Some Americans regard our country as superior to other nations
don't change governments by coup d'état -- and we never have.
because of our long tradition of power changing hands by election,
our nation as immune to the use of force for political purposes.
assassins have killed four of our Presidents, but these deaths did
to turmoil and chaos; the government followed well-established
for transferring control to the men previously elected Vice
Unlike other nations where assassination often leads to civil war,
United States has avoided this.
How different is America from nations where political power comes
directly "from the barrel of a gun"? A curious footnote to
suggests that, except for the personal integrity of a remarkable
general, a coup d'état intended to remove President Franklin D.
from office in 1934 might have plunged America into civil war.
This remarkable man was Smedley Darlington Butler, retired U.S.
Major General. Butler is the sort of person for whom the word
woefully inadequate. Butler won America's highest military award for
(the Congressional Medal of Honor) twice. His style of warfare was
not only for his personal courage, but for the energy he put into
bloodshed when it was possible to achieve his aims in other ways.
surprisingly, this engendered a remarkable loyalty among the men who
under him -- and that loyalty was why certain men asked Butler to
military attack on Washington, D.C., with the goal of capturing
Butler was more than a remarkable soldier. He served as police
of Philadelphia during 1924-25 (on loan from the Marines), in an
enforce Prohibition. While the effort was a failure, his insistence
enforcing the law against wealthy partygoers as well as poor
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
in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the
Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a
Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The
racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the
banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the
Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make
"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
felt I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do
operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on
In War Is A Racket, Butler argued for a powerful navy, but one
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,
army would be prohibited from leaving the United States. Butler also
proposed that all workers in defense industries, from the lowest
the highest executive, be limited to "$30 a month, the same wage as
in the trenches get." He also proposed that a declaration of war
passed by a plebiscite in which only those subject to conscription
eligible to vote.
>From 1935 through 1937, Butler was a spokesman for the League
and Fascism, a Communist-dominated organization of the time. He also
participated in the Third U.S. Congress Against War and Fascism,
platform with well-known leftists of the era, including Langston
Heywood Broun, and Roger Baldwin. When the Spanish Civil War
threatened the collapse of the Soviet-supported Spanish government,
League's pacifism evaporated, and they supported intervention.
however, remained true to his belief in non-interventionism: "What
is it our business what's going on in Spain?" But before Butler
involved in these causes, he had already exposed a fascist plot
Butler had friends in the press and Congress, so he could not be
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
first glance, Butler seems an unlikely candidate for such a
Butler was a Republican, in 1932 he campaigned for Roosevelt,
himself a "Republican-for-Ex-President Hoover." (Butler had a
relationship with Hoover going back to their time together during
But there were good reasons why someone seeking to overthrow the
government would have wanted Butler involved. Butler was a powerful
to many American soldiers and veterans -- an enlisted man's general,
that spoke out for their interests while on active duty, and after
retirement. Butler would have attracted men to his cause that would
otherwise have participated in a march on Washington.
Butler would have been a good choice also because of his military
His personal courage and tactical skill would have made him a
commander of an irregular army. Finally, his ties of friendship to
officers still on active duty might have undermined military
his force, as friends and colleagues sought to avoid a direct
Another reason that the plotters might have approached such an
candidate was that Butler was not regarded as a great intellect.
War I, the Marine Corps had began to emphasize a new
professionalism. Butler, one of the less educated "bushwhacker"
might have seemed easy to manipulate.
Butler testified that bond trader Gerald MacGuire had approached him
summer of 1933. MacGuire claimed to represent wealthy Wall Street
Grayson Murphy, Singer sewing machine heir Robert Sterling Clark,
unnamed men of wealth. They asked Butler to speak publicly on behalf
gold standard, recently abandoned by President Roosevelt. MacGuire's
rationale for why Butler should ally himself with the gold standard
was that the veterans of World War I were due a bonus in 1945. As
told Butler, "We want to see the soldiers' bonus paid in gold. We do
want the soldier to have rubber money or paper money."
It appears that the plotters underestimated Butler's intelligence
character. When this explanation failed to persuade Butler, MacGuire
Clark offered him money, abandoning any pretense of civic-mindness.
sense of honor prevented him from speaking in favor of any policy
MacGuire eventually told Butler their real goal. MacGuire asked
lead an army of 500,000 veterans in a march on Washington, D.C. The
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
He testified before Congress that he told MacGuire:
[M]y interest is, my one hobby is, maintaining a democracy. If you
500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I am going
500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have a real
Yes; and then you will put somebody in there you can run; is that
The President will go around and christen babies and dedicate
kiss children. Mr. Roosevelt will never agree to that himself.
Butler eventually deduced that the real goal was a coup d'état to
Roosevelt captive, and force reinstatement of the gold standard, the
which many wealthy Americans feared would lead to rapid inflation.
plotters would keep Roosevelt as a figurehead until he could be
That MacGuire had significant financial backing behind him seems
considering the substantial bank savings books he showed to Butler.
remains unclear is whether the names MacGuire dropped (other than
Sterling Clark) were really involved, or whether MacGuire was a con
MacGuire's claims and financial resources alone did not convince
such a conspiracy actually existed. The fulfillment of a series of
predictions by MacGuire did finally persuade Butler that there was
just hot air involved. MacGuire knew in advance of significant
changes in the White House. He correctly predicted the formation of
American Liberty League (the major conservative opposition to
and the principal players in it. Especially disturbing was that many
supposed backers of the plot were also members of the League.
claim that the League ("villagers in the opera" of the scheme,
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
responsible for the repeal of the "Noble Experiment." From its
1918 until 1926, the AAPA made little progress, at least partly
had little money. But in 1926, money poured into the AAPA from some
America's wealthiest men, including Pierre, Irenee, and Lammot du
J. Raskob, and Charles H. Sabin. The AAPA spent its new found wealth
distribution of literature, and on the formation of a bewildering
associated organizations. These associated organizations gave the
of a grassroots movement, rather than a collection of millionaires
press releases to friendly newspapers. The AAPA also rapidly took
the Democratic Party, with one of their supporters, Al Smith,
1928 Democratic Presidential nomination. While AAPA had powerful
within the Republican Party, they never achieved control of it.
The AAPA's motivations were a mixture of idealism and pragmatism.
concern was that Prohibition had done serious damage to the
federalism -- that the federal government's authority did not
police powers used to enforce Prohibition. But it appears that this
the only motivation, or even the reason most important to the men
the AAPA. Like many other Americans, these business leaders
themselves unable to gratify what seemed a natural, more or less
desire without breaking a law" (i.e., the consumption of
beverages). To suddenly find themselves among the criminal classes
pleasant to a group who had always thought of themselves as
respectable members of American society. There is also strong
the backers of the AAPA saw Repeal as a method of reducing income
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
backers, many of the same employees, and much of the same style, it
reappeared as the American Liberty League. Throughout the next six
led the fight against the New Deal, arguing that much of Roosevelt's
was contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. In an age
Hitler and Mussolini had commandeered extraordinary economic powers,
fears that the American Liberty League expressed about Roosevelt's
similar gathering of economic power could not be summarily
The League, in spite of its impressive resources, was rapidly made
"ridiculous or dangerous" or both by the Roosevelt
importantly, the leadership of the League was largely rich men. The
Depression-era gap between rich and poor had become too wide, too
and too painful for the League to be credible to the majority of
Butler's testimony before Congress claimed that some of the people
associated with the League were the very ones that had approached
including Grayson Murphy, the League's treasurer.
In the depths of the Great Depression, in that nadir of despair
Roosevelt gave his stirring first inaugural address in 1933, America
awash in political groups identifying in greater or lesser degrees
communism or fascism. Rep. Samuel Dickstein (D-NY), concerned about
threat of such groups, persuaded the House of Representatives to
Special Committee to Investigate Nazi Propaganda Activities in the
States. This committee investigated Butler's charges in late
MacGuire, not surprisingly, denied that such a plot existed.
claimed his activities had been political lobbying to preserve the
standard, but he quickly destroyed his credibility as a witness by
contradictory testimony. While the final report agreed with Butler
there was evidence of a coup d'état plot against Roosevelt, no
action was taken on it. The Committee's authority to subpoena
expired at the end of 1934, and the Justice Department started no
Part of the reason for the lack of prosecution of the alleged
have been the untimely death of the only man who could have
against the rest: Gerald MacGuire. He died at age 37 from
pneumonia, less than a month after the Committee released its
MacGuire's physician claimed that his death was partly the result of
stress of the charges made by Butler, but there is no reason to
MacGuire's death was in any way suspicious.
The Committee's report excluded many of the most embarrassing names
MacGuire, and repeated by Butler. MacGuire had claimed that 1928
President candidate Al Smith, General Hugh Johnson (head of
National Recovery Administration), General Douglas MacArthur, and a
of other generals and admirals were privy to the plot. Since Butler
evidence of their involvement, other than MacGuire's claims, it was
certainly reasonable for the Committee to exclude these details from
final report as "certain immaterial and incompetent evidence."
conjunction with MacGuire's apparent advance knowledge of the
internal White House staff activities, it certainly suggests that if
was planned, it had significant support within the Roosevelt
The News Media Downplays The Plot
The news media gave an inappropriately small amount of attention to
report. Time magazine ridiculed Butler's claims. The week following
testimony, Time described it as a "Plot Without Plotters,"
the alleged plotters claimed innocence. But Time admitted that
Foreign Wars commander James Van Zandt confirmed that he, too, had
approached to lead such a march on Washington.
The leftist magazine New Masses carried an article by John Spivak
included wild claims of "Jewish financiers working with fascist
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
list of prominent American Jewish businessmen, and Nazi spies!
article raised some disturbing and legitimate questions about why
Butler's testimony was left out of the final committee report. But
important concerns were seriously undermined by Spivak's paranoid
The left-of-center magazines Nation and New Republic were
it, since in their view "fascism originated in pseudoradical
movements," and therefore could not come from a wealthy
Newspaper descriptions of the final report are also astonishing for
lightly most treated it. A New York Times article about subversion
foreign agitators started on the front page, but gave only two
the coup plot inside the paper. "It also alleged that definite proof
been found that the much publicized Fascist march on Washington...
actually contemplated." It was not a major story.
The San Francisco Chronicle took the story more seriously. The only
with a larger type size that day concerned the recent fatal crash of
airship Macon. The Chronicle carried an Associated Press story
"Justice Aids Probe Butler Fascist Story." The first five
devoted to Butler's allegations. The Chronicle quoted the Committee
that it "was able to verify all the pertinent statements by General
with the exception of the direct statement suggesting creation of
A third newspaper sampled showed an even more astonishing lack of
than the New York Times: the Sacramento Bee used a substantially
Associated Press wire story that emphasized propaganda efforts by
agents. Another AP wire story, at the bottom of page five, described
Butler's allegations, taking the Committee's report at face value.
story includes the comforting knowledge that the committee found
evidence to show a connection between this effort" and any
An apparently serious effort to overthrow the government, perhaps
support of some of America's wealthiest men, largely substantiated
Congressional committee, was mostly ignored. Why? Roosevelt's
the Interior, Harold Ickes, wrote a book in 1939 about the
American journalism. He claimed that, "In 1934, 82 per cent of all
had a complete monopoly in their communities." Newspaper chains, in
view, "control a dangerously large share of the national daily
and in many cities have no competition."
Ickes' book was largely devoted to proving that the major newspapers
United States were intentionally distorting the news, and in some
directly lying. Ickes argued that newspaper editors did so in the
of both their advertisers and in defense of the capitalist class.
mentioned the Liberty League as one of the "propaganda outfits"
allied with the major newspapers. Indeed,the New York Times, one of
papers that had downplayed the Committee's report, had editorialized
favor of the Liberty League's formation.
Did newspapers and magazines consciously play down the plot, because
represented an embarrassment to people of influence? Or did editors
give it low visibility because they regarded it as an absurd
We must consider another disturbing possibility. Butler was
the loose alliance of progressive and populist forces that were
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
of war between conservative and progressive forces in America. The
popularity of men such as Senator Huey Long (D-Louisiana) and the
known radio priest Father Coughlin-and the need to short-circuit
rising political power-appears to have caused Roosevelt's
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
Committee, and no such conspiracy was ever planned, why did MacGuire
apparently perjure himself before the Committee? Or, alternatively,
leftward leaning members of the Roosevelt Administration have
Butler into believing that such a plot actually existed as a way of
animosity towards conservatives, thus dragging Roosevelt to the
theory could explain why MacGuire, Murphy, Clark, or the other
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
MacGuire claimed. A criminal prosecution would have washed the
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.
MacGuire had told Butler the truth, a large number of wealthy men
serious plans to overthrow representative government in the United
though their concern that Roosevelt was creating a government in the
of Mussolini or Hitler, might provide some legitimate reason for
actions. Why doesn't this plot appear in history books? That
might discount the plot is not unexpected; that liberals have tended
ignore the plot is a little more surprising.
It is hard to imagine how different American politics was in the
collapse of the world economy had shaken the faith of many Americans
individualism and free market capitalism. Many traditionalists, here
Europe, toyed with the ideas of Fascism and National Socialism; many
liberals dallied with Socialism and Communism. Prominent populists
Huey Long and Father Coughlin sided with progressives in support of
isolationism, redistribution of wealth, and a federal government
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
persuaded themselves that Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were doing
ignored the great evils that were already underway. To turn over the
exposing MacGuire's plot raises unpleasant questions about the
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
a group of con men separating wealthy conservatives from their money
pretending to hatch a plot against the Roosevelt Administration. But
are too many disturbing pieces of evidence in this tale that suggest
the Zeitgeist of the 1930s was not limited to Europe.
If MacGuire's claims to Butler were true, some U.S. military
prepared to stand aside while 500,000 veterans marched on Washington
took Roosevelt captive. (Between the World Wars, the United States
so small that 500,000 veterans might have given them a serious fight
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
military action against the legitimate government. Every state
control of state militia units, armed with out of date, but still
serviceable military weapons.
In addition to the regularly organized state militias, the
United States, then as now, was heavily armed with the sort of
suited to military operations. Whatever the advantages of the
of 500,000 veterans, they would have been far outnumbered by the
militia of the United States -- then as now, consisting of every
citizen between 18 and 45, and legally obligated by state laws to
the order of the governor in the event of insurrection, invasion, or
But in a nation that was suffering from the ravages of the Great
another model exists for what might have happened: the Spanish Civil
The divisions over religion in America were not as dramatic as those
ripped apart Spanish society. But many Americans were beginning to
their faith in American institutions -- as evidenced by the growth
American Nazi and Communist movements during the 1930s. It is
think of what might have happened if a general as capable as Butler
become the man on a white horse.
In the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, delivered at
University in 1960 concerning the protections of the U.S. Bill of
I cannot agree with those who think of the Bill of Rights as an 18th
straitjacket, unsuited for this age.. The evils it guards against
only old, they are with us now, they exist today..
Experience all over the world has demonstrated, I fear, that the
between stable, orderly government and one that has been taken over
is not so great as we have assumed.
Indeed, the plot that Butler exposed -- if what MacGuire claimed was
is a sobering reminder to Americans. We were not immune to the
that gave rise to totalitarian governments throughout the world in
1930s. We make a serious mistake when we assume, "It can't happen
Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer with a Northern California
manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. His first book, By The
Flaring Lamps: The Civil War Diary of Samuel McIlvaine, was
Library Research Associates (Monroe, NY) in 1990. Mr. Cramer's
For The Defense of Themselves And The State: The Original Intent and
Judicial Interpretation of the Right To Keep And Bear Arms was
Praeger Publishers (Westport, Conn.) in 1994. Mr. Cramer recently
his B.A. in History at Sonoma State University.
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Brinkley, Alan, Voices of Protest, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,
Butler, Smedley D., War Is A Racket, (New York: Round Table Press,
Cahn, Edmond, The Great Rights, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1963).
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the Press, (Rahway, N.J.: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939).
New York Times, February 16, 1935; March 26, 1935.
Schmidt, Hans, Maverick Marine, (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of
Sevareid, Eric, Not So Wild A Dream, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Spivak, John L., "Wall Street's Fascist Conspiracy", New
Masses, January 29,
1935, 9-15; February 5, 1935, (page numbers missing on the
Sacramento Bee, February 15, 1935.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1935.
Time, 24:23 [December 3, 1934].
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sess., (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1935).
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