The first time I read Charles W. Bailey, II (1929-2012) and Fletcher Knebel’s (1911-1993) ‘Seven Days in May‘, I understood why it was so important and why it was one of President John F. Kennedy’s (1917-1963) favorite books. The plot of the story is simple: a conspiracy is hatched to overthrow the sitting president of the United States. In 1964, Paramount Pictures released the film of the same name starring Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) and Kirk Douglas (1916-2020) with director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) at the helm. The book and film were works of fiction but thirty years prior to the film’s release, there was a plot to remove the sitting president of seize control of the government. Jules Archer and Anne Cipriano Venzon researched the unbelievable and chilling story in this book that sheds light on a little-known part of American history. And at the center of the story is legendary United States Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler (1881-1940).
In 1933, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) tightened his grip over Germany and began to plot its course for world domination. Across the Atlantic few believed that he would ignite a war that remains the deadliest conflict in the history of mankind. As the Third Reich made its presence felt, it soon became clear that the Nazi menace was nothing to ignore. Despite the outbreak of war, the United States held firm on its isolationist stance and the Neutrality Acts passed by Congress limited the president’s ability to send aid to European allies. For President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the Great Depression and European war proved to be the biggest challenges to his time in office. And failing health provided the ammunition needed by his detractors who believed that Roosevelt would not live to finish his time in government. Sadly, they were proven right on April 12, 1945.
The first question I had for myself when I started reading the book was why Butler? I knew he had become anti-war in later years and had even published a book called ‘War is a Racket‘ in which he exposes the monetary interests behind armed conflict. As the book progresses, it becomes clear why Butler was their choice and the biography included by the authors provides a fair amount of information about his life and rise in the military ranks. Further, the respect he earned from current and former soldiers made him the ideal choice. And to understand why Butler was so respected, one only needs to read of his accomplishments which are discussed here. I found myself both in awe and speechless learning of his commitment to the Marines and belief in morale. To be clear, Butler harbored no ill-will towards Roosevelt and was a pacifist by nature. That, however, did not stop him from suiting up when the Marines were needed.
Following his retirement from the Marines, Butler became a sought-after speaker across the country and beloved by the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization. In the story, we soon learn the names of Gerald C. McGuire and Bob Doyle of the American Legion, who approached Butler with incentives to join their plot in taking over the government, but the seasoned marine was suspicious from the start. Having worked for a time in the Department of Public Safety in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Butler was no stranger to criminal activity. Still, without evidence he knew he could not go public with allegations of a plot to attack to the United States Government. Further he knew the people who approached him had powerful backers and could not be trusted. But after a meeting with Philadelphia Record writer Paul Comly French (1890-1956), Butler decided that the plot needed to be exposed and went before the Special Committee on Un-American Activities to tell what he knew. Portions of his testimony (both public and sealed) are included here and reveal how serious the threat was to the democracy of the United States. And though no one was ever prosecuted because of what the committee learned, it did raise awareness of the importance of preserving our democratic institutions.
The list of conspirators revealed as part of the plot is surreal and may have been a case of sensationalism by McGuire. However, the amount of money behind the plot, as Butler learns, could only have come from wealthy figures. Readers will be surprised to learn of the connection between former New York State Governor Alfred E. “Al” Smith (1873-1944), and ring-wing figures, who were opposed to Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. In time America would see the rise of other organizations such as the John Birch Society and the Minutemen, and the contributors to these various ring-wing parties revealed dark truths about power in America. Regarding one group, the authors explain:
“Heavy contributors to the American Liberty League included the Pitcairn family (Pittsburgh Plate Glass), Andrew W. Mellon Associates, Rockefeller Associates, E. F. Hutton Associates, William S. Knudsen (General Motors), and the Pew family (Sun Oil Associates). J. Howard Pew, longtime friend and supporter of Robert Welch, who later founded the John Birch Society, was a generous patron, along with other members of the Pew family, of extremist right-wing causes. Other directors of the league included Al Smith and John J. Raskob.”
Butler’s refusal to go along with the plot surely led to its demise but had they approached another figure, things may have turned out differently. At the 1930s moved forward, the signs that war would break out became vividly clear and on September 1, 1939, all doubts were removed with the Nazi invasion of Poland. Butler held firm on non-intervention and at the time of his death, the United States had no legal grounds to enter the war. That all changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. Butler did not live to see that attack but if he had, I have no doubt that he would have supported America defending itself from Japanese aggression. His years of service and experiences in combat had left him with dark memories of the horrible injuries sustained by soldiers on the battlefield. He had become anti-war but was never anti-American, and any threat to the democracy of the United States was an attack on the principles he believed in. His courage in exposing what could have been an earth-shattering event, should not be lost to history. In closing out the book, the authors have this to say about Butler:
“If we remember Major General Smedley Darlington Butler for nothing else, we owe him an eternal debt of gratitude for spurning the chance to become dictator of the United States—and for making damned sure no one else did either.”
History is full of untold stories and that is one reason I enjoy it as much as I do. This story may not be well-known nor remembered but it should never be forgotten. Highly recommended.