of the day’s news from the war fronts of the world.

Speaker 4: In the United States, I believe the statistic was that 75 million people had access to a radio. So you’ve got a way to reach people in their living rooms.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Will studied as a research fellow at the University of Hamburg. He’s the author of the Jazz War Radio, Naziism and the Struggle for the Airwaves and World War Two.


Speaker 4: You can reach more people with it. The fact that it’s an auditory medium and again, this is really important in wartime. He don’t need to spend the time to sit down and read it.

Speaker 2: The Russians are telling of a party of 93 Soviet border guards, which operated for three months behind the German lines. The guards now reach Russian held territory again and they say they killed more than 1400 German officers and men during their John.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: It wasn’t just Americans who wanted to hear the latest from the front lines. People all over the world were desperate for news. In Germany, one of Hitler’s closest allies did whatever he could to take advantage of that desperation.


Speaker 4: You could say Goebbels really kind of defined the idea of radio propaganda. I mean, until Goebbels, that the word propaganda didn’t even necessarily have these negative connotations that it has now.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Joseph Goebbels was the Nazis minister for public Enlightenment and Propaganda. He controlled every aspect of the German media in the 1930s. He staged massive book burnings and financed Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on the Berlin Olympics. But Gerbils thought the radio was the most important invention since the printing press. And he made it his mission to place one inside every German household.

Speaker 4: The people’s receiver that they deliberately made very cheap so that everybody had access or could be reached by Nazi propaganda in their own homes.


Speaker 2: The whole deal was in London. Think then the Indians under it, they scattered.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: But Goebbels understood that people wouldn’t tune in if they were just getting lectured all day.

Speaker 4: Goebbels basically realized that people want to be entertained. He was trying to give them modern broadcasting, modern music within limits.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: In 1941, he redesigned the country’s nightly radio lineup to focus on comedy, entertainment and relaxation.

Speaker 2: That invention via that are starting a pool that’s once in the heimat without putting that in oil, perhaps. And we’re hoping that.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: That was partly to make his propaganda go down more easily. But Goebbels was also thinking about the competition in his diary. He wrote Better late music than foreign propaganda. Gerbils was concerned about British radio infiltrating German homes. The BBC produced 80 German language broadcasts per week, beaming over the news of the day. Popular music and political commentary.


Speaker 2: Veers and others will darken. I enjoy Gordon. I made up my heart in 1942.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The BBC also loaned its transmitters to a new U.S. broadcasting service. Voice of America.

Speaker 2: Year three An Estimate of America. South America in Greek one’s Irish.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: German radios carried a label that said listening to these foreign stations was punishable by prison and hard labor. But plenty of Germans ignored that warning to avoid detection. They just turned down the volume as low as it could go. The Nazis weren’t just playing defense against enemy broadcasters in 1942. They also had their own army of radio hosts.

Speaker 2: The decisive campaign of the war has been won by Germany, who now commands the English Channel in the North Sea. The French are demoralized beyond repair.


Speaker 4: Lord Haw, this was William Joyce, the British Nazi broadcaster. He started every broadcast with this very same threatening Germany, calling Germany, calling.

Speaker 2: Germany a calling.

Speaker 4: Which was very, very famous during the war. And basically he became Goebbels star, English language broadcaster. And particularly in the early months of the war, you can say he was extremely successful.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: At Lord Hodges Peak. One in six people in Britain tuned in to hear him glorified the Third Reich and savage its enemies.

Speaker 4: He’s attacking Jewish interests. He’s attacking plutocrats. He’s attacking the conservatives. Basically, every area of his attack was targeted at one particular possible group that was discontented in Britain anti-Semites, communists, working class. Targeting these lines at existing strands of public opinion.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Another of Germany’s propaganda stars was an American expat from the roll.

Speaker 2: Call because of the American over at the microphone every. At the same time.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: I refer to Mildred Gillars as broadcasts targeted allied troops stationed in Europe. She became known as Axis Sally.

Speaker 5: And that’s why I’m not going to put all of my time into the ceremonies that appropriately scream and try.

Speaker 2: To stop her. A life.

Speaker 4: Of phone. She had one program called Home Sweet Home Targeting American Forces, which did exactly as the title suggests. It was designed to awaken homesickness. She would play with ideas of sexual jealousy, you know. Do you know where your girls are tonight? Make sure you return home in one piece. What appealed to self-preservation?

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The English speaking press and the public saw Lord Ha and Axis Sally as absurd figures, over-the-top Nazi loving caricatures. But that was all part of the Germans plan.


Speaker 4: You tune in once you laugh, you think, This is ridiculous. I’m going to tune in again. And then suddenly you’ve got more people tuning in and discussing it. And then they start saying, Well, maybe they’re right about A or B, maybe this is true.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Lord Ha ha. And Axis Sally didn’t hide their affiliations with the Nazi regime. That meant anyone who listened in knew they were getting the German party line. But not every broadcast was so transparent. During World War Two, both the Axis and the Allies used radio in a much sneakier way. Those covert radio operations were known as black propaganda stations.

Speaker 4: So black propaganda is propaganda where they conceal the source and where this concealment is actually an important part of its effectiveness.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The Americans black propaganda stations were run by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. One of their most successful projects was codenamed Radio Annie.

Speaker 2: Here’s try to make navigation for this Rhineland smile from the below melon from fun from Time out Civil War Photonic designed London.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Radio Annie presented itself as a pro-German station, but every now and then it included fabricated reports designed to induce panic in its German listeners. One fake news item about an imminent allied bombing campaign inspired civilians to pile into their cars, creating a traffic jam that slowed down the German military. That phony bombing story worked because Radio Annie had built up its credibility. It seemed like a legitimate German broadcaster broadcasting legitimate news.

Speaker 2: From the northern front, something invisible. Don’t forget, you can contact the.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: That’s a hallmark of the best black propaganda. It doesn’t seem like propaganda at all. Joseph Goebbels understood that better than anyone else. In 1942, he opened a new front in the radio war. That march, a mysterious transmission started beaming into American living rooms. And listeners were left wondering who did it come from, and was he telling the truth?


Speaker 2: They have become a friend of the people that the bitter enemy of the war criminals in Washington, the New York.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The people who knew Herbert John Burgman in the early 1900s didn’t think that much of him. Just that he was conservative and quiet. Decades later, when he was one of the world’s most infamous people, he still didn’t cut a very impressive figure.

Speaker 4: Time magazine said you could put him in a crimson cape and put a dagger in his sleeve and he’d still look like a grocery store attendant.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Historian Will stuttered again.

Speaker 4: So Burgman was from Minnesota. He came to Washington in 1917 and worked for the War Department until he was caught up in the war. And then he was in France and Germany at the war’s end.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Bergman was an Army field clerk during World War One. His branch insignia was a pair of crossed quill pens.

Speaker 4: In 1920, he married a German woman and was honorably discharged from the army at Koblenz in Germany and then moved to Berlin.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Burgman got a Ph.D. in political science and found a job at the U.S. Embassy. He worked there for more than 20 years, becoming the embassy’s economic affairs specialist. At this point, Herbert Bergman hadn’t done much of anything to draw attention to himself. That would change after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Speaker 2: Remember always that Germany and Italy consider themselves at war with the United States at this moment.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: In December 1941. The U.S. Embassy in Berlin was thrown into total chaos. The telephones had all gone down and staffers started burning sensitive files. A week after Pearl Harbor, more than 100 embassy employees and their families made a mass exodus. Pretty much everyone met up at a train station except Herbert John Bergman, his wife and their son.


Speaker 4: He didn’t actually refuse to leave, but he just didn’t show up and then just remained behind.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Bergman claimed he’d suffered a heart attack and was too sick to leave the country. But a few months later, he told a neighbour that he was backing Germany to beat the Allies. Bergman said America is going to lose this war. Hands down. In January 1942, he got the chance to help make that happen.

Speaker 4: A couple of his papers on economics were passed on to a guy called Wagner at Berlin Radio, who was very impressed and said, We should call this guy in and offer him a job.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: That job was to help launch a new venture, a project unlike anything the Nazis had done before.

Speaker 4: Station Debunk was initiated in March 1942, and it was the most ambitious Nazi propaganda project to the American homefront.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Joseph Goebbels had been pummeling the allies with pro-German propaganda for years. But this would be something altogether different. A clandestine station that pretended to be broadcasting from within the United States. HERBERT John Bergman would be the lead voice. On March 12th, 1942, station Debunk began its nightly broadcasts from a studio in Berlin. The top of the show was basically the same every night.

Speaker 4: The national anthem would come on and this station be about the station, all for Americans. The early broadcasts would then play music, sometimes jazz music.

Speaker 2: Before we start our program, we will entertain you with nobody’s Sweetheart.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: When the music stopped, it was time for the star of the show to take the stage.

Speaker 2: I am turning over the mic to Joe Scanlan. America’s public Debunker Number one. Roll up your sleeves, Joe, and swing the ship of state around.


Speaker 2: Good evening, everybody. President Roosevelt refers to his seven points as the national economic Policy. During the past few days.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Joe Scanlon was Herbert Bergman’s alias, a pseudonym to keep his true identity from becoming known in the United States. He told his listeners that he had super secret intel that needed to be shared.

Speaker 2: This record most weighty aspect has come to us through sources that we cannot disclose.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: He emphasized over and over that Franklin Roosevelt was not to be trusted.

Speaker 2: In either case, our answer to the president should be impeachment and his immediate removal from office.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: In station Debunk made it clear that if Joe Scanlon was asked to serve his country, he stood ready to answer that call.

Speaker 2: Ladies and gentlemen, last night I announced that Joe Scanlon had consented to accept the office of President of the United States. Should Franklin D Roosevelt be impeached now?

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: He would go on like this. Minute after minute, with Joe Scanlon ranting about America’s crimes. And then, after about a half hour, the Star Spangled Banner would pipe up one last time.

Speaker 2: Station Debunk, the staging of all three Americans now signing off for tonight. Good night, everybody.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: To my knowledge, the station Debunk recordings that you’re hearing in this episode have never been published before. We tracked them down at the National Archives on quarter inch reel to reel audio tape. It’s possible that just a handful of people in the last half century have even listened to them. But in 1942, Joe Scanlon’s message was heard all over America. His voice got transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean on a short wave frequency in the 1940s. Lots of consumer radios could tune into shortwave bands. Word of a new station could spread fast all over the U.S., But Joseph Gerbils was targeting one part of the country, in particular the Midwest.


Speaker 2: Americans want no more war. Most of all, they want no more participation in foreign war.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Lots of Americans believed that World War One had brought ordinary citizens no benefit while enriching bankers and weapons manufacturers. Those feelings of isolationism didn’t vanish entirely in the 1920s and thirties. And they were strongest in the middle of the country where people felt less worried about a possible foreign attack. And so when Joseph Goebbels wanted to create dissension in the U.S., this felt like the divide to exploit coastal cities versus America’s heartland.

Speaker 2: What good will it do? A working man in Minneapolis after the war? If we retain possession of the firm view to Ireland.

Speaker 4: This is something common to all propaganda in the war from all sides, just trying to exacerbate rifts between different groups, trying to make the target country dysfunctional.

Speaker 2: What with the farmer or the working man win if we won the war. The farmers and working men would gain absolutely nothing.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Station Debunk claimed to be based out of the Midwest and it did attract a midwestern audience. But its most avid listeners were on the East Coast. At an FCC facility in Silver Hill, Maryland, in 1942, government radio monitors used 34 receivers to tune in to enemy broadcasts and wrote up reports on what they heard.

Speaker 4: They’d be listening to electronics recordings and then combining these kind of digests or analysis of it. You see, they’re really trying to analyze the content and guess at the origin.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The FCC monitors didn’t have to do too much guesswork. They figured out right away that Joe Scanlon was taking orders from Joseph Goebbels.


Speaker 4: On the first report, they already say that Debunk follows the official Nazi propaganda line.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: A few days after that, the AP reported that the supposedly American show had been traced easily to Europe. But even though Station debunks German origins got uncovered very quickly, still got a lot of publicity and that made it a potential threat. Joe Scanlan’s radio show got written up in the biggest newspapers and magazines. According to the Saturday Evening Post, the message of Station Debunk was finding an audience. The article claimed that in 1942, this one German radio show was the main source in the entire United States for false subversive tales.

Speaker 2: Hello. Hello. Hello, girls and boys. Hello, everybody. Station Debunk has inside information on all choice news items of the day.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Most nights. Joe Scanlon started the show by rattling off phony news updates, stories that played into every kind of prejudice.

Speaker 2: Flash from San Francisco, California Public Health Department officials stated confidentially yesterday it might become necessary to stop the flow of Mexican labor into the United States because of the large number of contagious diseases being carried into the country by the Mexicans.

Speaker 4: So, you know, they can just invent this stuff, but it’s difficult to serve, verify or refute because there’s no sources on it.

Speaker 2: Flash from Chicago, Illinois. A Polish immigrant by the name of Isidor Cohn has become a multimillionaire since the driver started to collect scrap rubber, scrap metal and other scrap.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Joe Scanlon’s claims about scrap drives hit America in a vulnerable spot. In 1942, those drives were an important symbol of shared sacrifice. On the home front.


Speaker 2: Grab Drive in America, a coast to coast campaign for getting unwanted metal to places where it is wanted. Now comes an old plane to join the controversy. The owner is joining the Marines.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: But the Office of War Information found that the National scrapped campaign was plagued by rumors, just like the one station Debunk was pushing, that metal drives were a plot to enrich Jewish businessmen.

Speaker 3: These rumors are kind of indicative of what happens in the middle of a crisis.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Historian Tracy Campbell says the Roosevelt administration’s war rumor project found this exact type of innuendo circulating everywhere in America.

Speaker 3: The largest category by far was called hate. That’s how the government categorized it. They were called hate. Rumors mostly centered on bigotry.

Speaker 2: You and your Jewish and Jew controlled henchmen are waxing better on the blood and sweat of the nation day by day, minute by minute.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The anti-Semitism that fed the Holocaust had lots of adherents in the United States, people who believed that Jews were running the war effort and that Roosevelt himself was a secret Jew. Nazi propaganda also exploited American racism. In 1942, German radio passed along the slander that black soldiers stationed in the South were systematically impregnating high school and college girls and giving those women sexually transmitted diseases.

Speaker 3: These were similar rumors to what we can read about during Reconstruction and during the latter stages of the Civil War.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: That kind of racist panic manifested in other ways, too.

Speaker 3: The largest rumor by far was something called Eleanor Clubs that was named after the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, that she was somehow organizing black domestic workers to go on strike.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Rumor had it that these Eleanor Clubs had the motto, A white woman in every kitchen. By 1943, one black woman in Mississippi supposedly told her white boss, I’m waiting on Mr. Hitler when he gets here. I won’t have to wash for you, but you’ll have to wash for me. And in South Carolina, stories about a planned domestic rebellion were so pervasive that the governor ordered the state police to investigate. They found no evidence at all that these clubs existed. But they did issue a report saying that the white people appeared to be considerably disturbed.

Speaker 3: So the owner clubs, while looking somewhat ridiculous on the surface, I think masked a very deep seated racial fear that a lot of white Americans had at the time.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Station Debunk was peddling crazy pills to a rumor Mad Nation in 1942. It seemed like way too many people were swallowing them whole. And from his perch in Nazi Germany, Joe Scanlon was signing on every night, telling his American listeners to be careful who they trusted.

Speaker 2: We have been living in a hothouse, heated by deceiving speeches and vicious conventions. The American people have been suffering from this misinformation for the last few years because they did not trust their own mind.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Let’s take a quick break.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: I want to tell you about a project from Slate that I think you’ll find fascinating. In the last decade, the word fascism has started showing up in conversation and headlines and in political rhetoric. But what does the word really mean? A few years ago, three of my colleagues produced a special series on fascism in the 20th century. They looked at fascism in six countries starting during the period we’re covering on this season of one year.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Then they used that knowledge to examine fascism today in America and the rest of the world. Slate’s Fascism Academy is available only to Slate Plus members. Good as slash fascism to sign up today. Or if you’re already a member, you can use that link to listen to all six episodes right now. Again, that’s slash fascism.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: When the American Herbert John Bergman became the Nazi radio host, Joe Scanlan, the Germans thought he was exactly who they were looking for. He was an authentic Midwesterner, highly educated and a true believer in the Third Reich. The German propaganda ministry paid him like a star, a salary of 1500 marks per month, nine times the average wage for a German worker. And Bergmann believed he was more than earning his keep.

Speaker 4: He was very cocky, very confident, overly convinced of his own success and his own influence.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Author Will stuttered.

Speaker 4: There were people saying he was bragging about the success of the station and its impact.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Bergman claimed that his show had tanked the American stock market and said that in one broadcast alone he had won a success for Germany as great as a naval victory. One of Bergman superiors said Radio Berlin was skeptical that man, but Station Debunk was both unintelligent and unconvincing. But then the Germans read an American magazine article that claimed the Nazis propaganda was actually working. That endorsement only made Bergmann more self-assured.

Speaker 2: Joe has a keen insight into world affairs. He is a deep thinker. He has a logical mind. He is the leading economist with both feet on the ground who does not chase after rainbows but is guided by common Horst.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: He said on the air that 99% of U.S. Army officers embezzled money that General Douglas MacArthur had killed U.S. soldiers by running them over with his car. And then American military wives, who he identified by name, were working as prostitutes. Basically, everything that came out of Joe Scanlon’s mouth was an outrageous lie. But what I find most fascinating is how he said what he said.

Speaker 2: We have always been proud of our president, but we must hide our heads in shame. At the warmongering of Roosevelt.

Speaker 4: Is very of word heavy, very aggressive. There’s also a kind of snarky, sarcastic, sneering tone to it that I think is also not necessarily the way that you appeal to listeners.

Speaker 2: Roosevelt was ready for the second round. Step by step, he prepared for the big slaughter, never letting loose of the old war dog.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Whistle stutter had learned about Bergman and station Debunk by studying reports written by government radio monitors.

Speaker 4: Reading the FCC reports, you don’t get a sense of what I would say is kind of how poor a broadcaster he is. He doesn’t sound very confident on the microphone and he has an unpleasant voice. Is very hard to listen to.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: It’s not just the Joe Scanlan has no charisma. The whole show is deeply amateurish. Like here, when a guest comes on to praise, Joe’s takes on Roosevelt.

Speaker 2: Yes, that’s right, Joe. If the people of our country.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: A few minutes later when Joe goes on another rant, that guest calls him Bill.

Speaker 2: You’re right, Bill. I remember how in his message of January nine.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: So what was going on here? Joseph Goebbels had a reputation as a propaganda master. Why would he greenlight a show that sounded so terrible? Well, maybe that clumsiness was part of the plan. After all, the story Joe Scanlon told on the air was that Station Debunk was an underground operation.

Speaker 4: This is this unprofessional set up somewhere in the Midwest, broadcasting the voice of the real Americans. So you don’t want to sound too professional.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: And what about the fact that the show’s origins were so badly concealed that the American media reported almost instantly that Station Debunk was coming from Europe? The FCC thought that might have been part of the Nazis plan, too.

Speaker 4: They make the suggestion that this publicized speculation may, you know, make it get more media attention, which then will grow its listenership.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: This is the three dimensional chess theory of station Debunk that it was bad on purpose. And I don’t really buy it. I mean, it wasn’t like Herbert John Bergman had to beat out a thousand other fascist Midwesterners to get this Nazi radio gig.

Speaker 4: Of course, we have to remember there’s a complete dearth of manpower or potential speakers. In a way, you have to make do with what you’ve got.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: And yet, in 1942, Americans listened to enough Nazi shortwave radio that it got blamed for launching all sorts of rumors that the British were cruising around in cars fueled by rationed American gasoline, that Roosevelt was never going to pay off war bonds, that Jewish doctors were mixing blood from black and white patients. All of that stuff was swirling around as the Germans and Japanese piled up military victories. But by the tail end of 1942, the axis wasn’t winning anymore.


Speaker 2: In the open, a step to the north west of Stalingrad. Russian tanks and artillery amassing for an attack. The start of another hammer blow from the man who turned the ruins of the deficit into a graveyard for German bodies and German boasting of I shall conquest.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: As soon as the war turned around. Even the highest quality German propaganda was tough for anyone to swallow.

Speaker 4: Good propaganda should have some element of truth and you can distort details. It can leave out inconvenient elements.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: But you can’t convince somebody that the Nazis are winning the war when they’re losing it.

Speaker 4: Exactly. And they were still talking about the war will be over quickly. The war going so well. And by 1942, in Berlin, people were joking on the streets. Due to its great success, The war will be extended because nobody believed this stuff anymore.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: With things tilting in the Allies direction, station Debunk didn’t get much attention after 1942, but Herbert John Bergman just kept blathering all the way through to the final months of the war. The British Nazi William Joyce better known as Lord haha stayed on the air to the very end.

Speaker 2: I say as read by Dunstan High and Farewell.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: That was his final signoff, recorded on April 30th, 1945, the same day Adolf Hitler committed suicide. Later that month, Lord Ha ha was captured by British troops near the Danish border. He was brought back to London, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.

Speaker 2: A notice is posted proclaiming that Joyce has been hacked. That is the only end that traitors to the country can expect.


Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Army intelligence officers tracked down the American Nazi broadcaster, Axis Sally in Berlin. Back in the United States. She was convicted of treason and sentenced to 10 to 30 years behind bars. And as for Herbert John Bergman, his Joe Scanlan act didn’t conceal his identity for very long. He was arrested in Frankfurt in 1945 and held for 19 months. Bergman was then released from detention when a U.S. Army psychiatrist declared him mentally incompetent.

Speaker 4: And then he was rearrested and in 1949 reassessed and found mentally competent to stand trial and then faced 69 charges of treason.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: The man who’d once claimed he was going to succeed FDR as president arrived back in the U.S. in February 1949, wearing a dark suit and flanked by military police. One journalist described the 53 year old Bergman as a terribly tired, little bald headed man with great swirling eyebrows. When a photographer asked him to pose for a shot, he said, I’ll make you a proposition. You can take my picture if you’ll get me a lawyer. I haven’t got a cent to my name. Bergman did eventually find a lawyer. The same one who’d represented Axis Sally.

Speaker 4: Is on the fence. Was that he’d been insane the entire time he was broadcasting. There’s a real pathos to having someone claiming they’re going to be the next president of the United States. And then a couple of years later saying, Oh, no, I was insane during the entire time and I can’t stand trial.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Bergman’s wife testified that he’d been institutionalized before his radio career began and had been terrified that doctors would blow his brains out with red lights. When Bergman himself took the stand, he claimed that the German secret police had forced him to become Joe Scanlon and had threatened to kill him if he left Berlin. He also admitted to writing the station Debunk scripts, but this time he didn’t brag about how great they were. He said I didn’t expect them to accomplish anything. I considered them trash and no good. Bergman was seated in a wheelchair when the jury returned its verdict. The Washington Post reported that his face with its usual pasty weight.


Speaker 4: He was convicted in the end of, I believe, 13 counts of treason. And he was mainly convicted on the evidence of these electronic recordings collected by the FCC.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Herbert Bergman would be one of the last people ever found guilty of treason in the United States. There haven’t been any other convictions since the early 1950s. Bergman got sentenced to 6 to 20 years in prison. He didn’t live long enough to become a free man. He died of heart disease in 1953. Station Debunk has now been off the air for 77 years. For all the attention it got in the American press, it’s hard to argue that it accomplished much at all.

Speaker 4: Did it change anything in the war? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t of importance in 1942. Or that it wasn’t central to the Nazi attempts to cause trouble in the United States On the homefront.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Those attempts to cause trouble did kind of work. In 1942, the war rumor project was collecting venomous lies that sounded a lot like Joe Scanlon’s talking points. But then I think about that rumor about the Eleanor Clubs. That was the totally fake story about black domestic workers forcing white women to cook their own meals. So far as I know, Station Debunk never mentioned anything about that. I bet white Americans came up with that rumor all on their own. And honestly, I don’t believe what the Saturday Evening Post said in 1942 that Station Debunk was the main source in the entire United States for false subversive tales. That idea sounds sinister that German propaganda geniuses were whispering poison in Americans ears.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: But that notion that the Nazis made us do it is actually more comforting than what I think is the truth. The yes, there will always be bad actors nudging us, testing us, and lying to us. But whether it’s 1942 or a year much closer to the present day, we don’t need a foreign enemy to make us believe the worst about each other. Next time. On one year in 1942, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans get sent to internment camps. But they’re not the only ones. When Japan bombed the Aleutian Islands, the U.S. government forces native Alaskans to abandon their homes and head off into an uncertain future.


Speaker 6: Nobody knew what was going to happen when we got on the boat. They did not know where they were going to take us. They didn’t know how long we were.

Speaker 2: Going to be gone or if we were coming back.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: One year is written by me. Josh Levine, our senior producer, is Evan Chung. This episode was produced by Sam Kim, Sophie Summergrad, Evan Chung and Me.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: It was edited by Evan Chung and Derek John, Slate’s senior supervising producer of narrative podcasts. Our senior technical director is Mary Jacob. Holly Allen created the artwork for the season. Tracey Campbell’s book is The Year of Peril America in 1942 and Will stuttered Speak is the Jazz War Radio Nazism in the struggle for the Airwaves and World War Two. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1942 and one year at

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: You can call us on the one year hotline at 2033430777. We’d love to hear from you. Thank you. To James Connor. Check from the National Archives at College Park.

Josh Levine, Josh Levin: Special thanks to Christina Carter. Rookie Susan MATTHEWS, Soul Worden, Bill Carey. Katie Raiford, Ben Richmond, Kaitlyn Schneider, Clio Levin, Seth Brown, Rachel Strahm and Alicia montgomery, Slate’s VP of Audio. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with more. From 1942.