COUP D'ETAT AMERICAN STYLE

BERTRAM GROSS

 

 

 

CYRANOS' JOURNAL © 1982-2011 CYRANO'S JOURNAL, INC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Inside Road to Subversion

Wherein the author gives us a glimpse of the complexities involved in turning this country around, the huge political distance the American people still have to travel, and the threat posed by “friendly fascist” forces deeply ensconced in the critical organs of the American establishment.

 

ONE POPULAR LESSON OF THE WATERGATE CONSPIRACY under the Nixon administration was that America had escaped by just a hair's breadth from becoming a police state. Had it not been for the taped lock discovered at the Democratic party's headquarters,  had it not been for Judge John I. Sirica's persistent  toughness;  had it not been for James W. McCord's belated confession concerning the break-in at the Democratic headquarters,  and so on... Another was that the uncovering of' the White House's attempted cover-up proved the strength and resilience of both the courts and the Congress, thereby affirming the future viability of constitutional democracy. A more piquant "lesson,' offered by Irving Kristol, is that "Watergate has endowed the businessman-in-politics with an aura  of corruption and irresponsibility. As a result, laments Kristol, "this [the business] sector is now much feebler and more vulnerable than it was." A common  element  in many of' these "lessons" is a neglect  of' the growing  strength of big-business networks both inside an outside the formal structure of national  government both during and after the Watergate period.

 

But all lessons imply the existence of people trying to learn how to do something better. In this case, I suggest that the most active students have been the same people who,  during the quarter century after World War I learned how to unify the "Free WorId" and bring about the economic miracles of' the postwar period. If, as I fear, the logic of large-scale organization,  capital  accumulation,  and the need to cope with current crises and side effects presses toward an American Gleichschaltung,  these are the lessons I believe they have leamcd from the failures and successes of the Watergate conspirators.

 

For Presidents and the key mcmbers  of the Chief  Executive  network:

 

1. Don't let political amateurs like H.R. Haldcman  and John Erlichman into top positions in the White House; provide a larger piece of action for cooperative members of  Congress.

 

2. Where nonpolitical personnel are given positions, use true experts with proven flair and flexibility,  individuals like Henry Kissinger,  Daniel Patrick Moynihan,  Peter Flanagan, George Schultz and Arthur Burns.

 

3. Be much more effective and unscrupulous in "plugging the leaks" in all parts of' the Chief Executive Network and critical agencies of gover nment.

 

4. Make fuller use of established bureaucracies (like the FBI and CIA) rather than running the risk of alienating them by setting up parallel "plumbers' groups.

 

5. Don't ever get caught--prepare two or three layers of cover ahead of time, so that “cover-ups” will not have to be improvised on the spot.  Naturally this requires periodic house-cleanings and cover building for both the CIA and the FBI.

 

6. Be prepared with a reserve supply of plausible diversions to divert attention from major scandals that may possibly touch the White House—including White House leadership of attacks on state, local,  and business corruption. The Nixon administration's sacrifice of Vice-President Agnew, while temporarily distracting attention and deflating the dump-Nixon approach of some Agnew supporters, was far less effective than it would have been to bring indictments against a number of Democratic senators, governors, and mayors.

 

And for the Ultra-Rich and the Corporate Overlords, I believe the lessons have been these:

 

1. For the "cowboys" or roughneck billionaires who have just arrived:  Pickup some of the finesse of the old-timers and learn the grand arts of smoother manipulation.

2. For the managers of "old wealth": Bring more of the defense-space-reality arrivistes into the charmed inner circles.

3. Take your time both abroad and at home, as with the slow, careful, meticulous, and highly secret groundwork that  led to the military-police  coup of September 1973 against the Allende government of Chile.

4. Be much more circumspect and indirect in the manner of providing support for election campaigns.

S. Pay more attention to ideological justifications for concentrated power.

6. Be prepared with the alternatives that make it possible to throw any president or vice-president to the dogs.

7. Don't rely on cheap help.

Unhinging an Anti-establishment White House

Suppose that despite everything a truly anti-Establishment president is elected and installed in office. Further suppose that, like Senator George McGovern or former Senator Fred Harris, his program is not only to provide greater opportunities for women, racial minorities and young people, but also to reverse the trend toward concentrated income, wealth, and power. Unlike McGovern and Harris, he succeeds in winning a huge popular following including blue-collar workers, white ethnics, lower and middle classes, scientists, artists, professionals, rebellious establishment technicians, and maverick millionaires. Finally, suppose that in the course of the campaign his program becomes more militant and coherent and that he sweeps into office a resounding majority in both houses of Congress. In his inaugural address, he pledges to cut the military budget, restore detente, strengthen the United Nations, recognize Cuba and Vietnam, impose price controls on the largest corporations, provide jobs at fair wages for everyone able and willing to work, conserve energy through a massive expansion of mass transport, set up one federal corporation to develop the government's oil reserves and another to break up the alliance between OPEC and the Seven Sisters by monopolizing the importation of petroleum.

 

To subvert such a government, some people might think that some kind of coup d'etat might be needed Although this could conceivably happen, it need not. The prerogatives of the Corporate Overseers and the Ultra-Rich could be protected by a combination of legal means so effective that within few years' time the president would be thoroughly discredited and the trend toward integrated oligarchy and imperial reconstruction could be resumed by the time of--or even before--the next presidential election.

 

There are at least three reasons why I believe that indirect methods of subversion could do the job.

 

First of all, the very strength of' the new president would be a source of' weakness. Willy-nilly his successful campaign would raise hopes arid expectations beyond the possibilitv of immediate fulfillment. (This was true even in the case of Jimmv Carter's anti-Establishment rhetoric throughout the 1976 presidential campaign year, rhetoric which was quickly reversed in his Inaugural Address and first State of the Union Message.) His broad, multihued coalition supporters would include many elements that can more easily be unraveled than held together. Senator George McGovern's activities in 1972 clearly demonstrated the profound difference between a movement capable of' winning the Democratic nomination and one capable of winning 'a presidential election. The very first months of a populist "McGovernment" would reveal the still greater difference between winning a presidential election and one affecting the direction of change in American institutions.

 

Second, the American Establishment--divided though it might be--has tremendous resources, staying power and resiliency. The mere election of a popular populist as president would not by itself undo its institutionalized strength. Years of experience in constitutional manipulation and the orchestration of contrapuntal party harmony would provide a solid foundation for the Establishment confrontation with a populist president.

 

Third, the thoroughgoing unhinging of an anti-Establishment White House would not require a tightly planned conspiracy. It would develop, rather, through the normal establishment processes of “rolling consensus.” Many disparate elements at the higher and middle levels of the Establishment would "do their own thing" to disrupt the new regime from within, shatter its coalition of supporters, and create unsettling conditions in the country.

 

To present any specific scenario of how this might be accomplished would be to oversimplify the immense number of possible permutations and the linkage of any very specific situation with the events immediately preceding it. Nonetheless, since the processes of internal disruption are not very mysterious, a few major possibilities may be mentioned.

 

It may be presumed that even from the beginning of the drive to electoral victory, some of the president's closest supporters were Establishment figures who did not take seriously his anti-Establishment pledges. Some of them will automatically move into critical positions in the Chief Executive Network. To these must be added enough old-time "new blood” to make a critical mass. This would be supplied by members of the "liberal" wing of Big Business who would extend a warm hand of cooperation to the new president—an offer that no new president can refuse for even if he suspects that their strategy is to "divide and conquer," his own strategy is to do the same. Thus he would bring into critical positions of his administration (in the departments of Defense, Treasury and State, as well as the White House staff, the Office of Management and Budget, and other executive office agencies) a whole string of "double agents." In short order this would lead to a chain reaction of internecine squabbles, slowdowns and explosions on every basic policy issue--and inevitable resignations, firings, and reorganization. The president's closest supporters would be personally attacked as incompetent, parochial, corrupt, sinister, socialistic or communistic. In due course after his coalition starts to fall apart and the conditions in the country become unsettled, the processes of character assassination would reach the president himself. He would he pilloried (in some sequential order that cannot he predicted in advance) as a snob, a loner, a novice, a fool, an incompetent, and a moral degenerate who vacillates between recklessness and inability to make decisions.

 

A big step toward breaking up the president's coalition might be taken by trade-union allies demanding major wage increases. Pleas for patience and moderation would go unheeded, and he would finally give his support in a grudging manner that would lose him part of their support. In some sectors the immediate results would be wage increases that business leaders compensate for by both price increases and unemployment. This would move the burden onto the shoulders of lower- and middle-class consumers. It would also enrage the leaders of Black, Hispanic and Native American minorities who would demand an immediate end to discriminatory employment barriers imposed by white ethnic and Protestant union leaders.

 

To prevent new outbreaks of interracial and interethnic conflict the president would move rapidly on public-job creation. But his emergency employment agencies themselves would become a battleground among minority activists fiercely competing for larger slices of an overly small pie. The pie would be kept small by old-line members of Congress dominating the budget committees of the House and the Senate and soon reconstructing the old two-party conservative coalition in Congress. In these efforts they would be directly helped by holdover conservatives in the federal bureaucracy, many of who oppose the new president from much deeper convictions than the earlier opposition to President Nixon by holdover liberals. The president's congressional opponents would be indirectly helped by the president’s appointees in the emergency job program, many of them not only offensive to

powerful members of Congress but given to emphasizing quick results rather than the niceties of financial control, civil service regulations, and other procedures. The Controller General's staff and a growing number of congressional committees would undertake detailed evaluations and investigations of executive incompetence, wastefulness, malfeasance and misfeasance. Under the banner of restoring the usurped prerogatives of the Congress, these activities would broaden to cover every aspect of the administration's activities; by the end of the president's first year in office a thorough logjam would obstruct all the president's legislative proposals. This logjam could be broken only by his acceptance of emasculating amendments by the conversion of his proposals into measures that restore, or even improve upon, the old tradition of promoting more extensive and intensive exploitation by the Corporate Overseers and the Ultra-Rich.

 

Finally, the breakup of the president's team and coalition would be facilitated by the still broader processes of economic disruption. As already shown, these would include business decisions to raise prices and curtail employment. As in previous historical periods, the business community would be divided on wage-price controls. But once they are used by the new president these divisions would fade. Businessmen would manipulate the control system to keep wages lagging behind prices and establish price ceilings that either place an umbrella over the highest-cost producers or force weaker competitors out of business. Both large and small business concerns would cash in on the inevitable opportunities, created by controls themselves, for lush profits through speculation, hoarding, and black marketeering. Still larger speculative activities would be initiated by the largest transnational corporations, which can shift massive amounts of capital abroad, provoking seemingly anarchic fluctuations of both the dollar and stock-market prices. Every presidential effort to counteract this situation would be doomed to failure—with the single exception of moves dictated to him by the leadership of the banking community. But these. in turn, would help demoralize his administration, divide his coalition, and finally present the image of a president uncertain of whether he is coming or going.  This image would be reinforced by his administration's declining prestige in other countries and the humiliating snubs of the president himself by leaders of Western, Communist and Third World countries.

 

Thus, at low overhead costs to themselves and perhaps even with huge financial gains, the top leaders of the American Establishment could convert the populist president's promises into worthless rhetoric and render the president's closest supporters and the president himself helpless, discredited, disillusioned and pathetic fragments of political junk to be easily swept aside by the next administration.

 

Coup  D’Etat American Style

If the new military elite is anything like the old one, it would, in any great crisis, tend to side with the Old Order and defend the status quo, if necessary, by force. In the words of the standard police bulletin known to all radio listeners,  “These men are armed—and they may be dangerous.” --FERDINAND LUNDBERG
A coup consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder--EDWARD  LUTTWAK

Capitalist democracy has often been described as a poker game in which the wealthiest players usually win most of the pots and the poor players pick up some occasional spare change. The assumption underlying the preceding pages of this chapter is that this cruel game will continue for quite a while in the United States.

 

But suppose the losers find out that the deck has been "stacked" and the rules manipulated against them. Suppose they organize enough power to offset totally any effort to unhinge their regime by peaceful means.

 

Under such conditions, many of the old dealers might well consider calling off the game. As in many Third World Countries, might they not unseat their opponents through military force and rule through some kind of junta until they create the conditions for restoring constitutionalism in more well-behaved form?

 

I think this highly unlikely. Nonetheless, people close to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon have occasionally voiced fears of military--CIA reprisals against sudden changes in presidential foreign policies. And in any case, I think it worthwhile to consider exactly how such a coup might be undertaken.

 

One view of this possibility was vividly presented some years ago by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey in their novel Seven Days in May. An unpopular president, according to their story, negotiates a disarmament treaty with the Russians over the vehement opposition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs responds to this presidential ''betrayal'' by organizing ECOMCON, a secret assault force to take over the White House. He has the support of a powerful Senate committee chairman and all influential TV newscaster. But before the coup can be attempted, it is exposed by a loyal marine colonel in the Joint Chief's office. Although the moral is not spelled out by the authors, it is rather obvious: A much broader basis of support is needed (particularly among top Corporate Overseers), and that the organizers of a replacement coup must plan in advance to immobilize or liquidate any possible source of opposition within the armed or para-military forces.

 

Moreover a first principle of any replacement coup in the First World is that the replacers operate in the name of "law and order" and appear as the defenders of the Constitution against others eager to use force against it. Something along these lines happened in Japan back in 1936 when a section of the army staged a short-lived revolt against the "old ruling cliques.” The defeat of this "fascism from below,” as Japanese historian Masao Maruyama points out, facilitated “fascism from above," respectable fascism on the part of the old ruling cliques. In modern America, much more than in Japan of the 1930s, the cloak of respectability is indispensable. Thus a "feint" coup by Know Nothing rightists or a wild outburst of violence by left-wing extremists could be effectively countered by the military establishment itself, which, in defending the Constitution, could take the While House itself under protective custody.

 

A preventive coup is more sophisticated; it avoids the replacement coup's inherent difficulties by keeping an undesirable regime--after it has been elected--from taking power. Edward Luttwak, author of the first general handbook on how to carry out a coup, has himself published an excruciatingly specific application: "Scenario for a Military Coup d'Etat in the United States." He portrays a seven year period--1970 through 1976-in which as a result of mounting fragmentation and alienation, America's middle classes become increasingly indifferent to the preservation of the formal Constitution. Under these circumstances two new organizations for restoring order are formed. With blue-ribbon financial support, the Council for an Honorable Peace (CHOP) forms branches in every state. The Urban Security Command (USECO) is set up in the Pentagon. CHOP prepares two nationwide plans: Hard Surface, to organize right-wing extremists, and Plan R for Reconstruction, based on the principle that "within the present rules of the political game, no solution to the country's predicament can be found." Then, during the 1976 election campaign the Republican candidate is exposed by a former employee as having used his previous senatorial position for personal gain. With a very low turnout at the polls, the Democratic candidate easily wins. Thus ' an essentially right-of-center country is now about to acquire a basically !eft-of-center administration." Immediately after election day, CHOP and USECO put into effect Plan Yellow, the military side of Plan R. By January 4, 1977, the new regime is in power.

 

A still more sophisticated form of preventive coup would be one designed to prevent the formal election of a left-of-center administration. In the event that the normal nominating processes fail to do this, any number of scenarios are possible before election day: character defamation, sickness, accidental injury, assassination. If none of' these are feasible, the election itself can be constitutionally prevented. Urban riots in a few large central cities such as New York, Newark, and Detroit could lead to patrolling of these areas by the National Guard and Army. Under conditions of martial law and curfews during the last week of October and the first week of November large numbers of black voters would be sure to be kept from the polls. With this prospect before them many black leaders, liberals, and Democratic officials would ask for a temporary postponement of elections in order to protect the constitutional right to vote.

 

Since there is no constitutional requirement that voting in national elections be held on the same day throughout the country, there might well be a temporary postponement in New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. The political leaders of these states, in fact, would soon see that postponement puts them in a remarkably influential bargaining position. After voting results are already in from all other states, the voting in their states would probably determine the election's outcome. Party leaders in Illinois and California would then seek postponement also. To restore equilibrium, elections could then be postponed in many other states, perhaps all of them. Tremendous confusion would thus be created, with many appeals in both state and federal courts--and various appeals to the Supreme Court anticipated. In short order Article 11, Section 3 of the Constitution would come into effect. Under this provision the Congress itself declares "who shall then act as President” until new provisions for election are worked out by the Congress. If major differences prevent the Congress from making all these decisions, the stage is then set for the kind of regime described by Luttwak under a name such as The Emergency Administration for Constitutional Health (TEACH). In treating Americans like children in the family, the "Teachers" would not spoil the child by sparing the rod.

 

The best form of prevention, however, is a consolidation coup, using illegal and unconstitutional means of strengthening oligarchic control of society.  This is the essence of the nightmares in The Iron Heel and It Can’t Happen Here. Both Jack London’s Oligarchy and Sinclair Lewis’s President Windrip, after reaching power.  This is rather close to the successful scenarios followed by both Mussolini and Hitler. If something like this should happen under—or on the road to--friendly fascism, I think it would be much slower.  The subversion of constitutional democracy is more likely to occur not through violent and sudden usurpation but rather through the gradual and silent encroachments that would accustom the American people to the destruction of their freedom.

 

 

The late Bertram Gross, the major architect of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978 and the Employment Act of 1946, in their original forms. served on the President's Council of Economic Advisers and as Congressional advisor. He was Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Planning at Hunter College and a professor of political science at City University of New York. He also found time to serve as contributing editor to Social Policy, The Nation, and Cyrano. The above article is especially adapted from his book, Friendly Fascism (M. Evans, 1980).