The White House Coup of 1933

There’s a reason I don’t totally discount or write off what some conspiracy theorists say – this story is one of those reasons why…

Fascinating account from the BBC archives about an alleged political conspiracy against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, perpetrated by wealthy businessmen and corporations in a coup d’état. What’s known about this White House coup or “Business Plot” was uncovered in 1934 by an outspoken, unpretentious and beloved retired Marine Corps Major General by the name of Smedley Butler. Butler was one of the forces behind the bonus payment acceleration due to WWI veterans by virtue of the Adjusted Service Certificate Law of 1924, was very influential with veterans in general and was a popular military figure. The veterans, under the leadership of former Army sergeant Walter W. Waters, converged upon Washington, D.C. in protest on July 17, 1932, setting up tent camps in the city to demand payment of the promised bonuses; President Herbert Hoover ordered the marchers removed, and their camps were destroyed by U.S. Army cavalry troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.

The White House Coup (1933) – Part 1 of 3

The White House Coup (1933) – Part 2 0f 3

The White House Coup (1933) –  Part 3 of 3

Butler testified before the McCormack-Dickstein Congressional Committee that a group of men had approached him as part of a plot to overthrow Roosevelt in a military coup. Butler claimed that he was approached by two officials with the American Liberty League, the veterans’ organization, who attempted to recruit him to give a speech at the upcoming League convention to argue for returning the U.S. economy to the gold standard. President Roosevelt had recently removed gold from the U.S. monetary supply in an attempt to boost the economy and certain members of the American Liberty League, who happen to represent some of the largest corporations and wealthiest private citizens in America at the time. Butler declined the offer to speak but according to Butler, he was approached by one Gerald MacGuire, who flashed bank books containing large deposits to Butler in one meeting; $18,000 in cash and arranging a visit from Singer sewing machine heir Robert Clark, who urged Butler to give the speech. Unperturbed, McGuire solicited Butler again in 1934 after returning from an European fact-finding trip with a new idea and plan: He and his wealthy backers would organize an army of 500,000 veterans to make a show of force and persuade the overworked Roosevelt to accept the “assistance” of a “secretary of general affairs,” who would run the government while the president stayed on as figurehead. The proposed Secretary of General Affairs? Smedley Butler.

With the thought of becoming the U.S.’s first dictator being highly offensive to Butler’s strong belief in America’s democratic system of government, Butler then contacted journalist Paul French and outlined the plan to him. The McCormack-Dickstein Congressional Committee got wind of the plot and heard testimony by both Butler and French; Robert Clark was never called. His testimony was given by his attorney, which was limited only to Clark’s financial dealings with MacGuire. Denials were issued by the big names who were implicated or they kept quiet; the press basically wrote the whole incident off and the committee issued a report saying Butler’s story checked out, but not much was said after that.

From the Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope, some plausible explanations as to how America could avoid a potential coup and what possibly could have happened.

  • Butler was lying, deluded, etc. Nah. Browse through the testimony and you find that the committee did, as claimed, corroborate the essentials of the general’s story. 
  • A number of U.S. plutocrats really did conspire to depose the president. It’s not out of the question. Though the idea of a popular revolt financed by zillionaires seems harebrained now, it was less so in the 1930s. In Europe jobless veterans were a potent political force, and enlisting respected military leaders in right-wing schemes was a common ploy–witness von Hindenburg in Germany and, a little later, Marshall Petain in France. The New Deal polarized the nation; many in the moneyed crowd really did fear FDR was opening the door to Bolshevism. 
  • MacGuire was a con artist. Butler himself wondered whether MacGuire was using Clark’s paranoia about losing his fortune to wheedle cash out of him. 
  • The plot never got further than a small cadre of screwballs. The simplest explanation in my book. Though MacGuire dropped lots of big names, Butler had contact with only three conspirators–MacGuire, Clark, and the other American Legion official who’d tagged along on the first couple visits. Clark had a reputation as an eccentric. MacGuire was well wired, predicting political developments with uncanny accuracy, but that proves little in itself. Maybe the plotters figured if they got Butler on board everybody else would fall into line. Who’s to say they wouldn’t have? Look at the bridge club’s worth of geniuses who got us into Iraq.

Doesn’t the White House Coup sound vaguely familiar?

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