When The Bankers Plotted To Overthrow FDR
It was a dangerous time in America: The economy was staggering, unemployment was rampant and a banking crisis threatened the entire monetary system.
The newly elected president pursued an ambitious legislative program aimed at easing some of the troubles. But he faced vitriolic opposition from both sides of the political spectrum.
"This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty," one senator wrote to a colleague. "The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot. The president has not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism, but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom."
Those words could be ripped from today's headlines. In fact, author Sally Denton tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, they come from a letter written in 1933 by Republican Sen. Henry D. Hatfield of West Virginia, bemoaning the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Denton is the author of a new book, The Plots Against the President: FDR, a Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right.
She says that during the tense months between FDR's election in November and his inauguration in March 1933, democracy hung in the balance.
"There was a lot at play. It could have gone very different directions," Denton says.
Though it's hard for us to imagine today, she says fascism, communism, even Naziism seemed like possible solutions to the country's ills.
"There were suggestions that capitalism was not working, that democracy was not working," she says.
Some people even called for a dictator to pull America out of the Great Depression.
When Roosevelt finally took office, he embarked on the now-legendary First Hundred Days, an ambitious legislative program aimed at reopening and stabilizing the country's banks and getting the economy moving again.
"There was just this sense that he was upsetting the status quo," Denton says.
Critics on the right worried that Roosevelt was a Communist, a socialist or the tool of a Jewish conspiracy. Critics on the left complained his policies didn't go far enough. Some of Roosevelt's opponents didn't stop at talk. Though it's barely remembered today, there was a genuine conspiracy to overthrow the president.
The Wall Street Putsch, as it's known today, was a plot by a group of right-wing financiers.
"They thought that they could convince Roosevelt, because he was of their, the patrician class, they thought that they could convince Roosevelt to relinquish power to basically a fascist, military-type government," Denton says.
"It was a cockamamie concept," she adds, "and the fact that it even got as far as it did is pretty shocking."
The conspirators had several million dollars, a stockpile of weapons and had even reached out to a retired Marine general, Smedley Darlington Butler, to lead their forces.
"Had he been a different kind of person, it might have gone a lot further," Denton says. "But he saw it as treason and he reported it to Congress."
Denton says that as she was writing the book, she was struck by the parallels between the treatment of Roosevelt and that of Barack Obama. For example, a cottage industry much like the birther movement grew up around proving that the Dutch-descended Roosevelt was actually a secret Jew.
"It seems to me that going through history here, there are times that we need to have a demon, somebody that's not of us, in order to solidify our fears and our anxieties," Denton says.
"And I don't know what that is in the impulse of the American body politic, but... this is 75 years later, and some of these same impulses continue."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. In 1933, Senator Henry D. Hatfield, a Republican from West Virginia, wrote a letter to a friend complaining about President Franklin Roosevelt.
SALLY DENTON: (Reading) 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 capitalism but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom.
RAZ: When Sally Denton came across that letter, it sounded amazingly contemporary. So she dug further and came across a whole series of attacks and even plots against FDR. She's written about it in a new book called "The Plots Against the President," and the story begins just weeks before Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933. It was one of the darkest moments of the Depression and many people in America were calling for a dictator to get the country back on track.
DENTON: Unemployment is skyrocketing. The country is rocking precariously economically in all ways. And it's hard for us today to realize that in 1933 the country was reeling. There were suggestions that capitalism was not working, that democracy was not working. Various intellectuals, and I mean not crackpots, were really considering the possibility of fascism, of communism, of socialism, of Nazism. The whole country was in play.
RAZ: We often hear about the times just before President Kennedy was killed and how he was really vilified by his opponents. And some people suggest that that is what led to his assassination, that climate. You describe an almost similar climate in the early 1930s, 1933, that surrounded Roosevelt. Talk about some of the people who were sort of vitriolically opposed to him and what they said about him.
DENTON: As I was writing this book, sometimes I felt like I could close my eyes and just transpose, you know, modern day vitriol to what was happening. There was a sense that Roosevelt was radically changing the relationship between the government and the governed, and there was great fear about that in many quarters, both the right and the left.
So you had these enemies like Father Coughlin on the right who was concerned that he was becoming a communist, a tool of Jewish monied interests, then Huey Long on the left who felt that he wasn't going far enough to redistribute the wealth. And then you had, you know, right wing reactionary veteran's organizations. You had Wall Street interests.
RAZ: It's interesting because there was really genuinely a conspiracy at a certain point to overthrow the Roosevelt administration, to replace it with a kind of a crypto-fascist movement, and this was - the people behind it were mostly financiers, bankers, part of a group called The American Liberty League. Who were they?
DENTON: Well, they were some of the wealthiest people in America. I think the handful of people that were really behind the Liberty League controlled assets worth more than $40 billion.
RAZ: They thought he was a socialist or even worse.
DENTON: They thought he was a socialist, I don't know. A lot of times, it was unclear whether or not they were able to even distinguish between what a socialist was or a communist or - there was just this sense that he was upsetting the status quo.
RAZ: These bankers were behind something that became known as the Wall Street Putsch. What was their plan?
DENTON: They thought that they could convince Roosevelt - because he was of their class, the patrician class, they thought that they could convince Roosevelt to relinquish power to basically a fascist, military-type government. It was a cockamamie concept. And the fact that it even got as far as it did is pretty shocking.
RAZ: How far did it get?
DENTON: It got far enough so that they had at least $3 million invested and claimed to have up to $300 million at the ready. They appealed to a general, a retired general, to lead it. And had he been a different kind of person, it might have gone a lot further. But he saw it as treason and reported it to Congress.
RAZ: There are elements and themes in this book that seem almost to have been ripped from today's headlines. You know, the - talking about President Roosevelt as part of a Jewish conspiracy, it sort of makes you think about the birther movement and whether President Obama was born overseas or if he's a crypto-Muslim and - did that occur to you as you were writing this?
Oh, absolutely. It was stunning to me that all these kind of paramilitary organizations and trying to prove basically that he was not one of us. I mean, this whole fear of the other and the demonization of Roosevelt has so many parallels to what's been going on in the country with Obama. And he was of Dutch Huguenot ancestry, and they were trying to prove that he was Jewish that, I mean, trying to trace his bloodlines.
DENTON: You know, it seems to me that going through history here, there are times that we need to have a demon, somebody that's not of us, in order to solidify our fears and our anxieties, and I don't know what that is in the impulse of the American body politic, but the fact that this is 75 years later and some of these same impulses are - continue.
RAZ: That's author Sally Denton. Her new book is called "The Plots Against the President," President Roosevelt, of course. Thanks so much for joining me, Sally.
DENTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.