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April 07, 2019


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Many believe that military coups have become passé. Due to the rapidly changing dynamics of international politics and economics after the end of the Cold War in 1990, the world saw a dramatic decrease in military coups. According to the anthology Sociology of the Military, edited by G. Caforio and Marina Nuciari, the 20th century was an era of military coups. According to the book, the military coup was the most frequently attempted method of government change in the mentioned century — especially between the 1950s and 1980s. There were 112 coups in the 1960s, 89 in the 1970s, and 68 in the 1980s. Caforio and Nuciari confirm that there was a drastic decline in the number of coups after the 1990s.

The politics of the Cold War (1949-1990) and that of the post-Second World War decolonisation process actually encouraged the two superpowers — the former Soviet Union and the US — to facilitate and even finance military coups in various countries as a way to mark their areas of influence.

According to Caforio and Nuciari, over 90 percent of the coups between the 1950s and 1990s took place in the so-called ‘Third World’ and/or developing countries. Yet, it is also true that the mechanisms of the military coups in such countries were inspired by four pre-1950s coups in European countries: Italy (1922), Portugal (1926), Germany (1933) and Spain (1936). On all four occasions, legitimacy for military-backed takeovers was derived from claims of political and economic chaos and the need to instill staunch forms of nationalisms. In the many Asian, South American and African countries where military coups became a norm between the 1950s and 1990s, legitimacy for military coups was established on similar pretexts.

A plot by a group of right-wing financiers to remove President Roosevelt by coup could have changed US history

Many political analysts who have recently commented on the rise of nationalism in Europe, the US and India equate this rise with the economic and political conditions which triggered (fascist) coups in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Cafiorio and Nuciari write that the US has remained virtually coup-free throughout. But has it really?

In 1964, Hollywood released two major films. One was directed by the celebrated film-maker Stanley Kubrick and was called Dr Strangelove, and the other, 7 Days in May, was directed by another famous director, John Frankenheimer. Kubrick’s film was a cutting satire on Cold War politics, in which a right-wing US military general (who is also a vehement conspiracy theorist) attempts to overthrow the US government by triggering a nuclear war against the Soviet Union.

In 7 Days in May, after the US president signs a peace agreement with the Soviet Union, the country’s Air Force chief plans to topple the government through a coup d’etat. Both the films were said to have been influenced by the tense events of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that had nearly caused a nuclear showdown between the US and the USSR.

Indeed, the mentioned episode did influence the making of these two films, but there was more to it than just this. In 2004 the best-selling American author Philip Roth wrote a novel called The Plot Against America. In the novel, the real-life US aviator Charles Lindberg, who is said to have had a soft corner for Hitler, wins the 1940 US election. He signs a peace treaty with Nazi Germany and halts any possibility of the US entering World War II. But then Lindberg’s plane goes missing and Vice President Wheeler takes over. Meanwhile, German radio says that Germany has evidence that the plane’s disappearance was a Jewish plot. This causes widespread anti-Semitic riots in the US.

The tome was clearly inspired by a 1935 novel It Can Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, in which a right-wing populist wins the US presidential election and imposes an authoritarian regime through a ruthless paramilitary force. In both the novels, there are no coup d’etats as such. But these novels and the two aforementioned films were influenced by a lesser known true event in which a military coup did become a possibility. It is remarkable how this event that has inspired numerous works of fiction is still kept out from most American history books.

In 2012, American investigative journalist, historian and author Sally Denton published Plots Against the President. The book is the result of Denton’s painstaking investigation into an event in which (in 1933) a group of powerful American businessmen plotted to finance a coup against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Denton writes that when the Democratic Party nominee Roosevelt won the election in 1932, he inherited a country facing an unprecedented economic depression, widespread unemployment and a banking crisis threatening the country’s monetary system.

What’s more, in Europe at the time, the same issues were bringing to power populist nationalists and fascists and wiping out democracies. Roosevelt initiated ambitious legislative programmes and reforms, many of which became blueprints for future welfare states. The president’s reforms did not go down well with big businesses and their backers in the Senate and the Congress. Denton writes that critics of Roosevelt’s reforms “feared that Roosevelt was a communist, a socialist or the tool of a Jewish conspiracy.”

A plan was hatched in some influential circles to remove Roosevelt. Today it is known as ‘the Wall Street putsch.’ According to Denton, the plot was conceived by ‘a group of right-wing financiers.’ The idea was to convince the president to step down so that a ‘military-type dictatorship’ could be imposed. Upon the president’s refusal, he was then to be removed through a military coup. The group formed an organisation called the American Liberty League (ALL) for this purpose. It invested ‘several millions of dollars’ and a stockpile of weapons.

Denton narrates that chiefs of many major American businesses and industries were part of ALL along with some anti-Roosevelt politicians and former military men. An exclusive militia of 500,000 men was also planned, which was to storm the White House during the coup. To lead the militia, ALL approached Major-General Smedly Butler. Butler was promised three million dollars for the operation. The group had believed that Butler was anti-Roosevelt. What the group didn’t know was that, indeed, he was a Republican, but had turned pro-Democrat in 1932! Butler agreed to lead the militia, but almost immediately leaked the plan to the authorities.

In 1934, an investigation was launched. But to Butler’s disappointment, no arrests were made. A committee released a report of its investigation but the names of the plotters were blacked out. There are various theories as to why such lukewarm action was taken for such a serious plot. The most prominent one is that Roosevelt did not want to create commotion during his first term. Once the plot was curbed, he knew the plotters would stay in line. However, according to Denton, had Butler not leaked the plot, the US may have become a fascist state, thus altering the course of 20th century history.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 7th, 2019