How should Americans fight against a resurgent white-nationalist movement in the United States? This weekend, they returned to an artifact from an earlier era of anti-Nazism. Tens of thousands of people rediscovered—and promptly shared and retweeted—a clip from Don’t Be a Sucker, a short propaganda film made by the U.S. War Department in 1943.
When it first debuted, Don’t Be a Sucker would have played in movie theaters. Now it has made its 21st-century premiere thanks to a network of smaller screens and the Internet Archive, where it is available in full. Almost 75 years after it was first shown, Don’t Be a Sucker lives again as a public object in a new and strange context.
Its opening clip is a direct and plain-language parable in anti-fascism. It begins as a flushed man brandishes a pamphlet and addresses a crowd: “I see negroes holding jobs that belong to me and you. Now I ask you, if we allow this thing to go on, what’s going to happen to us real Americans?” He proceeds to blame blacks, Catholics, Freemasons, and immigrants for the nation’s ills.
“I’ve heard this kind of talk before, but I never expected to hear it in America,” says an older man with an Eastern European accent.
He introduces himself to a younger man next to him: “I was born in Hungary but now I am an American citizen. And I have seen what this kind of talk can do—I saw it in Berlin. I was a professor at the university. I heard the same words we have heard today.”
“But I was a fool then,” he continues. “I thought Nazis were crazy people, stupid fanatics. Unfortunately it was not so. They knew they were not strong enough to conquer a unified country, so they split Germany into small groups. They used prejudice as a practical weapon to cripple the nation.”
There ends the viral clip. But the original, 17-minute film Don’t Be a Sucker—which can be viewed in full below—continues, slipping into a short history of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. We see the movement evolve from an angry group of men in the streets to a party organization armed with an official state paramilitary. There’s a montage of Nazi crimes: A Jewish shop owner is carried away by police officers, a group of union members are attacked, and a college professor is arrested after telling his students that there is no scientific basis for the existence of a “master race.” (The version below is from the film’s 1947 rerelease.)*
Michael Oman-Reagan, an anthropologist and researcher in British Columbia, was the first to post the clip on Saturday evening, in a tweet comparing the orator’s rhetoric to President Donald Trump’s. His post has since been retweeted more than 85,000 times.
But he was not alone in linking the events in Charlottesville to the Second World War. Orrin Hatch, a Republican of Utah and the president pro tempore of the Senate, said in a tweet on Saturday: “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
What makes the film so remarkable? It’s not as if Don’t Be a Sucker encapsulates some lost golden age of American anti-racism. Indeed the contradictions of the 1940s are inseparable from the film. In its opening montage, it shows a multiethnic group of kids—white, black, and East Asian—playing baseball. Yet in 1943, the same year it was released, the U.S. federal government kept more than 100,000 Americans imprisoned solely for the crime of being Japanese. And it was on its way to implementing one of the great anti-black wealth transfers of American history.
Still, Don’t Be a Sucker seems wise. It seems to know how democratic solidarity falters, how prejudice and factionalism can fracture a nation, and how all these forces might manifest in the United States of America. This wisdom may have emerged from simple practicality: Though the U.S. Army and Navy remained segregated for another five years, they were already vast and diverse enterprises by 1943. Simply put, different people had to work together to win the Second World War. The same was true of the whole country.
And in that, Don’t Be a Sucker may point to a deeper driver of the American experiment in multi-ethnic democracy. Building a diverse commonwealth has never been just an idealistic aspiration or moral avocation. It has been a requirement of the republic’s survival—the sole remedy to the cancer of white supremacy.
*This article has been updated to clarify that the clip is from the 1947 rerelease of the film.