Smedley Butler is generally left out of U.S. history. If you bring up a guy who prevented a Wall Street coup against FDR, you do real damage to the tale of peaceful respect for government from the beginning of time up through January 6, 2021. If you mention the scandal that erupted when he recounted how Mussolini had run over a little girl with his car, it’s hard to leave out the U.S. government’s friendly relations with Mussolini.
Interestingly, it was Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, who had been in the car with Mussolini and who had told his friend Smedley Butler about it, who later recounted in his autobiography a second Wall Street coup plot that he said he had exposed to Eleanor Roosevelt and thereby her husband, and successfully put a stop to. For some reason we never celebrate Vanderbilt as the savior of the U.S. government in the way that those of us who’ve heard of him do Smedley Butler, even though Vanderbilt turned against oligarchs as Butler turned against warmakers.
If you name Butler’s most famous piece of writing (“War Is a Racket“), you almost have to quote a bit of it — and then a fair number of people might become hooked on reading one of the most eloquent denunciations of U.S. foreign policy ever written or spoken. (And then your history book would be swiftly banned.) Here’s a bit, in case I’m right:
“WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
The whole piece is not long. Go read the rest. I’ll wait.
Also, here are the books in many of which I quote Butler and which I would like to have banned as prominently as possible. Please?
The most inconvenient thing about old Smedley, however, I believe, is the years he spent denouncing the slow and steady buildup toward World War II, the arms race and provocations of Japan, the anti-Japanese propaganda driven by U.S. financial interests in China, the support for Nazis and Fascists in Europe. Why, he demanded to know, for at least five years until his death in 1940, did the U.S. Navy not hold its war rehearsals near California instead of near Japan? Today, just knowing that he asked that could make someone look upon NATO war rehearsals in Ukraine slightly differently.
But Smedley is not left out of peace activist history. If you’ve ever done a bit of peace activism in the United States, you likely know all about Smedley Butler, or think you do. I thought I did. As an advisory board member of Veterans For Peace, one chapter of which is named for Smedley, and having read numerous account’s of Smedley’s exploits including David Talbot’s Devil Dog, having seen reenactors dress up as Smedley and recite some of his famous words, having dug up old Smedley speeches such as the one he gave here in Charlottesville, I figured I knew a bit about the guy.
I’ve been looking at Smedley a little differently after reading Jonathan Katz’s new book, Gangsters of Capitalism. Butler famously said:
“I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”
The thing is, Smedley meant it. He’d spent decades roving the world for the U.S. government, overthrowing democracies, propping up dictators, slaughtering and enslaving the local people. If there were any statues of Smedley in our city squares, they could get pulled down for racism. If we ever started pulling down statues for senseless mass killing, they could get pulled down for that.
Smedley Butler claimed that the war racket profited the rich while punishing primarily the U.S. soldiers. And he did live right up through the moment in which big wars shifted from killing mainly soldiers to killing mainly civilians. But Smedley’s wars of Central American, Caribbean, and Asian empire killed mainly the devalued inhabitants of the places where they were waged, and — this is where Katz’s new book is invaluable — inflicted major damage on entire populations that could last for a century or more.
Whistleblowers are an odd lot. We think of Smedley as having been innocent of the Business Plot coup and having blown the whistle on other people. And then we think of him as having blown the whistle on the Marine Corps and the U.S. military. But do we stop and understand that the military evil he denounced he was not only a part of but was often in charge of — or at least pretty high up in the ranks? Do we stop to note that he volunteered — eagerly, and repeatedly?
We brag that Smedley was the most decorated U.S. Marine, because how cool is that for the antiwar veteran to have more medals than the corrupt war pigs? But why did he have those medals? Why did he have two — count em, two — Medals of Honor? One was for attacking the inhabitants of Veracruz, Mexico, in an action so atrocious that a record number of medals were handed out to make defeating civilians, including untrained women and boys fighting back against foreign invasion, seem glorious. The other was for chasing Haitians intent on independence and guilty of wanting-freedom-while-black to the last possible fort at the top of the last possible mountain and then killing them.
Yes, Smedley defied orders from bureaucrats in order to look out for his rank and file troops. Yes, Smedley supported the Bonus Army of impoverished veterans camped out in Washington D.C. where they were attacked by MacArthur and Eisenhower (after Smedley had left). Yes, Smedley was courageous beyond all measure (whether or not he faced down the Nicaraguans on foot unarmed in front of that train in the tale that Talbot says made him a legend but Katz leaves out). Yes, Smedley was a Quaker (I think you’d have to say non-practicing) Northerner with less racism than many Southerners. Yes, he gradually tired of war and sought to prevent pointless conflicts during his last gig in China. But Smedley’s career had a jumpstart and a steady boost from the fact that his father was in Congress on the House Committee on Naval Affairs. And Smedley is famous for confessing to atrocities, to horrors beyond any possible moral defense. And Smedley was a slow as any whistleblower to wake up to what he was engaged in. Smedley was old and already retired when he finally came around. If you watch the Snowden movie and scream at the screen over how long it takes him to snap out of it, just notice what a young man he still is at the end. Dan Ellsberg’s long career as a peace activist began after his whistleblowing.
To write Gangsters of Capitalism, Katz traveled the world to the places Smedley had been. He found Haitians recalling him as a brutal foreign despot who had forced men to work on roads unpaid on pain of death. He found populations around the world with museums and reenactments of outrages that the people of the United States, which inflicted them, have little memory of — a fact that is incomprehensible to some of the victims of U.S. imperialism.
Smedley Butler began with the betrayal of Cuba, followed by the brutal killing and torture in the Philippines, seeking out neither U.S. empire nor a delusion of benevolent paternalism so much as the manhood of participation in violence no matter its purpose. His next victims were Chinese. Katz quotes a U.S. general estimating that civilians to Chinese fighters killed were in a proportion of about 50 to 1. Some 100,000 Chinese were killed. Katz finds people in the Philippines still angry, and the people of China intent on undoing long-ago but not forgotten humiliations — humiliations not of them but of their nation. Butler, years later, regretted looting Beijing. I don’t know if he regretted killing people there — but it seems that in general and in some cases in particular eventually he did regret all the killing, even if he mostly regretted the deaths of U.S. Marines.
Butler helped steal the land for and build the Panama Canal and bring the U.S. racist apartheid system to the canal zone, where the residents were forcibly displaced, mostly black workers often died on the job, and the Marines served as the thugs of the bosses. He helped stamp out self-governance in Nicaragua, inspiring the resistance of Augusto Sandino who would in turn inspire the Sandinistas. He committed his horrors in Mexico and Haiti. He effectively ruled Haiti, developing “counter-insurgency” practices before they were called that. Rather than bringing freedom of religion — or even anything Quaker — to Haiti, Butler went after the Vodou religion, arresting priests and burning shrines. Butler helped install the dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. He took over the Haitian parliament at gunpoint and threatened to slaughter the lot of them, while the U.S. was famously jumping into World War I to keep the world safe for “democracy.” A Haitian novel concludes with the slow and painful killing of a Butler character named “Smedley Seaton.”
Butler developed military police forces, sometimes known as death squads, in Central America. He helped militarize U.S. police departments, personally running the Philadelphia police, during which time he trained, among others, the future notoriously racist police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo. Before Butler went after the prohibition-violating kingpins and got himself fired, his alcohol war disproportionately targeted African-Americans. And he instructed his troops to kill.
Butler helped Hollywood generate pro-Marines propaganda, including Lon Chaney’s top-grossing hit, Tell It To the Marines. Who can weigh the impact of that against Butler’s later antiwar speeches?
Butler was involved in countless shadow wars that have been erased from U.S. history, some of which led to dictatorships still alive and well, others of which led to massive blowback, one of which led eventually to the revolution in China. Butler was sent to China the last time by Frank Kellogg, who had recently been maneuvered by peace activists into backing a treaty banning war. The United States was becoming an imperial force for which sending troops somewhere wasn’t necessarily a war. It might be a police action.
When Butler took a break and tried running a coal mine in West Virginia, his vicious, violent Marine approach resulted in the workers trying to kill him. He decided he’d be safer in the Marine Corps and went right back to it. But eventually — as often happens, it was post-retirement — he had a change in his thinking. And he came out swinging and named names.
“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914,” Butler later said. “I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”
How did Smedley change his mind? Katz does a good job of finding hints and subtle shifts through the years, and notes that when Butler started recounting tales of anti-democratic thuggery abroad he was at first shocked that the U.S. public was shocked, that people were blissfully unaware of what their government routinely did. The realization that nobody knew — and that those who did preferred not to talk about it — may have helped motivate Butler to tell. Yet when he told on Wall Street coup plotters, his qualifications for reporting that plot to a Congressional Committee were not usually explained in terms of his expertise in recognizing coups by virtue of having participating in more of them than possibly anyone else alive. That point never quite came through to general understanding.
The fact that a bunch of U.S. imperial bases, deeply resented by the local inhabitants, and named for Smedley Butler, today take up a great deal of land in Okinawa, is an insult to who Butler became, but an acknowledgement of who he had been for a much longer part of his life.
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include Leaving World War II Behind (2020), Curing Exceptionalism: What’s wrong with how we think about the United States? What can we do about it? (2018) and War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Support David’s work.
From the archives: