Memorial Day Salute to a Repentant Ex-Marine

Photograph Source: Dwkaminski – CC BY-SA 4.0

“Racketeer for Capitalism”

In its recent front-page series on foreign domination and poverty in Haiti, the New York Times vividly recounted the role of the U.S. Marine Corps in this painful history. The accompanying photos showed Marines, in battle dress, boarding a ship in Philadelphia headed for Port-au-Prince more than a century ago, forming a skirmish line in the jungle, and posing with the bodies of Haitians killed while resisting the U.S. overthrow of their government. As the Times reported, one highlight of this mission was the brazen theft of $500,000 in gold from the Haiti’s national bank and its transfer to the vault of a bank on Wall Street.

One of the officers who departed from Philadelphia, to help oversee this brutal and murderous occupation was Smedley Darlington Butler, the son of a U.S. Congressman and the product of a wealthy Quaker family from the nearby Main Line town of West Chester. If that name sounds familiar it’s because no critic of the U.S. military has been more frequently quoted, by anti-war veterans, than the “Fighting Quaker,” who became the highest ranking and most decorated among them.

Five years before his untimely death in 1940, this two-time Medal of Honor winner penned a best-selling pamphlet entitled War Is A Racket. In a follow up piece for a socialist magazine called Common Sense, Butler famously summed up his personal role in this “racket” as follows:

“I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force—the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from a 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 for capitalism.”

The rest of that much quoted passage took readers on a tour of all the battle-scarred places, including Haiti, where Butler and Marines under his command had helped defeat nationalist insurgents and install US-friendly puppet governments to preserve a favorable investment climate for bond holders, plantation owners, or oil refiners.

A True Believer

What led to Butler’s transformation from a leading warrior for the U.S. empire—in Central America, Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, and China–to his brief, but memorable period of 1930s anti-war campaigning? In his new biography, Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire, (St. Martin’s Press), journalist Jonathan Katz retraced Butler’s footsteps in all his foreign postings in order to answer that question. While Memorial Day– America’s annual day of remembrance of its own war dead—invariably has an inward focus (notwithstanding the best local efforts of Veterans for Peace chapters around the country). Katz’s book is the kind of Memorial Day reading that reminds us that U.S. military intervention, during the nation’s early 20th century wave of overseas expansion, exacted a tremendous human toll and had a lasting political and economic impact across the globe.

Before his late-in-life conversion, Butler was a staunch Republican, with often racist opinions and a fervent belief in America’s imperial mission. He enlisted in the Marines before he turned 17, in 1898, just in time to join a seemingly righteous crusade “to end Spanish tyranny and imperialism in Cuba,” a war that his own father voted against in Congress. In Cuba, the Marine Corps, including Butler, wrestled control of Guantanamo Bay from the Spanish—a local land grab with lasting consequences. Shorter term, U.S. occupiers made sure that Cuban “independence” did not interfere with J.P Morgan and United Fruit Company gaining control of the nation’s sugar, tobacco, railroads, mining, and utilities.

Shipped off to the Pacific next, First Lieutenant Butler battled Filipinos opposed to replacing Spanish colonial rule with U.S. control of their country. His next stop was China, the target of a full-scale invasion launched by the McKinley Administration without Congressional approval. There, as part of an allied expeditionary force, Butler and his Marine detachment helped suppress the Boxer Rebellion, a conflict that took the lives of 100,000 Chinese but financially benefited all the foreign powers involved. Back in Central America, Butler helped secure the U.S. Canal Zone, and the surrounding newly created Republic of Panama, after it it was carved out of Colombia.

As a Marine battalion commander in 1910-12, he then helped pacify Nicaragua, where he first began to see that “the whole game of these degenerate Americans down here is to force the United States to intervene and, by doing so, make their investments good.” 1914 found Butler in meddling in the Mexican Revolution on behalf of U.S. based oil companies. This time, he won a Medal of Honor for his role in a seven-month military occupation of Veracruz, which resulted in thousands of civilian casualties. Soon thereafter, Butler was in Haiti crushing the armed resistance of the Cacos, rebels who opposed the system of forced labor imposed on the Haitian poor during the Wilson Administration.

He also trained and led a repressive local constabulary force known as the Gendarmerie d’Haiti (a warm up, of sorts, for his unhappy two-year stint as Philadelphia’s Director of Public Safety, during a leave of absence from the Marines in the mid-1920s.) Before leaving the island of Hispaniola, Butler led a flying column of two hundred Marines and Haitian Gendarmes across the border into the Dominican Republic to help install a US-friendly government there. Butler’s final overseas command, in 1927, landed him back in China two weeks before the Nationalist Chinese massacre of their Communist Party rivals in Shanghai. As Katz reports, “he ordered his men not to interfere,” since their mission was to protect the city’s foreign residents and their commercial property.

A Bonus March Awakening

Butler’s retirement from the military, in 1931, left with him with time to reflect on his blood-stained career. “Like all members of the military profession, I never had an original thought until I left the service,” he explained. “My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of the higher ups.” One post-retirement turning point was how “the higher ups’ responded to fellow World War I veterans, who were seeking promised bonus payments. In 1932, poverty-stricken protestors created a huge encampment along the banks of the Anacostia River, not far from the U.S. Capitol. This crowd of 20,000 “bonus marchers” included women and children and was multiracial in an era when both the military and veterans’ organizations were still segregated. Roy Wilkins, who covered the protest for an African-American newspaper and later led National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was so impressed that he “saw it as a model for integration in the United States.”

President Herbert Hoover, a conservative Republican, refused to meet with the veterans, red-baited them in the press, and rejected their main demand. His position was backed by the Senate, which adjourned and left town without passing House approved legislation authorizing immediate cash payments to veterans entitled to them. In late July, 1932, Butler visited the veterans’ encampment to rally the flagging spirits of the protestors in the face of an impending military assault. Eight days later, Hoover ordered active-duty troops—led by future World War II generals Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, and Dwight D. Eisenhower—to eradicate this threatening display of working-class veteran solidarity. Using cavalry, tanks, tear gas, and fixed bayonets, regular Army troops drove the bonus marchers from the city, killing two veterans and wounding nearly one thousand others.

Campaigning for the election of Franklin Roosevelt four months later, Butler told a crowd in Queens, NY. that “when the war is over, the soldier comes back, is given a march up Fifth Avenue and, as soon as he is disbanded at the end of the march, the capitalists say, ‘to hell with him’ and starts all over again.’” By 1936, Butler had become disillusioned with Roosevelt too and voted for Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas instead. In the intervening years, as Katz reports, the retired Marine helped blow the whistle on a shadowy cabal of right-wing industrialists who were plotting a coup against the Roosevelt Administration and made the mistake of broaching the subject with Butler. This so-called “Business Plot” involved key figures in the anti-New Deal Liberty League and became the subject of Butler’s explosive testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. There, Butler warned Congress that wealthy American admirers of European fascist leaders were trying to mobilize disgruntled veterans, using the same Depression-era scapegoats (Bolsheviks and Jews).

Butler’s patriotic efforts were not appreciated by the institution he had served so loyally for so long. According to documents cited by Katz, informants for the military closely tracked Butler’s left turn. They filed regular reports on his public appearances like a speech in Cleveland, where “he shared the stage with radial journalists, an antifascist rabbi, official members of the Communist Party, and the poet Langston Hughes.” The Marine Corps informant who attended that meeting heard Butler urge Americans to “lay aside all religious and racial feeling and stand together” against fascism and war. His confidential report concluded with the observation that “the General appeared to be either insane or an out-and-out traitor.” As Katz also discovered, modern-day librarians at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia, are careful to keep Butler’s anti-war tracts hidden away from other volumes, which provide laudatory accounts of his active duty exploits as a Medal of Honor winner and former commandant of the base.

Even when he died, in a Navy hospital in 1940, Butler could not escape controversy. He was buried without military honors after a private service, which included eulogies by a Unitarian minister and a speaker from the West Chester, PA. Friends Meeting. As Katz notes, the latter congregation had defended him for years against complaints, from Quakers elsewhere, that “an admitted mass murderer was allowed to call himself a member in good standing.” Butler’s Quaker eulogist gave that personal contradiction the best possible spin: “Although General Butler was, for thirty years, in the military service of his country, he hated war. There can be no doubt that his preaching produced results and carried his peace message to places and peoples that would not have been reached and influenced otherwise.”

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at