Sunday, March 21, 2010
If it had been just an average citizen testifying before the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities, they might have dismissed him as a kook and be done with it. Instead the man describing a plot to overthrow the Administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was Major-General Smedley Darlington Butler, a 33-year veteran of the Marine Corps who was twice decorated with the Medal of Honor. The chairman and vice chairman of the Committee, John W. McCormack and Samuel Dickstein, were compelled to consider the testimony of Major-General Butler with utmost interest.
The year was 1934, but context requires going back some years before that. The country was in the grips of the Great Depression. Banks had failed, houses were being foreclosed, and unemployment was high. Many people had lost everything they owned. There was little trust in the government. President Herbert Hoover received most of the blame, and people were in a foul mood. They needed hope, and they believed they had it in New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt who, as a candidate for President in 1932, was promising a New Deal. The dire situation had to change. Franklin Roosevelt was elected and set out immediately to make that change.
There were some very wealthy and well-connected Americans who watched what Roosevelt was doing very closely. They grew more and more alarmed as the President rolled out his New Deal. When Roosevelt removed the country from the gold standard to fund the government, this would not do for the prominent families such as the Rockefellers, Mellons, Pews, and enterprises like J. P. Morgan, DuPont, Pew, Remington, Anaconda, Bethlehem and Goodyear, along with the owners of Bird’s Eye, Maxwell House and Heinz. There were said to be some 24 businessmen and Wall Street financiers who would fund a military coup against the government of the United States.
The testimony by the whistle-blower Gen. Butler and others reads like an intriguing spy novel. The particulars of this business plot became clear. To replace the government three major elements would be needed: a ruling philosophy, a charismatic leader to dictate the rules of the new government, and the means to enforce those rules.
Working through emissaries, the financial backers of the coup looked to Europe for a governing model. The three prominent models at the time were Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler in Germany, and Benito Mussolini in Italy. They were most impressed with the Fascism of Mussolini. Mussolini conceived Fascism, and much of his philosophy is available in written form today. Here is one quote that surely impressed the plotters:
“After Socialism, Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation, and it affirms the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind…”
Having chosen a model for governing, a comparison was made among the various paramilitary forces being utilized to enforce other governments. They considered three such organizations: Hitler’s Brownshirts, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and a French far right league known as the Croix-de-Feu. They hoped to model American government forces after the Croix-de-Feu. Wikipedia asserts that “as one of the most important paramilitary associations, and because of its nationalist position, the Croix-de-Feu… [was] considered by the left to be among the most dangerous of the imitators of Mussolini and Hitler.
Finally, a leader was needed, and that is where Major General Smedley Butler entered the picture. To accomplish this coup, they would need someone who could inspire a fighting force. They had seen this capacity in Butler at the so-called Bonus March on Washington in 1932. A number of World War I veterans and their supporters gathered in Washington, D. C. These veterans had been granted Service Certificates at the end of the War. They were not due to be redeemable until 1945, but veterans, many suffering from the Great Depression, were requesting that the government redeem the Certificates right away. Retired General Butler assured the group that they deserved the money immediately. His speech rallied the “troops.” Not long after his speech, the veterans were ordered from all government property. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur led a cavalry along with 6 tanks and drove the veterans and their families off using bayonets and gas. They burned the make-shift tents and all the veterans’ belongings. This group of veterans, it was thought, could be the genesis of an American Croix-de-Feu.
The plotters had everything they needed to stage a coup. They misread General Butler, however. He would expose them.
It’s impossible to include all the details of this entire bleak episode in our country’s history in this limited space, but much has been written about the Business Plot. It has been suggested that the McCormack-Dickstein Committee was instructed to gloss this over due to the very important people who were being accused in the plot. The Committee Report concluded:
“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.”
History is instructive, particularly if we learn its lessons and apply the knowledge to contemporary events. I titled this column “Coup deferred?” not foiled or interrupted or quelled. Is it safe to assume that one failure experienced by the business class would stop them in their quest to influence the government? Could they have found another way?
Does it still feel as if we are a government of the people, by the people and for the people? Or does it feel more like government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations?
On September 30, 1934, President Roosevelt delivered a speech to the nation. A portion of that speech was also released in video form. Listen carefully to President Roosevelt. I believe that in his words is a very clear message to those who had been planning a military coup to drive him from office.