Treason: 20 Acts of Treason in American History
20 Acts of Treason in American History

20 Acts of Treason in American History

Larry Holzwarth - January 7, 2019

20 Acts of Treason in American History
Mildred Gillars, known as Axis Sally, arrives at her trial for treason. Getty Images

13. Axis Sally committed treason against the United States throughout World War II

In 1941, Mildred Gillars was working as a radio broadcaster in Germany when the US State Department began advising Americans to leave the country. Gillars was an American citizen who remained in Germany because of her German fiancé. He was killed on the Eastern Front that same year. After the attack on Pearl Harbor Gillars later said that she went into a state of shock, and fear of the Germans led her to sign an oath of allegiance to the Nazi Party and the Fuhrer. For the rest of the war, she produced propaganda broadcasts, meant to damage the morale of the Allied troops, particularly the Americans, who were far from home, away from wives and sweethearts who Gillars routinely presented as being unfaithful.

The troops called her Axis Sally and when Berlin fell she was arrested by Americans sent to the city for the purpose. In 1948 she was indicted with ten counts of treason against the United States, though only eight counts were tried in 1949. Most of her broadcasts had been recorded by the Federal Communications Commission, and were used at trial. Her defense was that she was merely broadcasting her own opinions, which though unpopular was not treasonous. She was convicted on one count and sentenced to ten to thirty years in prison. Her appeal was unsuccessful and she was imprisoned until paroled in 1961. She then entered a convent in Columbus, Ohio, having converted to Roman Catholicism during her years in prison.

20 Acts of Treason in American History
In October 1963 President Kennedy – seen here signing the nuclear test ban treaty that same month – commuted the sentence of a Japanese American convicted of treason and banished him from the country. JFK Presidential Library

14. The Kawakita treason case led to a Supreme Court decision that dual citizenship does not offer protection from treason charges.

Tomoya Kawakita was born in California to Japanese parents, thus automatically being a United States citizen by virtue of his place of birth, and Japanese because of his parents’ citizenship. He completed his schooling through high school in California before going to Japan with his father in 1939. He was still in Japan when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and during the war, Kawakita worked as an interpreter at a metal processing facility which used prisoners of war as forced labor. When the war ended Kawakita returned to the United States, claiming that his actions during the war were likewise forced upon him by the Japanese government. In Los Angeles Kawakita was recognized by a former POW and arrested, charged with multiple counts of treason based on the abuse of American prisoners.

He was convicted on 8 of the 13 counts against him, and his appeals were based on his argument that he did not know he was still an American citizen when he participated in the abuse of prisoners of war. Under a death sentence, the appellate court rejected his appeal and the case moved to the Supreme Court. In June 1952 the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the death sentence, finding that as an American citizen who did not formally renounce his citizenship he owed fealty and loyalty to the United States, no matter where he was in the world. The following year President Eisenhower commuted the sentence to life in prison, and in 1963 President Kennedy – a veteran of the Pacific War – ordered his release from prison and his banishment from the United States. Kawakita returned to Japan.

20 Acts of Treason in American History
The German propaganda machine run by Joseph Goebbels employed several Americans to both create and broadcast material supporting the Nazis. Wikimedia

15. Robert Best served the Nazi regime as a propagandist and broadcaster

Born in South Carolina and educated at Wofford College and Columbia’s School of Journalism, Robert Best was a veteran of World War I, during which he served in the Coastal Artillery. Between the wars he went to Europe and made Vienna his base of operations, writing for United Press International as well as The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, and several other publications. As the Nazi threat in Europe grew, especially following the Anschluss, Best became a supporter of Nazi policies and anti-Semitic views. By the early 1940s, his work output to American publications had dwindled to nothing, and UPI dismissed him. He was briefly interned by the Germans when the United States entered the war, but he convinced them that he would be more useful to their cause by remaining in Europe rather than being returned to the land of his birth.

Throughout the war, Best’s broadcasts were among the most virulent anti-American propaganda aired by the Germans. He was arrested by the British at the end of the war, transferred to the Americans, and returned to the United States for trial. He was convicted on twelve counts of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. His conviction was upheld on appeal and he entered the federal prison system, dying in custody in 1952. Besides his own broadcasts, which were invariably anti-Semitic in nature and scope, Richard Best was known to make frequent and valuable suggestions within the German propaganda machine which were intended to increase its effectiveness in controlling the values and beliefs of the German people. William L. Shirer wrote a novel entitled The Traitor in which the main character was based in part on Best.

20 Acts of Treason in American History
Douglas Chandler took this photo to support his stories of happy Germans under Nazism for National Geographic. National Geographic

16. One American traitor used the pseudonym Paul Revere in his broadcasts

On July 26, 1943, eight American broadcasters were indicted for treason, all of whom were charged with committing treason against the United States by supporting Nazi Germany. Among them was Douglas Chandler, a former US Naval officer who moved to Europe during the Depression. Chandler wrote approvingly of the Nazis in National Geographic and other publications, and when the war began he remained in Germany, broadcasting propaganda using the name Paul Revere and using Yankee Doodle as his theme song. His work was based on his personal thesis that the United States Government was controlled by Jewish business interests, and he was invariably pro-Nazi and anti-American in his broadcasts. In 1945 he was arrested in Bavaria and returned to the United States for trial in late 1946.

Chandler tried to use an insanity defense at trial, claiming that he had been suffering from severe paranoia, which influenced his thinking and his actions. It was a vain effort. Chandler was convicted on all ten counts of treason, and though the prosecutors argued strongly for the death penalty, stating that he had given his heart and soul to Hitler, “because he wanted Germany to win the war”, he was sentenced to life in prison in 1947. Sixteen years later President Kennedy commuted his sentence with the provision that he leave the United States and never be allowed to return. In August, 1963 Chandler was deported to West Germany.

20 Acts of Treason in American History
German shortwave radio broadcasts to the United States were often performed by Americans who were charged with treason in 1943. Youtube

17. Following the Second World War one broadcaster was charged with 69 counts of treason

During World War II, the FCC operated a site at Silver Hill, Maryland, which monitored and recorded broadcasts emanating from Germany and the rest of Europe, developing an invaluable record of the German propaganda effort. One of the broadcasters routinely monitored was Herbert J. Burgman, who used the stage name Joe Scanlon when broadcasting his program Voice of All Free America. Burgman broadcast directly to American homes, telling them of the widespread epidemics of syphilis and gonorrhea among the American troops in Europe. He also attempted to persuade the American people that the Jewish influence around Franklin Roosevelt (and Winston Churchill) was the true cause of the war, supported by the bolshevism of the Soviet Union.

He was indicted on not fewer than 69 charges of treason against the United States after the war and in a trial which began only after two separate evaluations of his mental state were completed he was convicted of thirteen acts of treason (the number of the indictments was reduced to twenty charges prior to the beginning of the trial). His attorneys argued that he was insane at the time of the broadcasts, driven to that state by fear of the Gestapo. During his trial, his health deteriorated rapidly, and he suffered at least one heart attack. In December 1949, he was sentenced to 6 – 20 years in prison, and he died less than four years later in custody in Springfield, Missouri, on the first anniversary of the death of his fellow traitor, Richard Best.

20 Acts of Treason in American History
German saboteur John Dasch never renounced his American citizenship, leading to a conviction for treason. FBI

18. John Dasch was a naturalized American citizen who had been born in Germany

John Dasch was born in Germany, journeyed to America in 1923 (entering illegally), worked at odd jobs and as a waiter in several American communities, served in the US Army Air Corps, and became an American citizen in 1933. In 1941, as relations between the United States and Germany deteriorated towards war, Dasch returned to Germany. There he received espionage training in preparation for his return to his adopted country. Dasch was part of a team which was delivered to the United States by U-boats in 1942, determined to attack various targets of sabotage. The Americans quickly learned of the presence of saboteurs, and a massive manhunt to locate them was undertaken, led by the FBI. By then Dasch was planning to surrender to American authorities to act as a double agent.

Dasch and his partner Ernst Burger contacted American authorities – Dasch tried to reach J. Edgar Hoover personally – and revealed the circumstances and participants of the plot, leading to the arrest of the six others involved and their conviction as spies. All six were executed. For his co-operation with the authorities, Dasch was tried for espionage and treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. The trial was before a military tribunal established by President Roosevelt. In 1948 President Truman commuted the life sentences of Dasch and Burger, ordering them deported. In West Germany, both men were treated as what they were, traitors to their country. Neither man received the pardon which they claimed they had been promised by J. Edgar Hoover.

20 Acts of Treason in American History
Joseph Smith was charged with treason in two neighboring states and was killed awaiting trial in Illinois. Library of Congress

19. Joseph Smith was killed while in jail under a charge of treason

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, was serving as mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois when he ordered the destruction of the printing facilities of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper which lasted for a single issue. When it was released on June 7, 1844, among its reporting was an article which exposed Smith and his followers as polygamists. The non-Mormon public was shocked and the city council passed an ordinance, with Smith’s urging, to force the paper to cease publication. Smith then ordered the city marshal to seize the printing press and type. According to the marshal the seizure was accomplished peacefully; the paper’s publisher claimed that a mob had destroyed the press and seriously damaged the building in which it had been housed.

Smith then, in resistance to court orders from outside Nauvoo, called out the city militia and declared martial law. The governor of Illinois offered a trial in Carthage, before a non-Mormon jury, for Smith and his brother Hyrum, under the charge of treason against the state of Illinois, for the act of inciting riots across the state. The brothers and the rest of the city council surrendered to Illinois officials and were jailed in Carthage. It was while in jail awaiting trial for treason that Joseph Smith and his brother, armed with pistols smuggled into them by associates, and several other men being held were killed when a mob stormed the jail. Several differing accounts of the violent end of Joseph Smith emerged in the aftermath, many of which ignore the charges of treason against him. Smith had earlier been charged with treason in Missouri in 1838, which precipitated his flight to Illinois.

20 Acts of Treason in American History
Kaltenbach admired the Hitler Youth and created a similar organization in Iowa before returning to Germany. Bundesarchiv

20. Frederick Kaltenbach was indicted by the Americans for treason, but died in Soviet custody

Frederick Wilhelm Kaltenbach was an Iowa-born son of a naturalized German, raised in Waterloo (coincidentally the home of the five Sullivan brothers of World War II fame). In 1933 the graduate of Iowa State Teacher’s College and the University of Chicago won a scholarship at the University of Berlin, and became a devoted adherent of Nazism. When he returned to Iowa in 1935 he started a boy’s club modeled on the Hitler Youth, with similar uniforms. The support of Nazism led to him losing his teaching certificate in 1936 and he returned to Germany and in 1939 began broadcasting German propaganda to the United States via short-wave radio, long before the United States formally entered the war.

Kaltenbach harangued against Franklin Roosevelt and Lend-lease attempted to prevent FDR’s election to a third term, and referred to himself whimsically as Lord Hee-Haw. After the United States entered the war he attacked the morale of troops and citizens at home. As the war went on and it became evident how it would end, he shifted to covering his tracks as an ardent Nazi by attempting to align himself with anti-Nazi elements, though he continued to broadcast Nazi propaganda as late as the spring of 1945. He was indicted for treason in the United States in 1943 and was arrested at his home by the Soviets in Berlin in 1945. The Soviets sent him to their Special Camp Two in Buchenwald and when the American authorities requested he be surrendered for trial the Soviets refused. They later informed the State Department that he had died of natural causes, and in 1948 the indictment was dismissed.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising”. Leland D. Baldwin. 1968

“Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and the American Way of Treason”. Jonathan W. White, March 17, 2017

“James Wilkinson: The Man Who Double-Crossed the Founders of America”. Robert Walsh, The Archive. August 14, 2018

“Those Dirty Rotten Taxes: The Tax Revolts that Built America”. Charles Adams. 1998

“The Trial of John Brown”. Thomas Fleming, American Heritage Magazine. August, 1967

“Thomas Wilson Dorr”. Biographic entry at the Dorr Rebellion Museum website. Online

“He Was Hanged For Helping Slaves Rebel. Now Norwich Officials Are Asking Virginia For A Pardon”. Alison Kuznitz, Hartford Courant. August 3, 2018

“Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant”. Ulysses S. Grant. 1885 (2006)

“Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart”. Felicity Allen. 1999

“Mountaintop Rescue”. Samir S. Patel, Archaeology Magazine. January/February 2012

“Ex-Flier Confesses 21 Acts of Treason”. The New York Times, January 18, 1949

“‘Axis Sally’ Brought Hot Jazz to the Nazi Propaganda Machine”. Jackie Mansky, September 25, 2018

“POW Camp Atrocities Led to Treason Trial”. David Rosenzweig, Los Angeles Times. September 20, 2002

“Best Sentenced to Life as Traitor In His War Broadcasts for Nazis”. The New York Times, July 1, 1948

“The Nazi Who Infiltrated National Geographic”. Nina Strochlic, National Geographic. April 27, 2017

“George John Dasch and the Nazi Saboteurs”. Naval History and Heritage Command

“Carthage Conspiracy Reconsidered: A Second Look at the Murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith”. Marvin S. Hill, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Summer, 2004

“Goebbels’ Iowan: Frederick W. Kaltenbach and Nazi Short-Wave Radio Broadcasts to America, 1939-1945”. Clayton D. Laurie, Annals of Iowa. Summer, 1994