Franklin Delano Roosevelt

A postage stamp featuring the image of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot. The president has not merely signed the death warrant of democracy but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom.”

Ripped from today’s headlines? Hardly. The words above came from a letter by Republican Sen. Henry D. Hatfield of West Virginia written in 1933, blasting the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Those were tough times with democracy hanging in the balance. There were even suggestions that a benevolent dictator was needed to pull America out of its economic morass. FDR was enacting policies that upset both the right and the left. Some even considered Roosevelt to be a communist.

It was during this tense time in our history that a conspiracy to overthrow FDR was hatched. Now known as the Wall Street Putsch, it was a scheme plotted by right-wing financiers. The conspirators had plenty of cash and a stockpile of weapons. The plotters were upset over Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, especially the National Recovery Administration, which set minimum wages and reduced the workweek.

In 1933, these individuals formed the American Liberty League whose members included, among others, the president of DuPont, 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith, undersecretary of the Treasury Dean Atchison, and Prescott Bush (grandfather of George W. Bush). After solidifying their schemes, A.L.L. reached out to retired General Darlington Butler to actively lead their revolt. However, Butler considered what the group had in mind as treasonous and reported the scheme to Congress.

When testifying in front of a Congressional committee, he stated that Wall Street bond salesman Gerald MacGuire had attempted to recruit him to lead a 500,000-strong American Legion militia to march on Washington, D.C. and take over the government. If the coup been successful, Butler said he would have held near-absolute power in the newly created position of “Secretary of General Affairs”, with Roosevelt merely serving as a figurehead.

However, his testimony fell on deaf ears. No one was charged. In fact, the press dismissed his claims, with the New York Times calling it a “gigantic hoax”. Those implicated in the plot by Butler denied any involvement. General Douglas MacArthur, the alleged back-up leader of the putsch if Butler had declined, referred to it as “the best laugh story of the year.”

However, in 1936, the U. S. ambassador to Germany wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in which he stated “Certain American industrialists had a great deal to do with bringing fascist regimes into being in both Germany and Italy. They extended aid to help Fascism occupy the seat of power, and they are helping to keep it there. A prominent executive of one of the largest corporations, told me point blank that he would be ready to take definite action to bring fascism into America if President Roosevelt continued his progressive policies.”

Later historians have taken a more dismissive view of the so-called putsch with one stating that while the accusations probably had some validity, its substance was overstated by General Butler. Whatever the validity of the plot against FDR, it serves as a reminder that citizens need to be ever vigilant in protecting democracy in times of crisis.