Nancy Beck Young, chair of the department of history and associate director of the UH Center for Public History, shared her expertise in several episodes of MSNBC's new podcast, “Ultra,” by news producer and political commentator Rachel Maddow. Discussing political extremism and governmental plans to shatter American democracy in 1940, Young pointed at powerful plots interwoven in high-ranking U.S. government and the lengths officials went to succeed.
Selected as a political expert, Young gave voice to the buried agendas, backdoor activities and underhanded affairs of seditionist congressmen in 1940. She discussed the historical background and circumstances of American political officials and elite authorities purposefully working alongside the Nazis while planning to overthrow the U.S. government. After four hours and creative editing, Maddow had clips prepared to be effectively used in the podcast.
“In addition to telling an important historical story that is not well known, the podcast aims to make a political statement about current events,” Young said. “Maddow hopes that people will listen and recognize the similarities corresponding to the mob assault following then-president's defeat Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol riot and the before and after of that moment.”
Young attracted Maddow’s attention by her efforts to study seditious behavior in the United States and her research on the seditious behaviors exerted by lawmakers. Trained as a U.S. political historian focused on the 20th century, Young’s research and writings about Congress during World War II were exemplified throughout her book, “Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II” and encouraged Maddow to reach out when looking for podcast experts.
“Beyond the actual seditious lawmakers, there was a larger circle of people who didn’t mind being aligned with the Nazi worldview in terms of political values,” Young said. “I hope that Rachel’s podcast will prompt even more scholars to dig deeper into the complexities of political ideology of U.S. history at this moment.”
The characters and suspicious circumstances featured in the eight shows of “Ultra” are little known because they were unsuccessful in their attempts to overthrow the government. Still, in detailing the mysterious crash of a commercial airliner, the call for a militia to end U.S. democracy, a forewarned government explosion and the Nazi’s mission to spread misinformation and propaganda, Maddow relays a sobering message: Be wary of who is in office.
“Rachel includes information from scholars, historians and sound footage from a newsreel of the 1940s from characters such as Ernest Lung Dean and Burton Wheeler in this story to bring it to life,” Young explained. “Her process is more akin to that of the production of a documentary film, without the visual part of it.”
In the aftermath of Jan. 6, the podcast interrogates examples of seditious behavior of the past to put recent moments of history into a bigger context.
“There is a concept in our legal system of accessory before and accessory after the fact,” Young stated. “Who was an accessory before Jan. 6? Who encouraged the rioters to riot? Who defended them in their rioting? Who lies to the media on a regular basis about their actions and, most importantly, why is that seen as okay?”
Young notes that the myth about World War II as “the good war,” where everyone agrees about war aims and supports the cause, is incorrect. There were seditionist lawmakers who did not support the war effort or goals and were doing things that gave comfort to the enemy amidst the war. Instead, extremists were committed to dismantle American democracy from the inside out by a fascism of active supporters, beliefs and followers.
“I think that provides a cautionary tale. We must be very careful of who we are sending to Washington, to make sure that they believe in democracy and the American style of governance,” Young said. “It is cautionary in how close we came to an uprising against the government in the period immediately before Pearl Harbor and what that could have meant because there were some truly frightening plans underway among the ISIS s ympathizers in the United States.”