As America struggled for its survival on the eve of FDR's presidency, Roosevelt felt that all options were on the table. One heretofore undisclosed possibility that Alter unearthed from the archives was to form a private army over which he could exert what amounted to dictatorial powers. As part of HW's continual mission to take our readers behind the scenes where history is made or written of, we caught up with Jonathan Alter during his book tour and asked him about it:
Q. Your revelation that FDR considered conscripting a private army of veterans, then decided against it, is startling. How did you come across the draft speech in which he would propose this plan? And given the dozens and dozens of biographies of FDR that have been written, why do you think no other historian has come across it?
A. When I began research for this book in 2001, I consulted with several distinguished FDR scholars. I had decided to use almost exclusively primary sources, but I wanted their advice. James McGregor Burns, the distinguished Roosevelt biographer and Williams College professor, told me that I would almost certainly find new things during my research. I wasn't sure I believed him, but he turned out to be right. The files at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park are so vast that many secrets still lie within.
One day at the library I was worked in what one archivist called 'the dark period'--the weeks between FDR's departure as governor of New York on January 1, 1933 and his swearing-in as president on March 4, 1933. Much of my narrative takes place in this period, but documents tended to fall between the governor's files and the files on the presidency. Buried within a folder in the 'Speech files' I found a peculiar draft of 'suggestions' that I reprint in the book. The speech 'suggestions' were for a radio address to the American Legion on March 5, 1933, FDR's first full day in the presidency. The speech as delivered was un-newsworthy and entirely ignored by all biographers except Kenneth Davis, who mentions it only in passing and who apparently never saw the unused draft. But the 'suggestions' were explosive. They cast the struggle amid the banking collapse as a war and contained this sentence: 'As new commander-in-chief under the oath to which you are still bound I reserve to myself the right to command you in any phase of the situation which now confronts us.'
There was no indication which member of FDR's tiny staff wrote these suggestions, but the implications, as the archivists agreed, were significant. At a time when Mussolini was extremely popular in the United States (he had created a 'Black Shirt' army of veterans) and everyone from Walter Lippmann to William Randolph Hearst to the editorial pages of major newspapers were calling for FDR to assume dictatorial powers, the new president was contemplating a move in an extra-constitutional direction. Whether he wanted to 'command' these aging World War I veterans to guard banks then undergoing terrifying 'runs' or for other purposes, we do not know. It may be that he discarded the 'suggestions' out of hand, or was genuinely tempted. We can't say.
But I believe sometimes history is what does not happen. In this case, FDR rejected the advice of Lippmann and whichever aide wrote the 'suggestions' and passed word on Capitol Hill that week through Felix Frankfurter that he would not take on dictatorial authority. He decided to substitute his character and incandescent leadership abilities for government-by-fiat. My book pivots off this decision, which is why I chose to open my narrative with this previously un-revealed document.