JFK, FDR and 'Seven Days in May'
Robert Parry recently wrote of how President Obama's early actions might bring him a "Seven Days in May moment," referring to a fictitious coup attempt from a film of the same name, in which a popular military figure nearly took over the government.
In Parry's piece, he compared Obama's situation to that of President Jimmy Carter. I was reminded, however, of President John Kennedy's comments regarding his own brush with the "Seven Days in May" scenario, and the dangers Obama too will face.
I was also reminded of the coup that almost came about during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term.
The film "Seven Days in May" began as a novel by Fletcher Knebel, inspired to a great degree by Knebel's conversations with Gen. Curtis LeMay, President Kennedy's contentious Air Force Chief of Staff who was furious at Kennedy for not sending in full military support during the Bay of Pigs incident.
Additionally, LeMay infamously argued during the Cuban Missile Crisis for a preemptive nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union, a move Kennedy abhorred.
One of Kennedy's friends, Paul Fay, Jr., wrote in his book The Pleasure of His Company how one summer weekend in 1962, one of Kennedy's friends bought Knebel's book to his attention, and Kennedy read the book that night.
The next day, Kennedy discussed the plot with friends, who wanted to know if Kennedy felt such a scenario was possible. Bear in mind this was after the Bay of Pigs but before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"It's possible," Kennedy acknowledged. "It could happen in this country, but the conditions would have to be just right. If, for example, the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness.
“Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back, but this would be written off as the usual military dissatisfaction with civilian control. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, 'Is he too young and inexperienced?'
“The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation, and only God knows just what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment."
After a moment, Kennedy continued. "Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs, it could happen."
Kennedy wanted the public to understand the threat to the presidency, and encouraged the film's director and longtime Kennedy friend John Frankenheimer to make the film "as a warning to the Republic."
Kennedy even offered to leave Washington for a few days so Frankenheimer could shoot at the White House.
In the wake of the tragically flawed Bay of Pigs operation, Kennedy learned a valuable lesson that Obama has yet to learn: the limits of presidential authority.
As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas recounted later, "He had experienced the extreme power that these groups had, these various insidious influences of the CIA and the Pentagon, on civilian policy, and I think it raised in his own mind the specter: Can Jack Kennedy, President of the United States, ever be strong enough to really rule these two powerful agencies?"
It's a question we could ask of Obama as well. As Parry noted, Obama has already moved to exert authority over the military by ordering a plan to withdraw from Iraq within 16 months, even though top generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno have expressed their belief that thousands of troops should remain in Iraq for years to come.
Obama is also ruffling mighty feathers by calling out top banking officials on their egregious bonuses at a time when so many Americans are out of work or struggling to get to the next paycheck.
If he nationalizes the banks to any degree, no matter how necessary or temporary, he'll place himself square in the shoes of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who also challenged the bankers early in his first term.
In FDR's case, the bankers responded by attempting to lure the widely known and very popular General Smedley Butler into a coup against Roosevelt. (Some commentators believe this failed coup also helped shape Knebel's novel.)
Butler was first approached on the issue of the gold standard. One of FDR's early acts as President was to decouple the country's money supply from the gold supply. This outraged the banking establishment, as the resulting inflation devalued their holdings.
Through a proxy, several prominent Americans approached General Butler and asked him to lobby the veterans who adored him for a return to the gold standard, using the argument that inflation would devalue the veteran's bonuses that had yet to be paid.
The point man for the conspiracy, Gerald MacGuire, had studied the fascist coups in Europe and found that they were made possible only by the cooperation of a strong faction in the military. MacGuire offered to provide Butler with a speech to give before the American Legion that would fire up the troops and rally them behind Butler.
Butler smelled a rat right away. He decided to string MacGuire along until he could unravel the details of the plot. He learned the goal was to appoint a special assistant to President Roosevelt, a sort of "co-president," after which Roosevelt would be forced to resign using his polio-ravaged condition as an excuse.
With Butler's help, or so they hoped, the military would quickly side with the coup plotters should any challenge arise during the transfer of power.
The men approached Butler because they believed that he, like many others, would be corruptible. Offers of wealth and mortgage forgiveness were made.
But instead, Butler brought a reporter into the fold so it wouldn't be just Butler's word against the conspirators. When the two of them had gathered enough data, they went to Congress.
Congress was initially outraged and curious. But when the investigation soon led to some of the biggest names in the Establishment, the investigation was prematurely aborted, and not one person was charged with any crime, despite solid evidence of perjury, at a minimum.
Obama seeks to pattern himself after Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Kennedy. But two of the three had their presidencies cut short by assassins, and one was challenged by a fascist group within the Establishment.
Truly, President Obama will need to be extremely vigilant, courageous and wily if he seeks to achieve their stature while avoiding the wrath of similar, and powerful, enemies.
Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.
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