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Gen. Smedley Butler and the American Fascists

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

The American Liberty League and coup plotting

Antiwar general Smedley Butler ratted on wealthy American fascist wannabes

When Franklin Roosevelt came to power in 1933 and it quickly became apparent that he didn't plan to restrict his economic recovery measures to balancing the federal budget and preaching optimism, a lot of the most wealthy Americans got very nervous about this whole "New Deal" business. In August, 1934, some of them formed a lobby group called The American Liberty League to defend the interests of the "economic royalists", as FDR came to call them.

The most dramatic event involving the Liberty League, at least indirectly, was a charge made by antiwar retired Gen. Smedley Butler, who was a popular figure at the Bonus Army protest during the Hoover Administration which had been put down by troops under the command of Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. He testified before a Congressional Committee about being approached by a representative of wealthy plotters wanting him to front a military coup against the federal government. He claimed that it was the some of the same people who went on to form the Liberty League that was behind the plotting.

Apparently, there is no hard evidence that the people guiding the Liberty League were directly involved in the plot testified to by Butler. And it's not clear how serious the plot was, although the people directly involved seemed to have taken the idea very seriously.

The Liberty League's main influence was in its anti-New Deal propaganda and its support for legal action against pro-labor legislation, primarily from its founding in 1934 through the Presidential election of 1936. Roosevelt's landslide victory against Republican Alf Landon pretty much took the wind out of the Liberty League's sails. Though the organization lingered on until 1940, its main activity ended with the 1936 election, in which they "unofficially" supported Landon against That Man Roosevelt.

Since I discovered I have access to the JSTOR periodical database through the public library, I've been poking around in some older periodicals. One of the more interesting pieces I've come across is "The American Liberty League, 1934-1940" by Frederick Rudolph The American Historical Review Oct 1950. Rudolph tells the story of the League (without mentioning Butler's coup allegations) and analyzes its failure.

With the Cheney-Bush administration seriously pushing Social Security phaseout as recently as 2005 using much the same arguments the 1936 Republican Party platform used against the then-new program, the Liberty League's mossback ideas still have some relevance. Despite the fact that they were reactionary even in 1934.

First, who backed the Liberty League? Rudolph gives this rundown:

At a time when economic distress encouraged an increasing emphasis upon the forgotten man and the common man, it came to the defense of the uncommon man who stood at the pinnacle - the uncommon man, whose freedom to follow the bent of his natural talents, unfettered by government regulation and control, had long been an ingrained tenet of the American faith. The roster of its officers and of its chief financial contributors is a roster of the uncommon men of the time, the men whose ambitions and abilities had been rewarded with the success, the power, and the prestige to which Americans of every background have been traditionally conditioned to aspire: Irknke, Pierre, and Lammot du Pont, controllers of a vast industrial empire; Ernest T. Wier, steel man; Will L. Clayton, Texas cotton broker; Alfred P. Sloan, president of General Motors; Edward F. Hutton, chairman of General Foods; J. Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil; William S. Knudsen, also of General Motors; Joseph E. Widener, Philadelphia transportation magnate; Sewell L. Avery of Montgomery Ward; George H. Houston, president of Baldwin Locomotive. And with them were corporation lawyers, professional politicians, some academicians, and others who represented a mixture of business with politics or business with academics. They were men who subscribed, out of conviction or experience, to that combination of social Darwinism and American experience which evoked a constant stream of leaflets, pamphlets, radio addresses, and press releases from the offices of the Liberty League. Its spokesmen included Alfred E. Smith, 1928 presidential candidate of the Democratic party, whose biography was a story out of Horatio Alger; John W. Davis, 1924 presidential candidate of the Democratic party and chief counsel for J. P. Morgan; Bainbridge Colby, Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson and attorney for William Randolph Hearst; Neil Carothers, director of the College of Business Administration at Lehigh; Edward W. Kemmerer, professor of international finance at Princeton; Albert G. Keller, professor at Yale and student of William Graham Sumner [the chief advocate of Social Darwinism], who constructed a Science of Society which was shot through with the transfer of Darwinian analysis to social institutions; and Samuel Harden Church, head of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. (my emphasis)

The fact that the Democratic Presidential nominees of 1924 and 1928 both became spokespeople for this reactionary anti-New Deal group is a sign of how completely corporate interests dominated both parties in the 1920s. It's also a reminder that in the 1930s, ideological differences strongly cut across party lines. Some of the strongest supporters of New Deal measures, such as Sen. George Norris, were Republicans.

Conventional histories of the New Deal will sometimes talk about "Thunder on the Left" faced by Roosevelt in 1933-36. There was certainly pressure on Roosevelt from the left by the labor movement and various reformers. But many of the groups that are categorized as part of the so-called Thunder on the Left were actually rightwing demagogues.

Rudolph observes that the country-club reactionary nature of the Liberty League's propaganda had limited popular resonance during the Great Depression:

Caring no more for the common man than the minimum requirements of public relations demanded, the Liberty League, nonetheless, could have built a larger popular following had it adopted the techniques of the demagogues who were amassing a more impressive membership in such groups as the Townsend clubs, Share-the-Wealth clubs, and in the Union for Social Justice [led by Charles Coughlin]. Its appeal, however, was pitched on a level which placed its emphasis upon the defense of something which most Americans had very little of property. The truly popular movements of the decade, the New Deal included, promised something specific for the common man, for the aged, for the economically underprivileged, while the Liberty League offered rather to protect property holders from the people and from their government in Washington. (my emphasis)

The "Share-the-Wealth" movement was begun by Louisiana Sen. Huey Long, who I think is rightly considered by many as the closest thing the United States had to an Adolf Hitler type figure in that period. He did have a significant public appeal. Although he ran Louisiana like a thoroughly corrupt personal dictatorship, he also put the unemployed to work on building roads and other public works (with the obligatory kickbacks, of course) and provided free public school textbooks for the first time in his state. But after Long's assassination in 1935, the leadership his movement was taken over by Gerald L. K. Smith and it took a more overtly reactionary tone. Smith became a raving anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer.

Rudolph points out that the League in its propaganda relied on themes such as "individualism" that had strong resonance in American tradition. In my favorite part of his article, he writes that "the American Liberty League learned the very hardest way that the common man, who started on his way up under the auspices of Andrew Jackson had replaced the industrial leader in giving the directions in American life". (Sadly, Jacksonian democracy has been in eclipse in the US since 1969.)

The tone of his article makes me think that Rudolph himself didn't want to appear as overly approving of the Jacksonian moment of the 1930s. But this observation is a reasonable one:

The emotive symbols which [the League] used - the Constitution, the Supreme Court, the Declaration of Independence - and the American heroes to whom it appealed for sanction - Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln - have generally been extremely useful in manufacturing mass opinion in the United States, but the symbols and the sanctions must also have been put to use for something the people wanted. In the 1930's the cult of the common man had become sufficiently embedded in American society to make clear that any pressure group or political organization must disregard it at its own peril...

As Rudolph also notes, the League "discovered that Thomas Jefferson proved to be a more effective symbol for the left than for the right." I should hope so. Certainly, no one during Jefferson's lifetime mistook him for a conservative, much less a flaming reactionary like the Liberty League's backers.

I'll close with a long paragraph from Rudolph's summary of how the Liberty League managed to frame their message in the Jacksonian climate of 1936 in a way that made it sink like a lead balloon:

The [political] performance of the League was little better designed to bring the desired results than was its [propaganda] approach. Its first and almost only practical alternative to the New Deal was to suggest that the Red Cross be commissioned to handle all direct relief. The effect of its pronouncements on the unconstitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act was to encourage industrialists to disregard the collective bargaining provisions of the legislation, throwing struggling unions into courts all over the country and leading eventually to the sit-down strikes of 1936. ... The presence of twelve Du Ponts at its 1936 dinner at which A1 Smith spoke destroyed the desired effect of the presence of the boy from the streets of the East Side [i.e., Al Smith]; indeed, when Smith spent the summer of 1936 in a more concerted attack on the New Deal, he carefully refrained from accepting Liberty League sponsorship. In 1936, too, the Republican party asked the Liberty League, by then a political liability, to "stay aloof from too close alliance with the Landon campaign": the League co-operated by announcing that it would remain nonpartisan during the campaign, and it never did endorse Landon. When the League sponsored a six-day institute at the University of Virginia on "The Constitution and the New Deal," Virginius Dabney, the Richmond editor, reported that "the audiences were so openly hostile to the League and its spokesmen that the round table proved something of a boomerang." Congressional investigations disclosed that the guiding figures of the League were large contributors to all and sundry anti-New Deal groups; the Du Pont brothers, Alfred Sloan, and John J. Raskob were the principal financial backers, for instance, of the Southern Democratic convention at Macon in 1936, when Eugene Talmadge made his bid for the presidency, with the assistance of Gerald L. K. Smith, inheritor of the toga of Huey Long; lesser right-wing groups like the Crusaders, Sentinels of the Republic, National Conference of Investors, and the Farmers' Independence Council - most of them masthead organizations, operated by professional publicists and lobbyists, many of whom, like the principal officers and backers of the League, were veterans of the prohibition repeal movement - owed substantial financial backing to the same small group of industrialists who sponsored the Liberty League. A [New York] Times editorial observed at the time that the League's founders were making some rather poor investments." (my emphasis)

Other online resources:

New Deal Nemesis: The Liberty League was star-studded, wealthy, professional, and a flop by David Pietrusza Reason Magazine Jan 1978: a "libertarian" treatment which shows appreciation for the League's free-market dogmas, praising it for its "a remarkably coherent libertarian position". Indeed it was, in the contemporary meaning of rightwing "libertarianism".

The American Liberty League by Richard Sanders, Editor, Press for Conversion! n.d. Web site of the Canadian Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT)

Responses to the Great Depression 1929-1939 History Department at the University of San Diego, n.d. includes this brief description of the League:

The "Old Right" emerged in the 1930's in opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal. The American Liberty League founded in August, 1934, as a bipartisan anti-FDR coalition of the rich and corporate oligarchy, led by the duPonts as the leading contributors - organizers were John J. Raskob, John Davis, Nathan Miller, Irenee duPont, James Wadsworth - supported by Al Smith who opposed the New Deal and declared in Nov. 1935 that he was going to "take a walk" - spent $1m 1934-36 to defeat FDR, especially with propaganda sent to newspapers - Postmaster General Jim Farley called it the "American Cellophane League" because it was a DuPont product you could see right through - but Liberty League financed lawsuits against the New Deal, especially the 1935 Wagner Act that required collective bargaining (my emphasis)

BBC report on Butler's coup allegations by Mike Thompson BBC Radio 4 07/23/07, whose text introduction says:

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.

At about 20:30ff, the report discusses the pro-German activism in the later 1930s of Hamburg-America Lines, of which one of the senior managers was Prescott Bush, future Senator from Connecticut and father and grandfather of US Presidents.

The text of Smedley Butler's 1935 antiwar tract War Is A Racket is available at this Scuttlebutt and Small Chow site online.

Tags: american liberty league, authoritarianism, libertarianism, new deal, prescott bush, smedley butler

Posted by Bruce Miller at 11:35 PM

Labels: american liberty league, authoritarianism, libertarianism, new deal, prescott bush, smedley butler


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