The White House Coup of 1934, or The Business Plot as it’s been referred to over the years. The Business Plot was an alleged political conspiracy in 1933 in the United States. Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler claimed 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 President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1934, Butler testified before the United States House of Representatives Special Committee on Un-American Activities (the “McCormack-Dickstein Committee”) on these claims. No one was prosecuted.
At the time of the incidents, news media dismissed the plot, with a New York Times editorial characterizing it as a “gigantic hoax”. While historians have questioned whether or not a coup was actually close to execution, most agree that some sort of “wild scheme” was contemplated and discussed.
Roosevelt’s election was upsetting for many conservative businessmen of the time, as his “campaign promise that the government would provide jobs for all the unemployed had the perverse effect of creating a new wave of unemployment by businessmen frightened by fears of socialism and reckless government spending.” Some writers have said concerns over the gold standard were also involved; Jules Archer, in The Plot to Seize the White House, wrote that with the end of the gold standard, “conservative financiers were horrified. They viewed a currency not solidly backed by gold as inflationary, undermining both private and business fortunes and leading to national bankruptcy. 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.”
The McCormack–Dickstein Committee began examining evidence on November 20, 1934. On November 24 the committee released a statement detailing the testimony it had heard about the plot and its preliminary findings. On February 15, 1935, the committee submitted its final report to the House of Representatives.
During the McCormack–Dickstein Committee hearings Butler testified that Gerald C. MacGuire attempted to recruit him to lead a coup, promising him an army of 500,000 men for a march on Washington, DC, and financial backing. Butler testified that the pretext for the coup would be that the president’s health was failing. Despite Butler’s support for Roosevelt in the election and his reputation as a strong critic of capitalism, Butler said the plotters felt his good reputation and popularity were vital in attracting support amongst the general public and saw him as easier to manipulate than others. Given a successful coup, Butler said that the plan was for him to have held near-absolute power in the newly created position of “Secretary of General Affairs”, while Roosevelt would have assumed a figurehead role.
Those implicated in the plot by Butler all denied any involvement. MacGuire was the only figure identified by Butler who testified before the committee. Others Butler accused were not called to appear to testify because the “committee has had no evidence before it that would in the slightest degree warrant calling before it such men … The committee will not take cognizance of names brought into testimony which constitute mere hearsay.”
In 2008 BBC Radio 4, as part of its Radio 4 Documentary series, re-opens the case with an attempt at trying to piece together complicated bits of a puzzle, and has left most likely more questions than answers.
Perhaps in light of the current goings-on, listening to this documentary of a situation that was either true or not is fascinating and seems plausible, particularly in the atmosphere of 85 years ago. But we may never know if the events of 1934 actually took place or not – if nothing else, we at least know people were thinking about it.
Here is that documentary as it aired on September 21, 2008 from BBC Radio 4 – The White House Coup of 1934.