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The Business Plot was an alleged political conspiracy in 1933. Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler claimed that wealthy businessmen were plotting to create a fascist veterans' organization and use it in a coup d'état to overthrow President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt, with Butler as leader of that organization. In 1934, Butler testified to the United States House of Representatives Special Committee on Un-American Activities (the "McCormack-Dickstein Committee") on these claims. In the opinion of the committee, these allegations were credible. No one was prosecuted.
At the time of the incidents, news media dismissed the plot, with a New York Times editorial characterizing it as a "gigantic hoax". While historians have questioned whether or not a coup was actually close to execution, most agree that some sort of "wild scheme" was contemplated and discussed.
On July 17, 1932, thousands of World War I veterans converged on Washington, D.C., set up tent camps, and demanded immediate payment of bonuses due to them according to the World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 (the original act made the bonuses initially due no earlier than 1925 and no later than 1945). Walter W. Waters, a former Army sergeant, led this "Bonus Army". The Bonus Army was encouraged by an appearance from retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler; as a popular military figure of the time, Butler had some influence over the veterans. A few days after Butler's arrival, President Herbert Hoover ordered the marchers removed, and U.S. Army cavalry troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur destroyed their camps.
The election of Roosevelt was upsetting for many conservative businessmen of the time, his "campaign promise that the government would provide jobs for all the unemployed had the perverse effect of creating a new wave of unemployment by businessmen frightened by fears of socialism and reckless government spending."
The Hoover administration had steadfastly defended the gold standard even when Britain abandoned it in September 1931. With a devalued currency, British manufactured goods became cheaper than American counterparts, resulting in more economic hardship for American industry. Roosevelt's campaign had promised to re-evaluate America's commitment to the gold standard and, through a series of actions from March 6 to April 18, 1933, abandoned it.
Conservative businessmen and other supporters of the gold standard were dismayed. Hoover, who had championed the standard, wrote that its abandonment was the first step toward "communism, fascism, socialism, statism, planned economy." He argued that the standard was needed to stop governments from "confiscating the savings of the people by manipulation of inflation and deflation....We have gold because we cannot trust Governments."
Roosevelt also dissolved any "gold clause" within contracts, public or private, that guaranteed payment in gold. This clause was part of every government bond and most corporate bonds. "It was a standard feature of mortgage agreements and other contracts. For creditors, it offered protection against inflation or congressional tinkering with the currency." For debtors, though, it was dangerous, as "The gold dollar, before Roosevelt reduced it, was $1.69. This meant that a bank, for example, could suddenly require a farmer to make mortgage payments in gold coin-transferring a $10,000 mortgage into one worth $16,900, raising the farmer's debt burden by nearly 70 percent." Likewise, the U.S. treasury could be required to pay the bearer of a $10,000 Liberty Bond $16,900 in gold coins. (The constitutionality of this Roosevelt policy was later challenged before the Supreme Court in the Gold Clause Cases.)
With the end of the gold standard, "conservative financiers were horrified. They viewed a currency not solidly backed by gold as inflationary, undermining both private and business fortunes and leading to national bankruptcy. Roosevelt was damned as a socialist or Communist out to destroy private enterprise by sapping the gold backing of wealth in order to subsidize the poor."
Ending the gold standard allowed the country to escape the cycle of deflation, but the shift was not painless. "Since higher prices were not yet accompanied by higher wages, inflation meant lower [real] incomes for those fortunate enough to be employed. Until the effects of increased investment spending spread through the economy, there was little reason for investment incomes and hence consumption to rise dramatically. Industrial production remained volatile."
To encourage foreign investment, Roosevelt had the Reconstruction Finance Corporation purchase gold with dollars, thereby driving up the price of gold and reducing the value of the dollar. Still, this did not immediately affect the balance of trade. Those considering buying American goods anticipated that there would be a further depreciation that would allow their own currency further purchasing power and therefore greater profits, so they held back their orders. At the same time, Americans fearing additional depreciation purchased more foreign commodities in fear they would lose purchasing power in the future. "The volume of U.S. imports rose by 10 percent between 1932 and 1933. In contrast, exports stagnated. The consequence was a deteriorating balance of trade."
Another Roosevelt policy also had an unanticipated effect on the recovery: the National Industrial Recovery Act of June 16, 1933, provided established minimum wages of 40 cents an hour and revised upward the entire wage structure of many of the industries it covered; this placed upward pressure on labor costs.
The sustained recovery of industrial production "had to await stabilization of the dollar in 1934, along with the concomitant growth of commodity exports and capital imports."
The Committee began examining evidence on November 20, 1934. On November 24, the committee released a statement detailing the testimony it had heard about the plot and its preliminary findings. On February 15, 1935, the committee submitted its final report to the House of Representatives.
During the McCormack–Dickstein Committee hearings, Butler testified that Gerald C. MacGuire attempted to recruit him to lead a coup, promising him an army of 500,000 men for a march on Washington, D.C., and financial backing. Butler testified that the pretext for the coup would be that the president's health was failing.
Despite Butler's support for Roosevelt in the election and his reputation as a strong critic of capitalism, Butler said the plotters felt his good reputation and popularity were vital in attracting support amongst the general public and saw him as easier to manipulate than others.
Though Butler had never spoken to them, Butler implicated several prominent businessmen and veteran leaders as backers of the plot. The committee chose not to publish these allegations because they were hearsay.
Given a successful coup, Butler said that the plan was for him to have held near-absolute power in the newly created position of "Secretary of General Affairs", while Roosevelt would have assumed a figurehead role.
Those implicated in the plot by Butler all denied any involvement. MacGuire was the only figure identified by Butler who testified before the committee. Others Butler accused were not called to appear to testify because the "committee has had no evidence before it that would in the slightest degree warrant calling before it such men... The committee will not take cognizance of names brought into testimony which constitute mere hearsay."
In response, Butler said that the committee had deliberately edited out of its published findings the leading business people whom he had named in connection with the plot. He said on February 17, 1935, on Radio WCAU, "Like most committees it has slaughtered the little and allowed the big to escape. The big shots weren't even called to testify. They were all mentioned in the testimony. Why was all mention of these names suppressed from the testimony?"
On the final day of the committee, January 29, 1935, John L. Spivak published the first of two articles in the communist magazine New Masses, revealing portions of the Congressional committee testimony that had been redacted as hearsay. Spivak argued that the plot was part of a "conspiracy of Jewish financiers working with fascist groups", referring specifically to Felix Warburg, the McCormack–Dickstein Committee, and certain members of the American Jewish Committee in collusion with J. P. Morgan. Hans Schmidt concludes that while Spivak made a cogent argument for taking the suppressed testimony seriously, he embellished his article with his "overblown" claims regarding Jewish financiers, which Schmidt dismisses as guilt by association not supported by the evidence of the Butler-MacGuire conversations themselves.
On July 1, 1933, Butler met with MacGuire and Doyle for the first time. Gerald C. MacGuire was a $100-a-week bond salesman for Murphy & Company and a member of the Connecticut American Legion. Bill Doyle was commander of the Massachusetts American Legion. Butler stated that he was asked to run for National Commander of the American Legion.
On July 3 or 4, Butler held a second meeting with MacGuire and Doyle. He stated that they offered to get hundreds of supporters at the American Legion convention to ask for a speech. MacGuire left a typewritten speech with Butler that they proposed he read at the convention. "It urged the American Legion convention to adopt a resolution calling for the United States to return to the gold standard, so that when veterans were paid the bonus promised to them, the money they received would not be worthless paper." The inclusion of this demand further increased Butler's suspicion.
Around August 1, MacGuire visited Butler alone. Butler stated that MacGuire told him Col. Murphy underwrote the formation of the American Legion in New York and Butler told MacGuire that the American Legion was "nothing but a strike breaking outfit." Butler never saw Doyle again.
On September 24, MacGuire visited Butler's hotel room in Newark. In late-September Butler met with Robert Sterling Clark. Clark was an art collector and an heir to the Singer Corporation fortune. MacGuire had known Robert S. Clark when he was a second lieutenant in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Clark had been nicknamed "the millionaire lieutenant".
On August 22, Butler met MacGuire at a hotel, the last time Butler met MacGuire. According to Butler's account, it was on this occasion that MacGuire asked Butler to run a new veterans' organization and lead a coup attempt against the President.
On September 13, Paul Comly French, a reporter who had once been Butler's personal secretary, met MacGuire in his office. In late September, Butler told Van Zandt that co-conspirators would be meeting him at an upcoming Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.
On November 20, the Committee began examining evidence. Journalist Paul Comly French broke the story in the Philadelphia Record and New York Post on November 21. On November 22, The New York Times wrote its first article on the story and described it as a "gigantic hoax".
The Congressional committee preliminary report said:
The Congressional committee final report said:
A New York Times editorial dismissed Butler's story as "a gigantic hoax" and a "bald and unconvincing narrative." Thomas W. Lamont of J.P. Morgan called it "perfect moonshine". General Douglas MacArthur, alleged to be the back-up leader of the putsch if Butler declined, referred to it as "the best laugh story of the year." Time magazine and other publications also scoffed at the allegations.
When the committee released its report, editorials remained skeptical. Time wrote: "Also last week the House Committee on Un-American Activities purported to report that a two-month investigation had convinced it that General Butler's story of a Fascist march on Washington was alarmingly true." The New York Times reported that the committee "alleged that definite proof had been found that the much publicized Fascist march on Washington, which was to have been led by Major. Gen. Smedley D. Butler, retired, according to testimony at a hearing, was actually contemplated."
Separately, Veterans of Foreign Wars commander James E. Van Zandt stated to the press, "Less than two months" after General Butler warned him, "he had been approached by 'agents of Wall Street' to lead a Fascist dictatorship in the United States under the guise of a 'Veterans Organization'."
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. said, "Most people agreed with Mayor La Guardia of New York in dismissing it as a 'cocktail putsch'." In Schlesinger's summation of the affair, "No doubt, MacGuire did have some wild scheme in mind, though the gap between contemplation and execution was considerable, and it can hardly be supposed that the Republic was in much danger."
Robert F. Burk wrote: "At their core, the accusations probably consisted of a mixture of actual attempts at influence peddling by a small core of financiers with ties to veterans organizations and the self-serving accusations of Butler against the enemies of his pacifist and populist causes."
Hans Schmidt wrote: "Even if Butler was telling the truth, as there seems little reason to doubt, there remains the unfathomable problem of MacGuire's motives and veracity. He may have been working both ends against the middle, as Butler at one point suspected. In any case, MacGuire emerged from the HUAC hearings as an inconsequential trickster whose base dealings could not possibly be taken alone as verifying such a momentous undertaking. If he was acting as an intermediary in a genuine probe, or as agent provocateur sent to fool Butler, his employers were at least clever enough to keep their distance and see to it that he self-destructed on the witness stand."
Many years later, McCormick continued to vouch for Butler: "General Smedley Butler was one of the outstanding Americans in our history. I cannot emphasize too strongly the very important part he played in exposing the Fascist plot in the early 1930s backed by and planned by persons possessing tremendous wealth."
In a book about art collector Robert Sterling Clark, art historian and non-profit executive Nicholas Fox Weber wrote: "Butler's testimony to the House Committee, which was played down in the newspaper and magazine accounts at the time, and made to seem largely specious by influential commentators, seems credible about the attempt to overthrow FDR, and Robert Sterling Clark's role in it. Butler's claims, moreover, were supported by the committee's subsequent investigations and conclusions."
James E. Sargent, reviewing The Plot to Seize the White House by Jules Archer, wrote: "Thus, Butler (and Archer) assumed that the existence of a financially backed plot meant that fascism was imminent, and that the planners represented a widespread and coherent group, having both the intent and the capacity to execute their ideas. So, when his testimony was criticized, and even ridiculed, in the media, and ignored in Washington, Butler saw (and Archer sees) conspiracy everywhere. Instead, it is plausible to conclude that the honest and straightforward, but intellectually and politically unsophisticated, Butler perceived in simplistic terms what were, in fact, complex trends and events. Thus, he leaped to the simplistic conclusion that the President and the Republic were in mortal danger. In essence, Archer swallowed his hero whole."
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