The Plots Against the President

A good — and quick — read is Sally Denton’s The Plots Against the President, dealing with the intrigue against FDR because of his New Deal legislation. It bears looking at because of the unmistakable parallels with today and the heavy-handed conservative assault on remaining New Deal safeguards.

FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, as Denton notes, was your typical right-winger:

Ideologically opposed to what was called the “dole,” Hoover thought government assistance to individuals would become addictive and undermine their work ethic. As unemployment swelled to nearly 25 percent, that attitude seemed not only uninformed and indifferent but also morally untenable.

Sound familiar? And this was in 1932, the “cruelest year,” a time when America hit rock bottom,” as historian William Manchester described it:

Financial capitalists had bilked millions of customers and had been “permitted to rig the market and trick the public,” said a New Yorker editor. As the Nation magazine put it: “If you steal $25, you’re a thief. If you steal $250,000, you’re an embezzler. If you steal $2,500,000 you’re a financier.”

Also all too familiar, a time when one percent of the population possessed 59 percent of the nation’s wealth.

“Wall Street was not merely accountable for the country’s dilemma,” historian Steve Fraser said of the widespread perception, “it was its perpetrator, the principal villain in a national saga of guilt, revenge, and redemption.” Joseph P. Kennedy, himself a businessman and Wall Street speculator, wrote of the pervasive loss of confidence in the system: “The belief that those in control of the corporate life of America were motivated by honesty and ideals of honorable conduct was completely shattered.”

And the times had their own Rush Limbaughs:

Testimony revealed how Wall Street insiders hired publicity agents, journalists, and radio announcers to hawk certain stocks, thereby manipulating the market; how National City Bank (forerunner of today’s Citigroup) sold worthless bonds; how bankers systematically abandoned their fiduciary responsibilities; and how J.P. Morgan, who wielded extreme personal and unregulated power over billions of dollars in profits, created elaborate machinations to dodge taxes. Morgan partners, in what was effectively a cozy and exclusive men’s club, held 126 directorships in 89 corporations. Most infuriating to the Depression-era public were the disproportionate compensations and bonuses to those who had deceived and thieved common Americans….

[N]either Morgan nor any of his partners had paid income tax for the past three years, and he intended to rely on loopholes to avoid paying any in 1933.

FDR, who was planted firmly in the upperclass, had radical ideas (for the time) about how to turn around the Depression:

It was Roosevelt who had complained that “fewer than three dozen private banking houses and stock-selling adjuncts in the commercial banks have directed the flow of capital within the country and outside it,” and who had vowed, while campaigning for the presidency, to implode the “economic oligarchy.”

One of his appointees, Ferdinand Pecora, headed up the investigations leading ultimately to the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act:

The testimony had brought to light a shocking corruption in our banking system, a widespread repudiation of old fashioned standards of honesty and fair dealing in the creation and sale of securities, and a merciless exploitation of the vicious possibilities of intricate corporate chicanery. The public had been deeply aroused by the spectacle of cynical disregard of fiduciary duty on the part of many of its most respected leaders; of directors, who conveniently subordinated their official obligations to an avid pursuit of personal gain; of great banks, which combined the functions of a bank with those of a stock jobber; of supposedly impartial public markets for the sale of securities, actually operated as private clubs for the individual benefits of their members.

Strong parallels with current events, though as Timothy R. Smith wrote in the Washington Post, the right wing was far more militarized:

American fascist parties formed paramilitary groups called the silver shirts, the khaki shirts or the black shirts, a Crayola box of colors inspired by Hitler’s brownshirts and Mussolini’s blackshirts. “Dangerous or not,” Denton notes, “America was awash with right-wing groups overtly bent on government takeover outside the bounds of the democratic electoral process.”

The largest effort was a well-financed Wall Street plot to organize the American Legion to march on Washington, seize the White House, overthrow the president and install a famous military hero, Smedley Darlington Butler, as leader of a fascist state modeled after Italy. Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient and firm supporter of Roosevelt, turned the ringleaders in.

Butler was an odd choice, as a Roosevelt supporter and unashamedly vocal in his politics:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

The “mainstream media” of the day didn’t exactly cover itself in glory, chosing to basically ignore the plot, as cowed then as now:

The role of the press was similarly confusing. Was the story downplayed because of potential embarrassment to influential figures, or was it marginalized because the plot was so absurdly far-fetched that it resembled one of the potboiler adventure stories that Butler wrote for various magazines, if not a Marx Brothers zany comedy? “An apparently serious effort to overthrow the government, perhaps with the support of some of America’s wealthiest men, largely substantiated by a Congressional Committee, was mostly ignored,” wrote Clayton E. Cramer in History Today. “Why?”

Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, would charge an alliance between the American Liberty League and the country’s major newspapers, which distorted and covered up the news “in the interest of both their advertisers and in defense of the capitalist class.” In any event, the Liberty League was fast becoming the most significant anti-Roosevelt organization in the country. With infinite resources, much of it from the du Pont family, it would spend millions to destroy the New Deal. Providing editorials to thousands of newspapers, radio stations, and libraries, it was described as sponsoring “one of the most extensive propaganda campaigns of the twentieth century.”

Until the Koch brotherss came along with ALEC, that is . . .

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3 responses to “The Plots Against the President

  1. A great book about Maj. Gen. Smedley D. Butler and the fascist scheme to overthrow FDR is Jules Archer’s “The Plot to Seize the White House”. Originally published in 1973 it was reprinted by Skyhorse Publishing in 2007. I would not doubt that people like Newt Gingrich and the Koch brothers took lessons from the failed plot of 1934 and have been applying them in a much more subtle and more successful plot of their own for the past three decades.

  2. There is another book “Devil Dog” about Maj. Butler Excellent reading. I have been telling people about this man for awhile now. This would make a great movie ! The Plot has been ignored in history, most Americans have never heard of this and have no knowledge of how close this country came to being overthrown by these very wealthy men. It all rings true today only I am not sure we have someone with as much class as Maj Butler to save the day.

  3. Pingback: is 1984 BBC anti-government propaganda? « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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