It is interesting to watch Vladimir Putin's efforts to interfere in US politics by stroking Donald Trump's ego. In fact, the Kremlin has been active in promoting anti-democratic movements for some time, from bankrolling the far-right Front National in France to reaching out to both the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party and the far-left Linke (Left Party) in Germany. But Putin is far from being the first foreign leader to attempt to subvert the democratic process in the US or in Europe.
As historian Klaus Fischer points out in his book Hitler & America (see my review), Hitler had a shrewd grasp of American politics. The Führer nurtured Germany's ties to the America First crowd - led by the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh. He hosted a meeting with Herbert Hoover in Berlin. Hoover, an engineer by training, marveled at the Nazi's massive infrastructure projects. Hitler's goal all along was to keep America neutral for as long as possible - until at least he had finished his project on the European continent. This strategy was largely successful until Kristallnacht in November 1938. Even after Kristallnacht there were plenty of Americans who thought the threat against the Jews was exaggerated, or even that the Jews had brought it on themselves (see The American Papers That Praised Hitler).
At the same time, Hitler recognized that his greatest adversary was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Hitler suspected that FDR might be a Jew, but in any case he was clearly controlled by the Jewish interest. By 1940 Hitler sensed that FDR was girding the nation for war with Germany. His last hope was that FDR could somehow be defeated in the 1940 presidential election.
In June of 1940 Hans Thomsen, the charge d'affaires at the German Embassy here, requested that the German Foreign Office in Berlin transfer thousands of US dollars to pay a Republican congressman so that he could take about 50 fellow isolationist Republicans to the party's National Convention in Philadelphia. They would push for an anti-war platform. What's more, the Republican isolationist faction was forming a committee that would publish full-page newspaper advertisements during the convention bearing the message ''Keep America Out of War.'' The advertisements would cost $60,000 to $80,000, Herr Thomsen said. (That would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in today's money.) The Nazi Party would pay for half the cost (the rest to come from wealthy Republican donors).
Hitler was an equal-opportunity benefactor who recognized that there were plenty of Democrats who opposed the President's foreign policy. A Nazi envoy in Mexico City funneled about $160,000 to someone in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to buy delegates' votes against FDR at the Chicago National Convention in August. The Nazi's figured that even if FDR could not be defeated he might have been blocked - or at least slowed in his war preparations - if the Democrats adopted a peace platform. In fact, isolationist Democrats did succeed in pushing through a plank pledging to keep the US out of overseas conflicts. FDR made them add the phrase "except in case of attacks."
As it turns out, the Nazi's money went to waste for the most part: the Republicans nominated Wendell Wilkie, a staunch ally of Britain and a supporter of intervention. FDR was easily reelected (to an unprecedented 3rd term). Afterwards, FDR expressed relief that he had won because "there were altogether too many people in high places in the Republican campaign who thought in terms of appeasement of Hitler."
For more information on this amazing chapter in US history see: 1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindbergh, Hitler - the Election amid the Storm (2014) by Susan Dunn.