Details of the oligarchy’s foiled coup against Franklin Delano Roosevelt remain cloudy in large part because the Congressional committee charged with investigating it purged large parts of the record. Absent the discovery of some long-forgotten cache of records, details may never become clear.
Rep. [and future House Speaker] John McCormack chaired the investigation as head of what later became the House Committee on Unamerican Activities [HUAC]. The committee heard testimony from Smedley Darlington Butler, the retired Marine general picked by the plotters as their new dictator.
McCormack, by then retired, would praise the general to author Jules Archer, author of The Plot to Seize the White House: “In peace or war he was one of the outstanding Americans in our history. I can’t emphasize too strongly the very important part he played in exposing the fascist plot in the early 1930’s backed by and planned by persons possessing tremendous wealth.”
Roosevelt’s action during his first hundred days in office had set off alarm bells throughout the business and financial community, whose members looked to Europe for answers in the rise of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and the French Croix-de-Feu movement.
Charles Higham explored the plot in his groundbreaking work Trading with the Enemy, The Nazi – American Money Plot 1933-1949 [1983, Delacorte Press]:
Simultaneously with the rise of Hitler, the du Ponts in 1933 began financing native fascist groups in America, including the anti-Semitic and antiblack American Liberty League and the organization known as Clark’s Crusaders, which had 1,250,000 members in 1933. Pierre, Irénée, and Lammot du Pont and John Jacob Raskob funded the Liberty League, along with Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors. The League smeared Roosevelt as a communist, claimed the President was surrounded by Jews; and despite the fact that they were Jewish, the Du Ponts smeared Semitic organizations.
The connections between General Motors and the Nazi government began at the moment of Hitler’s rise to power. Goring declined to annex General Motors and indeed received with pleasure Williarn S. Knudsen, General Motors’ president, who returned on October 6, 1933, to New York telling reporters that Germany was “the miracle of the twentieth century.”
Irénée du Pont and Knudsen reached their explosion point over President Roosevelt. Along with friends of the Morgan Bank and General Motors, certain Du Pont backers financed a coup d’etat that would overthrow the President with the aid of a $3 million-funded army of terrorists, modeled on the fascist movement in Paris known as the Croix de Feu. Who was to be the figurehead for this ill-advised scheme, which would result in Roosevelt being forced to take orders from businessmen as part of a fascist government or face the alternative of imprisonment and execution? Du Pont men allegedly held an urgent series of meetings with the Morgans. They finally settled on one of the most popular soldiers in America, General Smedley Butler of Pennsylvania. Butler, a brave hero, had been awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor and his brilliant career as commandant of the Marine Corps had made him a legend. He would, the conspiratorial group felt, make an ideal replacement for Roosevelt if the latter proved difficult. These business chiefs found great support for their plan in Hermann Schmitz, Baron von Schroder, and the other German members of The Fraternity.
The backers of the bizarre conspiracy selected a smooth attorney, Gerald MacGuire, to bring word of the plan to General Butler. MacGuire agreed Butler would be the perfect choice. Butler had attacked the New Deal in public speeches.
MacGuire met with Butler at the latter’s house in Newton Square, Pennsylvania, and in a hotel suite nearby. With great intensity the fascist attorney delivered the scheme to the general. Butler was horrified. Although there were many things about Roosevelt he disliked, a coup d’etat amounted to treason, and Butler was nothing if not loyal to the Constitution. However, he disclosed nothing of his feelings. With masterful composure he pretended interest and waited to hear more.
When MacGuire returned, it was with news of more millions and more extravagant plans, which included turning America into a dictatorship with Butler as a kind of Hitler. Once more Butler was infuriated but kept quiet. After MacGuire left on the second occasion, the general got in touch with the White House. He told Roosevelt of the entire plan.
Roosevelt’s state of mind can scarcely be imagined. He knew that in view of the backing from high banking sources, this matter could not be dismissed as some crackpot enterprise that had no chance of success. He was well aware of the powerful forces of fascism that could easily make America an ally of Nazism even that early, only one year after Hitler had risen to power.
On the other hand, Roosevelt also knew that if he were to arrest the leaders of the houses of Morgan and Du Pont, it would create an unthinkable national crisis in the midst of a depression and perhaps another Wall Street crash. Not for the first or last time in his career, he was aware that there were powers greater than he in the United States.
Nevertheless, the plan had to be deactivated immediately. The answer was to leak it to the press. The newspapers ran the story of the attempted coup on the front page, but generally ridiculed it as absurd and preposterous. When Thomas Larnont of the Morgan Bank arrived from Europe by steamer, he was asked by a crowd of reporters to comment. “Perfect moonshine! Too utterly ridiculous to comment upon!” was the reply.
Roosevelt couldn’t quite let the matter rest. Under pressure from liberal Democrats he set up a special House committee to investigate. Butler begged the committee to summon the Du Ponts but the committee declined. Nor would it consent to call anyone from the house of Morgan. Then Butler dropped a bombshell. He gave interviews to the press announcing that none other than General Douglas MacArthur was a party to the plot. This again was dismissed by the press, and MacArthur laughed it off.
The committee hearings were a farce. MacGuire was allowed to get away with saying that Butler had “misunderstood” his intentions. Other witnesses lamely made excuses, and there the matter rested.
It was four years before the committee dared to publish its report in a white paper that was marked for “restricted circulation.” They were forced to admit that “certain persons made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country . . . [The] committee was able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler.’‘
While their plot was foiled by their chosen “man on a white horse,” the key plotters escaped unscathed. In the ensuing years, the oligarchs were able to accomplish their goals through the duly elected members of Congress and the support of Presidents.
As the nation struggles through another economic crisis, could the haves strike again, this time with a more willing occupant for the saddle of their white horse? Or do they even need to?
The first of three segments of a 2007 BBC Radio documentary of failed coup against FDR, which includes the allegation that Prescott Bush-father of George H.W. and grandfather of Dubya, Jeb, Neil, and Marvin, is here.
The second parts are here and here.
The History Channel aired its own documentary on the coup plot.
A New Masses article by John L. Spivak, citing testimony expunged from the official record is here [pdf warning].
George Seldes wrote about Butler and the coup in his 1947 book, 1000 Americans, with the relevant excerpts here.
Smedley Darlington Butler penned his own stirring denunciation of corporate-backed militarism, War is a Racket, which should be read by every citizen. [pdf warning] The book has been reissued in paperback by Skyhorse Publishing.
A wide range of material on the plot may be read here.