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Smedley Darlington Butler: From Consummate Imperialist to Strident Anti-Imperialist
By W. D. Ehrhart
A recently published book, Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire by Jonathan Katz, is finally bringing much-needed mainstream attention to one of the most fascinating Americans of the 20th century.
My connection to Butler goes back to the summer of 1966 when I arrived at US Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, at the age of 17. We learned all sorts of things that summer, but one thing we learned was the names of the two Marines who had each won not one, but two Medals of Honor: Dan Daly and Smedley Butler.
Butler would have received three Medals of Honor if the award had been available to officers during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 China. Every enlisted man on a patrol he led as a teenage lieutenant received one, but he was instead awarded the Marine Corps Brevet Medal, the highest decoration for bravery then available to commissioned officers.
In the course of his career, he also received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the French Order of the Black Star, two decorations from the Haitian government, and ten campaign medals.
But our drill instructors didn't tell us about the book Butler wrote called War Is a Racket. And they didn't teach us what Butler came to believe about himself:
"I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. 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 benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."
I only began to learn the whole story of Smedley Darlington Butler's remarkable life during the Reagan Wars against the peasants of Central America in the 1980s, a part of the world where Butler had spent much of his career in the first 30 years of the 20th century.
Butler, it turns out, was an 1898 graduate of the Haverford School for Boys, then known as the Haverford College Grammar School. And as chance would have it, I was hired in January 2001 to teach English and history at the Haverford School (THS) by then-headmaster and retired 30-year US Army colonel Dr. Joseph T. Cox.
Ten years into my 18-year stay, Cox got an email from a 1969 graduate named Fred Housel who had been a "Lifer" at THS, and who had stumbled by accident upon Butler's story while doing unrelated research. Housel asked Cox, "How could I spend 13 years at Haverford and never have heard a word about Smedley Butler?" Cox's reply was, "You should talk to Bill Ehrhart. He's a big Smedley Butler fan."
The answer to Fred's question was easy: after Butler retired from the Corps in the early 1930s, when he began speaking out against what he saw as unjustifiable foreign interventions and what today we would call "the military-industrial complex," the then rich white Republican Philadelphia Main Line clientele of the Haverford School deemed Butler a traitor to "his class," and wrote him out of the school's history. He simply ceased to be.
Until I arrived, that is. From the first day I began teaching there, I had a large poster of Butler hanging in my classroom. Along with a full-length photograph of Butler, the poster included his famous "racketeer for capitalism" quote, which originally appeared in Common Sense, a magazine published by socialists in the tradition of Eugene Debs and Robert La Follette, in November 1935. Below the poster, I added my own sign identifying him as a Haverford School alumnus.
Housel was not pleased to learn that his alma mater had erased Butler from its institutional conscience, and made a substantial donation to the school in return for resurrecting Butler's connection to the school. My classroom was dedicated to Butler's memory, and now bears a plaque attesting to this. An oil painting of Butler in uniform, painted by a student, now hangs just outside the upper school admissions office. And on the campus, circling one of the trees is the Smedley Butler Bench, which carries six brass plates reading:
Smedley Darlington Butler
The Haverford School Class of 1898
Husband of Ethel Conway Peters Butler
Father of Ethel, Smedley, Jr., & Thomas
Incorruptible Outspoken Patriot
His was a life of Courage, Respect & Honesty
A native of West Chester, Pennsylvania,the son of a Congressman, Butler was captain of the Haverford School baseball team and quarterback of the football team. Not yet 17, he enlisted in the Marines in 1898without waiting for graduation,but was nevertheless awarded his diploma.
During a career spanning over 33 years, Butler rose from 2nd lieutenant to major general. He served in the US, the Philippines, China, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and France, earning not one but two Medals of Honor, the Marine Corps Brevet Medal, and both the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals.
From January 1924 through December 1925, Butler took a leave of absence from the Corps to serve as Philadelphia's Director of Public Safety. Charged with enforcing prohibition and rooting out municipal corruption, he later said: "Cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I was ever in."
After retiring from the Corps in 1931, Butler became an advocate for veterans and a critic of American military adventurism. In 1932, he supported the Great War "Bonus Marchers." In a 1935 essay, he titled War Is a Racket, he described himself as having been "a muscleman for Big Business," "a racketeer," and "a gangster for capitalism."
Nicknamed variously the Maverick Marine, the Fighting Quaker, the Fighting Devil of the Devil Dogs, the Fighting Hell-Devil Marine, the Stormy Petrel of the Marine Corps, General Duckboard & Old Gimlet Eye, Butler himself concluded, "To Hell with War!"
Butler earned the nickname "Maverick Marine" because he repeatedly found himself in trouble with his superiors in the military and the government; he had no patience with bureaucracy, red tape, or armchair strategists, and always put the welfare of the men under his command before everything else.
In the Philippines, early in his career, he was nearly cashiered for defying orders and commandeering a Navy tug to deliver food and supplies to his isolated command, largely dismantling the tug to build a pier from which to offload his cargo once he'd returned to the outpost where his men were stationed.
Awarded a Medal of Honor in Mexico in 1914 that he did not feel he deserved, he was told that he had to accept it and wear it, or face court-martial.
Sent to France in 1918, but denied the combat command he desperately wanted, he was assigned instead to command a transient camp for soldiers coming and going between the States and the trenches on the Western Front. Appalled by the unsanitary living conditions at the camp, and refused permission to obtain adequate supplies to upgrade the camp's facilities, he organized a work party that raided a government warehouse in broad daylight and "liberated" the duckboards, shovels, and tents he needed, thus earning him the nickname "General Duckboard."
Butler was not without his warts and blemishes. He loved the adrenalin rush of combat, the sheer challenge, and the excitement of it. First as a young lieutenant, and repeatedly throughout his career, he complained in letters to his congressman father that the policies he was enforcing in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti were corrupt and immoral, benefitting only the white wealthy ruling class in America, yet he continued his career in the Corps for more than three decades. He began to speak out only after he'd gotten too old and too far up the hierarchy to be allowed to engage in actual combat.
But once he began to speak out, he would not be silenced. Even while still in the Corps, he publicly criticized Benito Mussolini, calling fascist Italy a "mad-dog nation," and causing an international diplomatic scandal for which Herbert Hoover would have had him court-martialed but for the public outcry in support of Butler.
Later, in 1932, he vocally supported the Great War Bonus Marchers who had fought for their country as young men but were now, at the height of the Great Depression, unable to support themselves or their families. They had come to Washington to ask that their wartime service bonus, due to be paid in 1945, be paid to them now when they desperately needed it. Visiting their encampment on Anacostia Flats, Butler spoke to the men and their families from the roof of a car, telling them that they had as much right to lobby Congress as any corporation did, and calling their gathering "the greatest display of Americanism in history."
Shortly thereafter, when Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, aided by Major George Patton and Major Dwight Eisenhower, ordered an attack against the men who MacArthur himself had commanded in France fifteen years earlier, forcibly driving them and their families out of their encampment with tanks, machine guns, tear gas, and cavalry, Butler was outraged. Already no fan of the arrogant and imperial MacArthur, Butler subsequently declared himself a "Hoover-for-Ex-President-Republican."
Perhaps most amazing of all, Butler was approached by wealthy Republican financiers and industrialists interested in persuading Butler to lead what would have amounted to a coup d'etat against Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, using veterans from the conservative American Legion as a front for the interests of Big Business. It would have been the end of American democracy and the beginning of American fascism.
These men chose Butler because they knew that Butler commanded the loyalty and love of ordinary soldiers and veterans. He had put men before mission all his life, and the rank-and-file knew it and revered him for it. But these rich un-American Americans utterly misunderstood who Butler was and what he believed in. Instead of joining the conspiracy, Butler informed Congress of the plot, putting an end to it.
Butler, by this time, had become deeply isolationist, insisting that "there are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes, and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket." We'll never know how Butler would have responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor since Butler died in 1940. We do know that he didn't think we should have military bases outside the continental US in the first place, and that included Hawaii, and we do know that as early as the late 1920s he warned that continued US possession of the Philippines would almost certainly lead to war with Japan.
What Butler would have thought about the state of American democracy in the early 21st century is once again a matter of sheer speculation. But he did come to believe—and he made no secret of it—that the key fault line in American life was economic class. By the very early 1930s, even before the election of FDR, he was openly advocating major public works spending, a federal jobs guarantee, stronger labor unions, higher wages for workers, and a federal old-age pension. While never a pacifist, he broke with FDR in the 1936 election because he felt Roosevelt was leading the nation toward war, voting instead for the Socialist Party's Norman Thomas.
We will simply never know, of course, but I fully believe that Butler would feel right at home with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would be livid over the events of January 6th, and even more outraged by the response from the Grand Old Party of which he had once been a member. Would that Butler were here today to help put an end to our current drift toward fascism and one-party dictatorship. Were Butler with us now, I wouldn't be surprised if he insisted on becoming a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He would certainly fit right in.
W.D. Ehrhart received the Purple Heart Medal, Navy Combat Action Ribbon, and a Division Commander's Commendation for his service as a Marine in Vietnam. He is the author of Thank You for Your Service: Collected Poems.
Dr. Bill Ehrhart with Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler,
Haverford School Class of 1898, Oaklands Cemetery, West Chester, PA, April 5, 2021.