There’s an old joke that when a library patron asks to see a copy of the French Constitution, the librarian directs them to the periodicals section. When I took my comprehensive general exam to receive my Master’s degree in History, back in 1980, one of the questions was, “Explain to a French family why there has never been a coup d’etat in the United States.” For the benefit of readers who don’t appreciate the stability the United States has enjoyed since 1776, it’s interesting to reflect that the French First Republic lasted 12 years before Napoleon overthrew it in a coup. The Second Republic lasted four years before Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, staged a coup of his own. The Third Republic lasted seventy years, until Marshall Petain seized power in the aftermath of France’s defeat in 1940. The Fourth Republic lasted twelve years (going through twenty Presidents) until disaffected members of the French Army forced De Gaulle to take power and inaugurate the Fifth Republic. Four years after taking office, De Gaulle survived yet another coup attempt and repeated assassination attempts because of his policy of withdrawing from Algeria.
The Fifth Republic has now lasted fifty-two years. I fear that in another thirty years, France might be just one province of a Moslem Caliphate. When I answered Professor Millette’s question, about why there had been an American coup, I pointed out that very rarely had any general motive, opportunity and means to effect that kind of change. For most of American history, the American Armed Forces have been absolutely minute by American standards. For example, in 1940, when the Belgian Army surrendered, the US Army moved up in rank to become the nineteenth-largest in the world.
The United States has had very few close calls in which a coup might have been possible. For example, in the year after the American victory at Yorktown, a number of officers in the Continental Army, disaffected by Congress’s inability or unwillingness to pay them, urged Washington to declare himself King. Fortunately for America’s future, Washington indignantly refused to give the matter a second thought. No republic has ever been so fortunate in the character of its commanding general. Washington abhorred the idea of Caesarism. A few months before the end of the war, there was a meeting of some other disaffected officers at Plattsburgh, New York. They were understandably irate that Congress was several years behind in paying them. Washington had a near-mutiny on his hands. If he’d lost control of the situation, the Revolution might have failed then and there. Instead, Washington gave one of the greatest speeches of his career. At one point, he pulled from his pocket a letter from a member of the Continental Congress. He began to read it, then faltered. Washington produced a pair of spectacles and put them on. Almost none of them had seen him wear them before. Washington commented, “Pardon me, my sight has grown dim in the service of my country.”
Washington managed to diffuse the situation, although he was in an absolutely heartbreaking situation. He knew that for the new Republic to survive, he would have to be complicit in Congress giving his comrades for the past eight years a very poor reward for their devoted service.
Eighty years later, in November of 1862, Abraham Lincoln relieved General George B McClellan of command of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was a very popular officer and there was, briefly, discussion among his subordinates about marching on Washington. At the time, the Army’s new commander, Ambrose Burnside commented, “I don’t know about you fellows, but I call this talk straight treason.” Fortunately, McClellan had no desire to attempt such an action. Instead, two years later, he challenged Lincoln for the Presidency as the nominee of the Democratic Party. He lost in a landslide.
There is, furthermore, the example of the early days of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration. A retired Marine general, Smedley Darlington Butler, claimed that some business interests had approached him with the suggestion that he lead a coup. The veracity of Butler’s charges remain a mystery to this day. If there was such a plot, it certainly never came anywhere close to fruition.
In the early 1960s, there was a popular book, later made into a movie, entitled Seven Days in May. The story takes place in May of 1974. (I’ve often marveled at the coincidence of an author predicting America going through a Constitutional crisis in the Spring of 1974.) The plot concerns all but one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff plotting to overthrow an unpopular President. The ringleader is a hugely popular Air Force officer named General James Scott. Many years later, in the months before the start of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Air Force Chief of Staff spoke to the press at length about his services’ specific, tactical plans to destroy Saddam Hussein’s forces. The next day, he was forcibly retired. My collaborator recently spoke with alarm about the Oath Keepers, a group of servicemembers who proclaim themselves ready to defend the Constitution, even if it means taking arms against the government. I informed my young companion that the chance of such an organization of succeeding is far lower than his being stampeded by a dinosaur at the corner of Lane and High. I am old enough to remember that in 1996, a right-wing commentator (with the initials R.L.) state that if Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, he would refuse to leave power. I thought that, apparently, his writers could not come up with anything good that day because the chances of our forty-second President pulling off a coup were slim to none, and slim is out of town.
As recently as 2008, I frequently heard callers on Air America charge that the Bush Administration was plotting to cancel the November elections and stay in office indefinitely. Those fears were, of course, completely unfounded. I recently had the chance to discuss that same subject with a good friend who served twenty-five years in the United States Marine Corps. He stated flatly that there never has been and never will be a coup in the United States for the excellent reason that American servicepeople would not participate. I emphatically agree.