National Commentary

When America Almost Went Fascist (Really!)

Author Sally Denton has a new book out this year entitled, The Plots Against the President: FDR, a Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right (Bloomsbury Press). It tells the true story of efforts at a fascist coup against President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first year in office in 1933.

The startling account wipes the smirk off anyone’s face who ridicules Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 book, It Can’t Happen Here as alarmist. Not only could it have happened here, it almost did.

Most of this account is focused on Roosevelt’s election in November 1932, his inauguration in March 1933 when the Depression was so bad that half the banks in the nation were shuttered, and the first six months of his administration.

It includes the account of Roosevelt’s remarkable “First 100 Days,” when he had Congress cooperating while a veritable blizzard of emergency actions implemented his famous “New Deal,” freeing the dollar from the gold standard, establishing a minimum wage and child labor laws, empowering unions and setting up public works programs that put millions to work.

In his inaugural speech, Roosevelt coined the famous phrase, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” because, indeed, the nation was gripped in a panic that caused massive runs on the banks, at the same time an astounding number of Americans were out of work, homeless and hungry. Then he began his “Fireside Chats” that began to soothe the nation and restore confidence in it.

But as much as these initiatives served the interests of the vast majority of Americans, they were horrid in the minds of the super-rich, the scions of Wall Street, who feared their disenfranchisement by the efforts of Roosevelt, whom they characterized as being a “traitor to his class.”

They didn’t take it sitting down. They almost pulled off a military coup.

Having made his “people over property” priorities known before the election, in the long period (in those days) between the election and inauguration, Roosevelt was the target of an assassination attempt in February 1933 in Miami that left the mayor of Chicago, who was with him, dead.

Despite the indicators that there was a larger conspiracy behind the attempt, there was a cover-up and no conclusive evidence was developed.

But that was nothing compared to what happened after Roosevelt was sworn in. As Denton documents deftly, a group of agents functioning at the behest of Wall Street first approached Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and when he wasn’t interested, then looked up another popular military leader, outspoken Marine Gen. Smedley Butler, urging him to go to the national convention of the American Legion in Chicago in October, and take over its leadership.

They wanted him to deliver a speech in support of a return to the gold standard (something that would have little to do with veterans affairs, since it was aimed at preserving the financial edge of Wall Street investors by keeping the value of their assets high through a severe restriction on the expansion of dollars).

Wall Street’s obsession with the gold standard set it directly against the well-being of the vast majority of Americans, who were suffering from the lack of liquidity in the economy.

Gen. Butler drew out those who had approached him. They wanted him to call for a march of veterans on Washington, confident that with his charismatic leadership, he could easily bring 400,000, with the idea of a taking control of the government.

In those days, fascism was not a dirty word in the U.S., and the model most often held up was Mussolini’s in Italy. Many called on Roosevelt to declare a dictatorship, himself, and when he wouldn’t, they turned to Gen. Butler.

Gen. Butler had no intention of playing along with the conspiracy, and blew the whistle on it. Eventually, there were congressional hearings where he and others testified to all the information Denton includes in her book.

Roosevelt let the matter die, but the Wall Street right wing formed itself into the Liberty League and has never let up, not to this very day, its effort to roll back everything that FDR did to empower the nation’s middle class.