by Susan Ronald
There’s a chapter in my new book, Hitler’s Aristocrats, titled “Men on White Horses” which I feared might be cut by my commissioning editor. Why? Well, strictly speaking, these men were not fascists in the meaning of the word we have come to understand today. They were not rabblerousing, nor notably racist in their day, nor ignorant of the law. They were no foreign fifth column either. They were not political activists particularly, although they contributed millions to presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, and local campaigns. They were the wealthy respected corporate leaders of America’s biggest businesses like DuPont, General Motors, General Foods, U.S. Steel, Birds Eye, and Colgate. American financiers J. P. Morgan Jr., Robert Sterling Clark (heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune), retired vice president of DuPont, John J. Raskob, and General Hugh S. Johnson (former head of the National Recovery Administration or NRA) were among their number. Indeed, senators and congressmen swelled their ranks, too. Something, they said, had to be done to protect American “Big Business” from President Roosevelt.
They were serious. Deadly serious. So serious that John J. Raskob (who also owned the Empire State Building) chartered an organization called the American Liberty League in Washington D.C. on August 14, 1934, to “teach the necessity of respect for the rights of persons and property. . . and . . . the duty of government to encourage” the acquisition of wealth. Roosevelt, the Liberty League proclaimed, was a betrayer to his class. Why FDR was a believer in “the forgotten man.” He wanted to put the poor to work. This traitor president even backed some new-fangled tax for a pension system for retired workers called the Economic Security Act (later Social Security). FDR even dared believe that bringing electricity to rural areas was a sign of progress and equality. Worse still, this upstart president had already moved to stop corporate lies on Wall Street—all in the name of making America a fairer democracy. Well, how dare he!
Nearly two years earlier, Senator Edward Reed of Pennsylvania (Republican) addressed the first session of the 72nd Congress stating, “I do not often envy other countries, but I say that if this country ever need a Mussolini it needs one now.” Big business was angry. No, that’s an understatement. Big business was apoplectic with rage. Congress was fuming, too, thanks to the big business lobby. Rugged individualism was, according to the president and the New Dealers, dead. Well, these titans of industry and finance resolved that something simply had to be done to stop this rogue president.
Somewhere—let’s say on one or more of the gentlemen’s country estates—it was agreed that they could pull strings to make FDR act like the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III. They could persuade the president to “go along” with their chosen dictatorship, just like the Italian king had done with Mussolini. Rugged individualism would be restored. Wall Street would be unfettered once again. General Hugh S. Johnson, who knew both sides of the power struggle well, would be their man on a white horse, their chosen dictator. All they needed was an army to seize the White House. But who could muster an army?
Maybe Charles A. Lindbergh, America’s only international hero back then. But could he swing it, they asked one another? General Johnson knew better. Lindbergh was a glamor fly boy and didn’t command the respect of the rank and file. On reflection, Johnson said he knew just the man for the job: General Smedley Darlington Butler. The Marine Corp general had retired early due to his outspoken opinions about Mussolini. Butler had faced a court martial or retirement over the matter. So, I ask: whatever possessed them to involve Butler in a Mussolini-style coup? These were bright men. They knew how to connect the dots. They even knew about the law of unintended consequences.
Well, they went ahead and approached General Butler anyway. For over a year big business America cajoled and threatened General Butler to succumb to their plan with the promise of money. When that didn’t work, they told Butler that after the coup, they would give the Great War army the bonuses they had demonstrated in Washington to get. They claimed at least half a million men would follow Butler to right the wrongs the president had inflicted on America. They may have even argued that it was Butler’s patriotic duty to “make America great again.”
Wait a minute. Time out. Rewind. Wasn’t that President Trump’s motto? Yes, but former President Trump stole his motto from Hitler. Directly from Hitler, only changing the word “Germany” to “America.” Interestingly, my editor wanted me to take that phrase out of the book elsewhere. I cited the original quote, and fortunately prevailed. I also told him that according to Ivana Trump, Donald used to study Hitler’s speeches as his bedtime reading, or at least that’s what she told a shocked BBC radio audience back in 2018. Scary, huh?
Anyway. . . back to General Smedley Darlington Butler. Well, like all good military men, he had his own strategy. Butler decided to play along and see where this elite plot to overthrow the president (and the vice-president) would take him. When the time came for Butler to lead the charge, he refused. To boot, Butler told the McCormack-Dickstein House Special Committee on Unamerican Activities about the big business plot on November 20, 1934. In detail. He named names, places, dates—the whole shebang. He even had an unimpeachable witness. So, what happened?
Ah, dear history reader, for that I ask you to please read my new book. The fact the chapter survived the editing process is proof that there was a fascist plot to overthrow democracy in America in 1933–34. But I won’t be so cruel as to leave you without a hint. General Smedley Darlington Butler was the greatest man not to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Susan Ronald is a British-American biographer and historian of more than half a dozen books, including Conde Nast, The Ambassador, A Dangerous Woman, Hitler’s Art Thief, and Heretic Queen. She lives in rural England with her writer husband.