The Plot to Seize the White House: The Shocking True Story of the Conspiracy to Overthrow F.D.R. – Jules Archer & Anne Cipriano Venzon

White houseThe 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.

ASIN:‎ B00VKI49X0

Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long – Richard D. White

1If you have traveled to or live in Louisiana, I think you will agree that it is one American’s most unique states.  The City of New Orleans has a storied past on its own and each year, it attracts millions of visitors, curious to see Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the world-famous French Quarter.  Baton Rouge proudly serves as the state’s capitol and an icon on the landscape of the deep south.  However, there is also a dark history of Louisiana, one that filled with racism, corruption, crime and poverty.   Louisianans with a long memory will remember that there once lived a governor who ruled the state with an iron grip until his reign was ended by an assassin’s bullet.  He was Huey P. Long (1893-1935), the 40th Governor of Louisiana who left a complicated legacy that is nothing short of surreal.

Long’s self-proclaimed title of “Kingfish” matched his unrelenting quest for absolute power and projection of himself as the only person that mattered in any room he was in.  Richard D. White examines his reign and the effect it had on politics in Louisiana and the United States.  To say that America had not seen a candidate like him before would be an understatement.  He exploded onto the scene and in the process seized control of the highest office in the state.  Interestingly, Long never finished high school and today, that alone would earn him few votes.  But in the late 1920s and after the depression, illiteracy was a far more common problem than it is today. Long understood this and had an uncanny ability to reach millions of people that felt as if they had been forgotten by the wealthy.  Louisiana was often viewed as a backward place full of backward people that cam from the swamps.   This casual prejudice against Louisiana, was found in many places in American politics and helped provide the spark for Long’s infamous reign and determination to make Louisiana the example to be followed by the rest of America.

From the start, Long was far from what anyone would have considered a candidate for public office.  Boastful, confrontational, brutish and vulgar, Long earned the disgust of the political establishment but the hearts of poor white Americans.  His popularity soared has he talked of improving the economy, providing free textbooks, building roads and other projects to improve the state.   And while he did accomplish many of those things, his darker side tended to overshadow the good deeds and put him on a collision course with Washington, D.C. and his destiny, which he met on on September 8, 1935 when Dr. Carl Weiss fired a single and fatal shot.  The story from start to finish is captured beautifully by White and will leave readers in shock at Long’s endless antics.

White takes us back in time to an era before air conditioning and political correctness.  As I read the book, I felt as if I were sitting in the gallery watching Long launch into yet another vicious tirade against a perceived enemy.   I found myself in shock at his actions and the vindictiveness in which he carried out his agenda.  Corruption had plagued the south for years and New Orleans has long been known as a place where one can go to have a good time and find any vice known to man. The brash openness with which Long operated would result today in impeachment, indictment and undoubtedly prison.  But this was the 1930s and Louisiana was like the wild west with pistol packing politicians who sometimes resulted to fisticuffs to settle disputes.  Long himself brawled on more than one occasion after cooler heads failed to prevail.

In many ways, Long was everything that most Americans have come to despise and distrust.  He was loud, obnoxious, uncouth, racist, flamboyant, drank too much and had enemies all across America.  His larger than life persona and constant attacks on others, attracted the eyes of the FBI lead by J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945).  Long’s battle with Roosevelt is explored in the book and highlights how serious of a threat Long became to the establishment.  In Europe, Adolf Hitler had risen to power using a nationalist and populist platform.  Here in America, there were many that feared Long could mimic his success.  Long had no desire to be compared to Hitler but failed to recognize his own racism which is on ugly display in the book.  And as the author points out,  the true irony is that Long’s outlandish behavior did more to prevent Louisiana from becoming a true democracy than it did to push the state forward.  While he was an advocate for the advancement of disenfranchised people, he had no intention of giving those advancements to Black Americans and his actions towards them are one of the darkest stains on his legacy.   He truly did have the ability to change Louisiana in many ways, but ultimately became his own worst enemy as he became drunk with power and engulfed by paranoia.

Eighty-three years have passed since Long’s death and today is rarely mentioned in conversation.  Visitors to Baton Rouge take photos in front of the statue erected in his honor but it is anyone’s guess if they know the story of his life.  Richard White presents a clear and concise biography of the Kingfish who made himself the God of Louisiana.  This is a good look at the life and death of Huey P. Long.

ASIN: B002361KQM