Perhaps the most alarming slice of twentieth-century U.S. history is virtually unknown to the general public, including most scholars of American history. One hopes that a recent BBC documentary titled The Plot Against America and an article of the same name by Columbia Law School professor and longtime human rights activist Scott Horton, on the website of Harper's magazine, will sound an alert.
In 1934 a special Congressional committee was appointed to conduct an investigation of a possible planned coup intended to topple the administration of president Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace it with a government modelled on the policies of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The shocking results of the investigation were promptly scotched and stashed in the National Archives. While the coup attempt was reported at the time in a few newspapers, including The New York Times, the story disappeared from public memory shortly after the Congressional findings were made available to president Roosevelt. It was the recent release from the Archives of the Congressional report that prompted the BBC and Horton commentaries.
The Congressional committee had discovered that some of the foremost members of the economic elite, many of them household names at the time, had indeed hatched a meticulously detailed and massively funded plot to effect a fascist coup in America. The owners of Bird's Eye, Maxwell House and Heinz, among others, totaling about twenty four major businessmen and Wall Street financiers, planned to assemble a private army of half a million men, composed largely of unemployed veterans. These troops would both constitute the armed force behind the coup and defeat any resistance this in-house revolution might generate. The economic elite would provide the material resources required to sustain the new government.
The plotters hoped that widespread working-class discouragement at the stubborn persistence of the Great Depression would have sufficiently disenchanted the masses with FDR's policies to make the coup an easy ride. And they were appalled at Roosevelt's willingness after 1933 to initiate economic policies that economists and businessmen considered dangerously Leftist departures from economic orthodoxy. Only a fascist-style government, they thought, could enforce the kind of economic "discipline" that would reverse the Great Depression and restore profits.
Interestingly, it was a military man, a prominent retired general assigned the task of raising the 500,000-man army, who blew the whistle after pondering the grotesque implications of the undemocratic installation of a fascist dictatorship in Washington. FDR was thus able to nip the plot in the bud.
The president might have used the occasion to alert the public to the anti-democratic impulses of a major segment of the capitalist class. But this of course would only have bolstered the fortunes of Communist, Socialist and other anti-capitalist political tendencies here, which were already gaining some ground among artists, intellectuals and a surprising number of working people. It is well known that Hollywood screenwriting in the 1930s was replete with Communist-inspired sentiment.
And of course we must not forget that FDR was himself a (somewhat renegade) member of the very class that would have toppled him. While FDR was open to watered-down Keynesian policies in a way that very few of his class comrades were, his commitment (like Keynes's) to the "free enterprise" system was unconditional. He had no interest in publicizing a plot that might constitute a public-relations victory for anti-capitalist politics. He therefore refused to out the plotters, and sought no punitive measures against them. In the end, class solidarity carried the day for Roosevelt. The Congressional committee cooperated by refusing to reveal the names of many of the key plotters.
Thus, fascist tendencies gestating deep within the culture of the U.S. ruling class were effectively left to develop unhindered by mass political mobilization.
Might this grisly episode have important implications for our understanding of the current political moment? One may be inclined to think so on the basis of the fact that one of the architects of the plot was one Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush. Bush, along with many other big businessmen, had maintained friendly relations in 1933 and 1934 with the new German government of Chancellor Adolph Hitler, and was designated to form for his class conspirators a working relationship with that government.
While Bush-bashing is highly recommended, the implications of this unsettling piece of history for contemporary politics run deeper than many of us would like to think. There is the temptation to point triumphantly to George W. Bush's commitment to the irrelevance of the Constitution, which he has sneeringly referred to as "a piece of paper", his corresponding contempt for hitherto taken-for-granted fundamental human rights, his Hobbesian notion of unbridled sovereignty, his militarized notion of political power and corresponding bull-in-a-china-shop foreign policy - there is the temptation to regard these genuinely fascist elements as the most significant contemporary remnant of the 1934 conspiracy.
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But no less important is the utter absence in 1934 of liberal attempts to educate the public to, and mobilize the population against, the fascist threat. FDR stood down.
Although Rooseveltian/New Deal liberalism is dead, contemporary Democrats do sustain one of FDR's least seemly qualities, namely his refusal to encourage effective mass opposition to fascist and imperialist politics. John Kerry boasted of having contributed to the drafting of the Patriot Act. And in the most recent round of crucial legislation regarding the war in Iraq, the Democrats gave Bush everything he wanted. All the major presidentail contenders of both parties support a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq. None has repudiated the conceit that Uncle sam is and should ever be the global hegemon. And most importantly, none has repudiated the Neoliberal Consensus, the notion that the market should be left to operate as "freely" as the public can be persuaded to allow it to act, and, crucially, that this is a model that should be imposed globally through the power of the U.S. working in tandem with such powerful global institutions as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO.
To the extent that this policy has been successful, inequalities between national classes and between the global North and South have widened dramatically since the decline of the Keynesian consensus in the mid-1970s. Since the Mondale candidacy, no Democrat has had a full-employment plank in his presidential platform. The median wage has been in secular decline since 1973, and the distribution of national income between capital and labor has not been as skewed toward capital since the Great Depression. But no member of either party has made a major issue of this.
One of the most powerful obstacles to appreciating the relevance of the 1934 planned coup to our times is the virtually ubiquitous misconception that the gross inequalities and anti-working-class policies now evident, and the reckless carnage that characterizes U.S. foreign policy, is the result of the "neoconservative revolution" ushered in by George W. Bush. But it was Clinton's cynical jettisoning of his relatively progressive Economic Stimulus Plan, his abolition of "welfare as we know it" without providing a replacement, and his ruthless bombing of Yugoslavia and "sanctions" against Iraq that both foreshadowed and paved the way for Bush's atrocities. The truism that the Democratic Party has moved ever closer to the Republicans since the Carter administration must not be forgotten. Indeed it is an understatement. To fully appreciate the reality of democratic capitulation as an alleged "opposition party" we need only reflect upon the consequences of Clinton's sanctions against Iraq.
Clinton bombed Iraq several times weekly for eight years. Defense Information Agency documents, now available through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that the strategy of the bombing was to extensively bomb water purification facilities and power generating facilities with the explicit intention to spread diseases that would affect children. The idea was to pressure ordinary Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, with the knowledge that if they did so, the pedicide would cease. But Iraqis blamed Washington for this catastrophe, not Saddam. When Saddam offered to accede to Clinton's requirements for ending the bombing, Clinton abruptly replied that no possible concessions on Saddam's part would lead him to end the bombing/sanctions.
Extensive investigations by widely respected sources, including the distinguished British medical journal The Lancet, determined that the number of Iraqi children who died as a direct result of the pedicidal bombardment was 467,000. And it added a fact unreported in the U.S. media, that the U.S. use of depleted uranium in the attacks had resulted in the first known cases of breast cancer afflicting four-year-old girls. When Clinton's Secretary of state Madeline Albright was asked by Lesley Stahl in 1996 on 60 Minutes whether she thought that the removal of Saddam from power was worth killing a half million children, she replied that "Yes, it was worth it."
Is this qualitatively different from the death and destruction that Bush has wrought? Of course not. The British playwright Harold Pinter has characterized both Clinton and Bush as "mass murderers", and the accusation sounds indeed brutal. But is it accurate? How can one deny that it is?
Today's Democrats' abdication of the role of opposition party is far more consequential than Roosevelt's decision to permit our embryonic fascists to continue to gestate. The difference between FDR and his Republican antagonists was far greater than the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats today. Today's Democrats have internalized and identified with the interests of those whom they should be actively mobilizing the population against. The Republocrats are now all of them heir to the fascist instincts inherent in the ruling elite. Republican elites manifest this in their policies as the party in power; Democratic elites evidence their unsavory class heritage by railing ritualistically against the Republicans even as they betray their fed-up constituencies by supporting the fundamental policies of their alleged "opponents".
Effective opposition at the current historical juncture requires the only force capable of defeating the neoliberal and imperialist obsessions of the mainstream parties and their financial masters: street politics, the mobilization and eventual organization of the people against a ruling establishment seen by an increasing number of Americans as terminally corrupt and indifferent to their most pressing needs.