Ethics Quiz: Axis Sally

Mediocre movies can still raise important ethics questions, and so it is with a 2021 bomb called “American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally.” The film dramatizes the bizarre tale of Mildred Gillars, a Maine-born American woman of modest looks and talents who rode her aspirations for a Hollywood career into an infamous gig as an infamous Nazi German radio propagandist during World War II. My father told me about her broadcasts from Berlin, and how she used sexy tones to tell American servicemen that they were doomed, that the Jews, not Germany, were their real enemy, and that their wives and girlfriends were cheating on them while they were in Europe fighting Hitler’s “invincible army.”

Her last broadcast was just a few days before Germany surrendered; Gillars was arrested and charged with being a traitor. In 1948, “Axis Sally” faced a very real threat of being hanged as she went on trial for eight counts of treason. Thanks in great part to a vigorous (if reluctant) defense by famed criminal defense attorney James Laughlin, played by Al Pacino in the film, the jury found her guilty of only one, and what could have been a 30 year jail term turned into ten.

Dad said that American GIs thought “she”Axis Sally” was hilarious, that no soldiers took her seriously, and that her singing was terrible. Her broadcasts were popular in the U.S., as she often relayed news of American prisoners of war to show how well they were being treated by their German captors.

Although I suspect that Pacino’s ringing closing argument in her defense was punched up considerably from the original by Laughlin and maybe even contained some arguments Laughlin did not make, the points he raises in the movie are fascinating:

  • Her lawyer argues that she was trapped in Germany, and did not become a Nazi propagandist by choice. That’s true, but she stayed in the country after most Americans had fled, knowing what was coming.
  • She fell in love with the man who wrote and produced the radio propaganda broadcasts. He, Laughlin argued, manipulated her; she was Trilby to his Svengali.
  • Witnesses testified that actors and radio staff who refused to participate in the shows, all overseen by Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, tended to “disappear.” Laughlin said that Mildred had the choice of doing the radio broadcasts or being shot—what would members of the jury have done in her place?
  • Laughlin raised the First Amendment, quoting prominent Americans like Ernest Hemingway and Eleanor Roosevelt making pronouncements that the war was criminal, evil and disastrous for the nation. “Yet only this woman is being prosecuted!” Pacino thunders in the fim, accusing the justice system of ignoring the very principles of individual liberty the U.S. had fought Germany to preserve
  • Mildred had been forced by Goebbels to sign a loyalty oath to the Third Reich and reject her American citizenship. (The movie and the book it was based on also claim that Goebbels raped and beat her, but Axis Sally had no one alive who could corroborate that part of her story.) Her lawyer claimed that this was the equivalent of expatriation, and as she was not a U.S. citizen while doing the broadcasts, she could not be charged with treason.
  • Finally, Laughlin argued that the propaganda issued by “Axis Sally” was, ultimately, harmless. Nobody was killed, and the prosecution’s claim that she “destroyed morale” couldn’t be substantiated; my Dad’s feelings about Axis Sally support Laughlin’s claim. Gillars testified that she was just an actress playing a role, and trying to entertain her listeners.

Your Ethics Alarms historical Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

What was just and fair punishment, if any, for “Axis Sally”?

A final point: Laughlin’s argument regarding harm is pure consequentialism and based on moral luck. If a traitor sold U.S. secrets for making a deadly bomb to Russia, should it matter that the formula was flawed and the bomb didn’t work? She was broadcasting in support of a Nazi scheme to use propaganda to undermine the American war effort, and she knew what she was doing.

15 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Axis Sally

  1. I read a book on her a couple of years ago. In some cases, Sally’s broadcasts revealed the names of POWs that the War Department and the Red Cross didn’t know about. Moms and Dads found out the boys were POWs as opposed to MIAs.

    Sally claimed it was done deliberately. And maybe she did. Historical figures, like all of us, are far more complicated than we like to think.

      • I don’t think he was quite as bad. He was actually a prisoner of the Germans and made about six broadcasts before the US was in the war poking fun at his captors and making rueful humor about being an internee. I think the British got a little heavy-handed with him. The French actually left him hanging for a year and a half after he was released to tell him that he would not face any official charges.

        • There’s a film about Wodehouse’s wartime ordeal that portrays him as completely naive, almost childlike. My father was a fan of his books, and agreed with Wodehouse’s argument that he knew he wouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone, because he was, in fact, never serious.

          • I’ve come to Wodehouse late in life, just in the last year or so. He is tremendous. Before I read him, I assumed he was some sort of inferior Waugh. He’s not. He’s virtually sui generis. He’s more humane than Waugh or even the Kingsley Amis of “Lucky Jim” (a tremendous book, perhaps Amis’s alpha and omega). Beneath all the slapstick and silliness of Wodehouse’s situations, there’s, believe it or not, profundity in his observations about human behavior.

            • Absolutely—one of the few humorous authors who can make me laugh out loud. An all-time favorite:

              “The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G.K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin …”

              • Hah!

                An incredible wordsmith. I’d say I can be caused to laugh out loud an average of upwards of three times on any given page. Unmatched.

    • They hanged him because they couldn’t get Dr. Goebbels. Mildred was also a woman. Even Ilse Koch wasn’t executed.

      • And then there’s Hamilton College’s own Ezra Pound. They put him in a looney bin. Which is what they should have done just for what he did to early Twentieth Century poetry: single-handedly reducing it to little more than arcane obscurantism.

  2. Forgive me for the crudity, but I did not know she was a Maine girl. And in Maine, the saying was that a good wife was “Wahmth in wintah, shade in summah.”

    Ms Mildred, from the pix. could provide neither.

    Gosh, but I love a cheap joke. Too soon…?

  3. My comments are based only on the information contained in the post.

    She should be treated the same as any male would have been treated.

    I don’t find the argument that she never killed anyone compelling. She was part of a group that had taken up arms against her home country. Therefore, she is as guilty of taking up arms as any other US citizen who takes up arms against the U.S. in war. You don’t need to pull the trigger to be an accomplice.

  4. I have heard one of her broadcasts on YouTube (as well as Lord Haw-Haw and Tokyo Rose). I read that she converted to Catholicism while in prison, and after her release she lived in a convent and taught at a Catholic school for many years. Personally, I believe that traitors should hang. In for a penny, in for a pound.

  5. So, it’s treason to tell your own country to surrender? That sounds like a violation of civil liberties, even in wartime. Am I missing something here? I think I’m missing something here. Did she help the Germans get information from prisoners? Did she engage in espionage?

    On the other hand, I could understand if the idea is that psyops people are to be treated no differently from soldiers. (Although, does it matter if they’re military, civilian, or contractors?) Then the question becomes, would we treat a U.S. citizen who became a soldier in an enemy army differently from a native-born enemy soldier? If so, why? Why wouldn’t we release them to live in their new country, same as their fellows?

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