How We Got Here: March of the Khaki Shirts

Part One of a projected series on the American far right during the Depression and New Deal. Besides inline citations, a bibliographic essay will be provided in the final article.

On July 28, 1932, Washington saw the nadir of the Great Depression. A huge army of protesters, numbering 43,000, encamped outside the capital, calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force. Mostly (though not exclusively) World War I veterans demanding both employment and payment of their military bonus, they were led by a charismatic ex-Sergeant named Walter W. Waters. Their encampment among the Anacostia River remained through the spring and summer of that year, resulting in discussion but little action. The BEF became a living symbol of Herbert Hoover’s dithering, callous response to the Great Depression.

With the BEF refusing to disperse, Washington police attacked the encampment, leading to a skirmish in which two Bonus Marchers were killed. Then Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff, unleashed tanks, cavalry and tear gas on the protesters, scattering them and burning their tents to the ground. At least one additional man died due to the tear gas, and a woman miscarried. MacArthur, who personally oversaw the action (though he delegated execution to his aide, Major George Patton), justified it as crushing an incipient Communist rebellion. Most Americans, however, found the incident a horrifying, inexcusable overreaction.

Smarting at this reverse, Waters threatened to form a group called the Khaki Shirts to march again and, if necessary, overthrow Hoover’s administration. Admitting that “such an organization brings up comparisons with the Fascisti of Italy and the Nazi of Germany…The Khaki Shirts…would be essentially American.” For the moment, the BEF was too traumatized to make good on Waters’ threats; its members slowly dispersed to different cities, with a large contingent camping out in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where the local government succored them until they could find passage home.  

BEF Camp
The Bonus Army’s campaign

Most of the BEF left Johnstown and other camps and simply returned home. Another contingent would march on Washington again the following May, where Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the new President, met with them and offered them jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps; their principle complaint, however, remained unsettled. (Eventually, in 1936, Congress finally authorized an early payment of the bonus.) Others remained embittered, many joining militarist fringe groups determined upon violent change. One of their number, Arthur J. Smith, took Waters’ words literally and tried organizing a rightist revolution.

Even after Franklin Roosevelt became President in March 1933, American politics retained a whiff of longing for dictatorship. Hoover’s ineffectual response to the Depression left nearly a quarter of Americans unemployed and its business community in ruins; perhaps a strongman, like Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler or even Vladimir Lenin was needed to whip the country into shape. These sentiments weren’t reduced to fringe cranks; respected columnist Walter Lippmann told Roosevelt that “you may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” A popular film, Gabriel over the White House, even envisioned America rescued by a divinely-inspired fascist president.

Such musings shouldn’t seem surprising, as America long teetered on the brink of authoritarianism. Woodrow Wilson’s administration, triggered by World War I, devolved from high-minded progressivism into mass arrests, persecution of dissidents and foreigners, while condoning segregation and racial violence. Warren Harding nominally rejected these impulses with his “return to normalcy,” but replaced them with a placid regime equal parts corrupt and incompetent. Economic prosperity under Harding and Calvin Coolidge masked a society rent with corruption, class and racial inequities and soaring crime rates triggered by Prohibition.

American Legion

Many viewed America, despite its outward health, as sickly and vulnerable, and prescribed drastic cures. Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant published multiple books urging, through immigration quotas and eugenics, the preservation of the white race against “the rising tide of color.” The Immigration Act of 1924 severely limited immigration from Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia, putting bigotry into practice. Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent regularly printed screeds blaming Jews for the destruction of Western Civilization. Ford’s pseudo-intellectual toxin, compiled as The International Jew, spread far beyond America’s borders; as early as 1923, Adolf Hitler proclaimed that “we look to Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing fascist movement in America” and made his works required reading for recruits to his Nazi Party.

Less idealistic, but probably more influential, were the exertions of The American Legion. Founded as a nonpartisan veterans’ organization (and boasting over one million members), it quickly turned into a vanguard for American reaction. Promising to promote “100 percent Americanism,” the Legion lobbied for immigration restrictions and banned unpatriotic books from school curriculum. Or they feuded with labor activists, as in the Centralia Massacre of November 1919. After members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) killed four Legionnaires during an Armistice Day confrontation, the Legion responded by lynching Wobbly leader Wesley Everest.

Alvin Owsley, director of the American Legion, so admired Benito Mussolini that he offered Il Duce honorary membership in the Legion. He boasted that “the American Legion stands ready to protect our country’s institutions and ideals as the Fascisti dealt with destructionists who menaced Italy.” When a journalist asked if this extended to overthrowing the government, Owsley affirmed “Exactly that!…Do not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” Never repudiating these sentiments, Owsley later served as FDR’s Ambassador to Romania, Ireland and Denmark.

Second Ku Klux Klan

Even more alarming was the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, which claimed a staggering six million members in 1925. Compared its predecessor, the Second Klan became more cosmopolitan in both membership and hatreds. While the original Klan was restricted to the South, its second incarnation spread across the country (Indiana holding the largest number of members). Where most original Klansmen were ex-Confederates allied with the Democratic Party, this Klan boasted bipartisan appeal. Where the original targeted mostly blacks and their unionist allies, this version spread its venom towards Catholics, Jews and immigrants.

During its brief boom, the Klan became a formidable national force. In 1924, the Democratic National Convention devolved into a slugfest between pro-Klan candidate William McAdoo and liberal New Yorker Al Smith (also a Catholic) which dragged out for 103 ballots. The convention ultimately chose John W. Davis of West Virginia, who lost to Coolidge in a landslide. When Smith won the nomination four years later, the Klan declared war, intimidating his supporters with burning crosses, death threats and inflammatory leaflets. While Herbert Hoover never officially condoned Klan support, neither did he repudiate it, becomint the first Republican since Reconstruction to win multiple Southern states.

The Second Klan’s influence greatly waned through the late ‘20s, due to financial troubles, political push back and D.C. Stephenson, the Indiana Grand Dragon, being indicted for murder. But the fascist bacillus never faded, bursting to virulent life during the Great Depression. In the curious figure of Art J. Smith, American fascists found their first potential leader, and found him laughably wanting.

Art J Smith
Art J. Smith

Historians invariably dub Smith a “soldier of fortune,” accepting the man’s own self-description. His claims of high adventure, from joining the French Foreign Legion in Morocco to flying bomber planes for Pancho Villa and serving as Kerensky’s aide in Russia, bespeak either an unusually crowded life or a monumental fantasist. Before his flirtation with fascism, many newspapers dutifully ran his tall tales without skepticism, a colorful character few took seriously.

Facts about Smith are more mundane: born Herbert Smith in Ormsby, Pennsylvania around 1898, he left school at age ten, then joined the Army as a teenager after an adolescence of petty crime. Adopting the name Arthur Smith, he served in the First World War as a pilot, reportedly downing seven German aircraft during that time. He returned home with an English wife (whom he soon divorced) and a chestful of medals but few prospects. Despite his purported exploits, Smith’s only verified postwar adventures included running a pilot school in Georgia and an arrest for trying to enter Mexico during the Cristero Rebellion in the late twenties.

Smith found ready recruits both among embittered Bonus Marchers and Philadelphia’s Italian-American community. An historian of the period notes that thousands of Italian-Americans “professed openly their admiration for Mussolini,” joining a variety of fascist organizations, several explicitly modeled on the Italian Blackshirts. Most prominent was Giovanni di Silvestro, a Philadelphia attorney who headed the Sons of Italy and swore to emulate Mussolini in “giv[ing] back the Nation her old faith and the spiritual discipline necessary to dare and to succeed.” But di Silvestro, who counted Mussolini as a personal friend, considered Smith a clown and his organization an embarrassment, keeping them at arm’s length. Neither did Bonus leader W.W. Waters, who quickly disassociated himself from his former colleague.

Smith did little to refute those refusing to take him seriously. Like most fascists he had a weakness for sartorial finery, opting for an Army uniform bedecked with gold stars, blue armbands and flare-hipped jodhpurs. For formal occasions, he designed a hat, ostensibly modeled on Italy’s black-plumed bersaglieri, which resembled an English constable’s cap topped with an absurd feather. That Smith charged his recruits for membership, clothing and expenses (the more they paid, the higher a “rank” they received in his army), that even he incorporated the Khaki Shirts as a business, led many to assume his movement served merely as a personal racket.

Khaki Shirt Hats
“General” Smith in his fascist finery

At the movement’s peak, Smith counted 2,000 official Khaki Shirts within Philadelphia, smaller contingents in New York City and Camden, New Jersey, and claimed 25,000 additional followers nationwide. How much of this was true, how much further grandiose self-promotion, remains hard to determine: Smith also professed to possess “artillery, tanks and machine guns” in abundance, likely as real as his adventures in Africa and Mexico. But he had enough followers to cause trouble: Smith’s followers swaggered around Philadelphia, carrying clubs, lead pipes and knives in battles with union members, Communists and other perceived enemies.

The first major showdown came in June 1933, when Smith hosted a public meeting in Reyburn Plaza in South Philadelphia. Ostensibly a conclave for unemployed veterans, the event soon turned into a fascist rally and recruitment drive, with Smith’s men facing indifference and hostility among veterans more concerned with food and jobs than violent revolution. Equally unimpressed were a gang of Communist dock workers, mostly Italian-Americans themselves, who picketed the rally and prepared for violence.

Afterwards, Smith’s group dissolved, with a band of about 200 marching through South Philadelphia. The Khaki Shirts encountered a group of Communists near Passyunk Square, who proved decidedly unwelcoming. Cross words led to violence, fists, knives and clubs flew, and a massive brawl erupted. When police finally arrived, dozens of participants were injured and at least one man (one of Smith’s entourage) dead. Since most witnesses agreed that the Communists struck first, Smith quickly claimed martyrdom, holding an elaborate funeral to mourn the fallen fascist.

Carlo Tresca

On July 14, 1933 Smith hosted a rally at Columbus Hall in Astoria, Queens, attracting some 200 attendees; some were members of his own group, others from a New York chapter of Italian Blackshirts. Other Italian-Americans, however, didn’t appreciate this effort to introduce fascism to their adopted homeland. Carlo Tresca, a radical publisher and labor organizer affiliated with the IWW, led the countercharge. His paper, La Stampa Libra, urged Queens Italians to picket the event: “Everyone to Columbus Hall in Astoria against the Khaki Shirts.” While Tresca didn’t advocate violence against Smith’s followers, few observers expected a clash between fascists and socialists to end peacefully.

As the rally commenced, several of Tresca’s followers infiltrated Columbus Hall and began heckling Smith. Fort Velona, a renowned socialist illustrator and caricaturist, shouted “Morte a Mussolini!” at every mention of the Duce’s name. After several such insults, a group of Khaki Shirts surrounded Velona and beat him senseless with fists, clubs and chairs, to cheers from the crowd. As Smith continued speaking, several other protestors attempted to rescue Velona, leading to a general melee as the Khaki Shirts pounced the interlopers. Several protesters were beaten or stabbed; others were thrown down a flight of stairs and into the alley outside.

Smith, his speech already disrupted, dismounted the podium and waded into the crowd with his lead-lined riding crop, spoiling for a fight. He spotted Antonio Fierro, a twenty-two year old college student and protester, grabbed him by the collar and repeatedly smashed his skull. Bleeding profusely, Fierro managed to escape Smith’s wrath, only for a phalanx of Khaki Shirts to block his escape. At this point a shot rang out, and someone killed the lights. When the lights flashed back on a moment later, Fierro lay dead at Smith’s feet.

Terzan Khaki Shirt Killer
Athos Terzani, who was framed

As police arrived, Smith and his henchmen contrived a farcical cover-up. Smith advised Frank Moffer, the aide who had fired the fatal shot, to hide the murder weapon in a piano. As the police began questioning the crowd about Fierro’s death, Athos Terzani, an Italian-American cab driver, insisted that Smith’s men had killed his friend and led police to the telltale piano. Rather than arresting Smith or Moffer, the police decided to apprehend Terzani instead. The whole fiasco was, apparently, a Communist trick to discredit the Khaki Shirt cause. The only thing more absurd than this explanation is that the police accepted it, charging Terzani with murder.

Smith returned to Philadelphia, preparing for a more ambitious undertaking. Smith planned to organize his phalanx to march on Washington, this time carrying arms, in emulation of Mussolini’s descent on Rome. His program remained remarkably muddled: Smith pledged to establish a government he dubbed “manocracy,” abolish Congress, place the economy on the silver standard and institute a massive military build-up. (Somewhere down this list was payment of veterans’ bonuses.) Smith vowed to wage “relentless war on economic crime, political graft and judicial corruption”; less high-mindedly, he also threatened to exterminate American Jews.

For all his froth and folderol, Smith directed little vitriol towards FDR. He even suggested not only leaving Roosevelt as President, but investing him with dictatorial powers, on the assumption that he’d back their movement wholeheartedly. This hope was as delusional as Smith’s boast that over a million veterans would join his march; in fact, those veterans who took notice of Smith seemed to despise him. Mike Thomas, a fellow survivor of the Bonus March, even threatened to mobilize a counter-force of veterans to block Smith’s coup d’etat.

Khaki Guns
Philadelphia police displaying Smith’s arsenal

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. The Philadelphia police took Smith’s blustering seriously and infiltrated his group with several informers. One notified authorities that, as prelude to his march on Washington, Smith planned to seize several police and National Guard armories in Philadelphia on Columbus Day to procure weapons for his men. This inspired the Philadelphia police to act, tracking down Smith’s headquarters by perusing his incorporation papers.

On October 12, 1933 several hundred heavily armed policemen raided the warehouse operating as Smith’s headquarters. They arrested twenty-seven bewildered Khaki Shirts and uncovered a treasure trove of uniforms, correspondence and weapons. Among them were at least forty rifles, a smaller collection of handguns, along with ammunition, swords, truncheons and assorted other weapons. The only thing missing, it appeared, was Smith himself, who absconded to Camden with $25,000 in the face of police persecution.

Now Smith’s followers turned on him. “Death to the Rats of the General Staff!” one proclaimed, spilling lurid details about the Khaki Shirt plans for a new America. Smith had joined of his subordinates, Frank Spinogatti (a troublemaker whose brother was an associate of Camden’s underworld), in hiding, shielded from arrest by his dwindling group of supporters. A pathetic rump of his organization carried out the March on Washington, without Smith’s participation; only forty-four men joined, reaching the Capitol lawn before Washington police peaceably dispersed them.

Khaki Disappointed
Khaki Shirts waiting for a coup

Smith remained at large until December 1933, when the murder trial of Athos Terzani commenced. Terzani’s case became a cause celebre among the left, with Smith’s nemesis Carlo Tresca and socialist leader Norman Thomas organizing a defense committee. Smith was subpoenaed and compelled to testify, insisting upon a modified version of his original story. He now admitted that the gun used to murder Antonio Fierro belonged to his bodyguard Frank Moffer, but claimed that Terzani had ripped the weapon from Moffer’s hand and then shot Fierro.

Smith’s defense faltered when a witness recanted his testimony; he admitted that Smith’s men threatened him with murder if he told the truth. Terzani was acquitted, and Smith quickly tried for perjury. He spent several years in prison, emerging penniless and retiring to rural Pennsylvania. He worked several menial jobs through the Works Progress Administration until his death in 1939, a forgotten footnote to a bizarre era. His second-in-command, Frank Spinogatti, feebly attempted to restart the Khaki Shirts throughout the ‘30s, finding few takers. Spinogatti joined with Father Coughlin’s Christian Front, continuing to flit between radical politics and organized crime until his death in the early ‘70s.

If Art J. Smith’s efforts to destroy democracy were comical and pathetic, they offered a harbinger of a remarkable age of hatred. Throughout Franklin Roosevelt’s twelve years in Washington, numerous groups acted to destroy him through means fair, foul and in-between. Some were born losers like Smith, clinging to radical ideology and power fantasies; others were rich reactionaries eager to preserve wealth; others were demagogues, fanatics and racists of varying stripes. Many viewed the destruction of American democracy as preferable to the New Deal’s completion.