This fascinating book on the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his 1932 campaign and his first months in office in 1933 offers a fascinating look at some largely unknown aspects of this revered but controversial President.
Author SallyDenton covers some familiar ground, such as the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in 1929-1932 and the complete failure of President Herbert Hoover to understand the depths of the crisis or to do anything to help. Hoover’s blind faith in the free market to fix the horrendous problems, such as 25 percent unemployment and a massive run on the nation’s banks, seems on the one hand incredibly naïve and on the other hand uncomfortably similar to the current position of certain free market advocates.
Benton makes it very clear that many people in 1933 seriously doubted that this nation’s constitutional democracy could survive the Great Depression intact.
The country has probably never been more ready for monumental change than it was on the ascent of FDR to the Presidency on March 4, 1933. During his legendary first 100 days, he shepherded an amazing amount of major legislation through a special session of Congress, where both houses had large Democratic majorities after the Hoover-repudiating election of 1932.
Most pressingly, the Emergency Banking Act allowed the mostly closed banks to reopen with federal guarantees on small deposits. The Agricultural Adjustment Act and Farm Credit Administration introduced federal control of agriculture. The Home Owners Loan Corporation tried to protect homeowners and prevent foreclosures. The Tennessee Valley Authority addressed rural poverty. The National Recovery Administration offered a massive economic stimulus package. The country was effectively removed from the gold standard.
Sometime later, Wall Street powers began to push back, but that did not happen right away.
As interesting as the accounts of these events are, the bulk of this book centers on two events that I must admit I had never heard of, despite having read a lot of history and considering myself reasonably well-informed. The first was the attempted assassination of FDR by Italian-immigrant Giuseppe Zangara in Miami in February 1933, just days before his inauguration. Only several chance occurrences and bungling kept this angry man from radically changing the course of history. Indeed, one luminary in the event, Mayor Cermak of Chicago, was mortally wounded in the attack. Overall, the event served to give Roosevelt even wider sympathy and hope upon his assumption of office.
The second event was actually a sequence of very complicated machinations in mid-1933 apparently designed by several Wall Street moguls to effectively stage a fascist coup d’etat against Roosevelt. A respected military hero with the unlikely name of General Smedley Darlington Butler was approached by a shadowy figure named Gerald MacGuire about being the public face of an attempt to remove Roosevelt and thus thwart his New Deal policies.
Butler was suspicious but kept talking to MacGuire in hopes of learning more about the identity of his very well-heeled but reclusive supporters and later to provide a trail of events to aid in subsequent prosecution.
Butler eventually went quietly to the press, where an able young journalist named Paul French pursued the story. It eventually broke and led to a congressional investigation but sadly no prosecutions, as MacGuire died suddenly before his connections to the money behind the project could be fully established.
However, many prominent financiers and even former candidates for President from both parties were implicated.
It is unclear if the plot ever had much real chance of succeeding, but the fact it was even seriously considered testifies to just how bad the country was in the beginning of the Great Depression and the great lengths that some economic powers were willing to go to in order to reverse the New Deal reforms.
Denton is an investigative journalist who presents a carefully documented work, with almost 40 pages of notes. In her own position, she clearly is quite sympathetic to FDR.
There certainly are interesting parallels to the economic strife of the last six years, but the Great Depression was far worse. The reader is left with a gratefulness that the country did indeed get through this trying time. This is a compelling read.