May 4, 2017

1937. Is Dictatorship in America Possible?

Could It Happen Here?
"Twenty-thousand attend a meeting of the German American Bund, which included banners such as 'Stop Jewish Domination of Christian Americans,'" Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939 (source)
This article is part of a series of posts on how newspapers covered the rise of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Italy and Germany prior to World War II. In 1937, controversy raged over President Roosevelt's ultimately failed proposal to add up to six additional justices to the Supreme Court. Foreign correspondent Stephen Miles Bouton questioned whether dictatorship could take hold in the United States as it did in Italy, Germany, and Russia.

From The New York Times, May 2, 1937, pp. 3, 23-24:
Supreme Court Issue Has Raised a Question
A Parallel Is Drawn And a Difference Cited


"Do you think we are in any danger of a dictatorship here in America?" A strange question, and astonishing when one hears it for the first time, but it is being asked all over the country—on the Pacific Coast, in the Middle West and in the East.

It is prompted, of course, by President Roosevelt's demand for legislation permitting him to add six justices to the Supreme Court. Few persons believe that the President himself has dictatorial aspirations but, they recall, he declared last year that there had been concentrated in his hands a plenitude of power which would be dangerous in the hands of "a political puppet of an economic autocracy"—and Huey Long is still remembered. Men confident of Mr. Roosevelt's uprightness of purpose are asking themselves what would happen if a President of less lofty aims should be his successor.

It is probably too much to say that there exists any actual fear of dictatorship, but there is much disquietude, whether justified or not. And it is not confined to the "possessing class" or to "economic royalists." Three of the stoutest opponents of the President's Supreme Court plan whom I met in a recent long tour of this country were two brakemen and a conductor on the Santa Fe Railroad—and all three had voted for Mr. Roosevelt.

Men who love him for the enemies he has made are worried about the friends he has made. They see Marxists and radicals of all shades joyously welcoming the proposed court change, and though no intelligent person believes that the President has Marxist leanings, it cannot be denied that thousands of representative Americans like very little the company he is keeping.

•    •    •

Americans have learned much about dictatorships in the last years. There is little mystery about Russia. Revolutions are normal in time of war. Russia, moreover, was predominantly a land of illiterate peasants, only a few decades removed from serfdom. That fascism came in Italy as a reaction when workers seized more than a third of the country's industrial plants is generally known—and the recollection has disquieted many in connection with the sit-down strikes all over America. But there is still a good deal of mystery about Germany, a country with no illiteracy, with a laboring class better fed, housed and clothed than that of any other country on the Continent.

The establishing of a revolution and the creating of a dictatorship are essentially analogous processes. Neither is possible in a country where the people are reasonable contented with their lot. There must be widespread dissatisfaction with economic conditions, as there was in both Italy and Germany.

Italy had a wage scale only about a fifth as high as the American average, taxes were crushingly heavy and the mass of the people had a standard of living barely above the subsistence level. The end of the war found Germany impoverished. The inflation of 1921-1923 wiped out the savings of the laboring and middle classes, and a part of the savings even of those owning tangible assets. A measure of prosperity came later, but the worldwide depression hit Germany, and by 1931 roundly a tenth of the whole population was unemployed. Relief was inadequate. There were also psychological grievances, based on the Treaty of Versailles.

No dictatorship—or revolution—can come into existence without a scapegoat. In Italy it was the radical Marxists; in Germany it was all Marxists and the Jews, and the two were identified in the bourgeois mind in a country with a record of nine centuries of anti-Semitism. And there were, of course—for feeding popular indignation—the capitalists. Thus the stage was set in both countries. It was merely a matter of finding the right leaders and the right methods. Russia, it must be repeated, offers little that is analogous to the Italian and German developments, except in the mechanism by which the Soviet dictators have remained in power.

•    •    •

The makers of the Weimar Constitution had themselves forged one of the weapons that made their downfall possible. They took over in effect the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution—freedom of the press, speech and assembly, inviolability of private property, and so on. But then, frightened at their own courage, they added Article 48, which provided that the President of the republic could suspend all those rights "if public safety and order are materially disturbed or endangered." President Ebert, Socialist, took advantage of this power repeatedly, and it was by virtue of the same provision that President von Hindenburg issued in the Summer of 1932 his decree doing away with all constitutional guarantees and making Hitler's advent possible.

To establish a dictatorship there must be a leader with a strong appeal to the masses. In Russia it was Lenin, in Italy Mussolini, in Germany Hitler. The two first named had the advantage of finding a situation ready-made and ripe for exploitation; Hitler had to work thirteen years to reach his goal. He was helped by the fact that the German Republic produced no leader with qualities appealing strongly to either Right or Left. A gifted demagogue might have saved the republic for a few years, but there was none.

Hitler, a mystic speaking to a mystic people, took clever advantage of all possible factors. Some 40 per cent of all Germans belonged to one of the two Marxist labor parties, and the backbone of the Roman Catholic Center was made up of workers. Two full generations of the German working class had grown up under the influence of the slogan, "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat." The Nazi party is generally described as the "National Socialist party," a designation which omits an important word. The full name is the National Socialist German Labor party. The German workers could not have been won over to a party without the "labor" label.

Mussolini had his Black Shirts. Hitler could not have come to power without his Brown Shirts, the Storm Troops. Americans, little accustomed to uniforms, do not realize their effectiveness. A hundred men dressed alike convey an intimation of more power than they actually possess, and the ascription to them of such power increases in more than arithmetical ratio as their numbers increase.

By the Summer of 1932, a half year before Hitler came to power, the Brown Shirts were taking over the policing of his meetings and calmly eliminating the regular police. The Republicans and Communists also had uniformed organizations, but the Republicans were handicapped by the lack of a popular leader and by the assumed necessity of keeping within the law—a tremendous and fatal handicap as against a ruthless aspirant to dictatorship—and the Communists found themselves opposed by the two other organizations.
Communist Party USA rally at Chicago Stadium celebrating the party's 20th anniversary, September 1, 1939 (source)
Whoever will seize and maintain power must have the youth. One of the first things done by Mussolini was to organize and uniform the Italian youth. In the first years of the Nazi movement boys and girls were uniformed and drilled. When Hitler took over the government he thus had an army of tens of thousands of adult but still young supporters, thoroughly trained in obedience to the Leader. He immediately prohibited all other youth organizations, and in December of last year, discovering that mere prohibition was not enough, decreed that all boys and girls must join the Nazi uniformed troops. There is no doubt that both the Italian and the German dictators have in the young citizens their most ardent supporters.

Modern dictators maintain a fiction of legality, both before and after accession. Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler all have their so-called Parliaments, and all make a show of legislating. Hitler was especially insistent throughout the thirteen years of his agitation that he desired to come to power only through "legal" means.

His first important act as Chancellor was to forbid the legally elected Communist Deputies to take their seats in the Reichstag—in flat violation of the Weimar Constitution. But he desired none the less a show of legality, and asked the Reichstag to pass an "enabling act" giving him and his Cabinet power to legislate at will. It amounted to an amendment to the Constitution, and as such required a two-thirds vote. The Opposition had sufficient votes to block it, but Hitler announced that this was "must" legislation. The Opposition Deputies, awed by galleries filled with Brown Shirts, surrendered. Dictatorship had come.

•    •    •

The methods pursued by dictators in seizing power, while in the main similar, vary in some details, but the mechanism by which they retain power is everywhere the same. The first step is the muzzling of the press. When the editor of a newspaper in Russia, Italy or Germany comes to his office he finds his orders from the government for the day, setting forth what may, may not and must be published. Foreign newspapers and periodicals containing news which the government does not want people to know are barred from the country. No dictatorship could survive a free press six months. That a free press is "the palladium of a people's liberty" is a hackneyed phrase, but it expresses an eternal truth.

Freedom of speech and assembly naturally dies with freedom of the press. The radio is taken over by the government. All means of spreading propaganda are in the government's hands; the Opposition has no possible way of making itself heard except by illegal publications and at the risk of imprisonment or even death. All literature, the theater and the cinema are subjected to censorship. A secret political police—like the Okhrana of Czarist Russia—covers the country with a network of spies, so that no one can be sure that some unconsidered utterance will not be reported, which means prison—or worse.

The historic miller of Sans Souci, threatened by Frederick the Great for refusing to let his mill be removed, answered: "There are judges in Berlin."

There are still judges in Berlin, in Moscow and in Rome, but none who would dare hand down a decision against the will or order of the government. There can be no dictatorship as long as the independence of the judiciary exists. Hence that independence vanishes in dictator countries, where court trials are a mockery of justice.

Concentration camp or barren island becomes the home of political suspects. They are outside of any court, have no hearing and no trial, and can be kept in prison as long as it suits the government to hold them. Terrorism, beatings, murders—these are the common weapons of dictatorships.

•    •    •

Is a dictatorship in America possible? The situation here, superficially viewed, presents some of the essentials that made dictatorship possible in Europe. There is, first of all, the leader with popular appeal. Few men in our history have enjoyed such personal popularity and such trustful confidence as does President Roosevelt. It is not too much to say that no other President in the last fifty years could have presented a plan to increase the Supreme Court's membership by six justices, to be named by him, with any least chance of getting Congress to accept it. Neither Mussolini nor Hitler had at the beginning even remotely as great a percentage of people behind him as has Mr. Roosevelt. It may well be doubted whether they command the genuine support of a majority even today.

There is widespread dissatisfaction with economic conditions among those elements of the population that call themselves in Europe "workers and peasants," especially among the workers. The German republicans demanded "republican justice"; American workers are demanding "progressive justice." There is a scapegoat—the capitalists, "economic royalists." There is little difference in tone and support between the speeches by C.I.O. leaders and the speeches of the revolutionary leaders of Russia in 1917 and of Germany in 1918. The doctrine of class warfare has been imported into America, and while Homer Martin and other men at the head of the labor troubles in Detroit have not mentioned "the dictatorship of the proletariat," the idea is there.

But there are factors which differentiate the American situation sharply from the situation in European countries that have succumbed to absolutism. In none of them was there a majority nurtured in democratic ideals. Enlightened government is our own and the English sense did not reach Central Europe for more than 600 years after Magna Carta. There never was freedom of the press, speech and assembly—despite the Weimar Constitution. It is all but inconceivable that this freedom could ever be destroyed in America.