Chris Trotter’s essay on the possibility of civil war erupting in the United States is timely, at least if the events which lead to two previous attempts are anything to go by.
While many suspect there have been a number of “unrecorded” coup d’état in US history, the first acknowledged is that which sought to overthrow the then fledging US government in 1783, at the end of the American Revolutionary War, which only failed because George Washington withheld his support
The second and most recent recorded coup attempt, known as the Business Plot (also called the Wall Street Putschor The White House Putsch) was a political conspiracy that took place in 1933 when powerful business interests plotted to overthrow the government of President Franklin Roosevelt.
Also taking advantage of veterans’ discontent, the plot was revealed when, in 1934, retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler testified under oath that wealthy interests, concerned by Roosevelt’s dropping of the Gold Standard and the effect that would have on their fortunes, were planning to create a fascist veterans’ organization, with Butler as its leader, to depose Roosevelt.
Major General Smedley Butler was one of the most decorated US war heroes of his time, but even more remarkable were the names of those he testified were behind the plot – names like Robert Sterling Clark, Grayson M.P. Murphy, and Prescott Bush, founder of the family that was to later produce two US Presidents.
While news media at the time mocked Butler’s story, which itself is now thought to have had political support, so as to both spare the plotters from conviction in return for their support of FDR’s ‘New Deal’, recently uncovered records have revealed the truth of Major General Smedley Butler’s claims.
Born in 1871, the eldest son of a Quaker family, Smedley Butler was a veteran of several of the late 19th and early 20thcenturies’ major conflicts. Renowned for bravery and resolute leadership, he was both highly decorated by his country, and highly respected by the men who served under him.
According to a thesis written about him; “ He was the type of leader who always got on better with his enlisted men than with his colleagues or superiors; he represented an egalitarian anti-elitism that contrasted sharply with the highly structured hierarchy of the Marine Corp”
After leaving the service in 1931 Smedley Butler became a champion of veterans’ rights, as they lobbied for payments of bonds issued to veterans prior to WW1. And it was Smedley Butler’s positive public image and clear ability to rally people to him, which, in 1933, prompted business interests to try enticing him to be the face of a planned coup d’état
Approached by two senior members of the American Legion, an organization meant to support veteran rights, Smedley Butler began to suspect that something was amiss when he became aware of the huge amounts of money being put at his disposal
Believing there was little chance a group of veterans had access to such a vast sums, Smedley Butler was even more dismayed at the speech he was expected to deliver, which was less to do with veteran affairs, and more about attacking Roosevelt’s recent move away from the gold standard, to his “Goods not Gold” policy.
The abandonment of the gold standard left many bankers and the wealthy US elite fearful that gold-backed loans would not be paid back in full by the President’s ‘New Deal” policies, and that as a consequence vast fortunes would be decimated.
Sensing something sinister, Smedley Butler insisted on meeting with the plans’ principal architects and found himself speaking with Robert Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing fortune. Clark told Smedley Butler that his real interest was in preserving the gold standard, even claiming that he “had $30 million, and was willing to spend half of the $30 million to save the other half.”
At this point Smedley Butler refused to be further involved. And he heard little more from the plotters till some months later when they again pressed him, citing the examples of the French Croix de Feu government of the day, which was run by veterans, as being the sort of thing he could lead.
The only way to save the country from FDR’s “ill-fated” policies, they asserted, was to create a military state run by former servicemen, with Roosevelt serving as a figurehead. And, promising Smedley Butler an army of 500,000 men and financial backing from the wealthy elite, he was pressed to lead a peaceful march on the White House to displace Roosevelt.
Concerned that nobody would believe his telling of such a treasonous plan, Smedley Butler involved a former Philadelphia police captain and a reporter he knew, both of whom, once they had gained the trust of the conspirators, were able to corroborate his story
Subsequently they testified that the conspirators believed a fascist state was the only answer for America, and that Smedley was the “ideal leader” because he “could organize one million men overnight.”
But on 24 November 1934 Major General Smedley Butler’s testimony before the Special Committee on Un-American Activities received a luke warm reception. Discounting a large part of Butler’s address the committee declined to subpoena men like John W. Davis, a former presidential hopeful, or Thomas W. Lamont, a partner with J.P. Morgan & Company. However, once Smedley Butler’s two corroborating witnesses had testified, the committee began to investigate further and found all of Smedley Butler’s claims to be factual.
But the committee’s final report was never made public and the major media was able to belittle and deride Smedley Butler’s testimony. And those allegedly implicated, ranging from the DuPont family, the Goodyear Tyre Company, to Prescott Bush, the grandfather of future President George W. Bush, laughed off Butler’s claims.
Evidence of the validity of Butler’s testimony was not released until the 21st century, when the committee’s papers were released into the Public Domain. No one was ever prosecuted in connection with the plot.
For his part, Smedley butler continued advocating for veterans. And he also became a staunch opponent of Capitalism, which he said fed war mongering interests. His views were published in his well-known short book War is a Racket, which was published in 1935.
Smedley Butler later became a staunch opponent of Capitalism and an outspoken critic of American wars and their consequences. In 1935, Butler wrote a book titled War Is a Racket, where he describes and criticizes the workings of the United States in its foreign actions and wars, such as those in which he had been involved, including the American corporations and other imperialist motivations behind them. After retiring from service, he became a popular advocate, speaking at meetings organized by veterans, pacifists, and church groups in the 1930s.
“I helped to make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is too long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras ‘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 it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents.”
– Smedley Butler