Why is so little known about the 1930s coup attempt against FDR?
America had hit rock bottom, beginning with the stock market crash three years earlier. Unemployment was at 16 million and rising. Farm foreclosures exceeded half a million. More than five thousand banks had failed, and hundreds of thousands of families had lost their homes. Financial capitalists had bilked millions of customers and rigged the market. There were no government safety nets – no unemployment insurance, minimum wage, social security or Medicare.
Economic despair gave rise to panic and unrest, and political firebrands and white supremacists eagerly fanned the paranoia of socialism, global conspiracies and threats from within the country. Populists Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin attacked FDR, spewing vitriolic anti-Jewish, pro-fascist refrains and brandishing the “America first” slogan coined by media magnate William Randolph Hearst.
On 4 March 1933, more than 100,000 people had gathered on the east side of the US Capitol for Roosevelt’s inauguration. The atmosphere was slate gray and ominous, the sky suggesting a calm before the storm. That morning, rioting was expected in cities throughout the nation, prompting predictions of a violent revolution. Army machine guns and sharpshooters were placed at strategic locations along the route. Not since the civil war had Washington been so fortified, with armed police guarding federal buildings.
FDR thought government in a civilized society had an obligation to abolish poverty, reduce unemployment, and redistribute wealth. Roosevelt’s bold New Deal experiments inflamed the upper class, provoking a backlash from the nation’s most powerful bankers, industrialists and Wall Street brokers, who thought the policy was not only radical but revolutionary. Worried about losing their personal fortunes to runaway government spending, this fertile field of loathing led to the “traitor to his class” epithet for FDR. “What that fellow Roosevelt needs is a 38-caliber revolver right at the back of his head,” a respectable citizen said at a Washington dinner party.
In a climate of conspiracies and intrigues, and against the backdrop of charismatic dictators in the world such as Hitler and Mussolini, the sparks of anti-Rooseveltism ignited into full-fledged hatred. Many American intellectuals and business leaders saw nazism and fascism as viable models for the US. The rise of Hitler and the explosion of the Nazi revolution, which frightened many European nations, struck a chord with prominent American elites and antisemites such as Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. Hitler’s elite Brownshirts – a mass body of party storm troopers separate from the 100,000-man German army – was a stark symbol to the powerless American masses. Mussolini’s Blackshirts – the military arm of his organization made up of 200,000 soldiers – were a potent image of strength to a nation that felt emasculated.
A divided country and FDR’s emboldened powerful enemies made the plot to overthrow him seem plausible. With restless uncertainty, volatile protests and ominous threats, America’s right wing was inspired to form its own paramilitary organizations. Militias sprung up throughout the land, their self-described “patriots” chanting: “This is despotism! This is tyranny!”