February 2022

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

It Can’t Happen Here?


“Bonus Army” protests at the Capitol in 1932. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The nation was roiling from fear and discontent laid bare by the Great Depression. On the morning of FDR’s inauguration, March 4, 1933, Washington was braced for violence. Elected in a landslide, Roosevelt promised to make people’s lives better. They deserved a New Deal, he had said. But a faction of bankers and businessmen opposed to government spending to help those struggling hatched a plot to overthrow the new president. Had the coup succeeded, the New Deal—and the idea that a government exists to give all people the chance for a better life— would have ended before it had even begun. 

 

In this Issue:


The Forgotten Coup of 1933

Bonus Army


In 1932 WWI veterans laid siege to the U.S. Capitol demanding their service bonuses. Wealthy businessmen plotted to mobilize the disaffected soldiers and overthrow the newly elected FDR. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

That the American press largely ignored an attempt to forcibly overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt only months after his inauguration in 1933 seems less extraordinary in light of the right-wing media’s current efforts to dismiss a far more alarming—and televised—coup attempt on January 6, 2021.

Jonathan M. Katz resurrects that earlier effort in his just-released book Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. Author Sally Denton also did so in 2012 with her book The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, And the Rise of the American Right.

A week following the 2021 attack on the Capitol, Denton explicitly linked the two conspiracies. “The nation has never been at a potential brink as it was then—up until, I think, now,” she said. She reiterated her fears in an op-ed in the Post on the first anniversary of the attempted overthrow of the presidential election.

Smedley Butler

Smedley Butler
Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler asserted that wealthy businessmen were plotting to create a fascist veterans’ organization with Butler as its leader and use it in a coup d’état to overthrow Roosevelt. In a 1935 video clip, Smedley Butler describes the foiled “fascist plot.” (1.22 minutes) 

The plot against FDR might well have succeeded had Retired Major General Smedley Butler not blown the whistle on it. The revered former Marine claimed that a representative of some of the nation’s wealthiest men had approached him to lead an army of half a million veterans against the president and install a dictator in his place. It resembled a game plan inspired by European fascists admired by those same men.

A Congressional committee took testimony from Butler, who fingered such titans as J.P. Morgan, Jr., Irénée du Pont and others as the plot’s financial backers, calling them “the royal family of financiers.” FDR echoed Butler when accepting his party’s nomination at Madison Square Garden on June 27, 1936, branding his foes “economic royalists” to wild applause and going so far as to assert, “they are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Thanks to Butler, FDR had good cause to know the lengths to which they would go, though few others did.  

On the campaign trail in 1932

On the campaign trail in 1932
FDR with daughter Anna and Mrs. Roosevelt. He defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover in a landslide. Courtesy, Wikipedia Commons.

Roosevelt’s friend Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. confirmed that hatred in his tell-all autobiography Farewell to Fifth Avenue, in which he revealed that both of President Hoover’s Treasury Secretaries—Andrew Mellon and Ogden Mills—had privately tipped off leading members of their caste to the probability that the U.S. would go off the gold standard, giving them adequate time to move their assets to Swiss bank accounts while immeasurably worsening the Great Depression just before Roosevelt’s inauguration. Three months later, when the new President began the process by which the U.S. left the gold standard, they apparently moved more decisively against him.

The Business Plot, or “Wall Street Putsch,” today remains largely unknown and is seldom mentioned in Roosevelt biographies, perhaps because the nation’s major newspapers—whose owners largely opposed FDR—mocked it, if they mentioned it at all.

In its report, the Congressional committee charged with the investigation said it “had received evidence that certain people had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country,” but deleted the names of the people Butler had given it. The incensed Butler observed, “Like most committees, it has slaughtered the little and allowed the big to escape. The big shots weren’t even called to testify.” Without those names and further investigation, the report and plot sank into obscurity—until a violent mob stormed the Capitol 88 years later. 

It Can’t Happen Here

It Can’t Happen Here
Published in 1935, the height of fascism in Europe, Lewis’s book portrays the rise of totalitarian rule in the U.S. with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force. It was adapted into a play in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Wikipedia.

A 2007 radio documentary by BBC4 suggests that the plot is so little known because Roosevelt did not charge the conspirators with treason in exchange for a pledge by them not to oppose his New Deal policies. Whether that is true or Roosevelt simply felt that such a spectacular trial would even further divide the country at a time of crisis will probably never be known. That such a conspiracy happened, let alone was all but erased from public memory, seems far more conceivable after the events of January 6—not to mention Republicans’ attempt to block to any such investigation today.

The attack on the U.S. Capitol—not to mention the four years that preceded it—dealt a heavy blow to the American exceptionalism that Sinclair Lewis lampooned in his 1936 play, It Can’t Happen Here. “It” very nearly did in 2021, and may yet still.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

A Cornerstone for Conservation

Department of the Interior Building, Washington, D.C.

Department of the Interior Building, Washington, D.C.
Commissioned by the FDR Administration and now officially named for former DOI Secretary Stewart Lee Udall, the building contains a large collection of New Deal art. Courtesy, D.C. Preservation League.

In 1940, The Washington Post featured a 9-page photo essay on the capital’s new Department of Interior building. In photographs and text, the agency’s diverse functions were richly described. The building’s fashionable Art Deco or Moderne design and large, colorful public murals express New Deal progressive sentiments and faith in the government’s capacity to ensure the country’s prosperity. FDR described the building as “symbolical of the Nation’s vast resources that we are sworn to protect,” when he laid its cornerstone four years earlier and expressed his wish that the building’s construction represents the founding of “a conservation policy that will guarantee to future Americans the richness of their heritage.”

Harold Ickes (nickname "Honest Harold")

Harold Ickes (nickname "Honest Harold") 
FDR’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes oversaw the design and construction of the department’s massive new headquarters. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

DOI Secretary Harold Ickes was intimately involved in the design and planning of the new building, and his selection of Native artists to paint several murals made clear that significant aspects of this heritage were to be found in its Indigenous cultures. The cafeteria, Indian arts-and-crafts shop and employee lounge were decorated with murals by Native artists. The building also included a gallery and a museum to house the agency’s Native art collection.

The Post’s coverage of the building included several photos of murals by Native artists and the American Indian arts and crafts displayed on government workers’ desks and office walls. Euro-American administrators were posed in front of murals related to the functions of their particular departments. Employees of Native ancestry were prominently featured in photographs. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier was shown meeting with Navajo artisans Ambrose Roanhorse and Chester Yellowhair.

"Laying of the Cornerstone”

Laying the cornerstone
Department of Interior Building, 1935. From left, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Presidential Aide Gus Gennerich, Architect Waddy B. Wood, and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes. Courtesy, Waddy Wood Papers, Architectural Records Collection, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

A caption reads “visitors to the new Interior Building must step on Indian mats and pass huge buffalo seals made into the floor. Bright Indian blankets and rugs hang in glass cases, and around almost any corner there may be a niche for Indian baskets or pottery. Indian murals in the penthouse cafeteria…rate among the best wall decorations in town.”

Many murals are the work of well-known American Regionalists such as John Steuart Curry and Social Realists like William Gropper. Several Native American artists were chosen for the murals project, including James Auchiah (Kiowa), Stephen Mopope (Kiowa), Gerald Nailor (Navajo), Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache), Woody Crumbo (Creek/Potawatomi) and Velino Herrera (Zia Pueblo).

Interior Department Mural by Velino Herrera 

Interior Department Mural by Velino Herrera (Zia Pueblo)
Interior Department Building, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The style of these works conforms to centuries-old traditions of representation—a significant contrast to the building’s Moderne style, which reflects its European modernist lineage. The subjects of the murals by the indigenous artists were equally tradition-bound, depicting traditional communal activities such as seasonal dances, buffalo hunts and arts-and-crafts production.

Interior Department Mural by Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache)

Interior Department Mural by Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache)
Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

It is noteworthy that within a building styled to express the forward-thinking character of New Deal policies and programs, we find a large number of artistic expressions that convey a quite different message. The new DOI building and its art seem to convey the belief that America owes an important debt to its Native cultures. At the same time, however, it expresses the idea that Euro-Americans need a tradition-bound, constrained “other” for their own self construction as a people free and unconstrained.

Art historian Jennifer McLerran is former professor of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University. She has served as curator of Native American art at the Kennedy Museum of Art at Ohio University, the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and currently is a consultant to the Smithsonian on an upcoming exhibit of Native American textiles. Her upcoming webinar—Thursday, February 24, 2022, 5pm, PST—which is based on her book,“A New Deal for Native Art, Indian Arts and Federal Policy, 1933-1943,”will explore the government’s complicated role in promoting Native American arts and crafts. Free. Register.

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.