How FDR Took on the Forces of Wealth and Power

Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

Earlier this week, the International Herald Tribune noted the seventy-fifth anniversary of a story the New York Times ran on November 20, 1934, about an alleged plot to overthrow the United State Government. Frequently referred to as the “Business Plot,” the alleged plan was disclosed to Congress by Major General Smedley D. Butler, U.S.M.C. retired, in testimony he offered before a House committee investigating un-American activities. According to Butler, a group of wealthy individuals, many of whom worked on Wall Street, had asked him to lead a 500,000 strong march of ex-servicemen on Washington with the intent of bringing down FDR and establishing a fascist regime.

Although Congress concluded there was some credibility to Butler’s story, and the news of the alleged conspiracy generated a brief sensation in the press, most historians have dismissed the plot as little more than what the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called a “wild scheme.”Still, the anniversary serves as a reminder of the degree to which the wealthy elite hated FDR and the New Deal. Nor should we forget the opposition the New Deal generated among hard core conservatives — in both parties.

A few months before the “business plot” came to light, for example, a group of prominent public officials and wealthy businessmen (including former Democratic Party Presidential nominee Al Smith) formed an organization called the American Liberty League. Billed as a research and opinion organization, the Liberty League’s primary focus was to attack FDR and the New Deal. Accusing the president and his recovery programs of being — at various times — fascistic, socialistic or communistic, the real goal of the League was to return the country to the rule of unfettered and unregulated free enterprise à la the 1920s.
Some of the most prominent names in American business helped finance this effort, including Edward Hutton of General Foods, Alfred Sloane of General Motors and the members of the Du Pont family.

As the New Deal took hold, and as FDR prepared to run for re-election in 1936, the Liberty League launched a major effort to unseat him. In the end, however, the wealth behind the Liberty League sealed its fate. Never one to shy away from “a good fight”, FDR took on the forces wealth behind the Liberty League and other like-minded groups in a devastating full frontal attack. Characterizing the League as a tool of what he called “selfish big business,” FDR would go on to remind the public that the wealthy interests behind such groups tended “to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs.” Indeed, based on the experience of the late 20s and early 30s, he continued, we “know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.” He then fully acknowledged their contempt, when he famously said:

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

FDR won the 1936 election in an unprecedented landslide, taking 46 states and more than 60% of the popular vote. The American Liberty League never recovered; and as for fascism, the United States would go on to destroy it, not only through the military might we unleashed during the Second World War, but also through the effective regulation of capitalism that was established in the New Deal.

Braintruster David Woolner is senior vice president of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.