The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler: A Marine hero who saw himself as a ‘racketeer for capitalism’

Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler in a 1931 photo. Butler earned fame fighting America’s imperialist wars, writes Jonathan Katz, but later came to regret his role. (AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, twice a recipient of the Medal of Honor, became a celebrity during his career. When Butler was 45, he could see a fictional version of himself in the hit movie “Tell It to the Marines,” where he was played by Lon Chaney. A congressman’s son and a Quaker, Butler joined the Marines as a teenager, during the 1898 war with Spain. He served in Cuba, the Philippines, China, Puerto Rico, Panama, Haiti, Mexico and Nicaragua, among other war zones; his résumé gives an outline of U.S. colonialism on the march.

And then, in 1931, the secretary of the Navy ordered Butler court-martialed for saying publicly that Benito Mussolini’s Italy was a “mad dog nation” and illustrating the point with a story about the fascist’s driver running over a child in the road. As the vehicle drove on, Mussolini advised a fellow passenger, “Never look back in life.” The administration of Herbert Hoover wanted to punish Butler for causing a diplomatic incident, but as Jonathan M. Katz writes, officials had a problem: It turned out Butler’s story was “substantially true.” The general retired and began saying more frequently what he thought of U.S. foreign policy. In three decades as a Marine, Butler wrote, “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.”

Toward the end of “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire,” Katz visits Butler’s grave and meets an Air Force master sergeant taking a rubbing of the headstone. The serviceman asks Katz if he is writing a biography of Butler; Katz replies, “Close enough.” And indeed the book is far more extraordinary than even the life of Smedley Butler: Between episodes of the Marine’s story, Katz recounts his own visits to the places where Butler fought. Katz talks to Chinese martial artists about the Boxer Uprising; he visits workers in a Haitian industrial park; he plays a U.S. prisoner of war in a Filipino film about the guerrilla war against the Americans. The book thus affords a compelling and insightful meditation on the trauma people still feel as a result of Butler’s career and the American ambitions it represented.

War is a racket, Butler wrote, and a racket “is not what it seems.” At the turn of the 20th century, imperialism’s advocates made it seem like a great deal of fun. On his way to one of his first battles, Butler said, “I am the happiest man alive.” For him, empire was a constructive purpose — literally; once the shooting stopped, the Marines paved roads, built ports or dug canals. He proudly quoted an engineer saying, “If there ever is anything dangerous going on anywhere you will always find one of Butler’s men right in the middle.” He became famous for shouldering his own share, working right alongside his men.

He regarded colonized people as “little brown brothers” at best and used unkinder epithets at other times. They did not want to work on imperial projects, so he made them. In Haiti, as Butler said, his men “delivered these little cards notifying [Haitians] that on a certain date they would . . . do their work or pay a certain tax. . . . Nobody had any money, so they reported for work.”

But eventually Butler realized he was not serving so grand a purpose as he thought. Posted in Nicaragua to defend U.S. mining interests, he wrote, “This is a d----d fool expedition . . . inspired and financed by Americans who have wild cat investments down here and want to make them good by putting in a Government which will declare a monopoly in their favor.”

Following Butler into World War I, Katz visits a modern museum exhibit on the 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood. He hears recorded machine gun fire and writes, “A familiar sensation of nameless terror came creeping in from behind my eyes.” He thinks about his own experience of violence, as a journalist, and intuits how in the “cauldron of traumas” that was World War I, Butler must have realized the terrible costs of imperial competition. However decorated and praised, Butler “never felt less worthy.” He was on the way to his near court-martial.

Katz sketches an insightful comparison between Butler and his almost-exact contemporary Franklin Roosevelt. Both grew up under the spell of Franklin’s imperialist cousin Theodore; both grew out of it. The devastation of the interwar decades brought them both to appreciate imperiled democracy.

This realization led to one of the strangest episodes of Butler’s strange career. In 1934, a man representing wealthy American businessmen tried to recruit Butler to lead a revolt against Roosevelt. Inspired by a right-wing group of veterans that unsuccessfully stormed the French legislature, the man proposed that Butler could lead a similar, but successful, group in the United States; maybe half a million veterans would join. The businessmen would pay for this plan to halt the New Deal. Butler replied, “If you get these five hundred thousand soldiers advocating anything smelling of fascism, I am going to get five hundred thousand more and lick the hell out of you.” A congressional committee confirmed Butler’s testimony but did not pursue the matter, leaving Butler to wage his battle against the misdeeds of American businessmen without their help. He died in 1940, before he could see the Marines fight fascism in the field.

Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, has written eight books, including “Why the New Deal Matters.”

Gangsters of Capitalism

Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire

By Jonathan M. Katz

St. Martin’s. 412 pp. $29.99