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The Whitehouse Putsch

Few Americans know it, but during the Great Depression, a cabal of millionaire bankers and industrialists hatched a conspiracy to hijack the U.S. government and install a fascist dictatorship. It was, in the words of contemporary journalist John L. Spivak, “one of the most fantastic plots in American history.”

Spivak’s assessment in his 1967, A Man in His Time, certainly continues to hold true sixty years after the fact: “What was behind the plot was shrouded in a silence which has not been broken to this day. Even a generation later, those who are still alive and know all the facts have kept their silence so well that the conspiracy is not even a footnote in American histories.”

Although a congressional committee confirmed the allegations, the findings were hushed up amid murmurs of a coverup. No wonder. The plotters were brand-name American finaciers in the Morgan and Du Pont commercial empires, right-wingers bitterly opposed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and the president’s sympathies toward organized labor.

Perhaps Americans would know all too much about the plot, and even celebrate it on “President Duce Day,” if it weren’t for a patriotic military man, Major General Smedley Darlington Butler. In the summer of 1933, the putsch plotters approached Butler, the retired commandant of the U.S. Marines and a popular war hero affectionately known as “the fighting Quaker.” They offered him the job of transforming the American Legion veterans group into a 500,000-man marauding army, which was to spearhead an American coup d’etat.

Unfortunately for facism, Butler’s appeal to the plotters also turned out to be the conspiracy’s downfall. The conspirators apparently chose the former general because of his enormous popularity with rank-and-file soldiers; but it was Butler’s antielitist leanings and reputation for honesty that had made him a populist favorite. In short, the conspirators couldn’t have selected a candidate more unlikely to agree to lead a fascist takeover. Shrewdly, Butler decided to play along, feigning interest in the plans in order to draw the plotters into the daylight and expose the scheme to Congress.

As he told the House of Representatives’ McCormack-Dickstein Committee, which was investigating Nazi and communist activities in America, Butler was first approached by one Gerald G. MacGuire, a bond salesman and former commander of the Connecticut American Legion. As journalist Spivak described him, “MacGuire was a short stocky man tending toward three chins, with a bullet-shaped head which had a silver plate in it due to a wound received in battle.”

According to the former general, MacGuire described to Butler “what was tantamount to a plot to seize the government, by force if necessary.” MacGuire, said Butler, explained that he had traveled to Europe to study the role played by veterans’ groups in propping up Mussolini’s fascist Italy, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and the French government. MacGuire lauded France’s Croix de Feu as “an organization of super-soldiers” with profound political influence. Then the man with the silver plate in his cranium announced that “our idea here in America” is to “get up an organization of this kind” because “the political setup has got to be changed a bit.”

According to Butler, MacGuire elaborated on the plot: “Now, did it ever occur to you that the president is overworked? We might have an assistant president; somebody to take the blame.” MacGuire called the new super Cabinet official a “secretary of general affairs.” And, he said, “You know the American people will swallow that. We have got the newspapers. We will start a campaign that the president’s health is failing. Everybody can tell that by looking at him, and the dumb American people will fall for it in a second….”

Although MacGuire denied Butler’s account under oath, corroborating testimony came from Paul Comly French, a Philadelphia Record reporter. Butler had asked French to look into MacGuire’s plot and shed some light on “what the hell it’s all about.”

After checking with Butler, the voluble MacGuire agreed to see French. French testified that MacGuire told him, “We ned 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 in America. The only men who have the patriotism to do it are the soldiers, and Smedley Butler is the ideal leader. He could organize a million men overnight.”

French continued: MacGuire “warmed up considerably after we got under way and he said, ‘We might go along with Roosevelt and then do with him what Mussolini did with the King of Italy.'” If Roosevelt played ball, French summarized, “swell; and if he did not, they would push him out.”

According to French, MacGuire dropped names to give the impression that American Legion brass were involved in the plot.

To impress Butler, MacGuire had flaunted a bank book itemizing deposits of more than $100,000 available to pay for “expenses.” Later, he flashed a wad of eighteen $1,000 bills and boasted of “friends” who were capable of coughing up plenty more dough where that came from.

One of those friends was Robert Sterling Clark, a prominent Wall Street banker and stockbroker. When Butler demanded that MacGuire produce his superiors, the tubby intermediary made the introductions. According to Butler’s testimony, Clark spoke of spending half his $60 million fortune in order to save the other half. What’s more, Clark purportedly waxed ominous about the misguided FDR: “You know the president is weak. He will come right along with us. He was born in this class, and he will come back. He will run true to form. In the end he will come around. But we have got to be prepared to sustain him when he does.”

Amazingly, the McCormack-Dickstein Committee (a forerunner of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee) never bothered to haul Clark in for questioning. And the committee’s members – who exhibited considerably more zeal ferreting out two-bit commies than they did big-shot American fascists – failed to frill a half-dozen other suspects named by Butler and French. In fact, the committee suppressed many of the names, even though French’s newspaper articles caused a stir by naming the well-heeled conspirators (at the height of the Depression).

In addition to MacGuire and Clark, the leading plotters included:

Grayson Murphy, a director of Goodyear, Bethlehem Steel, and a panoply of Morgan banks. Murphy was the original bankroller of the American Legion, which he and other wealthy military officers formed after World War I to “offset radicalism.” He was also MacGuire’s boss at the New York brokerage firm.William Doyle, former state commander of the Legion and purportedly the architect of the coup idea.

John W. Davis, former Democratic candidate for president of the United States and a senior attorney for J.P. Morgan and Company.

Al Smith, former governor of New York, a Roosevelt foe, and codirector of the newly founded American Liberty League, an organization described by MacGuire as the matrix on which the plot would by executed.

Other prominent businessmen lurked in the background, including Smith’s codirector at the American Livery League, John J. Raskob, who was a former chairman of the Democratic Party, a high-ranking Du Pont officer, and a bitter enemy of FDR, whom he classified among dangerous “radicals.” And in even deeper shadows was right-wing industrialist Irenee Du Pont, who established the American Liberty League. Grayson Murphy – MacGuire’s boss – was treasurer of the same group. Clearly, this was no penny-ante whiner’s club. Most astonishing was the presence among the plotters of heavy-hitting politicos from FDR’s own party.

Mysteriously, though, the congressional probe expired with a whimper. The McCormack-Dickstein Committee released heavily edited excerpts from Butler’s testimony but claimed it had uncovered “no evidence” other than “hearsay” linking prominent Americans to a fascist plot.

Had the committee backed down rather than take on a klatch of power-drunk millionaires? Did high-ranking Democrats – possibly one in the White House, as some reports had it – put the kibosh on the investigation for similar reasons, or to stave off political embarrassment, or to protect Democratic muckamucks who were in on the scheme?

All of the above would seem likely, for in fact the McCormack-Dickstein Committee’s public report was utterly contradicted by its internal summation to the House. That document might have been lost to history had Spivak not somehow managed to liberate a copy. Contrary to the public whitewash, privately the committee acknowledged Butler’s accuracy and MacGuire’s lying. The report concluded:

In the last few weeks of the committee’s life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this 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….

MacGuire denied [Butler's] allegations under oath, but your committee was able to verify all the pertinent statements made to 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 form of veterans’ organizations of Fascist character.

Alas, as is so often the case, when truth finally emerged it was greeted as yesterday’s news – or worse, as last year’s outmoded fashion, which clashed with the committee’s public dismissal of the charges. Spivak’s reporting appeared in a small left-wing publication where it went largely unnoticed. After all, Time magazine – hardly what you would call antagonistic toward right-wing industrialists – had already dismissed the allegations as a joke.

“The fighting Quaker” went on national radio to denounce the committee’s deletions of key points in his testimony, but history’s loaded die had already been cast.

Ultimately, the plot’s failure owes as much a debt to Butler as it does to the Hubris of the super-Wealthy. Lacking a Mussolini-calibre proxy, but swimming in ample cash to buy one, America’s elite fascists dispatched the man with a plate in his head to build a better Duce. Of course, the revolution went south when, in an act of inspired stupidity, they decided to buy a dictator who happened to be a notorious democrat with a small d.