Review of: The Plot to Seize the White House, by Jules Archer
This popular history attempts to show that an organized, funded and potentially successful conspiracy by wealthy financers and businessmen during 1933-34 was thwarted only through the ardent anti-fascist views and testimony of Major Smedley D. Butler of the U.S. Marines. Butler, who retired in 1931 after thirty-five years of distinguished service and two Congressional Medals of Honor, was a blunt, controversial, single-minded advocate of veterans’ causes, like the “bonus” and better pensions. He gradually became a strident advocate of ending foreign wars, which he belatedly (during the 1920s) came to believe only enriched profiteering American commercial interests.
Author Jules Archer has combined a brief descriptive biography with a lengthy narrative account of Butler’s major controversy, a “fascist plot” which tried to induce the popular general to lead a “super organization” of perhaps 500,000 veterans and have himself installed as President Franklin Roosevelt's new “Secretary of General Affairs.” FDR then would be forced to serve as a puppet for big business interests, or be deposed along with the vice president after Butler had been appointed secretary of the state making him able to succeed Roosevelt! This conspiracy Butler revealed during November 1934 in sworn testimony before a House subcommittee (forerunner of the House Un-American Activities Committee), chaired by John McCormack of Massachusetts. Actually, none of the plot’s outline is new, and it can be found in such standard histories as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Politics of Upheaval (1960).
Archer’s book has several flaws. He exaggerates the scope and implications of the conspiracy in order to prove an important thesis: that wealthy interest in 1933-35 were prepared to spend millions to preserve a sound-money system and block liberal New Deal economic reforms. Alas, the book is not footnoted. While the author had access to the Butler family papers, transcripts of the hearings, and interviews with participants like McCormack, he produces no convincing evidence that the plot extended beyond purported bond salesman Gerald MacGuire and his principal, millionaire Robert C. Clark. The evidence did indicate that MacGuire had too much money (about $105,000) to spend on anti-inflation activities, and the he did have schemes about a veterans organization like the French Croix de Feu. But to this group Archer can connect conservatives like Alfred E. Smith, financier J.P. Morgan, and the American Liberty League is only by implication. Nevertheless, the author quotes Speaker McCormak to prove that such a coup “certainly could have” succeeded. (p 215), and asserts that it formed the bases of the best selling 1960s novel and movie, Seven Days in May.
Other flaws mar the book. Most of the plot consists of conversations, quoted or paraphrased, that Butler recalled with various plotters, these were used too extensively. While written in a readable journalistic style, Archer was unfamiliar with the turbulent times in which Butler lives. So the reader is constantly presented with overgeneralizations, to whit, that anti-New Deal newspapers accounted for 80 percent of the press and that therefore FDR was forced to use “fireside chats” in order to reach the nation. More notably, the author consistently fails to put Butler’s involvements into perspective. Thus, Butler (and Archer) assumer that the existence of a financially backed plot meant that fascism was imminent and that the planners represented a wide speared and coherent group, having both the intent and the capacity to execute their ideas. So when his testimony was criticized and even ridiculed in the media and ignored in Washington, Butler saw (and Archer sees) conspiracy everywhere. Instead, it is plausible to conclude that the honest and straightforward, but intellectually and politically unsophisticated, Butler perceived in simplistic terms what were in fact complex trends and events. Thus he leaped to the simplistic conclusion that the President and the Republic were in mortal danger. In essence, Archer swallowed his hero whole.
Archer’s Plot should be compared to well-researches and comprehensive studies on related subjects, like George Wolfskill, The Revolt of the Conservatives (1962), Wolfskill and John A. Hudson, All But the People (1969) and Walter Goodman, The Committee (1968). Because of its flaws, I would not recommend Archer’s book for either upper-level of graduate courses on American history, and its too lengthy and slanted for survey courses.
Clemson University James E. Sargent.