Don’t Call It a Comeback: Foreign Interference in U.S. Elections Has Been Here for Years


In an atmosphere of mistrust and global rivalry, the United States entered a presidential election cycle. The Democrats, who had held the White House for the past eight years, nominated a qualified candidate who, if elected, would mark a first in American history. The Republicans had a wide-open field of candidates with no clear front-runner. One of the key fault lines both within and between the parties was how to handle a hostile foreign power. The two nations had a history of conflict and tensions were once again on the rise. Some leading Republicans proposed a more conciliatory approach, while Democrats sought to take a tougher line. Recognizing that the defeat of the Democratic nominee was likely to be in their interest, the government of the hostile power directed a plausibly deniable campaign to interfere in the election. It sponsored the publication of classified documents, encouraged a propaganda campaign to sow discord in the American electorate, and funneled support to friendly Republicans.

I am describing, of course, the presidential election of 1940. Foreign interference in U.S. elections is not new.

Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, German military leaders worried about the possibility that the United States would enter the war. American military and industrial power had played a significant role in winning World War I, and threatened to do so again. In August 1940, the German Naval War Staff gloomily predicted American entry. When this would happen was unclear, but, “There can be no doubt that this development depends solely on the will of the United States and its President and not on Germany’s future actions.” What, then, was to be done? The answer was obvious: If the decision to bring the United States into the war depended on the president, then Germany should try to get its preferred candidate elected.

The Nazis were not alone in this effort. America’s ostensible allies, the British, interfered as well, and to greater effect. Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service employed dozens of Americans in the media and in politics to shape public opinion. Correspondents like Isaiah Berlin provided Churchill with regular reports on the day-to-day fluctuations of American feelings about the war. To push Americans towards war, British agents used the full spectrum of covert techniques: “forgeries, seductions, burglaries, electoral dirty tricks, physical surveillance, intercepting and reading letters sent under diplomatic seal, illegally bugging offices and tapping phones.” John Wheeler-Bennett, one of the leaders of Britain’s efforts, described feeling increasingly alienated from his American friends because, he wrote, “All Englishmen are suspect as propagandists.” While the British sought to re-elect President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his historic third term, they also hedged their bets by encouraging the Republicans to nominate an interventionist rather than an isolationist.



The German effort in the opposite direction was less successful but no less ambitious. The German embassy worked closely with some Republicans, organizing the travel of a large group of isolationist congressmen to the convention. It funded the publication of books, journal articles, newspaper op-eds, and even popular novels aimed at promoting the isolationist cause and downplaying the threat of Nazi hegemony in Europe. The Nazis specifically targeted German-American communities and associations, and many were sympathetic, as Bradley Hart’s recent book has shown. One prominent operation was the publication and distribution of fake documents from the Polish archives purporting to show that Roosevelt had encouraged Poland to invade Germany in 1939 — a fiction that was maintained by Nazi propogandists until the end of the war in Europe. According to the documents, American officials had promised military assistance to Britain, Poland, and France in the event of war with Germany. The propaganda ministry was explicit about the purpose of the documents in its instructions to the German press: “to reinforce the position of the American isolationists and to place Roosevelt in an impossible situation, especially concerning his current candidacy [for] the presidency.”

The New York Times helped bring the documents to a wide audience by publishing “salient excerpts” from them. Other newspapers published selections as well, and radio programs debated their validity. As the German embassy reported back to Berlin, the documents were difficult to refute because they required lengthy explanations. When the propaganda ministry told the embassy to publish the Polish documents, it explained that it “was not necessary that we ourselves bring out Roosevelt’s responsibility; his enemies in America will take care of that.”

In fact, media outlets were able to identify and largely reject Nazi propaganda in 1940. The same day that The New York Times published the excerpts, its headline on page one made it clear to readers how they should interpret them: “‘PROPAGANDA’ SEEN: President Says Charge Must Be Taken With Three Grains of Salt.” The article described how the president and all of the envoys concerned repudiated the documents, and it did so even before describing what the documents said. Its first line read: “A German White Book issued today concerning alleged American machinations for war was branded by President Roosevelt as sheer propaganda.” Secretary of State Cordell Hull denied having said what he was reported to have said in the documents, as did William C. Bullit, the ambassador to France, and Count Jerzy Potocki, Polish ambassador to the United States. At no point did the article ever consider the German perspective as valid. By the end of April, the German embassy reported, “Feeling toward Germany has deteriorated extraordinarily…. The prospects of Roosevelt’s re-election have increased considerably.”

As another presidential campaign gets underway, Americans should assume that foreign agents will seek to influence it. As Robert Mueller testified recently, “They are doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.” Comparing German interference in 1940 with recent Russian actions does not tell us precisely how the United States should respond, but it can focus attention on some areas of particular concern.

Of course, much has changed in the media and political landscapes since the 1940 election. Newspapers are unlikely to take the word of the president when framing the release of potentially inflammatory information. Nor should they! Yet Americans should be aware that the skepticism with which legacy media outlets treat political leaders is one of many factors that leaves American democracy vulnerable to foreign interference. When Wikileaks published John Podesta’s hacked emails, The New York Times focused more attention on what was in them than it did on Podesta’s argument that they had been obtained criminally and with Russian assistance. Such a response is understandable. Unlike the Polish documents in 1940, Podesta’s emails were not fake, and they contained salacious details about how the Hillary Clinton campaign perceived its chances and its rivals.

Another factor that leaves the American electorate vulnerable in a way that it was not in 1940 is social media. From 2014 through 2017, the Internet Research Agency, an organization that received funding from Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, ran social media accounts that falsely claimed to be affiliated with political and grassroots organizations. They employed dozens of “specialists” who assumed false American identities or created organizations that mimicked real U.S. organizations, such as @TEN_GOP, which claimed to be connected to the Tennessee Republican Party. By posting misinformation and controversial content, they sought to sow discord in the U.S. political system. By early 2016, what the Internet Research Agency called “information warfare” had evolved into a targeted operation to support Donald Trump over Clinton.

Social media companies cannot police speech effectively, and more traditional media does not appear to be capable of identifying misinformation. U.S. media outlets quoted tweets from IRA accounts uncritically, helping multiple IRA posts gain popularity. Through Facebook alone, the Internet Research Agency managed to engage 126 million people.

The American public can and should demand that the media do better and that the electorate be more discerning, but it should do so in hope rather than expectation. The challenge is designing tangible steps that have some chance of success. One simple solution immediately presents itself: America needs candidates who understand the problems of foreign interference.

How to address the problem more systematically has been the subject of much recent discussion. In 1940, there was no single solution to the problem of Nazi interference. German consuls were known to be reporting back to Berlin on the activities of anti-Nazi Germans and German-Americans. As a result, the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities investigated the German consul in Boston, while the media kept a focus on the suspicious activities of the German consul in San Francisco and the German Commercial Attaché. When the Nazi consulate general in New Orleans was quoted as saying that Germany would not forget that the United States was aiding Germany’s enemies, the governor of Louisiana asked the State Department to investigate. (Yes, Sen. Romney, there is a number you can call.) Meanwhile, the federal government made it clear to the Germans that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits. Following the fall of France in June, the American embassy in Berlin proclaimed that the United States would not recognize any transfer of possessions from France to Germany in the Americas. Roosevelt also dispatched military liaison officers to Latin American countries in a show of solidarity. In September, the United States gave fifty aging destroyers to Britain in exchange for rights to British bases in the Caribbean. Compared to Roosevelt’s overt support of Britain in 1941, these were small, cautious steps. Nevertheless, they demonstrated increasing firmness to the Germans. Foreign interference continued right through to election day, but after the Republicans surprisingly nominated Wendell Willkie (who was not an isolationist), it was clear the German effort stood no chance of success.

The example of 1940 shows that responsibility for defending a democracy from foreign interference requires multiple stakeholders to act. Congress can take concrete steps to alleviate the problem of misinformation spread over social media, and encouragingly, there are signs of movement on this front. Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, recently proposed that the government should break up his former company. Part of his argument is that Facebook’s algorithms “made it easier for Russian actors to manipulate the American electorate.” Elizabeth Warren followed his lead, arguing that “we must ensure that Russia — or any other foreign power — can’t use Facebook or any other form of social media to influence our elections.” The Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet has held hearings about the use of persuasive technology on social media, and the House Judiciary Committee has launched an antitrust investigation of the big tech companies. In response, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has called for stronger Internet privacy laws and a “more active role for governments” in regulating social media.

There is also a role for the executive branch. The recent “digital incursions” into Russia’s power grid are presumably meant to signal to the Russians that interference will not be tolerated. These initiatives are undermined, however, by reports that Pentagon and intelligence officials hesitated to inform President Trump about the operation for fear he would order it stopped. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney also instructed the former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen not to talk to the president about her department’s plans to prevent Russian interference in the 2020 election. The fractured nature of this administration’s response is self-defeating. Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to block the advancement of election security legislation suggests some would rather ignore (or even benefit from) the problem, while the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates’ appointment of an “election czar” suggests a recognition of it. To be fair, deterring a foreign power from interfering in an election in the information age is very difficult to finesse. The risks of escalation are significant, perhaps even more so than they were for Roosevelt in 1940. There does seem to be some bipartisan support for a stronger stance against Russia, and that momentum should be maintained.

The greatest challenge, though, is societal. There is no simple policy solution to the problem of foreign interference in a democracy, because democracies by their very nature are open to influence. In 1940, Americans who supported Hitler’s agenda lost to Americans who rejected it, but both sides benefitted from foreign interference. All that can be done, tangibly, is to raise the collective awareness of Americans that foreign powers interfere in American elections for their own purposes, not America’s. As the chair of the Federal Election Commission recently noted, it is surprising that this point needs to be made.



Evan Wilson is an assistant professor in the John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research at the U.S. Naval War College. The research conducted for this article grew out of a forthcoming project on the Battle of the Atlantic. Opinions expressed in his article are offered in his personal and academic capacity, and do not reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Naval War College, Department of Defense, or any other agency.

Image: Charles Russel