The Threat of U.S. Fascism: An Historical Precedent

Published on Thursday, August 2, 2007 by CommonDreams.org
The Threat of U.S. Fascism: An Historical Precedent
by Alan Nasser

Perhaps the most alarming slice of twentieth-century U.S. history is virtually unknown to the general public, including most scholars of American history. One hopes that a recent BBC documentary titled The Plot Against America and an article of the same name by Columbia Law School professor and longtime human rights activist Scott Horton, on the website of Harper’s magazine, will sound an alert.

In 1934 a special Congressional committee was appointed to conduct an investigation of a possible planned coup intended to topple the administration of president Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace it with a government modeled on the policies of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The shocking results of the investigation were promptly scotched and stashed in the National Archives. While the coup attempt was reported at the time in a few newspapers, including The New York Times, the story disappeared from public memory shortly after the Congressional findings were made available to president Roosevelt. It was the recent release from the Archives of the Congressional report that prompted the BBC and Horton commentaries.

The Congressional committee had discovered that some of the foremost members of the economic elite, many of them household names at the time, had indeed hatched a meticulously detailed and massively funded plot to effect a fascist coup in America. The owners of Bird’s Eye, Maxwell House and Heinz, among others, totaling about twenty four major businessmen and Wall Street financiers, planned to assemble a private army of half a million men, composed largely of unemployed veterans. These troops would both constitute the armed force behind the coup and defeat any resistance this in-house revolution might generate. The economic elite would provide the material resources required to sustain the new government.

The plotters hoped that widespread working-class discouragement at the stubborn persistence of the Great Depression would have sufficiently disenchanted the masses with FDR’s policies to make the coup an easy ride. And they were appalled at Roosevelt’s willingness after 1933 to initiate economic policies that economists and businessmen considered dangerously Leftist departures from economic orthodoxy. Only a fascist-style government, they thought, could enforce the kind of economic “discipline” that would reverse the Great Depression and restore profits.

Interestingly, it was a military man, a prominent retired general assigned the task of raising the 500,000-man army, who blew the whistle after pondering the grotesque implications of the undemocratic installation of a fascist dictatorship in Washington. FDR was thus able to nip the plot in the bud.

The president might have used the occasion to alert the public to the anti-democratic impulses of a major segment of the capitalist class. But this of course would only have bolstered the fortunes of Communist, Socialist and other anti-capitalist political tendencies here, which were already gaining some ground among artists, intellectuals and a surprising number of working people. It is well known that Hollywood screenwriting in the 1930s was replete with Communist-inspired sentiment.

And of course we must not forget that FDR was himself a (somewhat renegade) member of the very class that would have toppled him. While FDR was open to watered-down Keynesian policies in a way that very few of his class comrades were, his commitment (like Keynes’s) to the “free enterprise” system was unconditional. He had no interest in publicizing a plot that might constitute a public-relations victory for anti-capitalist politics. He therefore refused to out the plotters, and sought no punitive measures against them. In the end, class solidarity carried the day for Roosevelt. The Congressional committee cooperated by refusing to reveal the names of many of the key plotters.

Thus, fascist tendencies gestating deep within the culture of the U.S. ruling class were effectively left to develop unhindered by mass political mobilization.

Might this grisly episode have important implications for our understanding of the current political moment? One may be inclined to think so on the basis of the fact that one of the architects of the plot was one Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W. Bush. Bush, along with many other big businessmen, had maintained friendly relations in 1933 and 1934 with the new German government of Chancellor Adolph Hitler, and was designated to form for his class conspirators a working relationship with that government.

While Bush-bashing is highly recommended, the implications of this unsettling piece of history for contemporary politics run deeper than many of us would like to think. There is the temptation to point triumphantly to George W. Bush’s commitment to the irrelevance of the Constitution, which he has sneeringly referred to as “a piece of paper”, his corresponding contempt for hitherto taken-for-granted fundamental human rights, his Hobbesian notion of unbridled sovereignty, his militarized notion of political power and corresponding bull-in-a-china-shop foreign policy – there is the temptation to regard these genuinely fascist elements as the most significant contemporary remnant of the 1934 conspiracy.

But no less important is the utter absence in 1934 of liberal attempts to educate the public to, and mobilize the population against, the fascist threat. FDR stood down.

Although Rooseveltian/New Deal liberalism is dead, contemporary Democrats do sustain one of FDR’s least seemly qualities, namely his refusal to encourage effective mass opposition to fascist and imperialist politics. John Kerry boasted of having contributed to the drafting of the Patriot Act. And in the most recent round of crucial legislation regarding the war in Iraq, the Democrats gave Bush everything he wanted. All the major presidentail contenders of both parties support a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq. None has repudiated the conceit that Uncle sam is and should ever be the global hegemon. And most importantly, none has repudiated the Neoliberal Consensus, the notion that the market should be left to operate as “freely” as the public can be persuaded to allow it to act, and, crucially, that this is a model that should be imposed globally through the power of the U.S. working in tandem with such powerful global institutions as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO.

To the extent that this policy has been successful, inequalities between national classes and between the global North and South have widened dramatically since the decline of the Keynesian consensus in the mid-1970s. Since the Mondale candidacy, no Democrat has had a full-employment plank in his presidential platform. The median wage has been in secular decline since 1973, and the distribution of national income between capital and labor has not been as skewed toward capital since the Great Depression. But no member of either party has made a major issue of this.

One of the most powerful obstacles to appreciating the relevance of the 1934 planned coup to our times is the virtually ubiquitous misconception that the gross inequalities and anti-working-class policies now evident, and the reckless carnage that characterizes U.S. foreign policy, is the result of the “neoconservative revolution” ushered in by George W. Bush. But it was Clinton’s cynical jettisoning of his relatively progressive Economic Stimulus Plan, his abolition of “welfare as we know it” without providing a replacement, and his ruthless bombing of Yugoslavia and “sanctions” against Iraq that both foreshadowed and paved the way for Bush’s atrocities. The truism that the Democratic Party has moved ever closer to the Republicans since the Carter administration must not be forgotten. Indeed it is an understatement. To fully appreciate the reality of democratic capitulation as an alleged “opposition party” we need only reflect upon the consequences of Clinton’s sanctions against Iraq.

Clinton bombed Iraq several times weekly for eight years. Defense Information Agency documents, now available through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that the strategy of the bombing was to extensively bomb water purification facilities and power generating facilities with the explicit intention to spread diseases that would affect children. The idea was to pressure ordinary Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, with the knowledge that if they did so, the pedicide would cease. But Iraqis blamed Washington for this catastrophe, not Saddam. When Saddam offered to accede to Clinton’s requirements for ending the bombing, Clinton abruptly replied that no possible concessions on Saddam’s part would lead him to end the bombing/sanctions.

Extensive investigations by widely respected sources, including the distinguished British medical journal The Lancet, determined that the number of Iraqi children who died as a direct result of the pedicidal bombardment was 467,000. And it added a fact unreported in the U.S. media, that the U.S. use of depleted uranium in the attacks had resulted in the first known cases of breast cancer afflicting four-year-old girls. When Clinton’s Secretary of state Madeline Albright was asked by Lesley Stahl in 1996 on 60 Minutes whether she thought that the removal of Saddam from power was worth killing a half million children, she replied that “Yes, it was worth it.”

Is this qualitatively different from the death and destruction that Bush has wrought? Of course not. The British playwright Harold Pinter has characterized both Clinton and Bush as “mass murderers”, and the accusation sounds indeed brutal. But is it accurate? How can one deny that it is?

Today’s Democrats’ abdication of the role of opposition party is far more consequential than Roosevelt’s decision to permit our embryonic fascists to continue to gestate. The difference between FDR and his Republican antagonists was far greater than the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats today. Today’s Democrats have internalized and identified with the interests of those whom they should be actively mobilizing the population against. The Republocrats are now all of them heir to the fascist instincts inherent in the ruling elite. Republican elites manifest this in their policies as the party in power; Democratic elites evidence their unsavory class heritage by railing ritualistically against the Republicans even as they betray their fed-up constituencies by supporting the fundamental policies of their alleged “opponents”.

Effective opposition at the current historical juncture requires the only force capable of defeating the neoliberal and imperialist obsessions of the mainstream parties and their financial masters: street politics, the mobilization and eventual organization of the people against a ruling establishment seen by an increasing number of Americans as terminally corrupt and indifferent to their most pressing needs.

Lest this popular disaffection be siphoned into an impotent and resigned cynicism, it would seem that intense educational efforts regarding the desirability and possibility of a third party, a genuine party of labor, become a priority for serious progressives. MoveOn must yield to MoveBeyond. As harder economic times threaten the not distant future, the economic stagnation and austerity that is fertile soil for the growth of fascist politics poses an unmistakbly clear and present danger. Thinking and acting outside the political box has never been as pressing an impertive as it is now.

Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia Wa. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Monthly Review, Commonweal, Common Dreams and a number of professional journals.

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3 Responses to “The Threat of U.S. Fascism: An Historical Precedent”


  1. 1 curtisschweitzer August 2, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Wow.

  2. 2 curtisschweitzer August 2, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Clinton bombed Iraq several times weekly for eight years. Defense Information Agency documents, now available through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that the strategy of the bombing was to extensively bomb water purification facilities and power generating facilities with the explicit intention to spread diseases that would affect children. The idea was to pressure ordinary Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, with the knowledge that if they did so, the pedicide would cease. But Iraqis blamed Washington for this catastrophe, not Saddam. When Saddam offered to accede to Clinton’s requirements for ending the bombing, Clinton abruptly replied that no possible concessions on Saddam’s part would lead him to end the bombing/sanctions.

    Do you know where I can obtain these documents by any chance?

  3. 3 mlyon01 August 5, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    Regarding references to Clinton’s bombing of Iraqi water purification plants during the sanctions period, resulting in deaths of an estimated half million kids and which were later justified on national TV by Albright as worth it to preserve strategic resources:

    One article is by Thomas Nagy in the September, 2001 Progressive. It’s available at http://www.chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/pol/wtc/nagyprogressive0901.html

    September 2001 Issue of The Progressive magazine

    The Secret Behind the Sanctions How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq’s Water Supply by Thomas J. Nagy

    Over the last two years, I’ve discovered documents of the Defense Intelligence Agency proving beyond a doubt that, contrary to the Geneva Convention, the U.S. government intentionally used sanctions against Iraq to degrade the country’s water supply after the Gulf War. The United States knew the cost that civilian Iraqis, mostly children, would pay, and it went ahead anyway.

    The primary document, “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities,” is dated January 22, 1991. It spells out how sanctions will prevent Iraq from supplying clean water to its citizens.

    “Iraq depends on importing specialized equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline,” the document states. “With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent United Nations Sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.”

    The document goes into great technical detail about the sources and quality of Iraq’s water supply. The quality of untreated water “generally is poor,” and drinking such water “could result in diarrhea,” the document says. It notes that Iraq’s rivers “contain biological materials, pollutants, and are laden with bacteria. Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur.”

    The document notes that the importation of chlorine “has been embargoed” by sanctions. “Recent reports indicate the chlorine supply is critically low.” Food and medicine will also be affected, the document states. “Food processing, electronic, and, particularly, pharmaceutical plants require extremely pure water that is free from biological contaminants,” it says.

    The document addresses possible Iraqi countermeasures to obtain drinkable water despite sanctions.

    “Iraq conceivably could truck water from the mountain reservoirs to urban areas. But the capability to gain significant quantities is extremely limited,” the document states. “The amount of pipe on hand and the lack of pumping stations would limit laying pipelines to these reservoirs. Moreover, without chlorine purification, the water still would contain biological pollutants. Some affluent Iraqis could obtain their own minimally adequate supply of good quality water from Northern Iraqi sources. If boiled, the water could be safely consumed. Poorer Iraqis and industries requiring large quantities of pure water would not be able to meet their needs.”

    The document also discounted the possibility of Iraqis using rainwater. “Precipitation occurs in Iraq during the winter and spring, but it falls primarily in the northern mountains,” it says. “Sporadic rains, sometimes heavy, fall over the lower plains. But Iraq could not rely on rain to provide adequate pure water.”

    As an alternative, “Iraq could try convincing the United Nations or individual countries to exempt water treatment supplies from sanctions for humanitarian reasons,” the document says. “It probably also is attempting to purchase supplies by using some sympathetic countries as fronts. If such attempts fail, Iraqi alternatives are not adequate for their national requirements.”

    In cold language, the document spells out what is in store: “Iraq will suffer increasing shortages of purified water because of the lack of required chemicals and desalination membranes. Incidences of disease, including possible epidemics, will become probable unless the population were careful to boil water.”

    The document gives a timetable for the destruction of Iraq’s water supplies. “Iraq’s overall water treatment capability will suffer a slow decline, rather than a precipitous halt,” it says. “Although Iraq is already experiencing a loss of water treatment capability, it probably will take at least six months (to June 1991) before the system is fully degraded.”

    This document, which was partially declassified but unpublicized in 1995, can be found on the Pentagon’s web site at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil. (I disclosed this document last fall. But the news media showed little interest in it. The only reporters I know of who wrote lengthy stories on it were Felicity Arbuthnot in the Sunday Herald of Scotland, who broke the story, and Charlie Reese of the Orlando Sentinel, who did a follow-up.)

    Recently, I have come across other DIA documents that confirm the Pentagon’s monitoring of the degradation of Iraq’s water supply. These documents have not been publicized until now.

    The first one in this batch is called “Disease Information,” and is also dated January 22, 1991. At the top, it says, “Subject: Effects of Bombing on Disease Occurrence in Baghdad.” The analysis is blunt: “Increased incidence of diseases will be attributable to degradation of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water purification/distribution, electricity, and decreased ability to control disease outbreaks. Any urban area in Iraq that has received infrastructure damage will have similar problems.”

    The document proceeds to itemize the likely outbreaks. It mentions “acute diarrhea” brought on by bacteria such as E. coli, shigella, and salmonella, or by protozoa such as giardia, which will affect “particularly children,” or by rotavirus, which will also affect “particularly children,” a phrase it puts in parentheses. And it cites the possibilities of typhoid and cholera outbreaks. The document warns that the Iraqi government may “blame the United States for public health problems created by the military conflict.”

    The second DIA document, “Disease Outbreaks in Iraq,” is dated February 21, 1990, but the year is clearly a typo and should be 1991. It states: “Conditions are favorable for communicable disease outbreaks, particularly in major urban areas affected by coalition bombing.” It adds: “Infectious disease prevalence in major Iraqi urban areas targeted by coalition bombing (Baghdad, Basrah) undoubtedly has increased since the beginning of Desert Storm. . . . Current public health problems are attributable to the reduction of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water purification and distribution, electricity, and the decreased ability to control disease outbreaks.”

    This document lists the “most likely diseases during next sixty-ninety days (descending order): diarrheal diseases (particularly children); acute respiratory illnesses (colds and influenza); typhoid; hepatitis A (particularly children); measles, diphtheria, and pertussis (particularly children); meningitis, including meningococcal (particularly children); cholera (possible, but less likely).”

    Like the previous document, this one warns that the Iraqi government might “propagandize increases of endemic diseases.”

    The third document in this series, “Medical Problems in Iraq,” is dated March 15, 1991. It says: “Communicable diseases in Baghdad are more widespread than usually observed during this time of the year and are linked to the poor sanitary conditions (contaminated water supplies and improper sewage disposal) resulting from the war. According to a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)/World Health Organization report, the quantity of potable water is less than 5 percent of the original supply, there are no operational water and sewage treatment plants, and the reported incidence of diarrhea is four times above normal levels. Additionally, respiratory infections are on the rise. Children particularly have been affected by these diseases.”

    Perhaps to put a gloss on things, the document states, “There are indications that the situation is improving and that the population is coping with the degraded conditions.” But it adds: “Conditions in Baghdad remain favorable for communicable disease outbreaks.”

    The fourth document, “Status of Disease at Refugee Camps,” is dated May 1991. The summary says, “Cholera and measles have emerged at refugee camps. Further infectious diseases will spread due to inadequate water treatment and poor sanitation.”

    The reason for this outbreak is clearly stated again. “The main causes of infectious diseases, particularly diarrhea, dysentery, and upper respiratory problems, are poor sanitation and unclean water. These diseases primarily afflict the old and young children.”

    The fifth document, “Health Conditions in Iraq, June 1991,” is still heavily censored. All I can make out is that the DIA sent a source “to assess health conditions and determine the most critical medical needs of Iraq. Source observed that Iraqi medical system was in considerable disarray, medical facilities had been extensively looted, and almost all medicines were in critically short supply.”

    In one refugee camp, the document says, “at least 80 percent of the population” has diarrhea. At this same camp, named Cukurca, “cholera, hepatitis type B, and measles have broken out.”

    The protein deficiency disease kwashiorkor was observed in Iraq “for the first time,” the document adds. “Gastroenteritis was killing children. . . . In the south, 80 percent of the deaths were children (with the exception of Al Amarah, where 60 percent of deaths were children).”

    The final document is “Iraq: Assessment of Current Health Threats and Capabilities,” and it is dated November 15, 1991. This one has a distinct damage-control feel to it. Here is how it begins: “Restoration of Iraq’s public health services and shortages of major medical materiel remain dominant international concerns. Both issues apparently are being exploited by Saddam Hussein in an effort to keep public opinion firmly against the U.S. and its Coalition allies and to direct blame away from the Iraqi government.”

    It minimizes the extent of the damage. “Although current countrywide infectious disease incidence in Iraq is higher than it was before the Gulf War, it is not at the catastrophic levels that some groups predicted. The Iraqi regime will continue to exploit disease incidence data for its own political purposes.”

    And it places the blame squarely on Saddam Hussein. “Iraq’s medical supply shortages are the result of the central government’s stockpiling, selective distribution, and exploitation of domestic and international relief medical resources.” It adds: “Resumption of public health programs . . . depends completely on the Iraqi government.”

    As these documents illustrate, the United States knew sanctions had the capacity to devastate the water treatment system of Iraq. It knew what the consequences would be: increased outbreaks of disease and high rates of child mortality. And it was more concerned about the public relations nightmare for Washington than the actual nightmare that the sanctions created for innocent Iraqis.

    The Geneva Convention is absolutely clear. In a 1979 protocol relating to the “protection of victims of international armed conflicts,” Article 54, it states: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.”

    But that is precisely what the U.S. government did, with malice aforethought. It “destroyed, removed, or rendered useless” Iraq’s “drinking water installations and supplies.” The sanctions, imposed for a decade largely at the insistence of the United States, constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention. They amount to a systematic effort to, in the DIA’s own words, “fully degrade” Iraq’s water sources.

    At a House hearing on June 7, Representative Cynthia McKinney, Democrat of Georgia, referred to the document “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities” and said: “Attacking the Iraqi public drinking water supply flagrantly targets civilians and is a violation of the Geneva Convention and of the fundamental laws of civilized nations.”

    Over the last decade, Washington extended the toll by continuing to withhold approval for Iraq to import the few chemicals and items of equipment it needed in order to clean up its water supply.

    Last summer, Representative Tony Hall, Democrat of Ohio, wrote to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright “about the profound effects of the increasing deterioration of Iraq’s water supply and sanitation systems on its children’s health.” Hall wrote, “The prime killer of children under five years of age–diarrheal diseases–has reached epidemic proportions, and they now strike four times more often than they did in 1990. . . . Holds on contracts for the water and sanitation sector are a prime reason for the increases in sickness and death. Of the eighteen contracts, all but one hold was placed by the U.S. government. The contracts are for purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical dosing pumps, water tankers, and other equipment. . . . I urge you to weigh your decision against the disease and death that are the unavoidable result of not having safe drinking water and minimum levels of sanitation.”

    For more than ten years, the United States has deliberately pursued a policy of destroying the water treatment system of Iraq, knowing full well the cost in Iraqi lives. The United Nations has estimated that more than 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions, and that 5,000 Iraqi children continue to die every month for this reason.

    No one can say that the United States didn’t know what it was doing.

    See for Yourself

    All the DIA documents mentioned in this article were found at the Department of Defense’s Gulflink site.

    To read or print documents:

    1.go to http://www.gulflink.osd.mil

    2.click on “Declassified Documents” on the left side of the front page

    3.the next page is entitled “Browse Recently Declassified Documents”

    4.click on “search” under “Declassifed Documents” on the left side of that page

    5.the next page is entitled “Search Recently Declassified Documents”

    6.enter search terms such as “disease information effects of bombing”

    7.click on the search button

    8.the next page is entitled “Data Sources”

    9.click on DIA

    10.click on one of the titles

    It’s not the easiest, best-organized site on the Internet, but I have found the folks at Gulflink to be helpful and responsive.

    Thomas J. Nagy teaches at the School of Business and Public Management at George Washington University.


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