James Cagney reads the letters

Radio Review. Archive on 4: Dear Adolf – Letters to the Fuhrer. BBC Radio 4

The rather disarming title belied the serious intention of the letters which were not personal missives to the Nazi dictator but a concerted soft power come propaganda campaign to change public opinion in wartime USA.

Dear Adolf – Letters to the Führer – produced by Mark Burman and presented by Christopher Cook charted a little known chapter of World War Two’s media battle. In Britain the BBC broadcast radio programmes such as The Kitchen in Wartime, Children’s Hour of course the news with a Keep Calm and Carry On tone. Germany had William Joyce AKA Lord Haw Haw due to his mocking tones which eventually led to his execution as a traitor after the war ended.

In the USA the American Jewish Committee (AJC) were aware in the 1930s of the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazis and began a series of programmes that were subtly aimed at improving public perceptions of Jews – not as a religious minority – but as Americans – and to oppose isolationism as they could see which the way the wind was blowing. After Pearl Harbour in 1941 everything changed and with the USA joining the war the airwaves of NBC heard a series of voices of Hollywood stars such as James Cagney, Raymond Massey and Helen Hayes addressing the Führer in the guise of ordinary citizens. Cagney sounded like an all American blue collar worker describing why it was right to fight the Nazis while when he appeared to work in a steel works as he penned his letter to ‘Adolf’. The commitment to democracy and free speech helped to define why America was dedicated to fight fascism in these programmes which were polished and highly convincing – which helped to swing opinion.

The AJC had been founded in 1906 with a mission to help folk to understand the waves of new Jewish Americans coming from the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe.
It was their influence that helped integration and to create a multi-cultural USA in complete opposition to the racist policies of Germany in the 1930s. From 1942 to the Warsaw Ghetto and beyond these letters resonate today as the western world looks on in horror at the invasion of Ukraine.

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