By ALAN NASSER
Perhaps the most alarming slice
of twentieth-century U.S. political history is virtually unknown
to the general public, including most scholars of American history.
In 1934 a special Congressional committee
was appointed to conduct an investigation of a possible planned coup
intended to topple the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt
and replace it with a government modelled on the policies of Adolf
Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The shocking results of the investigation
were promptly scotched and stashed in the National Archives. While
the coup attempt was reported at the time in a few newspapers, including
The New York Times, the story disappeared from public memory shortly
after the Congressional findings were made available to president
Roosevelt. It was the recent release from the Archives of the Congressional
report that prompted the BBC
and Horton commentaries.
The Congressional committee had discovered
that some of the foremost members of the economic elite, many of them
household names at the time, had indeed hatched a meticulously detailed
and massively funded plot to effect a fascist coup in America. The
plotters represented prominent families - Rockefeller, Mellon, Pew,
enterprises like Morgan, Dupont, Pew, Remington, Anaconda, Bethlehem
and Goodyear, along with the owners of Bird's Eye, Maxwell House and
Heinz. Totaling about twenty four major businessmen and Wall Street
financiers, they planned to assemble a private army of half a million
men, composed largely of unemployed veterans. These troops would both
constitute the armed force behind the coup and defeat any resistance
this in-house revolution might generate. The economic elite would
provide the material resources required to sustain the new government.
The plotters hoped that widespread working-class
discouragement at the stubborn persistence of the Great Depression
would have sufficiently disenchanted the masses with FDR's policies
to make the coup an easy ride. And they were appalled at Roosevelt's
willingness after 1933 to initiate economic policies that economists
and businessmen considered dangerously Leftist departures from economic
orthodoxy. Only a fascist-style government, they thought, could enforce
the kind of economic "discipline" that would reverse the Great Depression
and restore profits.
Interestingly, it was a military man, Major
General Smedley D. Butler*, assigned the task of raising the 500,000-man
army, who blew the whistle after uncovering the details of the operation
he was asked to lead. FDR was thus able to nip the plot in the bud.
The president might have used the occasion
to alert the public to the anti-democratic impulses of a major segment
of the capitalist class. But this would only have bolstered the fortunes
of Communist, Socialist and other anti-capitalist political tendencies
here, which were already gaining some ground among artists, intellectuals
and a surprising number of working people. It is well known that Hollywood
screenwriting in the 1930s was replete with Communist-inspired sentiment.
And we must not forget that FDR was himself
a (somewhat renegade) member of the very class that would have toppled
him. While FDR was open to watered-down Keynesian policies in a way
that very few of his class comrades were, his commitment (like Keynes's)
to the "free enterprise" system was unconditional. He had no interest
in publicizing a plot that might constitute a public-relations victory
for anti-capitalist politics. He therefore refused to out the plotters,
and sought no punitive measures against them. In the end, class solidarity
carried the day for Roosevelt. The Congressional committee cooperated
by refusing to reveal the names of many of the key plotters.
Thus, fascist tendencies gestating deep within
the culture of the U.S. ruling class were effectively left to develop
unhindered by mass political mobilization.
Might this grisly episode have important implications
for our understanding of the current political moment? One may be
inclined to think so on the basis of the fact that one of the architects
of the plot was one Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush.
Bush, along with many other big businessmen, had maintained friendly
relations in 1933 and 1934 with the new German government of Chancellor
Adolf Hitler, and was designated to form for his class conspirators
a working relationship with that government.
While I highly recommend Bush-bashing, the
implications of this unsettling piece of history for contemporary
politics run deeper than many –especially soi disant "oppositional"
liberals - would like to think. There is the temptation to point triumphantly
to George W. Bush's commitment to the irrelevance of the Constitution,
his corresponding contempt for hitherto taken-for-granted fundamental
human rights, his Hobbesian notion of unbridled sovereignty, his militarized
notion of political power - there is the temptation to regard these
fascist elements as the most significant contemporary remnant of the
But no less important is the utter absence
in 1934 of liberal attempts to educate the public to, and mobilize
the population against, the fascist threat. FDR stood down.
Although Rooseveltian/New Deal liberalism
is dead, contemporary Democrats do sustain one of FDR's least seemly
qualities, namely his refusal to encourage effective mass opposition
to fascist and imperialist politics. John Kerry boasted of having
contributed to the drafting of the Patriot Act. And in the first round
of legislation regarding continued funding of the war in Iraq, after
the 2006 elections gave the Democrats a majority in the House and
the Senate, the Democrats gave Bush everything he wanted. All the
major presidential contenders of both parties support a permanent
U.S. presence in Iraq. None has repudiated the conceit that Uncle
Sam is the permanent global hegemon. And most importantly, no mainstream
Democrat has repudiated the Neoliberal Consensus, the notion that
the market should be left to operate as "freely" as the public can
be persuaded to allow it to act, and, crucially, that this is a model
that should be imposed globally through the power of the U.S. working
in tandem with such global institutions as the IMF, the World Bank
and the WTO.
To the extent that this policy has been successful,
inequalities between national classes and between the global North
and South have widened dramatically since the decline of the Keynesian
consensus in the mid-1970s. Since the Mondale candidacy, no Democrat
has had a full-employment plank in his presidential platform. The
median wage has been in secular decline since 1973, and the distribution
of national income between capital and labor has not been as skewed
toward capital since the Great Depression. But no Democrat has made
a major issue of this.
These tendencies toward ever-widening inequality
and the increasing immiseration of the working population will surely
be exacerbated by the deepening slow-motion recession (depression?)
that is certain to follow the unfolding financial meltdown. These
conditions, and the deep resentment felt by masses of working people
toward the lords of Wall Street and their political henchpersons,
threaten to generate social "instability" in the form of increasing
crime rates and a host of direct and indirect forms of resistance
to the claimed legitimacy of the political order. The emergence of
what Mike Whitney has called "soup kitchen America" requires a response
from our rulers. And they are prepared with (literally) fascist legislation
already in place for situations just like this.
Developments over the last day or two in connection
with Monday's House rejection of the bailout package for Wall Street
indicate that allegations of fascist tendencies in U.S. political
culture are in these times not to be taken lightly. Influential voices
in the U.S. media have lamented the susceptability of the political
leadership to the will of the people. On Tuesday the Washington Post
ran a piece by Michael Gerson, Bush's former speechwriter, complaining
that "It is now clear that American political elites have lost the
ability to quickly respond to a national challenge by imposing their
collective will." The same day Rupert Murdoch's Times of London headlined
a column "Congress is the Best Advert For Dictatorship." And yesterday
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California), who voted against the bailout bill,
was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying "I've seen members turn
to each other and say if we don't pass this bill, we're going to have
martial law in the United States." "going to have"? We've already
got it, at least on the books.
On October 17, 2006, Bush signed three Acts
that instantly transformed the republic into a police state. The John
Warner Defense Authorization Act (DAA) effectively repeals the 1878
Posse Comitatus Act which prohibits military operations directed against
the American people. The DAA declares that "the president may employ
the armed forces to restore public order and enforce the laws of the
United States when…[among other reasons]… the President determines
that domestic violence has occurred to such an extent that the constituted
authorities of the State or possession are incapable of (or "refuse"
or "fail in") maintaining public order --- in order to suppress, in
any State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination,
There is of course nothing in the legislation
that specifies what precisely may count as "insurrection, domestic
violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy." The lone Democrat
to express reservations about DAA was Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont),
who entered into the Congressional Record that the Act "[makes] it
easier for the president to declare martial law… [T]he implications
of changing the [Posse Comitatus] Act are enormous…Using the military
for law enforcement goes against one of the founding tenets of our
democracy." Nothing was made of Leahy's protestations by complicit
The Military Commissions Act permits the President,
in order to "suppress public disorder", to assign military troops
anywhere in the United States in order to trump the authority of state-based
National Guard units, and without the consent of the governer.
Finally, the National Defense Authorization
Act allows the President to declare martial law, dispatch National
Guard units around the country and authorize military action against
the domestic population should His Majesty identify a "national emergency".
Liberal Democrats, upon being apprised of
these developments (of which the vast majority are ignorant) will
declare themselves shocked, shocked that Bush has "declared himself
dictator". But Bush has not signed legislation which expires when
he passes from office. Every future President will have these powers.
Would President Obama seek to erase these abominations? Don't bet
on it. Obama has not jettisoned the entire legacy of FDR. Like Roosevelt,
Obama will stand down.
* Butler underwent a major political
epiphany shortly before his retirement from the Marine Corps in
1931. In that same year, he addressed an American Legion convention
on his assessment of his career. His audience was stunned by his
reflections: "I spent 33 years being a high-class muscle man for
Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a
racketeer for capitalism…. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international
banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I helped make Mexico
and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1916.
I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests
in 1916. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National
City boys to collect revenue in. I helped in the rape of half a
dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street."
It remains a mystery why the conspirators would approach this man.
But they did.
Alan Nasser is professor
emeritus of Political Economy and Philosophy
at The Evergreen State College.