The 2016 election was not the first time a foreign adversary attempted to influence a U.S. presidential election.

The Germans tried in 1940.

Susan Dunn, a humanities professor at Williams College, tells the story in her book “1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler — the Election Amid the Storm.”

The book was published in 2013 and included an entire chapter on efforts by Germans to discredit President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term. It wasn’t that the Nazis wanted FDR’s opponent, Republican Wendell Willkie, to win. In fact, Dunn noted, Willkie’s positions on international issues were often stronger than Roosevelt’s. 

Germany’s goals, she explained, “were to convince the Americans that fascist aggression posed no danger to them, to discourage them from pouring billions of dollars into national defense and military aid for the Allies, and, finally, to engineer Roosevelt’s defeat in 1940.”

It was not unlike Russians’ efforts last year to make themselves more creditable by discrediting U.S. democracy.

Operating from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., German charge d’affairs Hans Thomsen funneled money to top Republican leaders and others who opposed Roosevelt seeking an unprecedented third term. Some of those efforts were known, or at least suspected, at the time.

One month before the election, The New York Times carried a front page story claiming Germany and Italy were “out to defeat President Roosevelt.”  

The story by Herbert Matthews, the Times correspondent in Rome, didn’t have a lot of details, but it was enough to get Matthews kicked out of Italy by a fascist government that said he had “falsely stated that Italy and the Axis would interfere with the United States presidential election.”

Although there wasn’t much evidence to support Matthews’ charge at that time, there would be later, and Dunn does a nice job cataloging it. 

Documents uncovered after the war show that, among other things, Thomsen helped pay for newspaper advertisements endorsed by top Republicans, including Congressman Hamilton Fish, who represented Roosevelt’s hometown of Hyde Park, N.Y.

Fish was one of Germany’s favorite American stooges. In addition to helping Fish pay for a media campaign against Roosevelt, the Germans also persuaded him to use “his franking privilege to mail out hundreds of thousands of reprints of Nazi propaganda,” Dunn wrote.

She added that during the Republicans’ 1940 convention in Philadelphia, when Fish and others were pushing for a rigidly noninterventionist plank in the GOP platform, Fish “partially paid the expenses of several dozen isolationist members of Congress … with a secret subsidy of $3,000 from Hans Thomsen.”

Dunn’s sources for such stunning revelations include official German documents that became public after the war. At one point, she noted, “Thomsen, who periodically sent the Foreign Office meticulous accounts of all of his expenditures, requested special permission to destroy all financial records related to his press and propaganda activities.”

FBI efforts to expose German interference in 1940 were nothing like current investigations of Russian collusion, but the bureau’s efforts did reveal some malfeasance and a few Americans were charged with failing to register as German agents.

Mostly, though, the Germans got away with it.

Fish was never charged, although one of his congressional aides was indicted for lying about his associations with Nazi agents.

One footnote in the book indicates Fish had little remorse. It says: “Fish later said he regretted that the Nazis had not spent more to ensure American nonparticipation in the war.” 

One final difference between 1940 and 2016 was the way Willkie, the intended beneficiary, responded.

“Nazi support revolted Willkie to the core,” Dunn wrote, and “Willkie alerted Americans to the insidious presence of German agents in their midst who spread their nefarious propaganda.”