Recent events in Charlottesville have focused attention upon neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and provided troubling reminders of our country’s history. While monuments tumble and politicians dance, few seem to remember that in the early 1930s a group of powerful businessmen and political leaders plotted a coup d’etat to overthrow the FDR administration and replace it with a totalitarian Fascist government aligned with Italy’s Mussolini and Germany’s Hitler. They very nearly succeeded.
The “roaring twenties” came to an abrupt halt in October of 1929, when the stock market crashed. By 1932, over seventeen million Americans were unemployed., and most of the banks had closed. The Great Depression ravaged the nation. Desperate for a change, America elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt president at the end of 1932, and FDR set about creating a “New Deal” of reforms that would put Americans back to work, and stimulate the economy. Bold programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Works Progress Administration resulted in massive employment gains. The revolutionary National Industrial Act of 1933 guaranteed workers “the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing”, without “interference, restraint, or coercion from employers.” Not without struggle and bloodshed, a significant portion of American labor became unionized.
In 1934, still in the early days of the Roosevelt administration, a number of prominent industrialists and businessmen were outraged by government’s pressure to take some responsibility for the welfare of their employees. The Bolshevik “revolt of the masses” in Russia was viewed as a dire threat, but they found inspiration in the economic recoveries taking place in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Both were harsh totalitarian regimes with little regard for individuals, and no patience for opponents.
Soon after Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, a group of these American industrialists and businessmen formed the American Liberty League. Led by such luminaries as Irenee Du Pont, and J.P. Morgan, Jr. the members praised Mussolini for the “sound ideas” that guided him in governing Italy.
Support for the Fascists was widespread. Henry Ford was an avid admirer of Hitler. Ford’s intensely anti-Semitic 1927 book, The International Jew, was a model for Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and the Fuhrer kept a portrait of Ford over his desk throughout his career. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh was another outspoken Nazi supporter. The American Liberty League boasted such members as the leaders of General Motors, Standard Oil, Chase National Bank, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, General Motors, Ford Motor Company, a string of J.P. Morgan’s banks, Bethlehem Steel, U.S. Steel, Sun Oil, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and a wide range of other Wall Street executives and political powers, most notably FDR’s political rival Alf Smith, retailer J.C. Penney, and Wall Street executive and former U.S. Senator Preston Bush, the father of future President George H. W. Bush and grandfather of “W.” Most of the plotters enjoyed lucrative dealings with the Fascist governments in Germany and Italy.
Outraged by FDR’s proposals to reinforce America’s workers, they quietly planned a coup d’etat to overthrow America’s democratic government and install a Fascist dictatorship in America. The plotters planned to mobilize 500,000 of the nation’s disgruntled World War I veterans and arm them with an equal number of rifles from Du Pont’s Remington Arms Company. The plot was well-funded and came near to being implemented, but they made the mistake of offering the Dictator’s position (modeled upon Hitler’s Fuhrer position in Germany) to General Smedley Butler, the former head of the Marine Corps and a genuine hero to whom Congress had awarded two Medals of Honor. Butler was not party to an armed overthrow of the democratic government of the United States, and he informed Roosevelt of the plan. The plot was investigated and verified by Congress, but none of the conspirators was ever interviewed or prosecuted, and few newspapers mentioned the affair. This most alarming incident was systematically played down, and it is rarely mentioned in history books.
History would, of course, move on. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision ruled that it is OK for corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they want to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. Look carefully, and you will find that today many of America’s top industrialists and businessmen quietly espouse Fascist models of totalitarian government and the complete subjugation of labor. They do not carry torches or march in Charlottesville, only because they don’t have to.
Roanoke Times Commentary September 2017
John Ketwig is a retired automotive executive in Bedford, and the author of …and a hard rain fell: A G.I.’s True Story of the War in Vietnam. He is currently working on a book about the excesses of businesses throughout American history.