Eighty years after his first inauguration, it is easy to forget that Franklin D. Roosevelt had political problems. His presidency seems so effortless: the 100 days, four electoral landslides, large majorities in Congress. Millions hung his portrait above their fireplaces. All that belies the conservative vitriol he and his policies faced during the first two years of his presidency, which Sally Denton explores in “The Plots Against the President,” a thoroughly readable primer on political discourse in the early years of the Great Depression.
Denton, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, sets the scene by describing a nation near collapse in 1932, three years into the Depression. People openly wondered whether democracy, with its deliberate processes, could act fast enough against the economic decay. Some called for a fascist state to alleviate the problems. “Even the term Fascism implied a strength and unity desperately needed in America,” Denton writes. Two days before Roosevelt’s inauguration, “more than half the states had closed their banks. . . . The New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade were shuttered.”
The American republic seemed too brittle to withstand the calamity. Denton quotes the historian William Manchester: “The evidence strongly suggests that had Roosevelt in fact been another Hoover, the United States would have followed seven Latin American countries whose governments had been overthrown by Depression victims.”
Of course, Roosevelt was no Hoover. During the 100 days that started on March 4, 1933, when he was inaugurated, Congress approved 15 New Deal proposals offered by the White House. They took the country off the gold standard, shoring up banks by preventing runs on them. A subsquent bank holiday allowed financial institutions time to straighten out their finances. Soon deposits returned to the banks. Roosevelt’s policies set in motion the repeal of Prohibition and offered assistance to homeowners, farmers and unemployed veterans. In little more than a year, the results were striking. “By March 15, 1933,” Denton writes, “76 percent of the country’s Federal Reserve member banks had reopened.” When the stock market reopened the following day, the Dow Jones “jumped a historic 15 percent.”
To call Roosevelt popular would be an understatement. “The Nation was giddy in its response to their deliverer. ‘Roosevelt is the greatest leader since Jesus Christ,’ a prominent businessman was quoted as saying. ‘I hope God will forgive me for voting for Hoover.’ ”
But that wasn’t a view held by everyone. The right turned against his policies. Some took offense at his diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, surely an indication of his communistic intentions, conspiracy theorists thought. American fascist parties formed paramilitary groups called the silver shirts, the khaki shirts or the black shirts, a Crayola box of colors inspired by Hitler’s brownshirts and Mussolini’s blackshirts. “Dangerous or not,” Denton notes, “America was awash with right-wing groups overtly bent on government takeover outside the bounds of the democratic electoral process.”
The largest effort was a well-financed Wall Street plot to organize the American Legion to march on Washington, seize the White House, overthrow the president and install a famous military hero, Smedley Darlington Butler, as leader of a fascist state modeled after Italy. Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient and firm supporter of Roosevelt, turned the ringleaders in. Despite the opposition, Democrats gained 22 seats in Congress in 1934, and Roosevelt steamrolled Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, the Republican nominee, in the 1936 election.
A charismatic, eloquent leader, eager for change, faces a vocal conservative backlash. Sound familiar? Throughout the book, you might draw parallels to today. Were the unemployed World War I veterans who encamped in Anacostia in 1932 seeking their unpaid bonuses forerunners of the Occupy D.C. movement 80 years on? Is the invective of radio priest Father Charles Coughlin similar to that of Glenn Beck (although Beck’s lacks the anti-Semitism)? As for the commanders in chief, “There is not much difference between the forces lined against President Franklin Roosevelt and those against President Barack Obama,” Denton writes.
THE PLOTS AGAINST THE PRESIDENT
FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right
By Sally Denton
Bloomsbury. 272 pp. $28