Prologue: A Beleaguered Capital
When dawn broke in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, March 4, 1933, the atmosphere was celebratory, if anxious. Slate gray and ominous, the sky suggested a calm before the storm. Even before the sun rose, more than a hundred thousand people had gathered on the east side of the Capitol. General Douglas MacArthur was in command of the inaugural parade, and he habitually expected the worst. By that morning, American depositors had transferred more than $1.3 billion in gold to foreign accounts, millions of people had been turned away from their banks, and rioting was expected in cities throughout the nation, prompting some state governors to predict a violent revolution.
Army machine guns and sharpshooters were placed at strategic locations along the route. Not since the Civil War had Washington been so fortified. Journalist Arthur Krock likened the climate to "that which might be found in a beleaguered capital in wartime." Armed police guarded federal buildings, and rumors swirled that Roosevelt was going to appropriate dictatorial powers and impose martial law. But if he had ever really entertained such a notion — as unused drafts of an inaugural address indicated — he abandoned it. Despite efforts made by William Randolph Hearst, Walter Lippmann, Bernard Baruch, and others to convince him of the necessity for a benevolent despot to seize control of the country, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was unswayed.
Hearst, the nation's most powerful publisher, went so far as to produce a Hollywood movie — Gabriel Over the White House, starring Walter Huston — to instruct both Roosevelt and the American public how to succumb to dictatorship. Even though Italy's Benito Mussolini and Fascism were enormously popular and highly regarded in America at the time, Roosevelt distrusted autocracy, did not believe that one could count on a benevolent dictator to remain so, and, especially, maintained an absolute commitment to the U.S. Constitution. "We could have had a dictator ... and we would have had one but for the President himself, to whom the whole idea was hateful," a U.S. Army general later said in a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Instead, Roosevelt determined to incite the public to action rather than to capture extra-constitutional authority for himself. He wanted not to assume enhanced powers, not to take advantage of a quavering nation to elevate his own stature, but rather to ignite the citizenry to banish apathy and recapture a spirit of confidence and achievement. He sought not to issue comforting bromides — as his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had done incessantly — but to raise a battle cry, a call to arms for Americans to overcome their fear and march bravely into the unknown. His overarching message: If they had lost faith in themselves, he would restore it.
But he was not content to stop there. Even as he hoped to inspire and invigorate, he also intended to hold accountable those who had failed the nation and sent it plunging into its abyss. "When millions lived close to starvation, and some even had to scavenge for food, bankers ... and corporation executives ... drew astronomical salaries and bonuses," as one account described the disparity between the poor and the wealthy. In a profound departure from Hoover, Roosevelt promised not only to bring relief to the victims but also to punish the perpetrators of the catastrophe. He would make clear that the departure of Herbert Hoover signified the end of the old order.
From The Plots Against the President: FDR, a Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right by Sally Denton. Copyright 2012 by Sally Denton. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Press.