Remembering when bankers tried to overthrow FDR and install a fascist dictator

Yes, a coup d'état.

FDR
Image source: History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • Though we know today that his policies eventually ended the Great Depression, FDR's election was seen as disastrous by some.
  • A group of wealthy bankers decided to take things into their own hands; they plotted a coup against FDR, hoping to install a fascist dictator in its stead.
  • Ultimately, the coup was brought to light by General Smedley Butler and squashed before it could get off the ground.

When we look back at history, we have the benefit of knowing how things turned out. Not true for those who were living through history's tensest moments. At key inflection points in history and in response to crises, most of the actors had no idea what would happen or what the right thing to do was. Sometimes, this uncertainty drove people to bold and ill-advised actions.

Take the Great Depression. Something had to be done, but nobody knew what for certain. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected on a campaign that promised to abandon the gold standard and provide government jobs for the unemployed, many in the grips of the crisis thought that this was certainly the wrong way to go.

"This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty," wrote Republican Senator Henry D. Hatfield of West Virginia 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 democracy but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom."

The allure of fascism

Fascism had reared its head in Europe, and the world had yet to make up its mind what it thought about it. That would come later, in World War II. Many thought that the best way to pull America out of the Great Depression was to install a dictator. Even the New York Herald Tribune ran a headline called "For Dictatorship If Necessary." Although the newspaper's article was in support of FDR, a group of wealthy financiers believed that America should indeed have a dictator, just not in the form of FDR, a suspected communist. So, they began to plot a coup d'état that would later come to be known as the Business Plot, or the Wall Street Putsch.

The conspirators included Gerald MacGuire, a bond salesman; Bill Doyle, commander of the Massachusetts American Legion; investment banker Prescott Bush, the father of George H. W. Bush and grandfather of George W. Bush; and others.

The Business Plot nearly involved another individual as well: Retired Major General Smedley Butler, who was at that time the most decorated soldier in U.S. history. After his military career, however, Butler became a vociferous critic of war and its place in American capitalism. Later, he would write the famous War is a Racket and an article in the socialist magazine Common Sense stating, "I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism."

Butler was also an influential figure in the so-called Bonus Army, a group of 43,000 marchers — among them many World War I veterans — who were camped at Washington to demand the early payment of the veteran's bonus promised to them for their service. Although his politics leaned more to the left than the Business Plot conspirators would like, Butler was extremely well-respected among veterans and the military, who, like everybody else, were fed up. What's more, MacGuire believed that Butler could be more easily manipulated than other generals. And the conspirators needed a general.

The members of the Business Plot set up several meetings with Butler where they not-so-gradually informed him of their plan. The conspirators would provide the financial backing and recruit an army of 500,000 soldiers, which Butler was to lead. The pretext for the coup would be that FDR's health was failing. FDR would remain in a ceremonial position, in which, as MacGuire allegedly described, "The President will go around and christen babies and dedicate bridges and kiss children." The real power of the government would be held in the hands of a Secretary of General Affairs, who would be in effect a dictator: "somebody to take over the details of the office — take them off the President's shoulders. … A sort of a super secretary."

General Smedley Butler. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Quashing the Business Plot

However, Butler was not so willing a compatriot as they had originally suspected. After meeting with the men several times and learning of the extent of their plan, Butler went to Congress to expose them as traitors. When news broke, nobody really believed that such a coup attempt could even be considered, let alone planned or put into action. In fact, the New York Times's initial reporting on the subject was full of quotes like "Perfect moonshine!", "A fantasy!", and "It's a joke — a publicity stunt." A second article from the New York Times's on the topic was titled "Credulity Unlimited."

Initially, Congress's reaction was similar, but with Butler's testimony; the testimony of reporter Paul French, who was present at one of Butler's meetings with MacGuire; and MacGuire's own unconvincing testimony, they began to take it more seriously and investigated the subject.

Ultimately, the Congressional investigation found that Butler was telling the truth: the seeds of a coup had indeed been planted. But Congress's perspective was that the plot had little chance of getting off the ground at all — rather, it had been, in the words of Mayor La Guardia of New York, "a cocktail putsch."

Nobody was prosecuted in the plot. In fact, some later went on to serve in office, such as Prescott Bush. Would the coup have been carried out had Butler merely turned down MacGuire's offer, rather than report them to Congress? It's impossible to say. But the Wall Street Putsch does show that dire times can drive people to make otherwise inconceivable — "moonshine" — plans.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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