Exclusive Book Excerpt: "The Plots Against The President: FDR, A Nation In Crisis, And The Rise Of The American Right
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bold New Deal experiments provoked a backlash from the nation’s most powerful bankers, industrialists, and Wall Street brokers. When retired Marine general Smedley Darlington Butler accused these interests of soliciting him to lead a Fascist coup d’etat against Roosevelt, the nation was shocked. Famous for his daring exploits in China and Central America, the iconic military figure had come to see himself as a “racketeer for capitalism.” How serious the threat of the “Business Plot” was to the Roosevelt presidency is debatable. Still, it is a fascinating tale of intrigue — that sheds light on the power struggles of 1930s America. What is clear is that some of the nation’s wealthiest men — Republicans and Democrats alike — were so threatened by Roosevelt’s monetary policies that they actually flirted with antigovernment paramilitarism in order to manipulate the presidency. Journalist and historian Sally Denton tells this remarkable story, with its striking resonance for contemporary America, in The Plots Against The President: FDR, A Nation In Crisis, And The Rise Of The American Right, just published by Bloomsbury Press:
When dawn broke in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, March 4, 1933, the atmosphere was celebratory, if anxious. Slate gray and ominous, the sky suggested a calm before the storm.
Even before the sun rose, more than a hundred thousand people had gathered on the east side of the Capitol. General Douglas MacArthur was in command of the inaugural parade, and he habitually expected the worst. By that morning, American depositors had transferred more than $1.3 billion in gold to foreign accounts, millions of people had been turned away from their banks, and rioting was expected in cities throughout the nation, prompting some state governors to predict a violent revolution. The country had become a no-man’s land of poverty and unemployment.
Army machine guns and sharpshooters were placed at strategic locations along the route. Not since the Civil War had Washington been so fortified. Armed police guarded federal buildings, and rumors swirled that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was going to impose martial law. “The situation is critical, Franklin,” the columnist Walter Lippmann had told the president-elect. “You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.”
Even though Italy’s Fascism was enormously popular and highly regarded in America at the time, Roosevelt distrusted autocracy and maintained an absolute commitment to the U.S. Constitution. Instead, Roosevelt determined to use his inaugural address to incite the public to action rather than to capture extra-constitutional authority for himself. He wanted not to assume enhanced powers, not to take advantage of a quavering nation to elevate his own stature, but rather to ignite the citizenry to recapture a spirit of confidence and achievement. He sought not to issue comforting bromides — as his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had done incessantly — but to raise a battle cry for Americans to overcome their fear and apathy and march bravely into the unknown. Even as he hoped to inspire the masses with his “nothing to fear but fear itself” speech, he also made clear he would hold accountable those who had failed the nation and sent it plunging into its economic abyss. Roosevelt promised not only to bring relief to the victims, but also to punish the perpetrators of the catastrophe.
Months before Roosevelt’s inauguration the motion picture industry began preparing the country for a radical takeover of government. Spawned by the fear of violent mobs of unemployed men blanketing the nation, this dictator craze set off an idealistic yearning for a benevolent despot — what Lippmann called a “hankering for Superman” and another described as “a rage for order.” Hollywood was at the ready with a string of politically charged features about economic injustice, governmental fraud, revolutionary fervor, class hatred, mob hysteria, and the tyrannical white-knight heroes who came to the rescue. The most incendiary of the films was the overnight sensation, The Three Little Pigs with its memorably ominous song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf.” Screened to standing-room-only crowds, the cartoon came to symbolize the threat of the Great Depression and the unshakable hope for deliverance. At the same time, breadlines, hunger marchers, mobs of unemployed veterans, strikers and hobo camps dominated the newsreels, inciting the very fear President Roosevelt would warn against in his inaugural address.
The nation’s most powerful publisher, William Randolph Hearst, firmly believed that America needed a dictator and took seriously his self-appointed mandate to shape public opinion. He had moved swiftly to curry favor with the new President, and produced Gabriel Over the White House in order to instruct both Roosevelt and the American pubic how to succumb to dictatorship. The over-the-top propagandistic film about a fictional administration’s first hundred days, during which America wobbled on the verge of anarchy, was alternately decried as fascist, socialist, liberal, or reactionary, capturing the radically fluid nature of the moment.
The plot begins benignly enough, with a hack politician ascending to the presidency. The celluloid president is a handsome lightweight who is the genial front man for behind-the-scenes party powerbrokers and who makes no pretense of wielding real power. Elected to office on promises he has no intention of honoring, he smiles blankly when an aide reminds him: “Oh, don’t worry, by the time they realize you’re not keeping them, your term will be over.”
The story takes a dramatic turn when the boyishly irresponsible president wrecks his car, landing himself in a coma. Given up for dead, he receives a visit from Gabriel, and, like Roosevelt overcoming polio, he arises from his deathbed a changed man. His previously vacant eyes are now brimming with intensity, symbolizing his metamorphosis from empty tool to divinely inspired autocrat. In a dizzying series of executive actions meant to parallel Roosevelt’s famous first hundred days, the fictional president calls Congress into special session and orders it to take “immediate and effective action;” declares martial law; muscles in on the mob’s liquor racket by nationalizing the sale and distribution of alcohol; creates an “Army of Construction” to put the unemployed to work; rallies the public with a series of radio addresses; fires his Cabinet comprised of Wall Street patsies, all old white men; allocates billions of dollars in New Deal-style social and public works programs; and disarms the world, bringing about global peace.
Just months after Roosevelt’s inauguration, those who had been imploring him to become a dictator had turned against him. At first it was the predictable resistance: “It is socialism,” sniffed Republican Congressman Robert Luce of Massachusetts about the New Deal legislation Roosevelt was ushering speedily through a special session of Congress. “Whether it is communism or not I do not know.” But by the summer of 1933 the criticism was growing into a crescendo. Nine million workers were employed in government programs. Businessmen — nervous that Roosevelt’s legitimizing of collective bargaining would strengthen the labor movement — denounced the programs as creeping socialism or business fascism. Northern sweatshop owners and southern planters feared they would lose their cheap labor to the “dole,” as the recovery and public works projects were dubbed, and started calling Roosevelt a Communist.
The massive government-industry collaboration lauded as a godsend in May 1933 seemed radically anti-capitalist under the muddled scrutiny of a steamy summer. Wall Street, bridling at the new securities regulations and distressed by the burgeoning federal expenditures, began rumbling about “dictatorial powers.” Much of the negative reaction swirled around the gold standard and a deep-seated belief that gold and empire were synonymous. To rabid anti-Semites, Roosevelt had taken America off the gold standard in order to allow the Jews to control the world’s gold.
If pundits and advisers were stunned by the swiftness with which the backlash took hold, Roosevelt saw it coming. The fissures in Congress were just beneath the surface, but Roosevelt had managed to keep them from erupting. Critics on both sides of the aisle had begun to question the constitutionality of the New Deal legislation, prompting Roosevelt to accelerate his timetable to send Congress home. He had rammed through his policies and then his impeccable intuition told him it was time to stop. He possessed a heightened sense of timing and the practicality to stay apace with the populace, never to get too far in front at the risk of losing their confidence. He knew the necessity of appearing calm and assured, that projecting the image of serene leadership was as important as the policies themselves.
Even as prices rose, purchasing power increased, homes were saved, bank deposits were restored, millions went back to work, and recovery was proceeding, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among the country’s elite took hold. “Businessmen…did not like being told by Roosevelt that they must shoulder responsibilities, especially toward their workers,” wrote a historian of the period.
Liberty lovers and constitution defenders cropped up. “This is despotism. This is tyranny. This is the annihilation of liberty…the President…has not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism, but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom,” wrote a U.S. Senator in his appeal to arouse the Roosevelt-created American “robots.”
One target of special enmity was Roosevelt’s close relationship with Sidney Hillman — a Jewish refugee from Czarist Russia. The one-time rabbinical student had formed a new union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, to organize the nation’s most notorious sweatshops. Throughout America, thousands of women and children took home less than a dollar after a nine-hour day. Hillman had helped design the New Deal unemployment and public works policies, committed to transforming America’s benighted working class into a modernized workforce with economic security and fair labor practices.
The ordinary people of America who rushed to hang portraits of Roosevelt over their fireplaces did not feel the dissatisfaction. Effusive and grateful letters and telegrams poured into the White House by the truckload from poor Americans who saw their lives improving. While the far Right and Left abandoned him, the “vast army of the center” was firmly in his camp.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s us-against-them rhetoric and references to “comrades” inflamed the upper class and the stirrings of anti-Rooseveltism were underway. Soon these sparks would ignite into full-fledged hatred, dividing the country and emboldening powerful enemies.
“Through the channels of the rich—the clubs, the banks, the brokerage offices, the Park Avenue salons, the country club locker rooms, the South Carolina shoots, the Florida cabanas — there rushed a swelling flood of stories and broadsides, many unprintable, depicting Roosevelt as a liar, a thief, a madman given to great bursts of maniacal laughter, an alcoholic, a syphilitic, a Bolshevik,” according to one account. It was from this fertile field of loathing that the “traitor to his class” epithet was born, and the publishers of the country’s most influential newspapers, themselves members of the noble class, eagerly fanned the flames.
The tremendously influential H.L. Mencken could not abide Roosevelt’s free-wheeling spending on the nation’s indigent and unemployed. “I am advocating making him a king in order that we may behead him in case he goes too far beyond the limits of the endurable,” Mencken wrote. While Mencken’s remark was certainly in jest, such chatter by respected pundits had the power of provoking deranged individuals into action. Loose and inflammatory talk of assassination and other violent acts became eerily prevalent, and the Secret Service went into high gear as threats multiplied. “What that fellow Roosevelt needs is a thirty-eight caliber revolver right at the back of his head,” a respectable citizen said at a Washington dinner party.
In addition to the mainstream establishment critics there arose an extremist element with its own methods for propagating hatred, name-calling, and character assassination. One shadowy organization began spreading the canard that Roosevelt — on behalf of an international Jewish conspiracy — was protecting the Jewish killer of the “Lindbergh Baby.” The toddler son of celebrity aviator and Nazi sympathizer, Charles Lindbergh, had been kidnapped from the nursery of his parents’ upscale New Jersey home on March 1, 1932. The case came to epitomize the fears plaguing America’s ruling class of an angry Jewish proletariat. In the convoluted, farfetched scenario that would eventually find its way into a published pamphlet with nearly a million copies distributed, Roosevelt was a de facto collaborator with the kidnappers.
Much of the far right suspicion centered on the New Deal as a Jewish conspiracy, and there developed a cottage industry for those determined to prove that Jewish blood coursed through Roosevelt’s veins. William Dudley Pelley and his Silver Legion referred to Roosevelt as “President Rosenfeld” and worked feverishly to expose Roosevelt’s supposed Jewish bloodlines, trotting out the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion — the crackpot 1905 alleged transcripts from a secret World Zionist Conference that were gaining popularity among American anti-Semites in 1933. Pelley’s apocalyptic Christian Militia was formed to save America from Roosevelt in the same way that Italy and Fascist leaders had saved Germany.
Operating “under cover” in forty-six states, the group was patterned on the notoriously corrupt, brutal, and xenophobic Texas Rangers, and stockpiled weapons at its headquarters in Oklahoma. The fanatics charged that Roosevelt was the head of a Communist conspiracy to take over the world. Such indictments would have been laughable if not for the suggestion of violence they contained and the unhinged population to which they appealed. What united various “legions” was a theatrical outpouring of pageantry and patriotism, flamboyant uniforms and lofty military ranks, a love of discipline and intimidation, and a melding of church and state. How deeply the reactionary impulse ran in America was not readily apparent, but these flag-waving, cross-bearing white people who paraded to the music of military marching bands, clearly resonated with an element of the populace. Dangerous or not, America was awash with right-wing groups overtly bent on government takeover outside the bounds of the democratic electoral process. Government officials were sufficiently worried that they created congressional investigative committees and initiated undercover probes.
“If you were a good honest man, Jesus Christ would not have crippled you,” read a typical letter to the President. In the whisper campaign of 1933 Roosevelt became “that Jew Cripple in the White House” and zealots prepared petitions for his removal on the grounds of treason.
Against the backdrop of an America that had come unglued, in a climate of restless uncertainty, frenzied protest, conspiracies and intrigues, surreptitious probes, mutinous masses, and charismatic dictators, a plot to overthrow Roosevelt seemed plausible. So when a U.S. general claimed that he had been asked by a group of powerful businessmen to lead an army of veterans in a coup d’etat against President Roosevelt, government investigators took him seriously.
(Sally Denton is an author and investigative reporter. Her previous books include The Pink Lady: The Many Lives Of Helen Gahagan Douglas and American Massacre: The Tragedy At Mountain Meadows. She is a Guggenheim fellow and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Her website is www.sallydenton.com.)