An American Coup d'État?
Some Americans regard our country as superior to other nations because we
don't change governments by coup d'état -- and we never have. Perhaps
because of our long tradition of power changing hands by election, we regard
our nation as immune to the use of force for political purposes. True,
assassins have killed four of our Presidents, but these deaths did not lead
to turmoil and chaos; the government followed well-established procedures
for transferring control to the men previously elected Vice President.
Unlike other nations where assassination often leads to civil war, the
United States has avoided this.
How different is America from nations where political power comes quite
directly "from the barrel of a gun"? A curious footnote to American history
suggests that, except for the personal integrity of a remarkable American
general, a coup d'état intended to remove President Franklin D. Roosevelt
from office in 1934 might have plunged America into civil war.
This remarkable man was Smedley Darlington Butler, retired U.S. Marine Corps
Major General. Butler is the sort of person for whom the word "colorful" is
woefully inadequate. Butler won America's highest military award for bravery
(the Congressional Medal of Honor) twice. His style of warfare was unusual
not only for his personal courage, but for the energy he put into avoiding
bloodshed when it was possible to achieve his aims in other ways. Not
surprisingly, this engendered a remarkable loyalty among the men who served
under him -- and that loyalty was why certain men asked Butler to lead a
military attack on Washington, D.C., with the goal of capturing President
Butler was more than a remarkable soldier. He served as police commissioner
of Philadelphia during 1924-25 (on loan from the Marines), in an attempt to
enforce Prohibition. While the effort was a failure, his insistence on
enforcing the law against wealthy partygoers as well as poor immigrants
established his reputation as a man of high integrity. He was not
universally loved, but he was widely respected.
Butler is best remembered today for his oft-quoted statement in the
socialist newspaper Common Sense in 1935:
I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests
in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City
Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen
Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of
racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international
banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican
Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras
"right" for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see
to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.... Looking back on it, I
felt I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to
operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three
In War Is A Racket, Butler argued for a powerful navy, but one prohibited
from traveling more than 200 miles from the U.S. coastline. Military
aircraft could travel no more than 500 miles from the U.S. coast, and the
army would be prohibited from leaving the United States. Butler also
proposed that all workers in defense industries, from the lowest laborer to
the highest executive, be limited to "$30 a month, the same wage as the lads
in the trenches get." He also proposed that a declaration of war should be
passed by a plebiscite in which only those subject to conscription would be
eligible to vote.
>From 1935 through 1937, Butler was a spokesman for the League Against War
and Fascism, a Communist-dominated organization of the time. He also
participated in the Third U.S. Congress Against War and Fascism, sharing the
platform with well-known leftists of the era, including Langston Hughes,
Heywood Broun, and Roger Baldwin. When the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)
threatened the collapse of the Soviet-supported Spanish government, the
League's pacifism evaporated, and they supported intervention. Butler,
however, remained true to his belief in non-interventionism: "What the hell
is it our business what's going on in Spain?" But before Butler became
involved in these causes, he had already exposed a fascist plot against his
Butler had friends in the press and Congress, so he could not be ignored
when he came forward in late 1934 with a tale of conspiracy against
President Roosevelt, in which he had been asked to take a leading role. At
first glance, Butler seems an unlikely candidate for such a position. While
Butler was a Republican, in 1932 he campaigned for Roosevelt, calling
himself a "Republican-for-Ex-President Hoover." (Butler had a poor
relationship with Hoover going back to their time together during the Boxer
But there were good reasons why someone seeking to overthrow the U.S.
government would have wanted Butler involved. Butler was a powerful symbol
to many American soldiers and veterans -- an enlisted man's general, one
that spoke out for their interests while on active duty, and after
retirement. Butler would have attracted men to his cause that would not
otherwise have participated in a march on Washington.
Butler would have been a good choice also because of his military skills.
His personal courage and tactical skill would have made him a powerful
commander of an irregular army. Finally, his ties of friendship to many
officers still on active duty might have undermined military opposition to
his force, as friends and colleagues sought to avoid a direct confrontation
Another reason that the plotters might have approached such an unlikely
candidate was that Butler was not regarded as a great intellect. After World
War I, the Marine Corps had began to emphasize a new college-educated
professionalism. Butler, one of the less educated "bushwhacker" generals,
might have seemed easy to manipulate.
Butler testified that bond trader Gerald MacGuire had approached him in the
summer of 1933. MacGuire claimed to represent wealthy Wall Street broker
Grayson Murphy, Singer sewing machine heir Robert Sterling Clark, and other
unnamed men of wealth. They asked Butler to speak publicly on behalf of the
gold standard, recently abandoned by President Roosevelt. MacGuire's
rationale for why Butler should ally himself with the gold standard cause
was that the veterans of World War I were due a bonus in 1945. As MacGuire
told Butler, "We want to see the soldiers' bonus paid in gold. We do not
want the soldier to have rubber money or paper money."
It appears that the plotters underestimated Butler's intelligence and
character. When this explanation failed to persuade Butler, MacGuire and
Clark offered him money, abandoning any pretense of civic-mindness. Butler's
sense of honor prevented him from speaking in favor of any policy for
MacGuire eventually told Butler their real goal. MacGuire asked Butler to
lead an army of 500,000 veterans in a march on Washington, D.C. The stated
mission was to protect Roosevelt from other plotters, and install a
"secretary of general welfare" to "take all the worries and details off of
his shoulders." But Butler saw through their supposed concern for Roosevelt.
He testified before Congress that he told MacGuire:
[M]y interest is, 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
Yes; and then you will put somebody in there you can run; is that the idea?
The President will go around and christen babies and dedicate bridges, and
kiss children. Mr. Roosevelt will never agree to that himself.
Butler eventually deduced that the real goal was a coup d'état to take
Roosevelt captive, and force reinstatement of the gold standard, the loss of
which many wealthy Americans feared would lead to rapid inflation. The
plotters would keep Roosevelt as a figurehead until he could be "encouraged"
That MacGuire had significant financial backing behind him seems clear,
considering the substantial bank savings books he showed to Butler. What
remains unclear is whether the names MacGuire dropped (other than Robert
Sterling Clark) were really involved, or whether MacGuire was a con man.
MacGuire's claims and financial resources alone did not convince Butler that
such a conspiracy actually existed. The fulfillment of a series of startling
predictions by MacGuire did finally persuade Butler that there was more than
just hot air involved. MacGuire knew in advance of significant personnel
changes in the White House. He correctly predicted the formation of the
American Liberty League (the major conservative opposition to Roosevelt),
and the principal players in it. Especially disturbing was that many of the
supposed backers of the plot were also members of the League. MacGuire's
claim that the League ("villagers in the opera" of the scheme, in MacGuire's
words) was part of the plot could not be easily dismissed.
The American Liberty League was a successor to the highly successful
Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, the lobbying organization
responsible for the repeal of the "Noble Experiment." From its formation in
1918 until 1926, the AAPA made little progress, at least partly because it
had little money. But in 1926, money poured into the AAPA from some of
America's wealthiest men, including Pierre, Irenee, and Lammot du Pont, John
J. Raskob, and Charles H. Sabin. The AAPA spent its new found wealth on
distribution of literature, and on the formation of a bewildering number of
associated organizations. These associated organizations gave the impression
of a grassroots movement, rather than a collection of millionaires feeding
press releases to friendly newspapers. The AAPA also rapidly took control of
the Democratic Party, with one of their supporters, Al Smith, receiving the
1928 Democratic Presidential nomination. While AAPA had powerful friends
within the Republican Party, they never achieved control of it.
The AAPA's motivations were a mixture of idealism and pragmatism. The stated
concern was that Prohibition had done serious damage to the principle of
federalism -- that the federal government's authority did not include the
police powers used to enforce Prohibition. But it appears that this was not
the only motivation, or even the reason most important to the men who funded
the AAPA. Like many other Americans, these business leaders "found
themselves unable to gratify what seemed a natural, more or less innocent,
desire without breaking a law" (i.e., the consumption of alcoholic
beverages). To suddenly find themselves among the criminal classes was not
pleasant to a group who had always thought of themselves as law-abiding and
respectable members of American society. There is also strong evidence that
the backers of the AAPA saw Repeal as a method of reducing income and
corporate taxes, by taxing alcoholic beverages instead.
The AAPA went out of business at the end of 1933, with the end of
Prohibition. But within a year, from the same offices, with most of the same
backers, many of the same employees, and much of the same style, it
reappeared as the American Liberty League. Throughout the next six years, it
led the fight against the New Deal, arguing that much of Roosevelt's program
was contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. In an age when
Hitler and Mussolini had commandeered extraordinary economic powers, the
fears that the American Liberty League expressed about Roosevelt's vaguely
similar gathering of economic power could not be summarily dismissed.
The League, in spite of its impressive resources, was rapidly made to appear
"ridiculous or dangerous" or both by the Roosevelt Administration. Most
importantly, the leadership of the League was largely rich men. The
Depression-era gap between rich and poor had become too wide, too obvious,
and too painful for the League to be credible to the majority of Americans.
Butler's testimony before Congress claimed that some of the people
associated with the League were the very ones that had approached him --
including Grayson Murphy, the League's treasurer.
In the depths of the Great Depression, in that nadir of despair before
Roosevelt gave his stirring first inaugural address in 1933, America was
awash in political groups identifying in greater or lesser degrees with
communism or fascism. Rep. Samuel Dickstein (D-NY), concerned about the
threat of such groups, persuaded the House of Representatives to create the
Special Committee to Investigate Nazi Propaganda Activities in the United
States. This committee investigated Butler's charges in late 1934.
MacGuire, not surprisingly, denied that such a plot existed. Instead, he
claimed his activities had been political lobbying to preserve the gold
standard, but he quickly destroyed his credibility as a witness by giving
contradictory testimony. While the final report agreed with Butler that
there was evidence of a coup d'état plot against Roosevelt, no further
action was taken on it. The Committee's authority to subpoena witnesses
expired at the end of 1934, and the Justice Department started no criminal
Part of the reason for the lack of prosecution of the alleged plotters may
have been the untimely death of the only man who could have testified
against the rest: Gerald MacGuire. He died at age 37 from complications of
pneumonia, less than a month after the Committee released its report.
MacGuire's physician claimed that his death was partly the result of the
stress of the charges made by Butler, but there is no reason to assume that
MacGuire's death was in any way suspicious.
The Committee's report excluded many of the most embarrassing names given by
MacGuire, and repeated by Butler. MacGuire had claimed that 1928 Democratic
President candidate Al Smith, General Hugh Johnson (head of Roosevelt's
National Recovery Administration), General Douglas MacArthur, and a number
of other generals and admirals were privy to the plot. Since Butler had no
evidence of their involvement, other than MacGuire's claims, it was
certainly reasonable for the Committee to exclude these details from the
final report as "certain immaterial and incompetent evidence." But in
conjunction with MacGuire's apparent advance knowledge of the details of
internal White House staff activities, it certainly suggests that if a coup
was planned, it had significant support within the Roosevelt Administration.
The News Media Downplays The Plot
The news media gave an inappropriately small amount of attention to the
report. Time magazine ridiculed Butler's claims. The week following Butler's
testimony, Time described it as a "Plot Without Plotters," simply because
the alleged plotters claimed innocence. But Time admitted that Veterans of
Foreign Wars commander James Van Zandt confirmed that he, too, had been
approached to lead such a march on Washington.
The leftist magazine New Masses carried an article by John Spivak that
included wild claims of "Jewish financiers working with fascist groups."
Spivak's article spun an elaborate web involving the American Jewish
Congress, the Warburg family, "which originally financed Hitler," the Hearst
newspaper chain, the Morgan banking firm, the du Ponts, a truly impressive
list of prominent American Jewish businessmen, and Nazi spies! Spivak's
article raised some disturbing and legitimate questions about why much of
Butler's testimony was left out of the final committee report. But these
important concerns were seriously undermined by Spivak's paranoid ravings.
The left-of-center magazines Nation and New Republic were unconcerned about
it, since in their view "fascism originated in pseudoradical mass
movements," and therefore could not come from a wealthy cabal.
Newspaper descriptions of the final report are also astonishing for how
lightly most treated it. A New York Times article about subversion and
foreign agitators started on the front page, but gave only two paragraphs to
the coup plot inside the paper. "It also alleged that definite proof has
been found that the much publicized Fascist march on Washington... was
actually contemplated." It was not a major story.
The San Francisco Chronicle took the story more seriously. The only headline
with a larger type size that day concerned the recent fatal crash of the
airship Macon. The Chronicle carried an Associated Press story headlined,
"Justice Aids Probe Butler Fascist Story." The first five paragraphs were
devoted to Butler's allegations. The Chronicle quoted the Committee report
that it "was able to verify all the pertinent statements by General Butler,
with the exception of the direct statement suggesting creation of the
A third newspaper sampled showed an even more astonishing lack of interest
than the New York Times: the Sacramento Bee used a substantially different
Associated Press wire story that emphasized propaganda efforts by foreign
agents. Another AP wire story, at the bottom of page five, described
Butler's allegations, taking the Committee's report at face value. This wire
story includes the comforting knowledge that the committee found "no
evidence to show a connection between this effort" and any foreign
An apparently serious effort to overthrow the government, perhaps with the
support of some of America's wealthiest men, largely substantiated by a
Congressional committee, was mostly ignored. Why? Roosevelt's Secretary of
the Interior, Harold Ickes, wrote a book in 1939 about the concentration of
American journalism. He claimed that, "In 1934, 82 per cent of all dailies
had a complete monopoly in their communities." Newspaper chains, in Ickes'
view, "control a dangerously large share of the national daily circulation
and in many cities have no competition."
Ickes' book was largely devoted to proving that the major newspapers of the
United States were intentionally distorting the news, and in some cases,
directly lying. Ickes argued that newspaper editors did so in the interests
of both their advertisers and in defense of the capitalist class. Ickes
mentioned the Liberty League as one of the "propaganda outfits" who were
allied with the major newspapers. Indeed,the New York Times, one of the
papers that had downplayed the Committee's report, had editorialized in
favor of the Liberty League's formation.
Did newspapers and magazines consciously play down the plot, because it
represented an embarrassment to people of influence? Or did editors simply
give it low visibility because they regarded it as an absurd story?
We must consider another disturbing possibility. Butler was associated with
the loose alliance of progressive and populist forces that were dragging
Roosevelt towards the left. It is easy to forget that for much of
Roosevelt's first term as President from 1932-36, he was the rope in a tug
of war between conservative and progressive forces in America. The
popularity of men such as Senator Huey Long (D-Louisiana) and the nationally
known radio priest Father Coughlin-and the need to short-circuit their
rising political power-appears to have caused Roosevelt's increasingly
leftward movement in 1935-36.
Is it possible that Butler concocted this story as a way of creating
animosity towards conservatives by Roosevelt? If Butler had lied to the
Committee, and no such conspiracy was ever planned, why did MacGuire
apparently perjure himself before the Committee? Or, alternatively, could
leftward leaning members of the Roosevelt Administration have manipulated
Butler into believing that such a plot actually existed as a way of creating
animosity towards conservatives, thus dragging Roosevelt to the left? Either
theory could explain why MacGuire, Murphy, Clark, or the other supposed
plotters were never prosecuted.
Yet another possibility (though less likely) is that there was no
prosecution because Roosevelt's own advisors had taken part in the plot, as
MacGuire claimed. A criminal prosecution would have washed the Roosevelt
Administration's dirty laundry in public.
Why Is The Plot So Poorly Known?
Butler's account of the MacGuire plot was a very serious accusation. If
MacGuire had told Butler the truth, a large number of wealthy men had made
serious plans to overthrow representative government in the United States --
though their concern that Roosevelt was creating a government in the style
of Mussolini or Hitler, might provide some legitimate reason for their
actions. Why doesn't this plot appear in history books? That conservatives
might discount the plot is not unexpected; that liberals have tended to
ignore the plot is a little more surprising.
It is hard to imagine how different American politics was in the 1930s. The
collapse of the world economy had shaken the faith of many Americans in
individualism and free market capitalism. Many traditionalists, here and in
Europe, toyed with the ideas of Fascism and National Socialism; many
liberals dallied with Socialism and Communism. Prominent populists such as
Huey Long and Father Coughlin sided with progressives in support of
isolationism, redistribution of wealth, and a federal government that would
play a more active role in the American economy.
In hindsight, the moral and economic deficiencies of these various
collectivized systems are now clear. In 1934, however, people of good will
persuaded themselves that Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were doing good, and
ignored the great evils that were already underway. To turn over the rock
exposing MacGuire's plot raises unpleasant questions about the political
sensibilities of both right and left in 1930s America.
How Secure Are The Institutions of Legal Government In America?
How secure, indeed? It would be tempting to write off this entire matter as
a group of con men separating wealthy conservatives from their money by
pretending to hatch a plot against the Roosevelt Administration. But there
are too many disturbing pieces of evidence in this tale that suggest that
the Zeitgeist of the 1930s was not limited to Europe.
If MacGuire's claims to Butler were true, some U.S. military commanders were
prepared to stand aside while 500,000 veterans marched on Washington and
took Roosevelt captive. (Between the World Wars, the United States Army was
so small that 500,000 veterans might have given them a serious fight -- even
if every officer remained loyal to Roosevelt.)
But unlike many European countries, American government was highly
decentralized in 1934, and this would have worked against any serious
military action against the legitimate government. Every state governor had
control of state militia units, armed with out of date, but still
serviceable military weapons.
In addition to the regularly organized state militias, the population of the
United States, then as now, was heavily armed with the sort of weapons well
suited to military operations. Whatever the advantages of the plotters' army
of 500,000 veterans, they would have been far outnumbered by the unorganized
militia of the United States -- then as now, consisting of every U.S.
citizen between 18 and 45, and legally obligated by state laws to fight at
the order of the governor in the event of insurrection, invasion, or war.
But in a nation that was suffering from the ravages of the Great Depression,
another model exists for what might have happened: the Spanish Civil War.
The divisions over religion in America were not as dramatic as those that
ripped apart Spanish society. But many Americans were beginning to lose
their faith in American institutions -- as evidenced by the growth of
American Nazi and Communist movements during the 1930s. It is frightening to
think of what might have happened if a general as capable as Butler had
become the man on a white horse.
In the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, delivered at New York
University in 1960 concerning the protections of the U.S. Bill of Rights:
I cannot agree with those who think of the Bill of Rights as an 18th century
straitjacket, unsuited for this age.. The evils it guards against are not
only old, they are with us now, they exist today..
Experience all over the world has demonstrated, I fear, that the distance
between stable, orderly government and one that has been taken over by force
is not so great as we have assumed.
Indeed, the plot that Butler exposed -- if what MacGuire claimed was true --
is a sobering reminder to Americans. We were not immune to the sentiments
that gave rise to totalitarian governments throughout the world in the
1930s. We make a serious mistake when we assume, "It can't happen here!"
Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer with a Northern California
manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. His first book, By The Dim And
Flaring Lamps: The Civil War Diary of Samuel McIlvaine, was published by
Library Research Associates (Monroe, NY) in 1990. Mr. Cramer's second book,
For The Defense of Themselves And The State: The Original Intent and
Judicial Interpretation of the Right To Keep And Bear Arms was published by
Praeger Publishers (Westport, Conn.) in 1994. Mr. Cramer recently completed
his B.A. in History at Sonoma State University.
Archer, Jules, The Plot To Seize The White House, (New York: Hawthorn Books,
Brinkley, Alan, Voices of Protest, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1982).
Butler, Smedley D., War Is A Racket, (New York: Round Table Press, 1935).
Cahn, Edmond, The Great Rights, (New York: Macmillan Co., 1963).
Ickes, Harold L., America's House of Lords: An Inquiry into the Freedom of
the Press, (Rahway, N.J.: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939).
New York Times, February 16, 1935; March 26, 1935.
Schmidt, Hans, Maverick Marine, (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of
Sevareid, Eric, Not So Wild A Dream, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946).
Spivak, John L., "Wall Street's Fascist Conspiracy", New Masses, January 29,
1935, 9-15; February 5, 1935, (page numbers missing on the microfilm)..
Sacramento Bee, February 15, 1935.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1935.
Time, 24:23 [December 3, 1934].
U.S. House of Representatives, Special Committee on Un-American Activities,
Investigation of Nazi Propaganda Activities and Investigation of Certain
Other Propaganda Activities, Hearings 73-D.C.-6, Part 1, 73rd Cong., 2nd
sess., (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1935).
U.S. House of Representatives, Special Committee on Un-American Activities,
Public Statement, 73rd Cong., 2nd sess., (Washington, D.C.: Government
Printing Office, 1934).
Wolfskill, George, The Revolt of the Conservatives: A History of the
American Liberty League, 1934-1940, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962).
“One is called to live nonviolently, even if the change one works for seems impossible. It may or may not be possible to turn the US around through nonviolent revolution. But one thing favors such an attempt: the total inability of violence to change anything for the better” - Daniel Berrigan
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