In May 1942 Hugh Harlan launched Topanga’s first newspaper, the Topanga Journal. As a project of the New Deal’s Newspaper Writers Project, the weekly newspaper joined other area publications to employ unemployed L.A. writers. Mechanically, like an old Model T Ford climbing to the top of the S-curves in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Topanga Journal labored dutifully.
By Kriss Perras
As supervisor of the Federal Writers Project in Los Angeles as early as 1937, Harlan’s tenure as editor and publisher of the Topanga Journal revealed a tendency to take advantage of a federal program while publicly denouncing it. Even though the newspaper was a direct beneficiary of a politically and economically progressive program, neither its text nor cartoons reflected such politics. The front pages from 1942 through 1945, in particular, displayed editorial cartoons highly critical of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), labor, and the New Deal. Harlan’s decision to publish such cartoons belied his willingness to pay himself from WPA funds, which were sufficient to cover the cost of his $100,000 Topanga home (adjusted for inflation, that’s an approximate $1.4-million home today).
“Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, … tell you … a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.” President Roosevelt
Harlan earned like a criminal while he mocked Roosevelt, publishing Nate Collier’s critical cartoons. One, titled “Loaded Logic,” showed a worker swinging an ax toward the head of an upper-class business owner who held a newspaper that read “Wage Increase” as he sat at a desk, his title enshrined on a plaque that read “Labor Board.” Another showed a cook with a chef’s hat labeled “Organized Labor.” With one hand he stirred an overflowing pot of prices, while with the other he poured from a bucket labeled “Blanket Wage Increases.” Behind him stands a woman wearing a skirt labeled O.P.A., for the Office of Price Administration, which had been formed to control inflation and stabilize prices after the outbreak of WWII. Titled “What’s Cookin’?,” the cartoon blamed inflation on organized labor’s push for a living wage. Harlan consistently fought for policies that would keep wages low for the American worker.
Troops fighting three fascist dictators made $50 per month in 1944. Common laborers in large cities made 70.7 cents per hour. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), the country’s first minimum wage law, had set the minimum wage at 25 cents per hour and a maximum work week at 44 hours. The night before signing the bill, President Roosevelt said in his radio fireside chat, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, … tell you … a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”
In published editorials, Harlan bashed the New Deal, while he accepted money for his role as head of the Federal Writers Project. Known to fight against censorship in a union-like battle inside of the Writers Project, he nevertheless continued to publish cartoons critical of union organizing for those very rights.
His duplicitous behavior begs the question, was Harlan a job creator or a WPA leach? In respect to his own newspaper, Harlan makes no bylines in Topanga Journal. He has only two attributions on the masthead: one as editor and publisher, and one for his wife, Virley Harlan, as Women’s Department editor. There are scant existing sources on Harlan’s work on the Federal Writers Project and the Newspaper Writers Project.
Critical of Roosevelt and his New Deal, the Topanga Journal was also notable for its silence on the brutal dictators of WWII. Not until October 27, 1944, was there any mention of Hitler, and this came in the form of a front-page cartoon where Hitler is depicted as the face of a carved pumpkin. The caption reads, “with apologies to all pumpkins.”
Why would a newspaper so critical of President Roosevelt and his policies not cover his death or the major events of WWII, such as the dropping of the atomic bombs or the discovery of the Nazi death camps?
“Many newspapers printed stories about the Holocaust, but they put them in the back of the newspaper not in the front,” said Steven J. Ross, a history professor and author of Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America. “I would imagine a local newspaper like this just wouldn’t deal with it at all. You can find stuff in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but it’s not going to be on the front page. If you wanted to know about the Holocaust, and you were willing to look hard, you could find information, but it wasn’t easy to find information.”
In the San Fernando Valley Oral History Project of California State University, Northridge, Virley Harlan said that she and Hugh had founded Topanga Journal to “help get [the] word out to those who were afraid during the war effort.” Yet there’s no mention of Hitler or Hirohito until 1944. And although there were ubiquitous mentions of war bonds and stamp drives for the war effort, the editorial content barely covered the war.
Meanwhile by 1944, one of Harlan’s fellow Topangans, John Schmidt, and his wife, Alice, had developed a skill in uncovering Nazi activities in Topanga. Ten years prior, Schmidt had identified several dozen local Nazis, calling them out in the Los Angeles Superior Court before Judge Guy Bush in the case of Otto Deissler et al. v. Max E. Socha. That case centered on sedition charges against the defendants. Known for his willingness to testify in 1934, Schmidt then was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington, DC, as a star witness in 1944’s Great Sedition Trial, which had some of the same characters as the Superior Court Case. However, he never made it there. Twenty days before he was to testify in a sedition proceeding against several well-known Nazis, he died mysteriously. He had gone out to eat on a Friday, fallen ill, and perished of suspected poisoning the next Monday. Yet the Topanga Journal remained silent on Schmidt’s subpoena and on his mysterious death.
HUAC’s Great Sedition Trial indicted 30 suspected Nazis. The 1943 indictment accused them of many acts of sedition, declaring that by pamphlets, books, and circulars they had sought since 1940 to spread word that democracy was decadent; a Nazi or fascist form of government should be established; and a Nazi revolution was inevitable in the United States. Other seditious ideas promoted in their publications were that the major political parties, Congress, and public officials were “controlled by Communists, international Jews and plutocrats,” and that the United States had deliberately provoked war with the Axis nations, which sought only to live in peace with the rest of the world.
The Nazis against whom Schmidt was set to testify were part of a three-year plot to incite mutiny in the armed forces, unseat the government, and establish a Nazi regime. They included Reverend Gerald Winrod, a far-right Kansas evangelist who secretly worked with the Third Reich’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda; Elizabeth Dilling, a Nazi propagandist from Chicago, author of The Red Network, and a member of a Nazi Legal Defense Fund; Robert Noble, an organizer of the L.A. Nazi group Friends of Progress (FOP), had been described by the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle in 1944 as a “silver tongued orator from California”; and Ellis O. Jones, another FOP organizer.
“Pro-Nazis, fascists and American Firsters were meeting before Pearl Harbor in Topanga in people’s homes in secret cells,” said Professor Ross. “John Schmidt, who is one of the heroes of my book … was living up in Topanga. He wrote [to an acquaintance] that in fact they were meeting up there. That Nazis, people from the German American Bund, were organizing. Those who felt similar about Jews, Communists, blacks and Catholics, were meeting in Topanga to plot against the Roosevelt Administration.”
Was Harlan acquainted with these cells? His publication record hints at a connection. He published anti-semitic images, as shown by the Collier cartoon here titled “The Man Who Came for Dinner,” which appeared on May 26, 1944. What appears to be a bearded Roosevelt sits in his wheelchair reading a book titled “How To Take Over Everything,” while the people peeping over his shoulder are captioned “Industry,” “Free Enterprise,” and “John Q. Public.” Such imagery reflects the conspiracy theory that Jews seek global dominance and ongoing profit from the financing of wars.
In an editorial on October 27, 1944, titled “The New Deal Smear Sheet,” Harlan calls all of Hollywood reds, pinks, and Communists. This is several years before the McCarthy Era and the Hollywood Ten.
“It was common for Republicans, particularly, to call Hollywood pinks, reds, and Communists,” said Professor Ross. “They were doing that in the ’30’s.” Harlan’s rant was triggered after all Topanga residents received a copy of the Free Press newspaper, a publication of the Hollywood Democratic Committee. Harlan, being a hard-right Republican, smeared the Democrats and played their policy like a baller, all the while saying they were using smear tactics against him. He wrote that the Free Press was one of the New Deal’s smear sheets. “It stinks,” he opined.
One of the first recorded uses of the pejorative term pinko appeared in Time Magazine in 1925. It was used to describe a person who had left-leaning political sensibilities. Derogatory terms like pink parlor or pinks and reds all implied a lack of allegiance to the United States, but right-wingers used the terms to refer to supporters of Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Harlan and Collier were anti-semitic in the same tone as a good portion of the nation at the time. Despite the major investments in fighting Nazism fighting anti-semitism abroad—e.g., $86,000 per smoke screen and $55,000 per anti-aircraft gun—it was acceptable to use pejorative terms against a hard-left-leaning thinker and call him a pinko even though the Communists were our ally against Hitler, who was killing Jews and others by the millions. Communists, however, had been demonized in the U.S. since shortly after WWI. The secret Nazi cells in Topanga prior to and during WWII discovered by Captain John Schmidt and his wife Alice were more socially acceptable than being a Communist. Americans were dying fighting Nazis, and yet it was socially acceptable to be one and publish anti-semitic material on a weekly basis here in the United States.
SEPTEMBER ISSUE: We will have an in-depth article on Captain John and Alice Schmidt and their efforts to stop the secret Nazi cells here in Topanga.