Willis Carto, who spent decades leading an influential network of far-right organizations, including the Washington-based Liberty Lobby and a California institute dedicated to denying the Holocaust, and whose extremist views resonated with generations of neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements, died Oct. 26. He was 89.
His death was announced by the American Free Press, a publication he founded. No further details were available. After spending much of his adult life in California, Mr. Carto apparently lived near Jacksonville, Fla., in recent years, according to public records.
Mr. Carto founded the Liberty Lobby in the 1950s, and the organization maintained a presence on Capitol Hill for decades. He had a publishing company, Noontide Press, that distributed extremist literature and launched several publications, including the Washington Observer newsletter and a weekly newspaper, the Spotlight, which had a national circulation of 300,000 in the early 1980s.
In letters and other statements, Mr. Carto voiced admiration for Nazi Germany and recommended that black Americans be deported to Africa. In 1981, the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that monitors anti-Jewish slurs and threats, called Mr. Carto “a professional anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer and the mastermind” of a “propaganda empire.”
The reclusive Mr. Carto “does not speak in public,” a 1971 Washington Post investigation found. “He refuses to be interviewed. He shies away from cameras. He keeps an unlisted telephone number. He shields his residence address in suburban Los Angeles from public scrutiny.”
Yet he controlled or maintained connections with a variety of far-right groups that opposed taxes, gun control, foreign aid and school busing to achieve racial integration. One of his groups supported the minority white rule of defiant segregationist Ian Smith in the African country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
The Liberty Lobby’s political committee was led by former Texas congressman Bruce Alger, a right-wing zealot who once incited a riot in Dallas against then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1978, Mr. Carto founded the Institute for Historical Review, which promulgated anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and denounced the Holocaust as a hoax. Mr. Carto reportedly kept busts of Adolf Hitler in his office at the California-based institute.
Through his publications and interconnected organizations, Mr. Carto exerted outsize influence on a variety of political issues and campaigns. He organized Youth for Wallace to support the 1968 presidential bid of Alabama segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace. The group was later renamed the National Youth Alliance, which, under its next leader, William L. Pierce, became the National Alliance, one of the country’s most prominent white separatist groups.
In the 1980s, Mr. Carto helped found the Populist Party, whose 1988 presidential candidate was David Duke, a onetime leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Mr. Carto was treasurer of the Liberty Lobby, which took in about $1 million a year by 1970, and also controlled the purse strings of other allied organizations. Over the years, employees accused him of financial improprieties and having an imperious style of leadership.
“Several former Liberty Lobby executives say Carto makes all major decisions, delegates little authority and trusts hardly anyone,” The Post noted in 1971. Behind his back, his employees called him “Little Hitler.”
In the end, Mr. Carto’s views proved beyond the pale even to other figures of the right. Conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote in 1969 that Mr. Carto was the guest of honor at a Pittsburgh gathering where people wore Nazi regalia and sang German battle songs.
William F. Buckley Jr., the founding editor of the conservative magazine National Review, commissioned a critical article about Mr. Carto in 1971, and he later said Mr. Carto and his groups were “irresponsible and were damaging the conservative cause.”
Buckley and Mr. Carto traded libel suits for years. After a three-week trial in 1985, featuring spectacular courtroom outbursts, Buckley was awarded $1,001 in damages.
Willis Allison Carto was born July 17, 1926, in Fort Wayne, Ind. He spent his youth in Mansfield, Ohio, but little else is known about his early years except for his service in the Army in the Philippines during World War II.
He attended Denison University in Ohio and the University of Cincinnati College of Law. He later worked for Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati before moving to San Francisco, where he was a bill collector in the 1950s for the Household Finance Corp.
Mr. Carto was drawn to the writings of Francis Parker Yockey, a Hitler apologist and the author “Imperium,” a 600-page book about how Jewish cabals purportedly subverted European culture. Mr. Carto once visited Yockey in a California jail, where Yockey committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill in 1960.
One of Mr. Carto’s first organizing efforts came in 1956, when he formed a group that sought to drive President Dwight D. Eisenhower from office. When one of Mr. Carto’s ventures closed, he often set up a new organization under a different name.
When he lost control of the Institute for Historical Review in 1993, for instance, he founded the Washington-based Barnes Review. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has pronounced the Barnes Review “one of the most virulent anti-Semitic organizations around.”
In 1966, Mr. Carto took over the failing American Mercury, a journal once edited by H.L. Mencken, and used it to promote his far-right views. Financial setbacks forced Mr. Carto and the Liberty Lobby into bankruptcy in 2001, closing the Spotlight newspaper. Within a month, however, Mr. Carto began publishing the weekly American Free Press.
Mr. Carto was married in 1958 to the German-born Elisabeth Waltraud Oldemeir, who now lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
In 1981, Mr. Carto’s Institute for Historical Review was sued by Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein, who sought to collect the institute’s standing offer to pay $50,000 to anyone who could prove that Jews were killed in gas chambers in Nazi death camps. (The institute maintained that the gas chambers were really showers.) Mermelstein’s mother and two sisters were killed at Auschwitz.
A Los Angeles judge ruled in Mermelstein’s favor, declaring that the existence of the Holocaust was “not reasonably subject to dispute.” Mr. Carto and other defendants were ordered to issue an apology and to acknowledge the historical truth of the Holocaust.
During a 1993 power struggle, Mr. Carto’s onetime subordinates at the Institute for Historical Review accused him of “harebrained schemes, mismanagement, insults and irrationality” as they sought to oust him from the institute.
Mr. Carto reportedly called a meeting to clear the air. As his critics and their lawyers waited in a room, Mr. Carto went to the institute’s office, where he reportedly disconnected the telephones and changed the locks.
When the police arrived, they had to drag him away from the door as he screamed, “You’re killing me!”