There was a time not long ago when the title of this post would invoke in most Americans the assumption of a work of fiction, perhaps a novel by Tom Clancy.
Today, of course, it invokes current events, and looking at that title, one might assume this to be a reference to some current Washington Post story. Indeed, if you came across this post because it was tweeted or facebooked, that is almost certainly what you think we are talking about here.
In my ongoing search for cheap books for my faithful readers, I came across The Plot to Seize the White House: The Shocking TRUE Story of the Conspiracy to Overthrow F.D.R. by Jules Archer. At first I assumed this must be fiction. I knew it wasn’t about Trump because of the mention of FDR. Then I looked into it.
In the 1930s, a famous, highly decorated, and well respected American general made the claim to Congress that he had been asked to become the newly installed dictator in a fascist, white supremacist, government intent on reversing the New Deal and eliminating Democracy. He went along with the suggestion long enough to uncover important details of the plot, prior to making this claim. He named names. Those with the names he named denied the plot, no one was quite sure what had really happened, and the whole thing dropped into obscurity.
Today, if you look it up, you find two things: 1) It is generally assumed that Butler was wrong. He saw things that were real then pieced them together into a false conspiracy theory. The fact that he didn’t seem like that sort of person was probably ameliorated by the fact that he was older, and perhaps, had “gone emeritus” as they say in academia. 2) The people who seem to like the theory, such as book review writers on Amazon and such, have a certain tinge to their discourse, the kind of affect we see among conspiracy theorists.
This might be a good point to mention that General Butler died at the age of 59, just after his retirement, of a never diagnosed illness of the digestive system that came on very suddenly and killed him within the month.
This might also be a good time to mention that one of the two House of Representative special committee members that investigated Butler’s claims and rejected them was later accused to have been an unregistered foreign agent of the Soviet Union.
Based on my brief reading of this story, I think it is likely that the plot was discussed. The person who recruited Butler reminds me a bit of a Roger Stone sort of character … all hat, no cattle, but still connected and capable of doing something like organizing a coup. But the key elements that would have made the plot work, including a large army of disaffected veterans, were either not quite real or not organized.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr is quoted (in teh wiki) as saying, “Most people agreed with Mayor La Guardia of New York in dismissing it as a ‘cocktail putsch'” and “No doubt, MacGuire did have some wild scheme in mind, though the gap between contemplation and execution was considerable, and it can hardly be supposed that the Republic was in much danger.” Note that the term “cocktail putsch” was coined by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in reference to Butler’s claims. This might be a good time to mention that LaGuardia was a supporter of Mussolini’s fascist regime.
The idea of a group of well heeled business people with foreign connections might get together to somehow change American politics and government in their interest, possibly in the form of a coup if necessary, would have been an absurd idea to journalists and others in the 1930s. The New York Times earliest major reporting on this, including a November 1934 article, seems to have been simply incredulous. Today, by contrast, we know this sort of thing can happen, because it is in fact, happening right now in Washington DC, though using different methods than popular in the 1930s. Given this change in attitude, how do we see Butler’s claims today?
I have no strong opinion on this. But if you want to read Jules Archer’s “The Plot to Seize the White House: The Shocking TRUE Story of the Conspiracy to Overthrow F.D.R.” to find out more, I wouldn’t blame you for grabbing the Kindle version of it right now for two bucks.
Many people might not know that in 1933, a group of wealthy industrialists—working closely with groups like the K.K.K. and the American Liberty League—planned to overthrow the U.S. government and run FDR out of office in a fascist coup. Readers will learn of their plan to turn unhappy war veterans into American “brown shirts,” depose F.D.R., and stop the New Deal. They asked Medal of Honor recipient and Marine Major General Smedley Darlington Butler to work with them and become the “first American Caesar.” Fortunately, Butler was a true patriot. Instead of working for the fascist coup, he revealed the plot to journalists and to Congress.
Archer writes a compelling account of a ploy that would have turned FDR into fascist puppet, threatened American democracy and changed the course of history. This book not only reveals the truth behind this shocking episode in history, but also tells the story of the man whose courage and bravery prevented it from happening.
Here is Butler giving his case: