The following article is the concluding piece in our coup trilogy — Men on horseback (July 21, 2016, Dawn.com); Future coups (July 24, 2016, Dawn Magazine).
This piece brings the trilogy to a full circle by investigating an enigmatic coup plot in a country which, during the Cold War, was behind most military putsches: the United States of America.
The US is one of the world’s oldest democracies. Ever since the American Revolution (1765-1783), which overthrew British colonial rule and saw America become a sovereign country, the US developed a rigorous (though, complex) democratic system.
By the early 20th century, this system had managed to withstand and survive various political and economic upheavals. These also included a vicious civil war (1861-1865) which (for four years or so) saw the country break into two competing regions, before the federalist forces restored its reunification.
Thus, in the United States, a military coup was never to be expected, even during the height of the Cold War when putsches where taking place with great frequency across much of Asia, South America, Africa and even in some countries of Europe.
However, though the US political system has largely remained airtight to ever allow any internal military adventurism, fears of a military coup were never entirely missing from the country’s body politic.
At least three prominent films investigated the possibilities and repercussions of a military coup in the US — the world’s largest and most developed nuclear power.
In 1964, two films, Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy, Dr Strangelove, and John Frankenheimer’s 7 Days in May, both dealt with intransigent US generals attempting coups against presidents who were trying to lower Cold War hostilities with the Soviet Union.
In 1981, director Harold Becker made TAPS in which a group of junior officers take over a military academy after its principal (a former army general) is shot dead by a civilian, and the government decides to close down the academy.
Though the immediate impetus for these films were the dynamics of Cold War politics, and the proliferation of military coups during this war; they were also largely inspired by an enigmatic coup plot which was unearthed and thwarted in the United States in the 1930s.
Over the decades, details of the plot have slowly come to light in the shape of a number of books, especially Jules Archer’s Plot to Seize the White House; Sally Denton’s The Plots against the President; and Hans Schmidt’s Maverick Marine.
After the completion of the two terms of US president, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), the Republican and Democratic presidents who followed him, focused on running the US by allowing a largely laissez faire form of capitalism which discouraged state/government intervention in economic matters.
The policies in this regard bore fruit because by the 1920s, the US economy grew to become one of the biggest and strongest in the world, even though the gap between the haves and the have-nots was expanding rather drastically.
What’s more, in 1920, as the American economy ballooned and reached great heights, and the country’s ‘enterprising spirit and ingenuity’ became a cause célèbre, the government imposed a ban on alcoholic beverages (prohibition).
This was done to exhibit that the laissez faire model of capitalism encouraged by the government also had a moral dimension. In other words, though minimal state intervention had meant that no programmes to benefit those left behind by the economic system were forthcoming, the social life of the disadvantaged half was to be regulated through some good old-fashioned piety and morality!
The results were surreal: across the 1920s, the economy continued to grow; the rich continued to grow richer; material hedonism gripped the affluent; and crime became rampant when prohibition triggered the emergence of violent mafias dealing in bootleg alcohol. Corruption in the police force too grew two-fold.
And then, the celebrated system just buckled. Minimum state/government intervention in economic matters meant that the government failed to check the more anarchic and self-serving aspects of the system. These triggered an unprecedented crash of the stock market in 1929.
Financial institutions and corporations suddenly went bankrupt; poverty and unemployment levels shot up to unprecedented heights; crime became rampant; and the once haughty government now seemed entirely rudderless.
In 1932, with the economy in a state of complete disarray, and the society on the brink of ruin, Americans elected Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, a Democrat from New York.
Almost immediately, Roosevelt began to dismantle the previous system by erecting weighty state-backed social and economic projects, encouraging an unprecedented exhibition of state-intervention — the kind never seen in the US, and almost socialist in nature. Prohibition was done away with as well.
In his book, John Archer wrote that Roosevelt’s policies created panic among the leading industrialists and businessmen who saw him as a socialist, and even a communist!
A group of industrialists who had made their fortunes under the previous system approached a former US military man, Gen Smedly Butler, who was an American war hero and well respected in the army, as well as among large sections of the public.
He had initially supported Roosevelt’s election, but soon was heard criticising his policies. The industrialists implored him to ‘save the US from communism’ and use his influence over soldiers and serving generals to topple Roosevelt through a military coup.
Gen Butler was to force Roosevelt out with an army of 500,000 war veterans; become Secretary of General Affairs, and take his orders from a core group of at least eight industrial and business tycoons. The industrialists were willing to put up $60 million for the execution of the plan.
One industrialist told Butler: ‘I am willing to offer one half of my fortune to save the other half …’
However, after going along with the plotters, Butler decided to betray the plan when he went public. Shaken by the confession, the government ordered an immediate inquiry.
Butler told the inquiry committee that one of the plotters (a businessman), had travelled to Italy to study the fascist regime of Mussolini. He told Butler that America needed a fascist government to save the nation from the communists who wanted to tear it down and wreck all that they (the industrialists) had built in America. They told him that the only men who have the patriotism to save America are the soldiers, and that Butler was to organise a million men overnight!
Butler also took the names of the plotters. These included owners of well-known American corporations. However, the committee removed the names from its records ‘due to lack of substantive evidence.’
Those named also pushed back and accused Butler of lying. Incensed by the committee’s attitude, Butler became a recluse. Roosevelt, however, went on to be re-elected for three more terms. He passed away in the middle of his fourth term in 1945. His era saw the construction of America’s widespread welfare system which lasted till the late 1970s.
In 1967, journalist John Spivak, managed to get his hands on those sections of the committee’s report which were never made public. These sections conformed that, indeed, a coup plot had been afoot and that it was exposed by Butler.
Butler, however, had died a broken man in 1940.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 31st, 2016