Socioeconomic and Political Context of the
(An excerpt from a chapter called "The Plot To Seize Washington," in A Man in His Time, pp. 294-298.)
By John Spivak
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was first sworn in as President, the country was teetering on the brink of economic chaos and in the grip of a fear that almost paralyzed it. The capitalist system had collapsed. Almost every bank in the country was closed, millions were jobless, citizens were being dispossessed from their homes and their farms and bankruptcies were reaching a torrential stage. There was no sign of relief.
In desperate efforts to get the economy moving again, the President asked for and received from the Congress more powers than any President had ever been given in peacetime. He surrounded himself with advisers ranging from liberal theoreticians to spokesmen for big business. The loose coalition which formed around him soon became known as the "Brain Trust." The President assured the people that his administration would give them a new deal. Nazi agents who were busy trying to split Americans into snarling racial and religious groups promptly dubbed the New Deal a "Jew Deal," because the Brain Trust was "packed with Jews and communists" out to destroy capitalism.
Roosevelt created Government work projects so that the unemployed would be paid wages, their new purchasing power would enable manufacturers to produce again and stores would once more see what customers looked like. But to the rich this program was betrayal by a Government which in the past had always protected them. It was interfering with the law of supply and demand; it was taxing the rich and using their money to wreck the going wage scale in a glutted labor market. A former high official of the du Pont Company wrote to John J. Raskob, former Chairman of the Democratic Party and then a high du Pont officer, a heart-wrenching complaint:
"Five Negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this Spring ... saying they had easy jobs with the government.... A cook on my houseboat at Fort Myers quit because the government was paying him a dollar an hour as a painter."
Raskob, who like other rich men was genuinely perturbed by what was being done to the way of life the rich had known, advised his correspondent to join with others in setting up an organization which would educate America "to the value of encouraging people to work; encouraging people to get rich." The tragedy in this advice was that he and others like him did not recognize that the old homilies we had accepted and honored from schooldays on just did not stand up when Americans were being buffeted by the greatest economic storm that had ever swirled about them. He simply could not see that the people did not need encouragement to work. They were wearing out their shoes in search of work. To tell a man who cannot find a job to feed himself and his family that he should strive to become rich was tragic for the jobless and pathetic for the wealthy. Yet many rich men honestly believed that if only the people adopted this outlook the devastating national problem would be solved.
Urgency was in the air; something had to be done before it was too late; and the President accepted a Chamber of Commerce suggestion that a body be established to direct "cooperative action among trade groups." The result was known as the National Recovery Administration. When business urged that the anti-trust laws be relaxed so it could function more freely, the President listened and was willing to try. The NRA practically turned the "fair competition codes" over to business. Price-fixing was encouraged.
The codes formulated by the NRA seemed to indicate a trend towards government control of organized labor, which was the fascist way of handling trade unions. Apprehension over this trend was not allayed when the NRA Advisory Board suggested that "to have peace and equity ... the strike and lockout should be absolutely eliminated." The small-businessman found himself being pushed to the wall. The sum total of the measures adopted by Roosevelt seemed designed to strengthen monopoly capitalism. Frightened trade unionists, liberals, the middle class and small business all saw them as moves toward fascism, which was widely accepted as the ultimate response of a capitalist system fighting to survive. Where fascism had taken over, it was apparently achieving the objectives business and finance wanted. What with labor having little to say about wage scales, 1933 and 1934 were notable for interminable strikes. Unions wanted more money; they also wanted the right to bargain collectively which the NRA had promised them. At the head of the NRA was a crotchety, blustering don't-tell-me-what-to-do general named Hugh S. Johnson. To him, use of the strike when he disapproved of it was practically insubordination, and he threatened to outlaw the right to strike altogether. This convinced trade unionists that establishing the NRA was really a major maneuver towards fascism. One member of the National Recovery Review Board resigned in protest against the NRA because, "Its development day by day reveals more clearly a trend toward fascism in the United States." When the President moved to give labor its promised collective bargaining right, major industries which had kept their plants non-union by employing armies of labor spies and strikebreakers were faced with law-supported intensive organizing drives. The spirit spread to the farming population. In areas where farm lands and buildings were being auctioned for non-payment of taxes or other debts, the men who fed America joined with their neighbors to resist. When a neighbor's place was to be auctioned publicly, they sometimes took guns in hand and set up roadblocks to keep outsiders from taking part in the public bidding; only those in open collusion with the farmer were permitted to bid, and the farmer got back his property for a nominal sum.
Such collusion among farmers, the organizing drives by trade unions and the use of tax money from the rich to pay many of the unemployed on makeshift Government work, frightened business and the banks. The President's acts alienated former supporters. John J. Raskob wrote to an acquaintance complaining of "the Democratic Party being headed by such 'radicals as Roosevelt, Huey Long, Hearst, McAdoo. . . ." Alfred E. Smith, a man of the people who had been an excellent Governor of New York State, was cultivated by men like Raskob; their attentions, coupled with disappointments in his personal political ambitions, led the former Governor away from the President. William Randolph Hearst, an utterly cynical man who sought to use the people for his own political advancement, denounced the President as a dictator. While communists worked ceaselessly to persuade the people that the answer to our economic problems was a planned society-production for use, and not for profit-fascist and Nazi propagandists worked with almost equal fervor to convince America that what this country needed was a strongman such as Italy and Germany had, a man who would put an end to a decadent democracy and replace it with the new, young and vibrant political philosophy of fascism. Some rich men, angry at labor's demands and Roosevelt's friendly attitude towards them, looked with favor on ending a political system which gave a man on relief as big a voice in who should run the country as a millionaire. Many industrialists were convinced that Roosevelt was a socialist, if not actually a card-carrying communist, and their hatred of the President was at times apoplectic-as when they denounced him as "that cripple in the White House."
It was in this period that the fascist plot developed.
During the depth of the Depression, the growing talk of revolution prompted me to conduct a six-months survey of the country for a book I eventually published as America Faces the Barricades. I went to representative areas and talked with all classes, from those whose feet ached from the daily search for any kind of work to big landowners, industrialists and bankers. In the newspapers, over the radio and on street corners there was talk of revolution, but among the people themselves, no matter where I went, I found no such popular sentiment. Americans were in real trouble, but they did not want a revolution; they wanted jobs. I found only three groups who talked of the imminent revolution. One consisted of the big industrialists who were frightened by what aggressive trade unions were doing. The second included those pariahs of the social system who operated labor spy and strikebreaking organizations and fed employers reports that workers were talking of seizing the factories; when a union demanded more pay to meet rising living costs, its leaders were accused of being communists, communist-led, communist-dominated or communist dupes. The third group was the communists themselves, a very small organization with a maximum membership at its most influential period of about 80,000. These were the only groups that actually talked of revolution.
Hundreds of thousands-perhaps millions-of bewildered, frustrated and sometimes despairing people listened to the communists, but very few were interested in joining them. Like poverty-stricken people everywhere, Americans suffered in apathy. To them, communism and fascism were just words with connotations of un-Americanism; they did not know what the words stood for, but they knew they did not like either one. They believed in Americanism-though very few could have told you what that word stood for. Americans no more wanted a revolution than they did in 1776. I wrote articles on what I found for both conservative publications, such as the American Mercury, and for communist ones. I must say this for the communist leaders and editors: though my findings often contradicted reports sent in by their own district organizers in the field, no attempt was made "to edit or cut them or insert anything to slant my stories to fit the "party line."
Source: Excerpts from a chapter in John Spivak's A Man in His Time, "The Plot To Seize Washington" pp. 294-298.