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An American Coup d'État?

Some Americans regard our country as superior to other nations because we don't change governments by coup d'état - and we never have. Perhaps because of our long tradition of power changing hands by election, we regard our nation as immune to the use of force for political purposes. True, assassins have killed four of our Presidents, but these deaths did not lead to turmoil and chaos; the government followed well-established procedures for transferring control to the men previously elected Vice President. Unlike other nations where assassination often leads to civil war, the United States has avoided this.

How different is America from nations where political power comes quite directly "from the barrel of a gun"? A curious footnote to American history suggests that, except for the personal integrity of a remarkable American general, a coup d'état intended to remove President Franklin D. Roosevelt from office in 1934 might have plunged America into civil war.

The General

This remarkable man was Smedley Darlington Butler, retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General. Butler is the sort of person for whom the word "colorful" is woefully inadequate. Butler won America's highest military award for bravery (the Congressional Medal of Honor) twice. His style of warfare was unusual not only for his personal courage, but for the energy he put into avoiding bloodshed when it was possible to achieve his aims in other ways. Not surprisingly, this engendered a remarkable loyalty among the men who served under him - and that loyalty was why certain men asked Butler to lead a military attack on Washington, D.C., with the goal of capturing President Roosevelt.

Butler was more than a remarkable soldier. He served as police commissioner of Philadelphia during 1924-25 (on loan from the Marines), in an attempt to enforce Prohibition. While the effort was a failure, his insistence on enforcing the law against wealthy partygoers as well as poor immigrants established his reputation as a man of high integrity. He was not universally loved, but he was widely respected.

Butler is best remembered today for his oft-quoted statement in the socialist newspaper Common Sense in 1935:

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. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.... Looking back on it, I felt I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents.
In War Is A Racket, Butler argued for a powerful navy, but one prohibited from traveling more than 200 miles from the U.S. coastline. Military aircraft could travel no more than 500 miles from the U.S. coast, and the army would be prohibited from leaving the United States. Butler also proposed that all workers in defense industries, from the lowest laborer to the highest executive, be limited to "$30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get." He also proposed that a declaration of war should be passed by a plebiscite in which only those subject to conscription would be eligible to vote.

From 1935 through 1937, Butler was a spokesman for the League Against War and Fascism, a Communist-dominated organization of the time. He also participated in the Third U.S. Congress Against War and Fascism, sharing the platform with well-known leftists of the era, including Langston Hughes, Heywood Broun, and Roger Baldwin. When the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) threatened the collapse of the Soviet-supported Spanish government, the League's pacifism evaporated, and they supported intervention. Butler, however, remained true to his belief in non-interventionism: "What the hell is it our business what's going on in Spain?" But before Butler became involved in these causes, he had already exposed a fascist plot against his own government.

The Plot

Butler had friends in the press and Congress, so he could not be ignored when he came forward in late 1934 with a tale of conspiracy against President Roosevelt, in which he had been asked to take a leading role. At first glance, Butler seems an unlikely candidate for such a position. While Butler was a Republican, in 1932 he campaigned for Roosevelt, calling himself a "Republican-for-Ex-President Hoover." (Butler had a poor relationship with Hoover going back to their time together during the Boxer Rebellion.)

But there were good reasons why someone seeking to overthrow the U.S. government would have wanted Butler involved. Butler was a powerful symbol to many American soldiers and veterans - an enlisted man's general, one that spoke out for their interests while on active duty, and after retirement. Butler would have attracted men to his cause that would not otherwise have participated in a march on Washington.

Butler would have been a good choice also because of his military skills. His personal courage and tactical skill would have made him a powerful commander of an irregular army. Finally, his ties of friendship to many officers still on active duty might have undermined military opposition to his force, as friends and colleagues sought to avoid a direct confrontation with him.

Another reason that the plotters might have approached such an unlikely candidate was that Butler was not regarded as a great intellect. After World War I, the Marine Corps had began to emphasize a new college-educated professionalism. Butler, one of the less educated "bushwhacker" generals, might have seemed easy to manipulate.

Butler testified that bond trader Gerald MacGuire had approached him in the summer of 1933. MacGuire claimed to represent wealthy Wall Street broker Grayson Murphy, Singer sewing machine heir Robert Sterling Clark, and other unnamed men of wealth. They asked Butler to speak publicly on behalf of the gold standard, recently abandoned by President Roosevelt. MacGuire's rationale for why Butler should ally himself with the gold standard cause was that the veterans of World War I were due a bonus in 1945. As MacGuire told Butler, "We want to see the soldiers' bonus paid in gold. We do not want the soldier to have rubber money or paper money."

It appears that the plotters underestimated Butler's intelligence and character. When this explanation failed to persuade Butler, MacGuire and Clark offered him money, abandoning any pretense of civic-mindness. Butler's sense of honor prevented him from speaking in favor of any policy for mercenary reasons.

MacGuire eventually told Butler their real goal. MacGuire asked Butler to lead an army of 500,000 veterans in a march on Washington, D.C. The stated mission was to protect Roosevelt from other plotters, and install a "secretary of general welfare" to "take all the worries and details off of his shoulders…" But Butler saw through their supposed concern for Roosevelt. He testified before Congress that he told MacGuire:

[M]y interest is, my one hobby is, maintaining a democracy. If you get these 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have a real war right at home.…
Yes; and then you will put somebody in there you can run; is that the idea? The President will go around and christen babies and dedicate bridges, and kiss children. Mr. Roosevelt will never agree to that himself.
Butler eventually deduced that the real goal was a coup d'état to take Roosevelt captive, and force reinstatement of the gold standard, the loss of which many wealthy Americans feared would lead to rapid inflation. The plotters would keep Roosevelt as a figurehead until he could be "encouraged" to retire.

That MacGuire had significant financial backing behind him seems clear, considering the substantial bank savings books he showed to Butler. What remains unclear is whether the names MacGuire dropped (other than Robert Sterling Clark) were really involved, or whether MacGuire was a con man.

MacGuire's claims and financial resources alone did not convince Butler that such a conspiracy actually existed. The fulfillment of a series of startling predictions by MacGuire did finally persuade Butler that there was more than just hot air involved. MacGuire knew in advance of significant personnel changes in the White House. He correctly predicted the formation of the American Liberty League (the major conservative opposition to Roosevelt), and the principal players in it. Especially disturbing was that many of the supposed backers of the plot were also members of the League. MacGuire's claim that the League ("villagers in the opera" of the scheme, in MacGuire's words) was part of the plot could not be easily dismissed.

The American Liberty League was a successor to the highly successful Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, the lobbying organization responsible for the repeal of the "Noble Experiment." From its formation in 1918 until 1926, the AAPA made little progress, at least partly because it had little money. But in 1926, money poured into the AAPA from some of America's wealthiest men, including Pierre, Irenee, and Lammot du Pont, John J. Raskob, and Charles H. Sabin. The AAPA spent its new found wealth on distribution of literature, and on the formation of a bewildering number of associated organizations. These associated organizations gave the impression of a grassroots movement, rather than a collection of millionaires feeding press releases to friendly newspapers. The AAPA also rapidly took control of the Democratic Party, with one of their supporters, Al Smith, receiving the 1928 Democratic Presidential nomination. While AAPA had powerful friends within the Republican Party, they never achieved control of it.

The AAPA's motivations were a mixture of idealism and pragmatism. The stated concern was that Prohibition had done serious damage to the principle of federalism - that the federal government's authority did not include the police powers used to enforce Prohibition. But it appears that this was not the only motivation, or even the reason most important to the men who funded the AAPA. Like many other Americans, these business leaders "found themselves unable to gratify what seemed a natural, more or less innocent, desire without breaking a law" (i.e., the consumption of alcoholic beverages). To suddenly find themselves among the criminal classes was not pleasant to a group who had always thought of themselves as law-abiding and respectable members of American society. There is also strong evidence that the backers of the AAPA saw Repeal as a method of reducing income and corporate taxes, by taxing alcoholic beverages instead.

The AAPA went out of business at the end of 1933, with the end of Prohibition. But within a year, from the same offices, with most of the same backers, many of the same employees, and much of the same style, it reappeared as the American Liberty League. Throughout the next six years, it led the fight against the New Deal, arguing that much of Roosevelt's program was contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. In an age when Hitler and Mussolini had commandeered extraordinary economic powers, the fears that the American Liberty League expressed about Roosevelt's vaguely similar gathering of economic power could not be summarily dismissed.

The League, in spite of its impressive resources, was rapidly made to appear "ridiculous or dangerous" or both by the Roosevelt Administration. Most importantly, the leadership of the League was largely rich men. The Depression-era gap between rich and poor had become too wide, too obvious, and too painful for the League to be credible to the majority of Americans. Butler's testimony before Congress claimed that some of the people associated with the League were the very ones that had approached him - including Grayson Murphy, the League's treasurer.

In the depths of the Great Depression, in that nadir of despair before Roosevelt gave his stirring first inaugural address in 1933, America was awash in political groups identifying in greater or lesser degrees with communism or fascism. Rep. Samuel Dickstein (D-NY), concerned about the threat of such groups, persuaded the House of Representatives to create the Special Committee to Investigate Nazi Propaganda Activities in the United States. This committee investigated Butler's charges in late 1934.

MacGuire, not surprisingly, denied that such a plot existed. Instead, he claimed his activities had been political lobbying to preserve the gold standard, but he quickly destroyed his credibility as a witness by giving contradictory testimony. While the final report agreed with Butler that there was evidence of a coup d'état plot against Roosevelt, no further action was taken on it. The Committee's authority to subpoena witnesses expired at the end of 1934, and the Justice Department started no criminal investigation.

Part of the reason for the lack of prosecution of the alleged plotters may have been the untimely death of the only man who could have testified against the rest: Gerald MacGuire. He died at age 37 from complications of pneumonia, less than a month after the Committee released its report. MacGuire's physician claimed that his death was partly the result of the stress of the charges made by Butler, but there is no reason to assume that MacGuire's death was in any way suspicious.

The Committee's report excluded many of the most embarrassing names given by MacGuire, and repeated by Butler. MacGuire had claimed that 1928 Democratic President candidate Al Smith, General Hugh Johnson (head of Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration), General Douglas MacArthur, and a number of other generals and admirals were privy to the plot. Since Butler had no evidence of their involvement, other than MacGuire's claims, it was certainly reasonable for the Committee to exclude these details from the final report as "certain immaterial and incompetent evidence." But in conjunction with MacGuire's apparent advance knowledge of the details of internal White House staff activities, it certainly suggests that if a coup was planned, it had significant support within the Roosevelt Administration.

The News Media Downplays The Plot

The news media gave an inappropriately small amount of attention to the report. Time magazine ridiculed Butler's claims. The week following Butler's testimony, Time described it as a "Plot Without Plotters," simply because the alleged plotters claimed innocence. But Time admitted that Veterans of Foreign Wars commander James Van Zandt confirmed that he, too, had been approached to lead such a march on Washington.

The leftist magazine New Masses carried an article by John Spivak that included wild claims of "Jewish financiers working with fascist groups." Spivak's article spun an elaborate web involving the American Jewish Congress, the Warburg family, "which originally financed Hitler," the Hearst newspaper chain, the Morgan banking firm, the du Ponts, a truly impressive list of prominent American Jewish businessmen, and Nazi spies! Spivak's article raised some disturbing and legitimate questions about why much of Butler's testimony was left out of the final committee report. But these important concerns were seriously undermined by Spivak's paranoid ravings. The left-of-center magazines Nation and New Republic were unconcerned about it, since in their view "fascism originated in pseudoradical mass movements," and therefore could not come from a wealthy cabal.

Newspaper descriptions of the final report are also astonishing for how lightly most treated it. A New York Times article about subversion and foreign agitators started on the front page, but gave only two paragraphs to the coup plot inside the paper. "It also alleged that definite proof has been found that the much publicized Fascist march on Washington... was actually contemplated." It was not a major story.

The San Francisco Chronicle took the story more seriously. The only headline with a larger type size that day concerned the recent fatal crash of the airship Macon. The Chronicle carried an Associated Press story headlined, "Justice Aids Probe Butler Fascist Story." The first five paragraphs were devoted to Butler's allegations. The Chronicle quoted the Committee report that it "was able to verify all the pertinent statements by General Butler, with the exception of the direct statement suggesting creation of the organization."

A third newspaper sampled showed an even more astonishing lack of interest than the New York Times: the Sacramento Bee used a substantially different Associated Press wire story that emphasized propaganda efforts by foreign agents. Another AP wire story, at the bottom of page five, described Butler's allegations, taking the Committee's report at face value. This wire story includes the comforting knowledge that the committee found "no evidence to show a connection between this effort" and any foreign government.

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. Why? Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, wrote a book in 1939 about the concentration of American journalism. He claimed that, "In 1934, 82 per cent of all dailies had a complete monopoly in their communities." Newspaper chains, in Ickes' view, "control a dangerously large share of the national daily circulation and in many cities have no competition."

Ickes' book was largely devoted to proving that the major newspapers of the United States were intentionally distorting the news, and in some cases, directly lying. Ickes argued that newspaper editors did so in the interests of both their advertisers and in defense of the capitalist class. Ickes mentioned the Liberty League as one of the "propaganda outfits" who were allied with the major newspapers. Indeed,the New York Times, one of the papers that had downplayed the Committee's report, had editorialized in favor of the Liberty League's formation.

Did newspapers and magazines onsciously play down the plot, because it represented an embarrassment to people of influence? Or did editors simply give it low visibility because they regarded it as an absurd story?

We must consider another disturbing possibility. Butler was associated with the loose alliance of progressive and populist forces that were dragging Roosevelt towards the left. It is easy to forget that for much of Roosevelt's first term as President from 1932-36, he was the rope in a tug of war between conservative and progressive forces in America. The popularity of men such as Senator Huey Long (D-Louisiana) and the nationally known radio priest Father Coughlin-and the need to short-circuit their rising political power-appears to have caused Roosevelt's increasingly leftward movement in 1935-36.

Is it possible that Butler concocted this story as a way of creating animosity towards conservatives by Roosevelt? If Butler had lied to the Committee, and no such conspiracy was ever planned, why did MacGuire apparently perjure himself before the Committee? Or, alternatively, could leftward leaning members of the Roosevelt Administration have manipulated Butler into believing that such a plot actually existed as a way of creating animosity towards conservatives, thus dragging Roosevelt to the left? Either theory could explain why MacGuire, Murphy, Clark, or the other supposed plotters were never prosecuted.

Yet another possibility (though less likely) is that there was no prosecution because Roosevelt's own advisors had taken part in the plot, as MacGuire claimed. A criminal prosecution would have washed the Roosevelt Administration's dirty laundry in public.

Why Is The Plot So Poorly Known?

Butler's account of the MacGuire plot was a very serious accusation. If MacGuire had told Butler the truth, a large number of wealthy men had made serious plans to overthrow representative government in the United States - though their concern that Roosevelt was creating a government in the style of Mussolini or Hitler, might provide some legitimate reason for their actions. Why doesn't this plot appear in history books? That conservatives might discount the plot is not unexpected; that liberals have tended to ignore the plot is a little more surprising.

It is hard to imagine how different American politics was in the 1930s. The collapse of the world economy had shaken the faith of many Americans in individualism and free market capitalism. Many traditionalists, here and in Europe, toyed with the ideas of Fascism and National Socialism; many liberals dallied with Socialism and Communism. Prominent populists such as Huey Long and Father Coughlin sided with progressives in support of isolationism, redistribution of wealth, and a federal government that would play a more active role in the American economy.

In hindsight, the moral and economic deficiencies of these various collectivized systems are now clear. In 1934, however, people of good will persuaded themselves that Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were doing good, and ignored the great evils that were already underway. To turn over the rock exposing MacGuire's plot raises unpleasant questions about the political sensibilities of both right and left in 1930s America.

How Secure Are The Institutions of Legal Government In America?

How secure, indeed? It would be tempting to write off this entire matter as a group of con men separating wealthy conservatives from their money by pretending to hatch a plot against the Roosevelt Administration. But there are too many disturbing pieces of evidence in this tale that suggest that the Zeitgeist of the 1930s was not limited to Europe.

If MacGuire's claims to Butler were true, some U.S. military commanders were prepared to stand aside while 500,000 veterans marched on Washington and took Roosevelt captive. (Between the World Wars, the United States Army was so small that 500,000 veterans might have given them a serious fight - even if every officer remained loyal to Roosevelt.)

But unlike many European countries, American government was highly decentralized in 1934, and this would have worked against any serious military action against the legitimate government. Every state governor had control of state militia units, armed with out of date, but still serviceable military weapons.

In addition to the regularly organized state militias, the population of the United States, then as now, was heavily armed with the sort of weapons well suited to military operations. Whatever the advantages of the plotters' army of 500,000 veterans, they would have been far outnumbered by the unorganized militia of the United States - then as now, consisting of every U.S. citizen between 18 and 45, and legally obligated by state laws to fight at the order of the governor in the event of insurrection, invasion, or war.

But in a nation that was suffering from the ravages of the Great Depression, another model exists for what might have happened: the Spanish Civil War. The divisions over religion in America were not as dramatic as those that ripped apart Spanish society. But many Americans were beginning to lose their faith in American institutions - as evidenced by the growth of American Nazi and Communist movements during the 1930s. It is frightening to think of what might have happened if a general as capable as Butler had become the man on a white horse.

In the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, delivered at New York University in 1960 concerning the protections of the U.S. Bill of Rights:

I cannot agree with those who think of the Bill of Rights as an 18th century straitjacket, unsuited for this age…. The evils it guards against are not only old, they are with us now, they exist today….
Experience all over the world has demonstrated, I fear, that the distance between stable, orderly government and one that has been taken over by force is not so great as we have assumed.
Indeed, the plot that Butler exposed - if what MacGuire claimed was true - is a sobering reminder to Americans. We were not immune to the sentiments that gave rise to totalitarian governments throughout the world in the 1930s. We make a serious mistake when we assume, "It can't happen here!"

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer with a Northern California manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. His first book, By The Dim And Flaring Lamps: The Civil War Diary of Samuel McIlvaine, was published by Library Research Associates (Monroe, NY) in 1990. Mr. Cramer's second book, For The Defense of Themselves And The State: The Original Intent and Judicial Interpretation of the Right To Keep And Bear Arms was published by Praeger Publishers (Westport, Conn.) in 1994. Mr. Cramer recently completed his B.A. in History at Sonoma State University.


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Sacramento Bee, February 15, 1935.

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