Wednesday, January 29, 2014

History Branched #2.1: Share Our Wealth, puppet legislators, and ambition

Note: This post ended up turning into quite the monster, so I've decided to split it into two parts. Those of you easily bored by political history may want to sit this one out, but for everyone else I hope you enjoy!

What if Huey Long had never been assassinated and ended up eventually becoming President in 1940?

Huey Long is a man that continues to draw a lot of controversy, despite the fact that he's been dead nearly 80 years. His proposed policies and tactics continue to both terrify and fascinate those who study him. To some he's viewed as having been no more than a power hungry dictator using populist appeals to get the ultimate prize: the Presidency. To others, he's a national treasure that had a meaningful impact for the better on both the US Senate and even more so on the state of Louisiana. Regardless of your views, it's a very interesting exercise to imagine a world where he had never been assassinated.

Despite Long's immense popularity within Louisiana, many contemporaries viewed him as a bully with thug like tendencies.

September 8, 1935: Huey Long was in Louisiana barely a month after announcing that he intended to run for President in the election of 1936. He was trying to pass a re-districting plan that would effectively oust political rival Benjamin Pavy who served as a Judge at the time. That evening the Judge's son-in-law, a man named Dr. Carl Weiss had already twice tried to speak with Long privately and was turned away both times. In our timeline, by the 3rd attempt to speak to Long, Weiss had had enough and he fatally shot Long in the abdomen. Let's assume that instead of this Weiss, who appears to have intended to assassinate Long regardless if he had been able to speak with him privately or not, loses his nerve and returns home to drink himself to sleep. Long avoids his fate and is able to later pass the re-districting bill in question ousting Judge Pavy.

Famed Long biographers T. Harry Williams and William Ivy Hair, have imagined a rather ingenious way in which Long intended to win the election of 1940. After reading about Long's exploits, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have used a very similar method- Huey Long was nothing if not cunning. This is a man that by 1935, had a regular listening audience of 25 million to his radio program, had a proliferation of "Share Our Wealth"clubs opened nationwide by supporters with over 7 million members, and received 60,000 letters from his fans weekly. After he was elected senator in 1930, Long refused to leave his gubernatorial seat in Louisiana and didn't actually go to a Senate session until well over 10 months after his term officially began. The reason? Long was concerned that many of the reforms he had forced through via coercion and by what some would call bullying and borderline unethical would be "rolled back" by Lieutenant Governor Paul Cyr.

Long's self proclaimed "second autobiography" published after his death was nothing if not presumptuous.

This would be the modern day equivalent of Hillary Clinton deciding to stay in her New York Senate seat while simultaneously being the Secretary of State in order for her to pass bills she favored for her state. Indeed, in modern day terms this would be completely unacceptable but even in the 1930s it was controversial. In fact, after seven months of Long remaining governor while simultaneously being a senator his Lieutenant Cyr had finally reached his breaking point. Declaring himself governor, the ensuing standoff between Long and Cyr resulted in Long calling on the state's national guard to surround the capital effectively forcing Cyr to back down. Huey Long was no stranger to ousting attempts, a few years prior an unsuccessful impeachment proceeding was narrowly avoided by using his sharp political eye to coerce, bargain, and strong arm 15 senators to vote in his favor despite what any evidence might say. After that event, Long took to the political spectrum what William Tecumseh Sherman had used within the military: total war.

Any perceived enemy he thought he had, he would seek to destroy them. He would support candidates to defeat them, fire their relatives that held state office, and was more than willing to bend (and in some cases nearly break) the rules to get what he wanted. The point is, after his Lieutenant tried to "steal" his governorship he made sure the man was kicked out of office. In what was sure to involve back room wheeling and dealing, Long managed to convince the Supreme Court of Louisiana that by Cyr declaring himself governor he had vacated the Lieutenant's seat and per the state constitution the line of secession dictated that the President of the state senate would take the empty chair (a man who just happened to be an ardent Long supporter). Years after then Senator Long went to Washington, he continued to keep a close eye on his home state endorsing his successors and often returning to continue to "bully" the state senate into doing what he wanted. The point of all this is: Huey Long was not a man to be trifled with or told no, he was going to get what he wanted regardless of the obstacle (legal or otherwise).

Going back to the Long biographer's theories mentioned above, I imagine Long's rise to power could have occurred a little similar to the following. Huey Long would have continued to seek the Democratic ticket nomination for the election of 1936. Long was a man that wasn't short of enemies, he would have known full well that he would never receive enough support to overcome FDR but what he would do is take a page from the playbook of the sitting President's fifth cousin: Teddy Roosevelt. In the election of 1912, Teddy had formed his own Progressive Party after eventually opposing President Taft (who he had previously endorsed and helped win the previous election). The creation of this Progressive Party (aka Bull Moose), effectively split the Republican vote ensuring neither candidate won- the reins were instead turned over to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Long himself would do the exact same thing: after Roosevelt wins the nomination, a new Share Party is formed. Mobilizing his now army sized following, Long successfully manages to split the Democratic vote. Only what he does instead of running himself, is to chose another person as the candidate.

Had Long survived and his attributed plan worked, the election of 1936 would have had remarkable similarities to the election of 1912. This becomes even more ironic when you consider how ideologically different Teddy Roosevelt was from Huey Long: a staunch American imperialist to Long's extreme isolationism.

By now, Long would have already increased his exposure to the American public tenfold after his failed bid for President. Now as the unofficial leader of a new 3rd party, with a candidate in his back-pocket, and the support of his constantly growing followers Long is able to divide the Democratic party to the point that neither FDR or his chosen candidate can win. The Republicans of course, are elated at this turn of events. Eventually choosing Alf Landon as their candidate (who was the real life candidate in our timeline and was completely dominated by FDR), this is a campaign recharged. Running on an anti-New Deal platform and armed with the knowledge that they have an actual chance of winning against the now split Democratic party, the Republican party manages to win the election and President Landon assumes the Presidency. Throughout the Republican term, many of the New Deal policies that were deemed harmful to big business are repealed. There is never a passage of additional agricultural acts nor the creation of the FSLA which in our timeline came packaged with minimum wage.

With powerful interests in the Republican party continuing to support Herbert Hoover's old "hands off" approach within the economy, President Landon is able to accomplish very little in regards to the lingering depression. Many of the New Deal policies continue to be reversed due in part because with the Republicans in control, the US Supreme Court is effectively filled with anti-New Deal judges appointed by the President. All the while, Long is continuing to hammer home his views with his weekly radio addresses. Which in a lot of ways continues to build a following and inspire hope in Americans and eerily emulates the fireside chats of the now defeated FDR. By the time the economy takes another nosedive in 1937, Long (in combination with his now massive grassroots support groups) is able to paint the Republicans in a very bad light. Calling President Landon the new Hoover, it's clear the Republicans are in for a rough election in 1940.

In reality, Landon actually supported most of Roosevelt's New Deal programs, and barely made any campaign appearances during the months leading up to the election. After his crushing defeat by FDR, he eventually left politics entirely.

By late 1939, Long has announced his intention to run for Presidency via radio in one of his weekly addresses. He lets the people know that he intends to run for the Democratic party nomination, something he can obtain easily since during the 1938 Congressional election he used his signature back room dealings to ensure the Senate floor was packed with like minded individuals. By the time the election is under way, Huey Long handily defeats incumbent President Landon. In fact, the election results in the biggest landslide in the history of Presidential elections up to that point. Immediately upon assuming office, Long applies the lessons he learned while serving as Louisiana state governor: namely the mass firing of every single federal employee not deemed on "his side" and the packing of loyal Long supporters in all the now vacant roles. In fact, newspapers around the country quip at the apparent resurgence of a patronage system not seen since the days of Andrew Jackson and later Tammany Hall. Long immediately seeks to emulate Roosevelt's first term in trying to pass as much legislation as he can in the first 100 days. Many of the proposed legislation strongly mirrors the New Deal policies- deemed the Long Plan, this extensive series of reforms take many of the New Deal ideas a few steps further.

After Andrew Jackson's (pictured left in a political cartoon) election in 1830 helped create the spoils system of appointed "cronies" to government positions not based on merit but merely like mindedness, it all came to a head in the latter half of the 1800s during Boss Tweed's time (pictured right). Despite the sharp reforms on the process, the spoils system remains with us to this day.

Long is able to continue to pass this legislation easily, with a firm Democratic control in both the House and Senate. His biggest victory of course being the passage of a bill authorizing the beginning construction of an Interstate Highway system which predates our timelines' Eisenhower promoted system by 15 years. This serves to solidify Long's popularity as it employs a massive amount of workers and has an incredibly ambitious deadline of being complete within 5 years. Eventually, the only real threat Long can see lies in the same place it did for FDR in our timeline: the Supreme Court. During the previous Landon administration, the Republicans were able to appoint 8 of the 9 currently seated justices. The problem is, President Long can continue to pass legislation all day but eventually most if not all of it will be thrown out by a conservative leaning court. Long has a problem, and in a ironic twist of fate he turns to the same thing FDR did in our timeline: the court packing plan. The basic principle of the plan proposes that for every sitting justice over 70 years old, an additional justice is allowed to be added to the total roster of judges.

Huey Long meets extreme resistance to the bill from the remaining Republican minority and some rather vocal members of the Democratic party that are holdouts from the Wilson era (their concern of course being future periods when a Republican would have the option to pack the court). The biggest threat for Long towards this plan comes from Republican minority leader Charles McNary. At this point, McNary had come to blows with Long's policy of total isolationism from the War now raging throughout Europe. McNary was of the view that the Allies against Germany deserved at least a token of aid from the United States, whereas Long chose to ignore the situation all together. Seizing the opportunity for a compromise, McNary meets with Long privately and tells him that if he will agree to support the Allies abroad (ensuring work for his Oregon constituents with the building of new military bases near Corvalis and Bend, and employment at shipyards due to what was sure to be increased demand) he will rally the Republican holdouts to support the court packing plan. Long more or less scoffs at the offer since it violates his staunch isolationist ideals and vows to pass the bill with or without McNary's support.

The day of the bill, Long continues to utilize his by now perfected bullying and back room dealing to pressure the Democratic holdouts into supporting the bill. However to Long's furious anger, McNary decides to filibuster the decision on the legislation. A filibuster that successfully manages to solidify Republican opposition and come just shy of the required majority to put the plan into law. Publicly, Long denounces McNary and the Republican holdouts as cowardly and anti-American via radio and with newspapers firmly in his back pocket- throwing his almost militaristically organized supporters into a rage. This prompts protests from world weary and frustrated people throughout the country and Congress itself is surrounded by Long League demonstrations. Privately, Long seriously considers pulling a move similar to the one he had used in Louisiana: using military force to surround the nation's capital. Coming to his senses and with the re-election year upon him, Long through his extensive "good old boy" network firmly implanted in Washington digs into McNary's past and sends him an anonymous letter with potentially career ending information.

Upon receiving this, McNary's resolve cracks and he ends his opposition to the bill leaving it to be passed with relatively sweeping success. The end result being that neither McNary nor Long will ever forget each other and will continue to clash throughout the rest of both of their political careers. The bill successfully passed, Long is able to appoint five new justices and has ended up achieving a majority in both the House and Senate, and a ideological hold on the Judicial Branch. Upon ramping up the 1944 campaign, it's clear where Long intends the next four years to go: the way of the Share Our Wealth program. A fierce opposition is raised by the Republicans, with the help of the elite businessmen of the day. Thomas E. Dewey is chosen as the Presidential candidate with Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. as his running mate, and the Republicans choose to hammer Long on his isolationism and perceived communist leanings. They easily convince Joseph Kennedy (John F. Kennedy's father) to join as Vice President as the man was a staunch anti-communist who felt snubbed from the Democrats after Long had seized control in 1940.

Joseph Kennedy, Sr. was one of the driving forces behind his son John F. Kennedy's bid for President, something he had carefully planned out years in advance of the eventual election of 1960. The man himself shared radically different political views than that of his son.

As for Long, he is easily chosen as the next Democratic candidate and in a bold move he personally convinces Charles Lindbergh to join him as his running mate. Lindbergh, one of the leaders of the America First movement, joins in part because of Long managing to keep the US out of WWII currently raging throughout Europe. Ironically, Long's views had managed to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor from ever occurring since an embargo was never placed on Japan nor were their assets ever frozen. Which in our timeline, were two events that managed to (in part) antagonize Japan to ever consider attacking Pearl Harbor in the first place. This attack was also the reason why in real history, Charles Lindbergh ended up abandoning the America First movement and supporting the entrance into WWII. Both candidates campaign on continued neutrality and the promotion of the Share Our Wealth program.

As to where things go from here, stay tuned for Part Two: Darkness Abroad and Unity Within...

I hope you've enjoyed Part One of my "what if" look at Huey Long never having been assassinated. I thought it would be interesting to note an interesting historic fact I discovered in my research for this post, namely the attempted bombing of Brookings, Oregon by the Japanese in WWII. I'd highly recommend checking out this article discussing this little known historical event. Please be patient for Part Two, it will be here soon. Until next time, good day!

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