“When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled "made in Germany"; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, "Americanism."” – Halford E. Luccock (This quote (in an altered form) is often misattributed to Sinclair Lewis. Many variations of this quote exist, but this seems to be the earliest published one, in 1938.)
In the last few years it feels like we’ve been subjected to all sorts of conspiracy theories. There are, of course, the old classics (The moon landing never happened!, chemtrails in the air!, Nazis IN SPACE!), along with the modern political and religious musings (the Rapture is coming!, Barack Obama’s a Kenyan/Muslim/Socialist/Communist/Fascist/Nazi/All of the Above!, FEMA concentration camps!).
There is a sort of bile fascination that goes along with conspiracy theories. They’re fun to read because most of them are so bizarre and convoluted that they couldn’t possibly be true. But as we head into the long days of Summer, here’s one that’s not only true, but has some frightening modern parallels. Join me on the flip side as we take a look on its 78th anniversary at the plot to oust President Franklin Delano Roosevelt via a fascist military coup.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was very much a worldwide phenomenon, with many developed nations suffering staggering economic downturns. This, in turn, led to massive social unrest. While many countries opted to restore order in whatever way they could, three notables established fascist governments: Spain, under Francisco Franco following a brutal civil war; Italy, under Benito Mussolini; and Germany, under Adolf Hitler.
Fascist uprisings, however, did not only occur in those countries. In France, the Action Française, originally a monarchist movement formed in 1898, restyled itself a fascist organization and supported Italy and Spain. The British Union of Fascists claimed over 50,000 members at its height, and Canada had the National Unity Party, an amalgamation of smaller fascist and nationalist parties. In June 1933 a small but influential group of politicians and businessmen almost staged a fascist coup through blackmail in the interests of appointing a corporate-friendly dictator in place of the democratically elected head of state. That head of state was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the country was the United States of America.
“If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator.” – George W. Bush, 1998 (Governing magazine), 2000 (CNN) and 2001 (Business Week)
In 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president of the United States. Growing social unrest following the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing economic difficulties led to people looking for a new way forward. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” a series of economic reforms designed to accommodate the United States’ recovery, is largely credited for his public support. Job creation was at the heart of the New Deal. Government agencies such as the Works Progress Administration, the Civil Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Civilian Conservation Corps created millions of jobs and provided infrastructure and services to communities that never had them before.
The New Deal, however, was not very popular in other circles, particularly those with a free-market economic mindset. Programs that gave economic control of traditionally private functions to the government and provided such programs as Social Security were perceived as communism, and offering “something for nothing” to those at the bottom of the economic rung. Industrial and business leaders were especially opposed to the National Recovery Administration, which established a 44-hour work week (with overtime pay after 40 hours) and created the minimum wage. This threatened to cut millions of dollars from corporate bottom lines.
A group of anti-Roosevelt and anti-New Deal politicians and business leaders formed an organization in 1933 called the American Liberty League (ALL), ostensibly dedicated to “fostering the right to work, earn, save and acquire property.” The members of the organization demonized all forms of social welfare and pledged that it would do anything necessary to secure their wealth. Apparently, this included staging a military coup to force Roosevelt out of office and replace him with a pro-corporate dictator.
In June 1933, a group of ALL members met to discuss the specifics of a plan to remove Roosevelt from power. Among the heads of business and politics reported to have been in attendance were:
* Dean Acheson – U.S. Undersecretary of the Treasury (appointed by Roosevelt in 1933), U.S. Secretary of State (1949-1953);
* Prescott Bush – Banker, board member of several corporations, Republican Senator from Connecticut (1952-1962), father of George H.W. Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush;
* Robert Sterling Clark – One of Wall Street’s wealthiest investors;
* John W. Davis – 1924 Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Representative (WV 1911-1913), U.S. Solicitor General (1913-1918), U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. (1918-1921), corporate lawyer;
* William Doyle – Commander of the Massachusetts department of the American Legion, a veterans’ service and political organization. The Massachusetts branch had over 300,000 members, almost exclusively veterans of World War I;
* Irénée Du Pont – President of the DuPont chemical company;
* Gerald C. MacGuire – Bonds investor and salesman for Robert Clark, commander of the Connecticut department of the American Legion;
* Grayson Murphy – Board member of several companies, including Bethlehem Steel, Goodyear, and the J.P. Morgan & Co. banking conglomerate;
* John J. Raskob - High-ranking Du Pont and General Motors officer, former chairman of the Democratic Party. Later, became a member of the Knights of Malta, a Roman Catholic religious order (and sovereign successor to the Knights Hospitaller) with a high membership of CIA spies, including CIA Directors William Casey, William Colby and John McCone;
* Al Smith – 1928 Democratic presidential candidate, governor of New York, co-director of the American Liberty League.
Blackmail was the order of the day. First the group would, through political maneuvering, force Roosevelt to create a new cabinet-level position called the Secretary of General Affairs, which would be filled by a person of ALL’s choosing. Roosevelt would then be forced to announce to the general public that he had been crippled by polio (Roosevelt’s condition was not widely known to the general public, as he rarely allowed himself to be photographed in his wheelchair). Somehow, it was argued, this plan would either destroy Roosevelt’s credibility in the eyes of the public and/or would force him to cede control of governmental authority to the Secretary of General Affairs.
A more likely scenario, however, would be that Roosevelt would refuse to meet the ALL’s demands. In that case, ALL would activate their American Legion brigades to form a military force of over 500,000 soldiers that would march on Washington, D.C. and take power by force.
For this army (not to mention the American people) to go along with this plan, ALL would have to find a charismatic person to be selected for the position of Secretary of General Affairs who was well-liked by both the public and the military. Acting on behalf of the ALL, MacGuire approached Smedley Butler, a Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps and the most decorated hero of World War I. Butler was popular with the public for his exploits in combat, and popular with the military for his public support of the Bonus Army during their famous standoff in 1932. In the space of just 30 minutes, MacGuire gave Butler the details of the plot, the names of those involved, and promised him $3 million in financial support for the takeover. When Butler questioned the necessity of a military-backed coup to remove Roosevelt from power, MacGuire claimed that Roosevelt’s social programs proved he was a Communist. “We need a fascist government in this country to save the nation from the Communists who want to tear it down and wreck all that we have built,” Butler says MacGuire told him.
Butler listened to the plan and told MacGuire that he was in – only he wasn’t. During the Bonus Army’s protests the previous summer, President Herbert Hoover had ordered the military to deploy against the protesters. Six tanks, infantry and cavalry swept in, drove out the protesters and burned their shelters and belongings. Butler was so outraged by this that he renounced his Republican status and became a Democrat. In fact, he actively campaigned in 1932 for Roosevelt.
After the meeting with MacGuire, Butler promptly reported the incident to the McCormack-Dickstein Congressional Committee, which was in charge of investigating threats to the government. (You may have heard of the McCormack-Dickstein Committee under a different name: in the 1940s they became the House Un-American Activities Committee.) Butler gave testimony to the committee between July and November 1934, and the committee asked nearly all of the conspirators named above to testify. However, the committee didn’t subpoena the conspirators, it merely asked. Naturally, many simply refused to show up. The only exception was Gerald MacGuire, who flatly denied everything.
The committee’s report officially stated that it believed Butler:
“In the last few weeks of the committee's official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country. No evidence was presented and this committee had none to show a connection between this effort and any fascist activity of any European country. There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.
This committee received evidence from Maj. Gen Smedley D. Butler (retired), twice decorated by the Congress of the United States. He testified before the committee as to conversations with one Gerald C. MacGuire in which the latter is alleged to have suggested the formation of a fascist army under the leadership of General Butler.
MacGuire denied these allegations under oath, but your committee was able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler, with the exception of the direct statement suggesting the creation of the organization. This, however, was corroborated in the correspondence of MacGuire with his principal, Robert Sterling Clark, of New York City, while MacGuire was abroad studying the various forms of veterans[sic] organizations of Fascist character.”
Unfortunately, the findings and Butler’s credibility were cut short when the report was released to the general public with the names of the conspirators redacted. The names have never been officially released, and no one associated with the plot was ever held accountable. When word got out that Butler had turned from complicit to informant, the plot quickly dissolved. Interestingly, James Van Zandt, then head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars office, said that MacGuire had approached him roughly two months after speaking with Butler. Had Butler declined to assume the position of Secretary of General Affairs, Van Zandt was to be appointed in his stead. Following Butler’s testimony, Van Zandt went public, helping to lend credence to Butler.
So what happened next? Nobody was ever prosecuted and nothing seemed to come of the plot. The story itself was given very little media coverage at the time, primarily due to the apparently absurd nature of the idea of a fascist coup happening in the United States. The New York Times and Time magazine reported on the committee’s findings, but Butler’s claims were dismissed as rumor. One popular theory is that it was Roosevelt himself that suggested the names of the conspirators be redacted, and in return they would stop publically denouncing the social and relief programs of the New Deal, to help ease their passage. Another theory is that the conspiracy was never really serious. It never got past the planning stages, and the conspirators may have only met once.
As an ironic postscript, the American Liberty League folded in 1940 following Roosevelt’s reelection. In 1944 (Roosevelt’s 4th electoral victory) the Republicans regained control of both houses of Congress, and in 1951 the 22nd amendment to the Constitution was passed, which limited future presidents to two terms in office. The reason: many feared that a president who held office for too long could become a dictator.
“Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal. It was Mussolini's success in Italy, with his government-directed economy, that led the early New Dealers to say, ‘But Mussolini keeps the trains running on time.’” – Ronald Reagan, in a 1976 interview with Time magazine
To this day the GOP is still fighting the war that began in 1933 with Roosevelt’s election, and seemingly won’t rest until the New Deal has been completely dismantled. Conservative leaders still make the claim that Roosevelt’s policies extended the Great Depression and, in fact, made it worse. Said de facto Republican Party leader Rush Limbaugh in a(n) (in)famous rant, "Roosevelt is dead. His policies may live on, but we're in the process of doing something about that as well." Some conservatives, including former president Ronald Reagan, have attempted to twist the New Deal into an example of American fascism in action.
With the glut of recent bills that propose ending or radically altering New Deal and “liberal” policies (such as Medicare, Social Security, public education and cutting funding for infrastructure projects), can there be any real doubt that this is the agenda of the modern Republican Party? Perhaps the American Liberty League was just biding its time in the shadows.
Wed Jun 01, 2011 at 7:41 AM PT: Holy schmoly! I wake up this morning and it's my first time on the rec list. I am humbled.