After four years, I’m finally nearing the end of writing my book about Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s global empire. That means I happen to be working intensively on one of the wildest and most consequential chapters of the Fighting Quaker’s life right now: the time he stopped an honest-to-God fascist coup to overthrow President Franklin Delano Roosevelt …
… just in time to see headlines like these:
And tweets like this:
Sometimes I wish I’d picked a less relevant topic.
The planned 1934 coup, known as the Business Plot, is catnip for history nerds and conspiracy theorists alike. It is not the only time in our past that some Americans have turned to authoritarianism to reverse a democratic outcome they did not like, but it was certainly one of the most spectacular—perhaps until now.
The Long Version
On November 20, 1934, one of the most famous generals in America dropped a bombshell. Smedley Darlington Butler, USMC (retired)—a veteran of every U.S. overseas war at the time and a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor—told a congressional subcommittee, under oath, that some of the richest and most powerful people in the United States had tried to enlist him in a fascist coup.
For months, a New York-based stockbroker named Gerald C. MacGuire (that’s right, he was Jerry MacGuire), approached Butler on behalf of powerful bankers and industrial magnates. Principally that meant his boss, the financier Grayson M.-P. Murphy, and Robert Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune—though Butler would soon realize they likely had the support of some of the biggest names in American politics, banking, and industry.
At first, all the plotters wanted was for Butler to make a series of paid speeches to veterans’ groups, convincing them to oppose FDR’s moves to get the U.S. dollar off the gold standard. (Butler refused.)
But by the middle of 1934—with MacGuire sending Smedley postcards from a fact-finding mission in such hot vacation spots as Mussolini’s Rome and Hitler’s Berlin—the request became more sinister. MacGuire asked Butler to lead a group of 500,000 of his fellow war veterans to Washington.
In an action explicitly modeled on Benito Mussolini’s bloodless March on Rome that had brought him and his Fascisti to power in 1922, they would force FDR to bring on an all-powerful cabinet secretary—something like an unelected prime minister, sympathetic to the business interests—who would either succeed him or run the government in his place.
“[MacGuire] said: ‘You know the American people will swallow that. We have got the newspapers. We will start a campaign that the President's health is failing. Everybody can tell that by looking at him, and the dumb American people will fall for it in a second.’
“And I could see it. They had that sympathy racket, that they were going to have somebody take the patronage off of his shoulders and take all the worries and details off of his shoulders.”
The committee found all of this credible. In his final report, the chairman (and future Speaker of the House) John W. McCormack wrote:
“In the last few weeks of the committee's official life it received evidence showing 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.”
Yet, to Butler’s neverending dismay, the investigation went no further than that. The special committee disbanded as scheduled. Congress never investigated any of the big names* Butler suspected had been involved or at least had knowledge of the coup: executives at General Motors, DuPont, and J.P. Morgan & Co.; the American Legion; Generals Douglas MacArthur and Hugh S. Johnson; and two former Democratic presidential candidates, Al Smith and John W. Davis.
(*A popular internet rumor has it that Prescott Bush, patriarch of the presidential dynasty, was also somehow involved, but that’s based on a misunderstanding: some of Bush’s companies popped up in a different investigation by the same committee because of his extensive business dealings with Nazi Germany.)
While MacGuire had looked to European Fascists for inspiration (he was especially drawn to the ultranationalist French Croix de Feu), this plot was 100% American. Many Americans, especially wealthy ones, were deeply attracted to fascism. Thomas Lamont, a senior partner and soon director of J.P. Morgan & Co. who was implicated in the plot, described himself as “something like a missionary” for Mussolini. Four years later, on the eve of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, Henry Ford went to Berlin to accept his fellow anti-Semite’s Grand Cross of the German Eagle.
But despite the credibility of the allegations and the evidence provided, no one involved in the Business Plot was ever held accountable—though neither they nor anyone else ever managed to get FDR out of office either.
Who’s Who in 2021
It’s been a long time coming, but the Trumpers have now officially become the modern-day business plotters.
Here’s Jerry MacGuire in 1934:
“We need a Fascist government in this country 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 overnight … What we really need is a man on the white horse to save the capitalistic system.”
Compare that to Sidney Powell, whom Trump has mulled appointing as a special counsel, explaining her intention after Election Day to obviate enough of Joe Biden’s 81 million popular and 306 electoral votes to steal the White House from him:
“What we are really dealing with here and uncovering more by the day is the massive influence of Communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China in the interference with our elections here in the United States … We are going to take this country back … President Trump won by a landslide. We are going to prove it, and we are going to reclaim the United States of America for the people who vote for freedom.”
And here’s Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler today:
The impetus for the Business Plot was to stop the New Deal, FDR’s program to end the Great Depression through massive government spending, social insurance, bank regulation, environmental management, and support for labor unionization, etc.
The plotters, like today’s Republicans, hated all of that; they did not want to be regulated, did not want to be taxed, and did not care if people starved as a result.
The trouble was that they also knew FDR was likely to coast to reelection. After the Democratic gains in the 1934 midterms, earlier that November, the GOP decided not to run against the New Deal in 1936 at all. At the time, the conservative businessmen realized the only way to get what they wanted was to ignore elections entirely and install a new leader, who would help them crush labor and ensure the rich stay rich.
You know, Jerry …
A lot of Trump supporters like to explain away their opposition to democracy with a sort of political Zen koan: that the United States is a “republic, not a democracy.”
Smedley Butler disagreed. He opened his testimony by saying that his sole interest in coming forward was “to see that a democracy is maintained in this country.”
MacGuire (like a proto-Rudy Giuliani or Josh Hawley) tried to assure Butler that the attempt to subvert electoral democracy—the foundation of our republic—would be “constitutional,” because it would principally take the form of a cabinet shuffle, with the president resigning, if necessary.
“You know, Jerry, my interest, my one hobby, is maintaining a democracy. If you get these 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have a real war right at home."
So who’s the Smedley Butler of the current mess? Anyone who comes forward and blows the whistle can make a claim—even Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up to the president on the now infamous January 2 phone call. (Raffensperger is no hero of democracy, it’s true—but I regret to inform you that Butler’s record on that count was pretty complicated as well. You’ll have to get the book when it comes out to learn more.)
The original Business Plot failed because Butler did not fill the role the businessmen and their fascist fellow travelers wanted: to mobilize hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people who looked to him for leadership and create a mass fascist movement in the streets that could carry out their goals. If anything we have a surfeit of anti-Smedley Butlers—conservative media stars and politicians who are putting their own interests first, riling up their bases, playing along to see how much Trump can get away with, and assuming it will all somehow work out for them in the end.
America survived one of its closest calls with fascism 86 years ago. Because more people did not act bravely then—because Congress didn’t investigate, and even Franklin Roosevelt seemed content to leave well enough alone—the tendencies at the foundation of the American right were allowed to remain in place, waiting for another time to surface, as they’re doing now.
As then ex-Speaker McCormack told author Jules Archer in 1973:
“A well-organized minority can always outmaneuver an unorganized majority, as Adolf Hitler did. He failed with his beer-hall putsch, but he succeeded when he was better organized. The same thing could have happened here.”
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. You already know what his next book is about. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.