Saturday, September 15, 2007

Historian wanted: The American Liberty League and 1930s fascism

I knew that America had had a quite vigorous fascist movement in the 1930s, but I hadn't read about the "American Liberty League"...
Damn Interesting » The Revenge of the Fighting Quaker

In the early 1930s, a secret collection of prosperous men are said to have assembled in New York City to discuss the dissolution of America's democracy. As a consequence of the Great Depression, the countryside was littered with unemployed, and the world's wealthy were watching as their fortunes deflated and their investments evaporated. As men of action, the well-financed New York group sought to eliminate what they reasoned to be the crux of the catastrophe: the United States government.

To assist them in their diabolical scheme, the resourceful plotters recruited the assistance of Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, a venerated, highly decorated, and considerably jaded former Marine. It was the conspirators' earnest hope that their army of 500,000 Great War veterans, under the leadership of General Butler, could overpower the US' feeble peacetime military and reconstitute the government as a more economical fascist dictatorship...

...The credibility of MacGuire's claims was reinforced when he produced evidence of considerable cash resources and made some eerily accurate predictions regarding personnel changes in the White House. He also accurately described the still-secret but soon-to-be-announced American Liberty League, a high-profile group whose stated purpose was to "defend and uphold the Constitution." The League's principal players were comprised of wealthy Americans, including the leaders of DuPont, JP Morgan, US Steel, General Motors, Standard Oil, Colgate, Heinz Foods, Chase National Bank, and Goodyear Tire. There are some who claim that Prescott Bush– father to the 41st US President and grandfather to the 43rd– was also entangled in the scheme.

On 22 August 1934, upon his return from a fact-finding trip to Europe, Gerald MacGuire dropped all pretense when he met with General Butler at an empty hotel restaurant. He indicated that his financial backers aimed to assemble an army of half a million disgruntled veterans, sown from the seeds of the original Bonus Army. He also stated that the group would like Butler to be the leader of this force. "We've got three million [dollars] to start with on the line," MacGuire claimed, "and we can get three hundred million if we need it." ...

...In the autumn of 1934, General Smedley "Old Duckboard" Butler finally sprang into action. A crowd of journalists surrounded him as he addressed the nation in a press conference. But the General did not demand the surrender of the United States government. Instead, he related to the reporters the details of the secret pro-fascist plot, and described the principal players. "The upshot of the whole thing," he explained, "was that I was supposed to lead an organization of five hundred thousand men which would be able to take over the functions of government." The Old Gimlet Eye, it turned out, had been playing along with Gerald MacGuire in order to glean information about the plot. Though Smedley Butler had indeed grown weary of being a government-sponsored "gangster for capitalism," he was still a true patriot. Butler's associate– Paul Comly French– was in actuality an undercover reporter for the Philadelphia Record and New York Evening Post. The two men testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), delighted to disclose all they had gathered from MacGuire. Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander James Van Zandt also testified, stating that he had likewise been approached to lead such a march on Washington.
The Wikipedia article points to a web page with more details and names:
... Who were the men making up this organization? There was, of course, its chairman, Jouett Shouse, a GM executive, former chairman of the Executive Committee of the Democratic Party, and former president of the Association against the Prohibition Amendment. Then there were Alfred E. Smith and John W. Davis, former Democratic presidential candidates; Congressman James W. Wadsworth (who would eventually become the father-in-law of Sen. Stuart Symington); Nathan Miller, a director of U.S. Steel and a one-time governor of New York; John Rascob, another GM executive and former Democratic national chairman; Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., head of General Motors; Ernest T. Weir of Weirton Steel; Dr. Samuel Hardey Church, head of the Carnegie Institute; David A. Reed, former Republican senator from Pennsylvania; Hal Roach, motion picture producer; Sewell Avery of Montgomery Ward; Joseph B. Ely, former Democratic governor of Massachusetts; Howard Pew of Sun Oil; James Beck, constitutional authority; and the Du Pont brothers—Irenee, Lammot, and Pierre.
Nice to see Sloan was into all kinds of management improvements. Note the bipartisan membership, lots of people hated Roosevelt. I wonder what Kerry's wife might have heard about the Heinz family connection, but I doubt GWB will tell us much about his grandfather's role.

There's one book mentioned, but, best of all, there's a BBC History broadcast (7/23/2007) you can listen to, or much better, turn it into a podcast:
The coup was aimed at toppling President Franklin D Roosevelt with the help of half-a-million war veterans. The plotters, who were alleged to involve some of the most famous families in America, (owners of Heinz, Birds Eye, Goodtea, Maxwell Hse & George Bush’s Grandfather, Prescott) believed that their country should adopt the policies of Hitler and Mussolini to beat the great depression.

Mike Thomson investigates why so little is known about this biggest ever peacetime threat to American democracy.
Thomson is asking the right question, the curious thing about this story is how little curiosity there's been about it. Well, maybe the time is right to learn more ...

DI is really a great blog ...

Update 9/25/07: I've finished listening to the BBC History broadcast (7/23/2007). It's not bad, but it suffers from melodramatic narratives, faux suspense, and cloying music. Clearly the BBC History shows are not quite in the same league as "In Our Time". The connection to GWB's grandfather, Prescott Bush, is pretty weak. PB was employed by a company that allied itself with Nazi Germany and had a connection to the people who organized the quasi-fascist Liberty Alliance, but that's all they mentioned. The Heinz, Dupont, JP Morgan, Sloane, etc connections to the Liberty Alliance stronger are stronger; they were probably fascist sympathizers back when that meant a corporate-government union rather than Auschwitz.

The national archives on the affair are remarkably slender, and it does appear that a significant part of Smedley-Butlers testimony was excluded -- indeed, the chair of the "House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities", then chaired by John McCormack (presumably a democrat) and Samuel Dickstein (republican?) admitted as much. The details were to be kept secret pending a full investigation, but that investigation never happened. No record is available now of anything but Butler's accusations, and the NYT article (see below) hints that Butler didn't have any physical or corroborating evidence.

There's a possibly historically significant twist to this. It's plausible that Roosevelt used the bad publicity, and the Liberty Alliance connections, to arm twist force Morgan, Heinz, Dupon, Sloane et al to cooperate with the "New Deal". One wonders if he could have pushed through the New Deal without that leverage. If so, then it's plausible that an american-fascist plot was key to the success of Roosevelt's New Deal, and thus, arguably, to the defeat of Hitler's empire ....

Here's the coverage from the NYT archives for Nov 21, 1934:
Gen. Butler Bares 'Fascist Plot' To Seize Government by Force; Says Bond Salesman, as Representative of Wall St. Group, Asked Him to Lead Army of 500,000 in March on Capital -- Those Named Make Angry Denials -- Dickstein Gets Charge. GEN. BUTLER BARES A 'FASCIST PLOT'
November 21, 1934, Wednesday

A plot of Wall Street interests to overthrow President Roosevelt and establish a Fascist dictatorship, backed by a private army of 500,000 ex-soldiers and others, was charged by Major Gen. Smedley D. Butler, retired Marine Corps officer, who appeared yesterday before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, which began hearings on the charges.
The fully NYT (PDF) article has more details:
  • MacGuire was a bond salesman for Grayson M.P. Murphy & Co, I think Grayson was supposed to have created the Liberty Alliance.
  • General Hugh Hackson, an NRA administrator was alleged to be the dictator in waiting
  • JP Morgan and Co was supposed to be leading donors
  • Only the two chairs of the House committee heard the testimony
Reading the NYT article today it feels as though the uncredited journalist was a bit skeptical ...

No comments: