It’s unsettling to think that, well into the late 1930s, many German Americans—a few dozen here, a few hundred there, with occasional rallies featuring crowds in the thousands—were proudly parading through cities and towns across the country, proclaiming their support for Nazi Germany.
The photo here, made in 1937 by LIFE’s Rex Hardy Jr., shows a number of American Nazis—members of an organization known as the German American Bund—marching in Yaphank, N.Y., a hamlet on Long Island just 50 miles from Manhattan. The men, young and old alike, are taking a break from nearby Camp Siegfried, a “summer camp” where Nazi ideology was taught and the purported glories of the Third Reich were openly celebrated.
It’s important to note that, at the time Hardy made this picture, American Nazis were breaking no laws. The First Amendment, after all, protects virtually all types of speech—short of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater—no matter how disgusting, anti-democratic or laughably wrong-headed it might be. For example, at a 1938 rally in Hackensack, N.J., Bund members reportedly declared George Washington “the first Fascist” because, they claimed, he “knew democracy could not work.” (See below.)
Once December 1941 rolled around, however, and after Germany, Italy and Japan declared war on the U.S., the Bund was outlawed. Within a few years, fascists everywhere were treated to a lesson in just how well democracies worked—especially when acting in concert with one another, fighting to obliterate Nazis and their minions around the globe.