Donald Morrison: Conspiracy you can believe in

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BECKET — A good conspiracy theory should be just plausible enough to grab your attention and just bonkers enough to make your blood boil. Thus, as every hot-blooded American knows, LBJ plotted to assassinate JFK, George W. Bush was behind 9/11, the CIA invented AIDS, and Hillary Clinton strangled child-molester Jeffrey Epstein in his jail cell.

So imagine my surprise when, not long ago, I heard about a conspiracy so immense, so inflammatory, so totally nuts that I just had to make it go viral. Here it is: A cabal of rich Americans attempted a military coup to replace one of history's greatest presidents with a fascist dictatorship. To my further astonishment, this narrative turns out to be absolutely, verifiably true.

Retired General Smedley Butler was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. In 1934, he was invited to speak at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. Nothing unusual so far, except that the invitation wasn't from the VFW. It came from a Wall Street bond salesman.

The man said he represented a shadowy group of wealthy Americans who planned to take over the vets' organization, with Butler's help, and use it to oust President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The rich folks hated FDR's New Deal economic reforms and wanted him out, one way or another.

Butler, a battle-hardened hero of World War I and other campaigns, was outraged. Still, he played along to see who was behind the plot. Turned out it was some of America's biggest companies — U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, Chase Bank, General Motors — and its richest families: the Pews, the Mellons, the Morgans, the Rockefellers, the Bushes.

Yes, those Bushes. Prescott, an investment banker and grandfather of President George W., was a key figure in the project. So was Robert Sterling Clark, an investor and art collector who had served under Butler in the Marines. Clark visited Butler at his Pennsylvania home to seek the general's cooperation.


Butler heard that the plotters were prepared to spend $300 million to topple FDR, equivalent to nearly $6 billion today. They wanted the general to raise an army of half a million unemployed veterans. A line of credit had been arranged with the Remington Arms Co. to equip the soldiers, who would march on Washington and seize control. FDR would be asked to remain as a figurehead, but a "Secretary of General Affairs" — essentially a dictator — would run the country.

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Those behind the plot admired Hitler and Mussolini for the dictators' pro-business, anti-labor brand of nationalism. Indeed, many wealthy Americans back then considered fascism to be the country's future.

Fortunately for that future, Butler blew the whistle on the coupsters. A Congressional investigation was launched, witnesses were summoned and the forerunner to the House Un-American Activities Committee soon confirmed many of Butler's disclosures.

The plotters responded with indignant denials and dismissive stories in the conservative press. Among their defenses was one now favored by our current president: The coup talk was all just a joke or, as one alleged conspirator put it, "a cocktail putsch."

In the end, FDR was reluctant to antagonize the business community any further. Not a single person was indicted for involvement in what, on its face, was a treasonous attempt to overthrow the U.S. government by force.

What's even more amazing is that the coup, in effect, succeeded. Pro-business conservatives took over Congress in 1938, hobbling FDR's reform efforts. And nearly all of those implicated in the plot went on to greater wealth, influence and prestige. Sterling Clark, for instance, amassed a huge art collection and opened the museum in Williamstown that bears his name. Prescott Bush become a U.S. senator.

The coup is still a success. Wealthy business interests nowadays pretty much run America. They buy political influence, weaken regulations of all kinds, give themselves tax cuts, trim education and social spending, bash unions and block campaign finance reforms. For these and other anti-social activities, they almost never go to jail.

To preserve their dominance, they fund friendly conservative politicians, lobby groups, think tanks, publications, media networks, climate-change critics, even law schools. Their favored jurists sit on the Supreme Court and, often, in the White House. The FDRs of today don't stand a chance.

So the next time you hear some tall tale about dark forces secretly controlling America, don't take it seriously. As General Butler discovered, the real conspiracy is right before our eyes.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and Advisory Board member.


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