Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Robert S. Clark and the conspiracy against FDR

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GREAT BARRINGTON — New president. Suspicion of Russian interference in election. Special counsel investigation and report. Attorney general summary. Redacted report. Cries of outrage from one political party. Cries of lies and foul from other political party.

That's today.

Go back to 1933. New president. Anxiety and anger from small group of wealthy bankers. Conspiracy to recruit popular retired Marine Corps general to lead a coup d'etat and turn the chief executive into a figurehead. Plot revealed. Congressional hearings. Conclusion. Redacted closed hearings transcript released.

Does history repeat itself?

Only, in the second instance, a familiar Berkshire name was apparently at the center of it all. Who? Robert Sterling Clark of Williamstown art museum fame.

I recently wrote in this space of outspoken anarchist Lawrence Dennis, who lived in Becket. Bill Patterson of Williamstown phoned to tell me about the plot to wrest power from Franklin D. Roosevelt. The whole story, he said, is laid out in a book by Jules Archer called "The Plot to Seize the White House." He's right. The book — supported by other sources — is a revelation.

The plan might have gotten traction, had not the instigators picked the wrong many to lead their cause. Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler was more liberal than they anticipated, and far more cherishing of democratic ideals;

ULTRACONSERVATIVE GROUP

Butler (1881-1940) at the time of his death was the most decorated Marine in American history. He received the Medal of Honor twice. In testimony before a Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities headed by John W. McCormack of Massachusetts and Samuel Dickstein of New York, he described how an agent, bond salesman Gerald C. McGuire, approached him initially to speak at an upcoming American Legion convention. McGuire hinted that if Butler spoke to the group in favor of returning to the gold standard — which FDR had dropped in order to generate more cash flow to raise the country out of the Great Depression — it might lead to the reconsideration and enactment of the failed Patman Bonus Bill to pay war veterans money promised in bonus certificates. Butler supported the Bonus Army of veterans that sought their rightful money, but sniffed something deeper afoot.

He told the committee he learned of plans to create an American equivalent of the French Croix de Feu, a super-organization of ultraconservative veterans to be called the American Liberty League who would not so coincidentally support economic policies beneficial to a group of leading wealthy investment bankers. McGuire claimed he had considerable cash backing. Butler said he wanted to meet a higher up. Robert S. Clark showed up.

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An Army veteran, Clark (1877-1956) had served under Butler in the Boxer Rebellion. A Yale graduate, Clark and his brothers Stephen Carlton, Edward Severin and F. Ambrose were heirs to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune through their grandfather, Edward Cabot Clark. The brothers grew up in New York City and Cooperstown, N.Y. They all enjoyed art. But they had a falling out.

S.C.C. founded the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, donating his private collection of folk and fine art. Edward's mansion became the basis of the Fenimore Art Museum, his dairy barn the Farmers' Museum. Ambrose, a collector of equestrian art, left his estate to the State University of New York at Old Westbury. Sterling and Francine Clark endowed the museum of their name in Williamstown. It opened in 1955.

Back to the plot. Butler prefaced his remarks to Congressional investigators: "I have one interest in all of this, and that is to try to do my best to see that a democracy is maintained in this country."

He testified that Clark told him he was worried about his $30 million wealth and was willing to spend half of it to save the rest from FDR's economic policies. If Butler wasn't willing to take an active role in this, the fallback would be Gen. Douglas MacArthur — who was less popular with military veterans because of his role in forcing the Bonus Army out of its protest encampment in Washington. McGuire, Butler said, had spent several months in Europe investigating how right-wing ex-soldier organizations had taken firm root there.

Philadelphia Record journalist Paul Comly French — who like Butler was firmly anti-war — gave corroborative testimony to Butler's statements from his own independent research.

FASCISM OR COMMUNISM?

McGuire and Clark testified before the McCormack-Dickstein committee and denied everything.

"Butler's Reported Story of `Fascist' Plot, `Publicity Stunt' Devoid of truth, bond Salesman Declares," was the headline of a Berkshire Eagle story Nov. 21, 1934. "Butler's Story Denied on Stand," the North Adams Transcript clarioned the same day.

As the story emerged and the secretive committee issued its report, The New York Times, more politically conservative in that day, scoffed at the notion of an overthrow plot, calling it a giant hoax. History has since allowed that the conspiracy did exist, but there is still debate as to its likelihood of success. But others such as journalist John L. Spivak ferreted out blacked-out portions of the full report and wrote expose articles for the communist magazine New Masses. Morgan bank, DuPont chemical, Remington arms and Guaranty Trust interests were implicated but never called to testify. Conservatives called it all a communist plot. Liberals said it was a well-funded fascist putsch.

Zoom back to today. What do we have?

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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