On July 6 2023, a post to Reddit’s r/todayilearned subreddit shared a post about United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and “The Business Plot” of 1933:
FDR and the Business Plot on r/todayilearned
As was commonly the case with posts on r/todayilearned, the title was a short summary of the claim. It read:
TIL [today I learned] of The Business Plot of 1933, a failed attempt to overthrow FDR and install a dictator. Led by a covertly bankrolled Wall Street coalition of affluent businessmen[.]
A rather disheartening trend appeared in the comments, where Reddit users repeatedly speculated that the Business Plot against FDR could be more accurately described as “postponed” rather than “prevented.” Comments in one subthread pertained to purported Business Plot organizers and the presence of their descendants in American politics:
“Then over time, they gradually implemented their takeover and the nation didn’t notice. We now live in an oligarchy run by these wealthy people and their descendants. One of their kids was President already.”
“JP Morgan, DuPont, Prescott Bush. Let that sink in.”
“And their grandkid, too. Prescott Bush was a Nazi sympathizer, and wanted america to side with Hitler.”
“Yeah, Prescott Bush really won in the end. It just took his kid helping to kill one president and then his grandkid letting 9/11 happen. After that, everything he was trying to get in the 30s was implemented by [former Vice President Dick] Chaney and [former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld] Rummy.”
Another account (u/gnomechompskey) commented along similar lines:
“In part because there were no repercussions, this plot failed but their next plot succeeded.
“Likely the most consequential and destructive moment in 20th century American politics was when a group of segregationist and pro-business conservative Democrats managed to block the re-nomination of Henry Wallace—FDR’s Vice President, the clear winner of the first ballot, and the most popular person in the history of Gallup polling to ever hold executive office—in favor of a racist, conservative puppet of corporate interests and staunch anti-Communist, Harry Truman, at the 1944 DNC. Wallace was polling at 91% approval, still the record, while Truman had the support of 2% of the population to be vice president and wasn’t even actively seeking the nomination.
“All insiders knew Roosevelt’s health was failing and the VP would be our next president. Wallace opposed the Cold War, the arms race with the Soviet Union, and racial segregation. He was a strong advocate of labor unions, universal national health insurance, government funded higher education, public works jobs, and women’s equality. He called for an end to ‘military or economic imperialism,’ exploitation of nations and their workers worldwide, the ‘second-class citizenship’ of women and non-white Americans, and aggressive foreign interventionism. He wanted to create 60 million jobs to provide full employment to every American that sought work, all back in the 1940s. This made him anathema to the wealthy elite who conspired through bribery, backroom deals, coercion, and even pulling the fire alarm at the convention like something out of [the television show] Veep to keep him off the ticket by any means necessary.
“Had Americans’ will been exercised rather than thwarted by monied interests within the DNC, it is exceedingly likely that the Cold War and all its attendant atrocities would have never happened, we wouldn’t have dropped two atomic bombs on a nation actively suing for peace, there may be no military-industrial complex driving all foreign policy decisions and government spending, and we would have universal healthcare, racial integration, equality for women, free public college, and a robust jobs program enshrined in the laws of our nation over 70 years ago instead of still fighting for all those things today.”
In a thread under that comment, u/ovensandhoes said:
They went home, regrouped and played the long game. Didn’t help they were aided by the weakest generation(boomers)
It looked as if the popularity of the post could be chalked up to Reddit users finding the details of the claim to be uncomfortably echoed in the following decades.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal vs. Business Interests: Then and Now
In the post’s title and ensuing discourse, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was framed as a leader whose presence was inherently unwelcome to business.
Roosevelt’s role in American politics in the twentieth century loomed large, and his Brittanica.com entry provided a concise overview of his time in office:
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in full Franklin Delano Roosevelt, byname FDR, (born January 30, 1882, Hyde Park, New York, U.S.—died April 12, 1945, Warm Springs, Georgia), 32nd president of the United States (1933–45). The only president elected to the office four times, Roosevelt led the United States through two of the greatest crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II. In so doing, he greatly expanded the powers of the federal government through a series of programs and reforms known as the New Deal, and he served as the principal architect of the successful effort to rid the world of German National Socialism and Japanese militarism.
Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and took office in 1933; his record-breaking four terms in office began with the Great Depression and ended with World War II. If Roosevelt’s legacy began and ended with simply guiding the United States through two major events in history, it would be an impressive legacy. However, the scope of Roosevelt’s role in shaping the mid-century United States was far broader, particularly with respect to the New Deal. A History.com profile summarized FDR’s New Deal, a major part of his platform in 1932:
The New Deal was a series of programs and projects instituted during the Great Depression by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that aimed to restore prosperity to Americans. When Roosevelt took office in 1933, he acted swiftly to stabilize the economy and provide jobs and relief to those who were suffering. Over the next eight years, the government instituted a series of experimental New Deal projects and programs, such as the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps], the WPA [Works Progress Administration], the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority], the SEC [Securities & Exchange Commission] and others.
A section of the entry was, again, uncannily similar to then-current and recent events as of July 2023:
Meanwhile, the New Deal itself confronted one political setback after another. Arguing that they represented an unconstitutional extension of federal authority, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court had already invalidated reform initiatives like the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration.
In order to protect his programs from further meddling, in 1937 President Roosevelt announced a plan to add enough liberal justices to the Court to neutralize the “obstructionist” conservatives.
This “Court-packing” turned out to be unnecessary—soon after they caught wind of the plan, the conservative justices started voting to uphold New Deal projects—but the episode did a good deal of public-relations damage to the administration and gave ammunition to many of the president’s Congressional opponents.
That same year, the economy slipped back into a recession when the government reduced its stimulus spending. Despite this seeming vindication of New Deal policies, increasing anti-Roosevelt sentiment made it difficult for him to enact any new programs.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. The war effort stimulated American industry and, as a result, effectively ended the Great Depression.
A Library of Congress (LOC.gov) resource about FDR’s New Deal further explained:
The New Deal Roosevelt had promised the American people began to take shape immediately after his inauguration in March 1933. Based on the assumption that the power of the federal government was needed to get the country out of the depression, the first days of Roosevelt’s administration saw the passage of banking reform laws, emergency relief programs, work relief programs, and agricultural programs. Later, a second New Deal was to evolve; it included union protection programs, the Social Security Act, and programs to aid tenant farmers and migrant workers. Many of the New Deal acts or agencies came to be known by their acronyms. For example, the Works Progress Administration was known as the WPA, while the Civilian Conservation Corps was known as the CCC. Many people remarked that the New Deal programs reminded them of alphabet soup.
By 1939, the New Deal had run its course. In the short term, New Deal programs helped improve the lives of people suffering from the events of the depression. In the long run, New Deal programs set a precedent for the federal government to play a key role in the economic and social affairs of the nation.
As noted, Roosevelt worked to enact “banking reform laws” (including the creation of the SEC), “union protection programs” (a boon to labor), and various “relief” programs. The first two items were straightforward inconveniences for the robber barons of the day, policing banks and bolstering unions.
As for “relief programs,” those too have historically agitated business and capital interests. In January 2023, we published a fact check regarding a retrospective collection of laments that “nobody wants to work anymore“:
Two of the examples cited took place during Roosevelt’s four terms in office, in 1937 and 1940:
In the “1940” screenshot, newspaper text read in part:
“… Gov. Heil [of Wisconsin] said he wanted to lower taxes, ‘but the trouble is everybody is on relief or a pensoon — nobody wants to work anymore.”
On March 17 2020, the first major research on a then-emerging pandemic was published, ushering in a long period of mitigation measures and stay-at-home orders. Within three days (on March 20 2020), CNN reported that Republican lawmakers were hesitant to join other nations in providing “relief” (often called “economic stimulus”) to Americans:
Key Senate Republicans disagree with cash payments to Americans
There was significant debate and disagreement in the Senate Republican Conference lunch [on March 19 2020] over President Donald Trump’s proposal to provide most Americans with $1,000-plus checks to boost spending and stimulate the economy, stalled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Senior Republicans pushed back on the idea, arguing it would be more effective to use that money to support loans and grants to small businesses that keep their employees on the payroll and to boost funding for state unemployment systems.
Sen. Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said he didn’t understand the logic of sending cash to people who have not lost their jobs … Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina and ally of Trump, argued the direct payments might be better used later, once the virus is defeated and a stimulus might jump-start the economy.
Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, said the loan program would have a “much bigger impact” than direct payments.
“I think that has the greatest bang for the buck to be able to keep people employed. A one-time check that comes to someone is not as significant as knowing my job is going to be there,” Lankford said.
By March 24 2020, disgraced former U.S. President Donald Trump was expressing grave fears for the safety of the economy, and other politicians followed his lead by focusing intensely on the effects of a novel pathogen on business, rather than on families or society at large:
Despite expert warnings that a two-week lockdown (which [wasn’t] even being fully implemented nationally [as of March 24 2020]) is not enough to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Trump said that he wanted to reevaluate things after that time was up (reasonable) and get people back to work, possibly reopening schools as well (which is less so), so that the economy could keep going.
Trump did not put it in such glaringly explicit terms. But Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) did, going on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show and saying we need to get back to work now, level of death be damned.
In the [Fox News] interview, Patrick said senior citizens needed to take a “chance” on their survival to keep America the way it is.
“I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed… we can’t lose our whole country … let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living,” he said.
Through March and April 2020, editorials and articles described the growing tension between business and Americans concerned about becoming infected and falling ill. “Back to work” was a phrase commonly uttered by politicians in response to questions about direct cash aid to Americans; on May 5 2020, PBS reported:
President Donald Trump is encouraging states to reopen and Republicans hope the gradual comeback will kickstart the economy, reducing the pressure for more pricey aid.
“Now it’s time to go back to work,” Trump said Tuesday [May 5 2020] at the White House.
Under strict social distancing guidelines, the Senate reconvened Monday [May 4 2020] for the first time since March , while the House is staying away due to the health risks as the conflicted Congress reflects an uneasy nation. The Washington area remains a virus hot spot under stay-home rules.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the chamber defending his decision to focus the agenda on confirming Trump’s nominees rather than the virus outbreak.
On Tuesday [May 5 2020], McConnell insisted that any new aid package must include liability protections for the hospitals, health care providers and businesses that are operating and reopening in the pandemic.
On May 15 2020, NPR’s “Debate Over Reopening Puts Partisan Divide On Full Display” articulated how a virus became a politically partisan issue in the space of under two months:
Many Republicans are taking a controversial stance by reopening without sufficient testing in place and are blaming Democrats for the country’s current economic woes.
“The people want to go back, the numbers are getting to a point where they can, and there just seems to be no effort on certain blue states to get back into gear,” President Trump recently told reporters in the Rose Garden.
The New York Times published an editorial on the same day, “McConnell’s Rush to Protect Businesses Endangers Everyone Else.” Before delving into specific instances of workers being infected and falling ill, the newspaper’s editorial board opened by addressing the largest stated concern of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) at the time of publication — shielding businesses from liability introduced by forcing workers back to their workplaces during an active and rapidly spreading global airborne pandemic:
There’s a tension at the heart of all of the plans to reopen the country in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic: The economy needs Americans to get back to work, but workplaces need employees and customers to feel that coming back won’t endanger their health or their lives.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, seems to be concerned primarily with the first half. The biggest obstacle, as he sees it, is not a deadly disease but rapacious trial lawyers, capitalizing on the virus to chase ambulances and bankrupt American businesses.
“If people don’t come and businesses are afraid to open because of the lawyers that are lurking on the curbside outside their doors, we won’t have the reopening we want,” he said late last month [of April 2020]. [McConnell] warned of “years of endless lawsuits” from employees and customers flooding the courthouses with claims that a business’s negligence infected them with the virus. He’s called this supposed wave of litigation a “second pandemic.”
As Congress gears up for the next installment of its stimulus package, Mr. McConnell has drawn a line: No more money for anyone until businesses get immunity from liability during the pandemic. The demands being debated include making it harder to claim that a business is at fault for a worker’s or customer’s infection, protecting businesses that are making personal protective equipment like masks for the first time, and protecting employers against privacy lawsuits if they disclose a worker’s infection.
From the earliest days of the pandemic to its first peak in the summer of 2020, most developed countries disbursed aid packages to their citizens as a matter of course, and in response to global public health recommendations to do so. Politicians like McConnell consistently framed those common programs as a “disincentive” to earn money:
… negotiations [between Democrats and Republicans] are likely to be even more painful in [a second] round of talks, with Republicans and Democrats divided over what to do with billions of dollars in programs that are set to expire at the end of July . One such program — the extra $600 per week in jobless benefits — has been a financial lifeline for America’s 44 million unemployed, but the two sides can’t agree whether to renew it. Republicans argue that the program provides a disincentive to return to work.
McConnell said [on June 30 2020] that “unemployment is extremely important” but added “that is a different issue from whether we ought to pay people a bonus not to go back to work.”
Debate over economic aid packages persisted as Republican lawmakers frequently asserted that the small sums distributed to Americans were unneeded, and that they were furthermore a barrier to “work”:
… leading congressional Republicans, some Senate Democrats and a handful of Trump’s economic advisers have questioned the need for a second stimulus check, posing a potential challenge to the stimulus package set to be taken up by lawmakers in July .
“A lot of the stimulus checks that have gone out right now — people have been saving money and putting it into their savings accounts,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told reporters this week. “For me, let’s get people back to work. I think that’s a better way.”
There’s some concern among White House officials that Americans pocketed the money rather than spending it, according to The Washington Post, citing a person with knowledge of the internal discussions. Since the pandemic started, U.S. bank deposits have surged by $2 trillion, buoyed by the federal government’s massive relief efforts.
In April , the personal savings rate in the country climbed to 33 percent, according to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.
In the June 24 2020 Fox Business article excerpted above, the outlet claimed that “the personal savings rate in the country climbed to 33 percent” in April 2020, implying that Americans received money, but were so flush with cash that they socked it away. On April 2 2020, Politico.com published “First stimulus payments expected to go out week of April 13 ,” informing anxious American readers that their first payments would arrive on April 13 2020 (and that those “with the lowest incomes” would get their checks first):
The IRS expects to start sending an initial wave of economic stimulus payments, worth up to $1,200 apiece, to some 60 million Americans the week of April 13 , Treasury Department and IRS officials have told the House Ways and Means Committee.
But it could take up to five months for the payments to land in the mailboxes of millions of other people who have to be paid by check.
Taxpayers in the first wave have direct deposit information on file with the IRS from their 2018 or 2019 tax returns. Paper checks would start going out in May  to people who don’t have direct deposit information on file with the IRS, which includes nearly 100 million Americans. About 5 million checks will be sent weekly, and it could take up to 20 weeks to distribute all of them.
A correction was later added to emphasize that it could take “months” for some Americans to obtain their first “stimulus” payment:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report cited an incorrect time period. It could take up to five months for some people to receive stimulus checks by mail.
That reporting was published before any payments were distributed or received, and it estimated that there would be five million payments each week, beginning on April 13 2020. Just under 94 percent of Americans were eligible to receive the payments, or around 308 million people; if the article was accurate, between ten and fifteen million Americans would have received their checks in the month of April 2020, or between 3.4 and 4.8 percent of all eligible recipients — making it virtually impossible that the “savings rate” was bolstered by the first round of payments.
Ultimately, corporate hostility regarding government aid to struggling Americans has remained a constant for at least 90 years, as demonstrated by the events of 2020.
FDR and the Business Plot of 1933
As indicated above, the Reddit post in question was about the Business Plot of 1933, an attempt to “overthrow FDR and install a dictator” in his place — it too a claim with uncomfortably familiar echoes in modern American politics.
On the website for the nonpartisan Miller Center, FDR’s legacy and the New Deal were summarized as follows, describing progress for labor and workers in 1935:
Under FDR, the American federal government assumed new and powerful roles in the nation’s economy, in its corporate life, and in the health, welfare, and well-being of its citizens. The federal government in 1935 guaranteed unions the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a mechanism for putting a floor under wages and a ceiling on hours that continues to this day. It provided, in 1935, financial aid to the aged, infirm, and unemployed when they could no longer provide for themselves. Beginning in 1933, it helped rural and agricultural America with price supports and development programs when these sectors could barely survive. Finally, by embracing an activist fiscal policy after 1937, the government assumed responsibility for smoothing out the rough spots in the American economy.
Writ large, the New Deal sought to insure that the economic, social, and political benefits of American capitalism were distributed more equally among America’s large and diverse populace. The New Deal did this to a remarkable degree.
Posts on Reddit’s r/todayilearned typically linked to an article or encyclopedic entry relating to the title of the post, and this one linked to “The Conspiratorial Business Plot of 1933” on history-centric site ExploreTheArchive.com. It began with a brief history of events in 1933, before describing a $300 million coup bankrolled by “the J.P. Morgan banking firm”:
Many conservative businessmen were upset by Roosevelt’s election because of his campaign promise to have the government provide jobs for the unemployed. Wealthy businessmen were concerned that he would introduce reckless spending and economic socialism. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, which addressed almost every sector of the economy in the form of regulations, social programs, and financial reforms, made him an ever-growing problem in the eyes of big business and banks.
Furthermore, the United States’ adherence to the gold standard deteriorated with the onset of the Great Depression, even after Western European countries abandoned it. Roosevelt officially removed the United States from the gold standard when he signed the Gold Reserve Act of 1934, which made most forms of gold illegal for the general public to possess. The end of the gold standard was said to have shocked Wall Street because they saw a currency that was not solidly backed by gold as inflationary, undermining both private and business fortunes. The 1973 book The Plot to Seize the White House notes that “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.”
ExploreTheArchive.com indicated that Major General Smedley Butler, a highly decorated Marine, testified about the plot after it came to light. According to the piece, Butler said that a man named Gerald MacGuire “approached him about leading a private army of 500,000 ex-soldiers funded by $300 million provided by a group of wealthy businessmen”; the site didn’t clarify whether the $300 million figure was adjusted for inflation.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) inflation calculator could not calculate sums as large as $300 million, so we calculated the difference between $300 (million) in 1933 and 2023:
Google search results for “Business Plot 1933” were sparse enough that the Reddit thread linked above was the sixteenth most highly-ranked link. A handful of articles preceded it, such as NPR‘s “When The Bankers Plotted To Overthrow FDR” in February 2012:
“This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty,” one senator wrote to a colleague. “The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot. The president has not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism, but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom.”
[Author of a book about the conspiracy Sally Denton] says that during the tense months between FDR’s election in November  and his inauguration in March 1933, democracy hung in the balance.
“There was a lot at play. It could have gone very different directions,” Denton says.
Though it’s hard for us to imagine today, she says fascism, communism, even Naziism seemed like possible solutions to the country’s ills.
“There were suggestions that capitalism was not working, that democracy was not working,” she says.
Another uncomfortable contrast appeared in that February 2012 excerpt, where NPR posited that “suggestions” that “democracy was not working” were “hard to imagine today.” Although it might have been “hard to imagine” in 2012, that was not the case in 2023 — in May 2023 Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Alabama) floated the idea of canceling all elections in the United States, and two months earlier Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) said the United States was “not a democracy,” and that’s not even counting the attempted coup on January 6 2021.
It was difficult to contrast the two events without quoting extensively from Denton’s interview with NPR back in February 2012. Even the content of conspiracy theories of the day (in 1933) aligned almost entirely with their 2023 counterparts, nearly a full century later. Denton described them, saying that the coup plotters at first believed Roosevelt — born into an exceptionally wealthy and influential family — could be persuaded to go along with them:
Critics on the right worried that Roosevelt was a Communist, a socialist or the tool of a Jewish conspiracy. Critics on the left complained his policies didn’t go far enough. Some of Roosevelt’s opponents didn’t stop at talk. Though it’s barely remembered today, there was a genuine conspiracy to overthrow the president.
The Wall Street Putsch, as it’s known today, was a plot by a group of right-wing financiers.
“They thought that they could convince Roosevelt, because he was of their, the patrician class, they thought that they could convince Roosevelt to relinquish power to basically a fascist, military-type government,” Denton says.
In that excerpt, NPR called the Business Plot “the Wall Street Putsch,” much in the same way the January 6 2021 insurrection was described as bearing an “uncanny resemblance” to the Beer Hall Putsch — a failed coup that preceded Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany, his ascendancy eventually fueled by law enforcement agencies that had been infiltrated by his allies:
In November 1923, Adolf Hitler led a violent coup against the democratic system of Germany’s Weimar Republic. The coup started in an unlikely spot — a beer hall in Munich, the Bürgerbräukeller, very far from the capital city of Berlin and its parliament. But at this beer hall, the political, military, and police leaders of the state of Bavaria were meeting. Hitler wanted to enlist them in a “March on Berlin” to overturn the democratic government. He went to the beer hall to give a speech.
For five years, Hitler and others on the German right had been telling their followers a lie: that Germany had not really lost World War I. Instead, Germany had been “stabbed in the back,” betrayed by civilian politicians (democrats and socialists, controlled, Hitler said, by Jews). Bavaria became the center of a large network of right-wing militia groups who believed the lie and were ready to act on it.
Hitler learned his lesson: A sophisticated modern state could not be overturned by a violent coup led by outsiders, against the police and the army. He realized he would have to work within the system.
Over the following decade [after the Beer Hall Putsch], this is exactly what he did. The Nazis ran in elections until they were the largest party in Germany’s parliament, gridlocking legislative business. Even more insidiously, the Nazis worked to infiltrate crucial institutions like the police and the army. In 1931, Berlin police responded incredibly sluggishly to a massive Nazi riot in the center of the city. It turned out senior police officials silently sympathized with the Nazis and had colluded in hobbling the police response.
In January 2023, The Nation published a piece contrasting the Beer Hall Putsch with the Capitol insurrection on January 6 2021, arriving at a somber set of predictions (two years after the incident):
… Trump and the Republicans appear to be ahead of Hitler and the Nazis on intimidating opponents and sabotaging democratic institutions. While the Nazis mostly focused on breaking up meetings of communists and launching youth radicalization programs like Hitler Youth, Trump and the Republicans have taken intimidation to new levels. One tactic has been for sympathizers to harass local election officials, to force independent members to resign and replace them with loyalists, as part of a larger effort to undermine election results. Another has been for far-right and Trump-affiliated groups to disrupt local school committee meetings to oppose mask mandates and undermine public education.
At some Republican events, the pressure for violence is nearly palpable. In Idaho, a supporter asked Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk this question: “When do we get to use the guns?… That’s not a joke…. I mean, literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”
We don’t know exactly how Trump will fare in another run for president, but the actual vote may matter little. In the recent book Hitler’s First Hundred Days, historian Peter Fritzsche writes that the power brokers who handed over dictatorial power to Hitler in January 1933, absent majority support, were focused on ending the ever-worsening polarization, inconclusive elections, and political gridlock, “because the divisions in the country had created political paralysis.… Better ‘an end with horror’ than ‘horror without end,’ asserted one Nazi leader.”
Shirer quotes a speech from November 9, 1936, celebrating the 13th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, in which Hitler reflected on his elevation to chancellor: “In 1933 it was no longer a question of overthrowing a state by an act of violence; meanwhile the new State had been built up, and all that there remained to do was to destroy the last remnants of the old State—and that took but a few hours.”
As Republicans undermine America’s election system, it’s not difficult—absent a successful legal prosecution—to imagine Trump reflecting in a few years about just how easy his takeover of the United States turned out to be.
On January 1 2022, Rolling Stone published “The Plot Against American Democracy That Isn’t Taught in Schools,” an excerpt of a book about the Business Plot of 1933 by journalist Jonathan Katz. In part, it explained how the plot was pitched by MacGuire to Butler:
MacGuire had attended a meeting of the Croix de Feu in Paris. It was the sort of “super-organization” he believed Americans could get behind — especially with a beloved war hero like Butler at the helm … [MacGuire] made his proposal: The Marine [Butler] would lead half a million veterans in a march on Washington, blending the Croix de Feu’s assault on the French legislature with the March on Rome that had put Mussolini’s Fascisti in power in Italy a decade earlier. They would be financed and armed by some of the most powerful corporations in America — including DuPont, the nation’s biggest manufacturer of explosives and synthetic materials.
The purpose of the action was to stop Roosevelt’s New Deal, the president’s program to end the Great Depression, which one of the millionaire du Pont brothers deemed “nothing more or less than the Socialistic doctrine called by another name.” Butler’s veteran army, MacGuire explained, would pressure the president to appoint a new secretary of state, or “secretary of general affairs,” who would take on the executive powers of government. If Roosevelt went along, he would be allowed to remain as a figurehead, like the king of Italy. Otherwise, he would be forced to resign, placing the new super-secretary in the White House.
Butler recognized this immediately as a coup. He knew the people who were allegedly behind it. He had made a life in the overlapping seams of capital and empire, and he knew that the subversion of democracy by force had turned out to be a required part of the job he had chosen. “I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers,” Butler would write a year later. “In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”
And Butler knew another thing that most Americans didn’t: how much they would suffer if anyone did to their democracy what he had done to so many others across the globe.
Katz touched on the decades after the Business Plot and how it faded from public memory, continuing with the destabilization caused by the September 11 2001 attacks and their long-reaching effects on American politics:
As long as the United States seemed eternally ascendant, it was easy to tell ourselves, as Americans, that the global dominance of U.S. capital and the unparalleled reach of the U.S. military had been coincidences, or fate; that America’s rise as a cultural and economic superpower was just natural — a galaxy of individual choices, freely made, by a planet hungry for an endless supply of Marvel superheroes and the perfect salty crunch of McDonald’s fries.
But the illusion is fading. The myth of American invulnerability was shattered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The attempt to recover a sense of dominance resulted in the catastrophic “forever wars” launched in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. The deaths of well over half a million Americans in the coronavirus pandemic, and our seeming inability to halt or contend with the threats of climate change, are further reminders that we can neither accumulate nor consume our way out of a fragile and interconnected world.
Butler was telling a messier story than the ones Americans like to hear about ourselves. But we ignore the past at our peril … To those who did not know or have ignored America’s imperial history, it could seem that Trump was an alien force (“This is not who we are,” as the liberal saying goes), or that the implosion of his presidency has made it safe to slip back into comfortable amnesias. But the movement Trump built — a movement that stormed the Capitol, tried to overturn an election, and, as I write these words, still dreams of reinstalling him by force — is too firmly rooted in America’s past to be dislodged without substantial effort. It is a product of the greed, bigotry, and denialism that were woven into the structure of U.S. global supremacy from the beginning — forces that now threaten to break apart not only the empire but the society that birthed it.
Katz returned to the Business Plot, explaining that the planned coup was framed as impotent and overblown (“hard to swallow — or easy to suppress”) in news media reports at the time. Butler testified “before a two-man panel of the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities,” and Katz said:
The committee’s final report was both complimentary to Butler and exceptionally vague:
In the last few weeks of the committee’s official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country[.] There is no question but that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.
The committee said it had “verified all the pertinent statements made by General Butler.” But it named no one directly in connection with the alleged coup.
Also in January 2022, The Guardian published “Why is so little known about the 1930s coup attempt against FDR?” Written by investigative journalist Sally Denton, it reiterated the basic elements of the plot, and its aftermath (or lack thereof):
The planned coup was thwarted when Butler reported it to J Edgar Hoover at the FBI, who reported it to FDR. How seriously the “Wall Street putsch” endangered the Roosevelt presidency remains unknown, with the national press at the time mocking it as a “gigantic hoax” and historians like Arthur M Schlesinger Jr surmising “the gap between contemplation and execution was considerable” and that democracy was not in real danger. Still, there is much evidence that the nation’s wealthiest men – Republicans and Democrats alike – were so threatened by FDR’s policies that they conspired with antigovernment paramilitarism to stage a coup.
As Congressman John McCormack who headed the congressional investigation put it: “If General Butler had not been the patriot he was, and if they had been able to maintain secrecy, the plot certainly might very well have succeeded … When times are desperate and people are frustrated, anything could happen.”
There is still much that is not known about the coup attempt. Butler demanded to know why the names of the country’s richest men were removed from the final version of the committee’s report. “Like most committees, it has slaughtered the little and allowed the big to escape,” Butler said in a Philadelphia radio interview in 1935. “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 this testimony?”
While details of the conspiracy are still matters of historical debate, journalists and historians, including the BBC’s Mike Thomson and John Buchanan of the US, later concluded that FDR struck a deal with the plotters, allowing them to avoid treason charges – and possible execution – if Wall Street backed off its opposition to the New Deal. The presidential biographer Sidney Blumenthal recently said that Roosevelt should have pushed it all through, then reneged on his agreement and prosecuted them.
If the plotters had been held accountable in the 1930s, the forces behind the 6 January  coup attempt might never have flourished into the next century.
Denton, Katz, and others quoted above often observed that the Business Plot of 1933 was rapidly forgotten or suppressed; its Wikipedia entry indicated that most historians “agree that some sort of ‘wild scheme’ was contemplated and discussed,” but listed it as one of four attempts to overthrow the United States government. Wikipedia’s Wikisource provided a partially complete resource (titled “McCormack–Dickstein Committee”) page, transcribing scanned documents associated with the U.S. House of Representatives, Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of Nazi Propaganda Activities and Investigation of Certain Other Propaganda Activities.
Prior to the first scanned portion (a statement by the House Committee on Un-American Activities or HUAC on November 24, 1934), a section labeled “Deleted text” appeared. It prefaced the transcribed records with information about redactions and other inaccessible information, and identified portions restored and pieced together decades after the hearings:
The McCormack-Dickstein Committee “delet[ed] extensive excerpts relating to Wall Street financiers including Guaranty Trust director Grayson Murphy, J.P. Morgan, the Du Pont interests, Remington Arms, and others allegedly involved in the plot attempt. Even today, in 1975, a full transcript of the hearings cannot be traced.”
“Journalist John L. Spivak, researching Nazism and anti-Semitism for New Masses magazine, got permission from Dickstein to examine HUAC’s public documents and was (it seems unwittingly) given the unexpurgated testimony amid stacks of other papers”, which he printed.
↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ Text in Red is deleted excerpts from the Congressional record, as reported by John L. Spivak; click the ^ to see the deleted text. The first seven pages of Part 1 were not part of the Congressional record, but were found on Google Books (though difficult to ferret out, partially using quotes found by searching for “glazier” in articles found on newspapers.com for the dates on and just after December 29, 1934).
“Text in Red” marked redactions or deletions, such as in a section on page 21, “Testimony of Paul Comly French”:
French was a journalist; he testified to the committee under oath. On page 21, portions of French’s testimony were marked in red (initially redacted), covering a meeting between French and MacGuire.
It appeared that the initial redactions largely were sections identifying individuals suspected of organizing the Business Plot:
[Mr. FRENCH] September 13, 1934, I came to New York, went to his office on the twelfth floor of 52 Broadway. The whole floor is occupied by Grayson M.-P. Murphy & Co. At first he was somewhat cagey in talking, and then he warmed up.
[The CHAIRMAN] You had this talk with MacGuire?
[Mr. FRENCH] Gerald P. MacGuire in the offices of Grayson M.-P. Murphy & Co., the twelfth floor of 52 Broadway, shortly after 1 o’clock in the afternoon. [MacGuire] has a small private office there and I went into his office. I have here some direct quotes from him. As soon as I left his office I got to a typewriter and made a memorandum of everything that he told me.
We need a Fascist government in this country, he insisted, to save the Nation from the communists who want to tear it down and wreck all that we have built in America. The only men who have the patriotism to do it are the soldiers and Smedley Butler is the ideal leader. He could organize a million men over night.
During the conversation he told me he had been in Italy and Germany during the summer of 1934 and the spring of 1934 and had made an intensive study of the background of the Nazi and Fascist movements and how the veterans had played a part in them. He said he had obtained enough information on the Fascist and Nazi movements and of the part played by the veterans, to properly set up one in this country.
He emphasized throughout his conversation with me that the whole thing was tremendously patriotic, that it was saving the Nation from communists, and that the men they deal with have that crackbrained idea that the Communists are going to take it apart. He said the only safeguard would be the soldiers. At first he suggested that the General organize this outfit himself and ask a dollar a year dues from everybody. We discussed that, and then he came around to the point of getting outside financial funds, and [MacGuire] said that it would not be any trouble to raise a million dollars. He said that he could go to John W. Davis [attorney for J.P. Morgan & Co.] or Perkins of the National City Bank, and any number of persons and get it.
Of course, that may or may not mean anything. That is, his reference to John W. Davis and Perkins of the National City Bank.
During my conversation with him I did not of course commit the General to anything. I was just feeling him along. Later, we discussed the question of arms and equipment, and he suggested that they could be obtained from the Remington Arms Co., on credit through the du Ponts. I do not think at that time he mentioned the connections of du Pont with the American Liberty League, but he skirted all around it. That is, I do not think he mentioned the Liberty League, but he skirted all around the idea that that was the back door, and that this was the front door; one of the du Ponts is on the board of directors of the American Liberty League and they own a controlling interest in the Remington Arms Co. In other words he suggested that Roosevelt would be in sympathy with us and proposed the idea that Butler would be named as the head of the C.C.C. camps by the President as a means of building up this organization. He would then have 300,000 men. Then he said that if that did not work the General would not have any trouble enlisting 500,000 men.
Swaths of Butler’s testimony included red redactions, interspersed with published portions. A previously referenced piece of testimony about Roosevelt’s wealth and “class” were among the redactions, alongside a statement attributed to MacGuire about holding influence over President Roosevelt:
[Butler] I said, “The President has got the whole American people. Why does he want them?”
[MacGuire] said “Don’t you understand the set-up has got to be changed a bit? Now, we have got him—we have got the President. He has got to have more money. There is not any more money to give him. Eighty percent of the money now is in Government bonds, and he cannot keep this racket up much longer. He has got to do something about it. He has either got to get more money out of us or he has got to change the method of financing the Government, and we are going to see to it that he does not change that method. He will not change it. He is with us now.
I said, “The idea of this great group of soldiers, then, is to sort of frighten him, is it?”
“No, no, no; not to frighten him. This is to sustain him when others assault him.”
He said, “You know, the President is weak. He will come right along with us. He was born in this class. He was raised in this class, and he will come back. He will run true to form. In the end he will come around. But we have got to be prepared to sustain him when he does.”
I said, “Well, I do not know about that. How would the President explain it?”
He said: “He will not necessarily have to explain it, because we are going to help him out. Now, did it ever occur to you that the President is overworked? We might have an Assistant President, somebody to take the blame; and if things do not work out, he can drop him.” He said, “That is what he was building up Hugh Johnson for. Hugh Johnson talked too damn much and got him into a hole, and he is going to fire him in the next three or four weeks.”
I said, “How do you know all this?” “Oh,” he said, “we are in with him all the time. We know what is going to happen.”
In February 1935, the HUAC issued its final report on the Business Plot of 1933, finding:
In the last few weeks of the committee’s official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country. No evidence was presented and this committee had none to show a connection between this effort and any fascist activity of any European country. 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.
This committee received evidence from Maj. Gen Smedley D. Butler (retired), twice decorated by the Congress of the United States. He testified before the committee as to conversations with one Gerald C. MacGuire in which the latter is alleged to have suggested the formation of a fascist army under the leadership of General Butler.
MacGuire denied these allegations under oath, but your committee was able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler, with the exception of the direct statement suggesting the creation of the organization. This, however, was corroborated in the correspondence of MacGuire with his principal, Robert Sterling Clark, of New York City, while MacGuire was abroad studying the various forms of veterans organizations of Fascist character.
A July 7 2023 post to Reddit’s r/todayilearned claimed that a “covertly bankrolled Wall Street coalition of affluent businessmen” sought to overthrow United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) in 1933, with the intent of installing an explicitly fascist government. The Business Plot of 1933 was real and accurately described, although it is not a particularly well documented portion of American history. Interest in the Business Plot of 1933 briefly rose following the January 6 2021 Capitol insurrection. Historians seemed divided on how close the plotters came to carrying out their plans, which were foiled — or at least deferred — when Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler reported their plans to the FBI.