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A Plutocratic Coup

The threat of concentrated wealth and the ever-present danger that the imperious rich pose to majority rule.

"Not only should this real-life drama be highlighted in history books; it should be a blockbuster movie." (Photo: Philipp/cc/flickr)

"Not only should this real-life drama be highlighted in history books; it should be a blockbuster movie." (Photo: Philipp/cc/flickr)

Many Americans are reluctant to accept that coup conspiracies are part of country's history. We tend believe that plots to overthrow the government are totally foreign to our national character. But we do do coups. In fact, the country itself was founded on an armed coup to replace the legal ruler, King George III, with a gang of revolutionary upstarts. One coup that most of us haven't heard of is The Wall Street Putsch of 1933. The financial establishment — along with its media and political henchmen — rushed out to bury the story and protect the gentlemen of Wall Street implicated in the part. It's a heck of a story about capitalist skullduggery by a few Lords of Wealth trying to overthrow the government and enthrone a fascist regime friendly to them.

In 1933, the Great Depression was in full force, spreading mass unemployment, waves of bankruptcies and abject poverty. The people's boiling political anger was scaring the aloof denizens of Wall Street, as more and more people joined in open rebellion against all things the plutocrats considered sacrosanct: unfettered capitalism.

The year before, Franklin D. Roosevelt had scored a landslide presidential victory over Wall Street's man, then-President Herbert Hoover, by promising a New Deal for millions of Americans impoverished by the Depression. To the bankers' horror, the new president's government policies and programs to help people get back on their feet included new taxes on wealth.

Such Wall Street multimillionaires as Grayson M-P. Murphy (banker and Anaconda Copper Mining Co. head) and Robert Sterling Clark (heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune) were enraged by FDR's moves. "Class war," they wailed, claiming that their "liberty" to grab as much wealth as possible was being shackled. Calling Roosevelt a traitor to his class, these men implemented a plan to oust him by enlisting a private military force made up of thousands of destitute World War I vets who were protesting the failure to receive promised federal bonus payments. Gerald MacGuire, Murphy's bond salesman, was an ex-soldier and an active member of The American Legion. MacGuire reached out to retired Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler, a respected advocate for veterans. After several meetings spent discussing veterans' issues, MacGuire finally explained that the financial powers he represented wanted Butler to create a paramilitary corps of 500,000 vets and march on Washington to force FDR from the White House.

MacGuire told Butler that the Wall Street cohort plus a new group called American Liberty League (made up of the right-wing bosses of such corporate giants as DuPont, Colgate, General Foods and General Motors) were prepared to fund the cause to the tune of $300 million (about $5.6 billion in today's money), and that Remington Arms would supply the weapons. The conspirators thought that FDR would go down without a fight and would welcome the coup. Once in place, the financiers and militarists would install a "secretary of general affairs" to run the country. And one of their choices was Smedley Butler.

But he was the wrong general. Butler was a patriot and a lifelong soldier for democracy, and he was astounded and repulsed by the hubris and treachery of these aristocrats from Wall Street. Butler enlisted investigative reporter Paul Comly French to help gather proof of the bankers' intent. With evidence in hand, Butler got the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities to conduct an investigation, which convinced members of the committee that Butler's story was "alarmingly true." The committee then opened public hearings with Butler giving detailed testimony.

Wall Street responded by immediately launching a coordinated counterattack assailing Butler and dismissing the idea that very idea of a coup was preposterous. They got the establishment media to pile on to discredit him. But the House committee final report concluded that it was "able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler," and that "There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient."

Nonetheless, officials failed to punish the perpetuators of this outrageous assault on our democracy. And with the help of a Wall Street-loving media, the coup attempt was sealed off from our history books.

Fortunately, a real patriot was able to expose the traitors, nipping the coup d'etat in the bud. Their attempt reveals the threat of concentrated wealth and the ever-present danger that the imperious rich pose to majority rule. Not only should this real-life drama be highlighted in history books; it should be a blockbuster movie.

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Jim Hightower

Jim Hightower

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be - consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

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