Plans Hatched & Monies gathered for a coup d'etat in the United States (1934)

The protagonist in this scheme, that is to say the one who exposed it, was one Smedley Butler. A Major General in the Marine Corps and a two-time winner of the Medal of Honor, Butler was a popular figure among veterans as a tenacious populist fighter for better benefits, then called the veterans bonus.

The great modern muckraker George Seldes related the essentials of Butler's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) testimony in one of many books he wrote concerning press complicity with the right, this one entitled You Can't Do That! The House Investigation of Nazi and other Propaganda published the following on February 15th, 1935 found that "…certain persons had made an attempt to establish a Fascist organization in this country…There is no question but that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient."

So, who was planning the execution of this plan? They were a few Wall Street bankers, some linked to the Morgan financial empire, who envisioned mobilizing veterans through the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in concert with other "patriotic" organizations like the Du Pont-connected Liberty League, for a march on Washington. The gopher between the big money boys and Butler was Gerald G. MacGuire of the brokerage firm Grayson M. - P. Murphy & Co, who also carried water for Robert Sterling Clark, the Singer sewing machine heir. The latter, according to Butler, reflected the widespread expectation of momentous social change in the wake of the Great Depression, when he stated "I've got $30 million and I don't want to lose it. I am willing to spend half of the $30 million to save the other half."

This sort of sentiment was hardly novel. Writing in The Corporate State and the Broker State: The Du Ponts and American National Politics, 1925 - 1940, Robert F. Burk quotes Irénée Du Pont thus. "If things continue to get worse, we may have a general breakdown of the economic structure. If it gets so bad that we have to call out the militia to suppress rioting, it may be time to consider the country in a state of war and have a dictator, either one man or as a group." (The lefty variant of this view would be expressed in the form of a novel by Sinclair Lewis entitled It Can't Happen Here, a dystopian take on an envisioned fascist dictatorship in the United States.)

Then this nugget: "Mystified at the President's use of class rhetoric, he [R. R. M. "Ruly" Carpenter, a Du Pont in-law and political operative] wondered aloud, 'Why should a man of Roosevelt's education and birth-campaign on a campaign [sic] of labor against capital?'" A week later, Carpenter made the following remarks to Delaware Senator Daniel Hastings. "He blamed the situation in Washington on Roosevelt's actions in turning over emergency powers to 'a gang of fanatical and communistic Jew professors,' whom he dubbed 'Frankfurter [that being Felix Frankfurter, a future Supreme Court Justice] and his thirty-eight hot dogs.'"

As the plot was unfolded to Butler, it was to begin with a military "show of force" in Washington, after which Butler testified MacGuire opined "we might even go along with Roosevelt and do with him what Mussolini did with the King of Italy." [i.e. make him a ceremonial figurehead]. Butler continued, quoting MacGuire, "Then he discussed the need for a 'man on the white horse,' and insisted that a show of armed force was the only way to save the capitalistic system. He told me he believed that at least half of he American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars would follow me. I was amazed at the audacity and bluntness with which the proposition was put to me."

Seldes elucidated further: "MacGuire, according to the testimony, then described a trip made to Europe for the purpose of studying the Nazi movement in Germany, Fascism in Italy, and de la Roque's Fiery Cross (the people whose slogan would later be "Better Hitler than Blum"-the Jewish Socialist premier, 1936 - 1937) in Paris, the part World War veterans played in all, and how these examples could be followed in the United States…as alternatives for Butler [MacGuire] mentioned General Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff of the U. S. Army, whose term of office was to expire that November, and Hanford MacNider, former Commander in Chief of the American Legion."

Butler's testimony was corroborated by Paul Comly French, a reporter from the Philadelphia Record, who so testified before the HUAC committee. "On September 13, I met Mac Guire in his office… 'We need a Fascist Government in this country' he insisted, 'to save the nation from the Communists who would tear down all that has been built up in America. The only men who have the patriotism to do it are the soldiers, and Smedley Butler is the ideal leader. He could organize a million men over night…[MacGuire] suggested that necessary arms and equipment could be obtained from the Remington Arms company on credit though the DuPont family, which has a controlling interest in that company."

French further quoted MacGuire thus. "'Roosevelt hasn't got the real solution to the unemployment situation,' MacGuire said, 'but we'll put across a plan that will be really effective. All unemployed men would be put in military barracks, under forced labor, as Hitler does, and that would soon solve that problem. Another thing we would do immediately would be to register all persons in the United States, as they do in Europe. That would stop a lot of Communist agitators wandering around loose.'"

Naturally, the figures implicated by Butler and French ridiculed the accusations; their dismissive denials were amplified by the corporate press. Still, the HUAC committee concluded, "MacGuire denied these allegations under oath, but your committee was able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler, with the exception of the direct statement suggesting the creation of the organization. This, however, was corroborated in the correspondence of MacGuire with his principal, Robert Sterling Clark of New York City, while MacGuire was abroad studying the various forms of veteran's organizations of fascist character."

After all was said and done with regard to the coup plot, Butler reflected on his now completed career in the Marines in a 1935 Common Sense article.

"I spent thirty-three years and four months in active service as a member of our country's most agile military force-the Marine Corps-and during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. Like all members of the military profession I never had an original thought until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of the higher-ups… I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interest 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 long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Bros. 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 to 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.

In 1935, populist demagogue Huey Long, in his My First Days in the White House, a futurist political tract published posthumously, had Butler as his appointed Secretary of War, putting down a "right-wing putsch by Morgan interests intent upon sabotaging Share Our Wealth legislation." Butler was ever the enigma. On one hand ingenuously flattered by the King Fish, he also entertained such journalists as John L. Spivak of New Masses, a Communist publication. As Schmidt relates, when Butler was informed of its political orientation he responded "So who the hell cares?" After all, George Washington, Butler averred in his characteristically salty way, was "an extremist-a goddam revolutionist." In 1936, Butler would cast his vote for Norman Thomas, standard bearer of the Socialist Party.

One last anecdote about Butler during his service days bears mentioning, if only in the interest of relating a historical curiosity, and was related by Hans Schmidt, author of Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History. During a Philadelphia speech in 1931, Butler recalled a story he had heard about Benito Mussolini. It concerned an acquaintance of Butler's who had witnessed the Duce run down a child with his roadster, eliciting the comment "It was only one life. What is one life in the affairs of a State?"

The ensuing diplomatic furor resulted in Butler's house arrest and President Hoover's order for a court-martial. In the end, the public sided with Butler and against Mussolini. Hoover had to climb down as Butler wrote his own pro-forma reprimand which included no apology, retaining his rank and privileges to boot. And just who was Mussolini's driving mate that day? Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. The scion of the railroad robber baron in 1926 went on what Schmidt called "a four-day boisterous rip with Mussolini through northern Italy." At the time of the furor, Lil Vanderbilt said Butler had "garbled" the story, three decades later he recalled the following in Man of the World (1959).

"A small child standing on the right tried to beat the Fiat across the road. The car shuddered, and I felt the car wheels go up then come down. I turned quickly to look. I can still see the little crumpled up body lying in the road. Then I felt a hand on my right knee and I heard a voice saying 'Never look back, Mr. Vanderbilt, never look back in life.'"

Source: Excerpt from "In the Mists of American Historical Memory: Five Stories,"
(This article used to exist at the American Idealism website, but it has itself disappeared "into the mists.")