Letter from Cardinal Spellman to Archbishop McNicholas, with an enclosed excerpt from a confidential letter received in Vienna on December 15, 1947


Archbishop John T. McNicholas of Cincinnati. Image from the NCWC Lantern Slide Collection, WRLC Libraries Digital and Special Collections.

This letter, from Spellman to McNicholas, introduces an excerpt from a letter which, as Spellman says, “seems to require some consideration and action.” Unfortunately, the letter is an example of the anti-Semitism we sometimes see in these documents. It is far from true that all Catholics were anti-Semitic during this time period, but during the nineteenth and early twentieth century there were many Catholic individuals who declared their prejudices openly. Anti-Semitism was also more or less acceptable in American society in general, although there were also many people who condemned it as backwards and ignorant. Nonetheless, prominent anti-Semites in America were able to gather a much larger following than they would have today. The charismatic Detroit priest Father Charles Coughlin, for example, was an animated (perhaps hysterical by today’s standards) public speaker who preached about social justice but began to interject more and more offensive declarations of anti-Semitism into his radio sermons. He was at his height of power in the 1930s, when the Nazis were also rising to power in Germany, and his language often frighteningly echoed theirs. Several million Americans regularly listened to his radio sermons, particularly the poorer and less-educated. To the US bishops’ credit, they did issue some notable condemnations of anti-Semitism, particularly their joint radio broadcast condemning the Nazi violence against Jews on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, when thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses throughout Germany were attacked and destroyed. Many US bishops also condemned Coughlin’s statements, and the Roosevelt administration finally denied him a broadcasting permit at the beginning of World War II.



Spellman to McNicholas

Cardinal Spellman, on the other hand, was not known for his anti-Semitic views and had even opposed Coughlin in the past. In his approval for the assertions in the letter from Vienna, we see how anti-Semitic views still penetrated American society to the extent that even a person seen as reasonable and mainstream might be guilty of them. The enclosed excerpt, from an unnamed writer in Vienna, states that Jewish organizations are becoming “too efficient”, as it were, at sending their coreligionists to the United States. The writer recounts, in a conspiratorial tone, that a US Embassy official whom he dined with one night complained of “how tired he was of sending Jews to the States.” The embassy official added, “We don’t particularly want to send them but we have no others to send.” Christian groups, in contrast to Jewish ones, were disorganized and frequently did not have all the refugees’ paperwork in order when it was needed. Although it may have been true that Jewish groups were more organized and efficient than Catholic ones at the time, the excerpt twists what could have been a simple observation into a declaration of anti-Semitism and paranoia.



  • What statements in Spellman’s letter and the excerpt are anti-Semitic? How does the author of the excerpt explain Jewish organizations’ greater success in sending their fellow believers to the United States? Why do you think the author of the excerpt was kept anonymous?
  • What recommendation does the author of the excerpt make for remedying this gap in aid?
  • How would you describe Cardinal Spellman’s general attitude about the letter?