The often sidelined true event and threat to democracy that occurred during the early 1930s has thankfully made an informative comeback in the form of historical nonfiction, with author Jules Archer at the helm. Although Archer could just as fittingly titled his work “Smedley Butler: Courage on and off the battlefield” due to the narrative voice that exists vicariously through Butler’s viewpoint, Archer nonetheless informs readers of an incident that many Americans have never heard of or simply forgotten.
Archer trails the highly decorated and combative expert Marine Corps General Smedley Butler as he becomes targeted by some of America’s wealthiest and luminary businessmen of the era. At the time, these cliques of businessmen were basking in the lucrative glory of their respective industrial companies such as Goodyear, Bethlehem Steel, DuPont and J.P. Morgan; however, they were also gravely concerned about their financial endurance. This concern spurred the galloping actions of the American Liberty League, an organization created by “discontented captains of industry and finance …” campaigning with a mission to “’combat radicalism,’” and to “foster free private enterprise” (30). The League strongly opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, at the same time becoming increasingly fascinated with the successful industrial and political harmony of Italy. Many members of the American Liberty League considered fascist leader Benito Mussolini to be an inspiration for big business in America.
Archer details the backstory of General Butler as head speaker for the American Legion which comprised some 500,000 war veterans at that time bitter about a promised “bonus” they were to receive as pension for their service to the nation. The veterans, dubbed “The Bonus Army,” also included members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Archer points out the importance of General Butler to the veterans, who unanimously trusted and revered him as their heroic and forthright spokesman. Butler fought hard for every right he earnestly believed veterans should be granted, and his brash, outspoken and persuasive nature caught the eye of the wealthy American Liberty League, who began to look at Butler like a hawk to prey. With an ultimate plan of manipulating Butler and his veterans into a kind of paramilitary muscle to back endeavors against Roosevelt, the American Liberty League acted quickly, selecting a bond salesman from Wall Street to “recruit” General Butler, which, if successful, would in turn recruit a half-million veterans.
In a confusing, comedic fashion, Archer paints the story of the persistent Bondsman Gerald MacGuire, on his quixotic quest to persuade General Butler to board the American Liberty League bandwagon. Perhaps in context of the absurdity of the whole ordeal, Archer transforms his narrative voice as a historical writer to an entertaining novelist— even going so far as to conjure up what Butler’s facial expressions looked like; “Butler raised his bushy eyebrows in astonishment” (29). Archer characterized the manner in which the stooge Gerald MacGuire interacted— like a romantic pursuer, and Butler playing hard to get. Of particular craftiness, on Butler’s part, was his artful psychology in leading MacGuire on— harboring his suspicion and playing along with the “recruiting mission.” It is here we see Butler’s experience in the intelligence field, as he basically cons MacGuire into divulging more information regarding the names of the voices in his ear. All in all, the fictional flavor of these particular chapters override the broader scheme at hand, and, consequently, Archer loses focus on the mission of his own book by failing to further explore the actions of the men of the American Liberty League, who were, all along, pulling the web of strings backstage. This mistake, not to mention the lack of cited resources, degrades the accuracy and overall understanding of the plot against FDR.
Also distracting readers from the real true hands in the cookie jar is that a bulk of The Plot to Seize the White House is more or less an annotated documentary of Butler’s colorful career and post-military activities. Of note are the photographs provided within the book (nearly all of which are images of butler during his military career), and the General’s biographical “sketch,” which consumes over one hundred pages of Archer’s two-hundred plus page book. Inasmuch as the historical information about Butler is both engrossing and noteworthy, it only scratches the surface of pertinent details to the plot, and, additionally, misinterprets Butler’s convictions as well— calling him a pacifist and an isolationist. In reality, Butler was an anti-interventionist, as he clearly describes in his proposed “Amendment for Peace”— an afterward in his 1935 classic War is a Racket. “That’s what our army and our navy should be… home defenders… that’s all.” Archer dedicates two pages of The Plot to Seize the White House to Butler’s charismatic book (219-220), but puts little creative effort in analyzing Butler’s true ambitions— the proof of this lackluster account lying in the fact that the two page nod to Butler’s book is ninety-eight percent quotations extrapolated directly from Butler’s text.
In Archer’s defense, much of the resources needed to expound further on the individuals who planned, assembled and set into motion the plan to overthrow FDR are difficult to obtain. Perhaps it is this hurdle in and of itself that can render an explanation as to why the plot is still considered a “conspiracy,” and that the aftermath and attention of the press seemed to fade rather quickly, like newspaper ink in the sun. However, General Butler’s off-duty defense to the nation survives in the archives of The New York Times, when in 1934, America’s most popular newspaper headlined: “Gen. Butler Bares ‘Fascist Plot’ to Seize Government by Force” (169). In the end, all controversies aside, it is Butler who comes out on top, and FDR indebted; perhaps this factor being the red herring that influenced Jules Archer to place more focus— inadvertently or consciously –on Butler, and not on the plot itself.