The Plots Against the President: FDR, a Nation in Crisis and the Rise of the American Right

By Sally Denton | Bloomsbury Press | $20 | 273 pages | 2012

Economic collapse and massive unemployment shroud the nation and the globe for years. Domestically, the two-party political system appears to be riven by wellsprings of anger and accusations unseen since the times of the Civil War. A newly elected president faces accusations and questions as to his true loyalties and motivations. There are hints and portents of conspiracies across the political spectrum — even, perhaps, fears of a military coup d’etat.

While this grim summation seems to have entirely too much in common with certain themes in our nation’s current events, it differs in one element significantly from our current age, and that is in its very last portion. Despite the economic and political woes of the 21st century, the threat of a “Seven Days in May” scenario is not one that has been generally raised by American commentators and political scientists in recent years.1 The fear of a coup d’etat, however, is a specter that has periodically haunted our nation’s history and is still within the living memories of some Americans today. Those dark days, the uncertainty and turbulence spawned by them, and the near-hysteria that encompassed both the far-left and far-right wings of the country’s polity, are the themes that inform The Plots Against the President by historical writer and investigative journalist Sally Denton.

Besides the economic woes of the Great Depression, the election year of 1932 was marked by one of the most spectacularly polarizing events of 20th century U.S. history: despite instructions from President Hoover, Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur personally deployed troops with drawn sabers and bayonets, tear gas, and tanks to crush the “Bonus Army,” a horde of unemployed World War I veterans camping on the outskirts of Washington, that summer. “This will elect me,” Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt exclaimed to his family when he heard the news. Despite the buoyant spirit of what became FDR’s theme song, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” though, much of the nation was anything but optimistic as 1932 drew to a bleak end.

Only weeks before his inauguration in March 1933, an Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Zangara, tried assassinating Roosevelt in Miami, missing FDR but shooting others including, fatally, Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. It was a grim augury for FDR’s first term. As he began advocating for a “New Deal” and passed laws calling for Americans to turn in their gold to help stabilize national financial reserves, the patrician New Yorker was denounced as an enemy of his class; as un-American and maybe a socialist; and (in a manner that would have fit in with the Nazis’ vitriolic ravings) as the “Dutch Jew, Rosenfeld.”

Of all the crises, plots and incidents outlined in this fascinating account of FDR’s first term, two may be especially interesting.

One, born on the right-hand side, is the so-called “Wall Street Putsch” or the “Businessmen’s Plot.” More than being an affiliated group of bankers and businesses only looking to influence elections and policy, some of the plotters apparently supported an actual seizure of the government by coup d’etat to depose Roosevelt. The erstwhile Napoleon waiting in the wings was one of the nation’s war heroes, retired Marine general Smedley Darlington Butler.

A controversial figure, Butler had attracted fame not only by virtue of his military exploits but also by having been dispatched by President Coolidge to take over and clean up Philadelphia’s corrupt fire and police departments. After his retirement, Butler reported to J. Edgar Hoover of the burgeoning Federal Bureau of Investigation and the newly formed House Special Committee on Un-American Activities — long before “HUAAC” later became a name associated with the baleful figure of Joe McCarthy — that emissaries of Wall Street interests had contacted him several times in 1933 and 1934, urging him to use the auspices of the American Legion and enlist a 500,000-man force, backed by several million dollars and hidden arms caches, to assume dictatorial powers as a “Secretary of General Affairs.” Smedley Butler saw the plot as it was: it smacked of treason to him, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

That an ardent Marine hero who was nevertheless a bitter critic of “gunboat diplomacy” for corporate business interests in Latin America (and whose memoirs were accordingly entitled: “I Was a Racketeer for Capitalism”) would be identified as the ideal “man on horseback” for a cabal of far-right, pro-Wall Street plotters seems highly improbable. Yet, Denton does a thorough job of searching the record: she concludes that something very much along the lines of Butler’s testimony was indeed under active consideration — although whether it ever would have succeeded was another matter entirely. Still, in an age when fiery radio preachers like Father Charles Coughlin claimed that Communism was about to engulf the nation unless radical steps were taken, and when actively pro-Nazi groups like William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts and Fritz Kuhn’s German-American Bund were taking to the streets and filling Madison Square Garden, the nation indeed seemed to be on the verge of something like a putsch.

On the other side of the partisan coin, it was not only the ultra-right that looked to so-called “men of steel” like Mussolini or Hitler as arbiters of the destinies of America and the world: Denton does a good job in demonstrating that the early 1930s’ passion for the dictatorial style extended to the left wing as well. Certainly, many pro-socialist and pro-Communist advocates — apparently blind to the cruelties and insanity of Stalin’s purges, terror famines, and forced collectivization and industrialization at all costs — urged their fellow citizens to look to the Soviets’ “worker’s paradise” as a role model for this country. Denton goes further in reporting that William Randolph Hearst — the 1930s’ equivalent of today’s media barons — was so enamored of Mussolini and his ways that he bankrolled and produced a feature film that was “an unabashed glorification of totalitarian dictatorship.” Hearst’s fervent wish was that this movie would personally instruct and guide Roosevelt in his own actions in the White House! (With his “Share the Wealth” movement, one can also look to Louisiana’s “Kingfish,” Huey Long, a Democrat, as another early adopter of radical populism and of this particular manifestation of the “great man” theory of political leadership and mass communications.)

Readers should note that — as indicated by its subtitle — there is a political subtext to some aspects of the book, which in an epilogue traces the “paranoid style in American politics” through to the present day. However, in this reviewer’s estimation, the history of so much of the troubled days of the 1930s is well told by Denton. On balance, her distillation of certain of the crises plaguing the first years of FDR’s administration should be fascinating to readers of various political persuasions. In terms of how the nation surmounted the partisanship rancor, fear and occasional near-chaos spawned by the Depression, there is much of interest for lawyers here, as well. The Plots Against the President provides intriguing food for thought in its contemplation of several commonly repeating themes and cycles of United States history.

Notes

  1. For a differing perspective from just 20 years ago — with an eerie prospective date as to when a military coup might occur in this country — see Col. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” Parameters, Winter 1992-93, at 2-20, available at http://www.uwec.edu/sfpj/Origins.pdf.

JACK H. (NICK) MCCALL is a Knoxville attorney.