I first learned of the improbably named Smedley Darlington Butler while attending Marine Corps boot camp in South Carolina. At Parris Island, we were taught that Butler was, along with Dan Daly, one of two U.S. Marines to have been awarded the Medal of Honor twice. Along with five-time Navy Cross recipient Louis B. “Chesty” Puller, they served as heroic examples of the warrior ethos. Still, we never learned in any great detail about the lives or wartime experiences of any of them.
Butler was a prominent public figure in the early decades of the 20th century, well known for being a soldier’s soldier disdainful of military bureaucrats, a highly decorated war hero, and an advocate and enforcer of Prohibition in the 1920’s as Philadelphia’s Director of Public Safety. From his position in the Marine Corps, Butler was an eyewitness to almost every imperial encounter of the United States in the first three decades of the 20th century—from the Philippines and China to Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti. America has produced other martial heroes, but Smedley Butler’s views on the wisdom and virtues of these adventures, and the forcefulness with which he expressed them, set him apart from the ordinary war hero.
One of the issues that drove Butler to anger was the misuse of the Marine Corps for the benefit of specific business interests. While intervening in Nicara-
gua in 1910, Butler wrote to his parents that
What makes me mad is that the whole revolution is inspired and financed by Americans who have wildcat investments down here and want to make them good by putting in a Government which will declare a monopoly in their favor. The whole business is rotten to the core and I am ashamed to think that a Republican [Taft] administration is, if anything, assisting the revolution.
Similar issues motivated U.S. entry into Haiti in 1915, when that country was indebted to banks in the United States, France, and Germany. The Marine Corps occupied Haiti until 1934, three years after Butler retired. While Butler was there, he established a police force led by the Marine Corps. One of his duties was to assist the Haitians in drawing up a constitution acceptable to the U.S. government. When the Haitian legislature threatened to institute a constitution that the U.S. government disliked, Butler was ordered to dissolve that body. Robert Moskin set the scene for this incident in his U.S. Marine Corps Story:
[Butler] was greeted with loud hissing. The gendarmes on duty cocked their rifles. Butler ordered them to put down their weapons. He handed the decree to the presiding officer, who, instead of reading to the delegates, began a tirade against it. The hall was in an uproar. Tables and chairs were thrown over, deputies shouted and surged forward. The gendarmes again prepared to shoot. Finally, the presiding officer rang a bell for order and read the decree, declaring the Assembly dissolved and directed the hall cleared. The gendarmes locked the doors. Butler grabbed the decree and stuffed it in his pocket. He would use it later in a U.S. Senate hearing when his opponents charged that the president’s decree had never existed.
After a couple of decades of involvement in the folly of American intervention in places like Haiti, Butler spent most of the rest of his career in the United States at bases in Quantico, Virginia, and San Diego, California. His most memorable post in this era was outside of the Marine Corps, when he took a leave of absence to serve as Director of Public Safety in the city of Philadelphia. Although he ultimately failed to make Prohibition work, he did so with panache. His biographer, Hans Schmidt, reported in Maverick Marine that the “first forty-eight hour shock assault featured raids
on speakeasies, cabarets, candy stores, brothels, pool rooms, and cider saloons throughout the city.” Fearful police officials in New York City and Baltimore stepped up efforts to intercept a criminal exodus from the City of Brotherly Love.
The only lasting effect Butler had on alcohol consumption came in his decision to become a teetotaler after his Philadelphia experience. He made no progress in controlling another personal vice, as one Philadelphia mother complained to the secretary of the Navy.
I hope when Mr. Butler’s leave expires that you will try and teach him that a General should be a gentleman and a leader such as Pershing and Wood and not a common soldier. We teach our children it is low and vulgar to swear, and they listen to Butler over Radio and say, “Mother, General Butler swears all the time.” He should set an example in his own conduct.
Butler never learned such propriety, but his more than three decades in the Marine Corps taught him many lessons, one of which was never to give up or look back. He did not let a disastrous defeat in the 1932 Republican primary for a Pennsylvania Senate seat deter him. He adopted the cause of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, a group of World War I veterans who marched on Washington to petition Congress for payments that weren’t due until 1945. He briefly camped out with the group and told them, shortly before they were violently dispersed by the Army, that
you hear folks call you fellows tramps, but they didn’t call you that in ’17 and ’18. I never saw such fine soldiers. I never saw such discipline . . . You have as much right to lobby here as the United States Steel Corporation . . .
Though he often spoke out on economic issues, Smedley Butler devoted most of the remainder of his life to opposing war. He wasn’t a pacifist. He referred to himself as a “military isolationist” and favored a strong national defense. But his philosophy is alien to today’s political elites: Butler believed that national defense actually meant defending the nation.
Several times in his career, Smedley Butler had seen his Marine Corps misused for the benefit of various corporate interests, and he did not like it. He referred to himself as a “racketeer for capitalism.” In a 1935 article for the socialist magazine Common Sense, Butler wrote:
I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American 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 a half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of Racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international house of the Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard went its way unmolested . . . Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents.
His classic statement against war came in the pamphlet, War is a Racket (WIAR), published in 1935. WIAR succinctly explained who profits from war, who pays the cost, and how to end the racket. Butler viewed particular business interests as being the prime beneficiaries, not only in the sense that the military was often sent into harm’s way to serve a special interest, but also because those businesses benefitted from military spending. He listed the companies, such as Anaconda Copper and U.S. Steel, along with their earnings between 1910 and 1914, compared to their earnings from 1914 to 1918. Not surprisingly, the figures in the latter category grew by leaps and bounds.
Butler may have relied too much on this line of reasoning. His own experience provided equally strong evidence of the ways in which business interests profit from war—by having the military sent into harm’s way in order to bail out their interests abroad. More importantly, he ignored the way that war aggrandizes the state and politicians, summarized in Randolph Bourne’s classic dictum: “War is the health of the state.” Woodrow Wilson, under whom Butler served, assumed near-dictatorial powers by dragging the country into war.
The costs of war were left for others to pay. Soldiers, primarily, paid with their bodies, their lives, and sometimes their souls:
I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are a total of about 50,000 destroyed men—men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital at Milwaukee . . . told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home. Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. There they were remolded; they were made over; they were made to “about face”; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put shoulder to shoulder and, through mass psychology, they were entirely changed . . . Then suddenly, we discharged them and told them to make another “about face”! This time they had to do their own readjusting, sans mass psychology, sans officers’ aid and advice, sans nation-wide propaganda. We didn’t need them any more . . . Many, too many, of these fine young boys are eventually destroyed, mentally, because they could not make that final “about face.”
Smedley Butler outlined several steps to curb war frenzy, including the compelling idea to have declarations of war subject to a vote of those “who would be called upon to do the fighting and the dying.” After all, there
wouldn’t be very much sense in having the 76-year-old president of a munitions factory . . . or the cross-eyed manager of a uniform manufacturing plant—all of whom see visions of tremendous profits in the event of war—voting on whether the nation should go to war or not.
In WIAR, Butler also argued that the proper use of the U.S. military is to defend U.S. soil. Currently, our Armed Forces are better situated to defend Okinawa than Omaha. He specifically proposed keeping the Army in the United States and limiting ships and planes to within 200 and 500 miles of the coast, respectively.
Although flawed in places, WIAR is a powerful antiwar statement. Butler focused attention on certain beneficiaries of war and suggested ways to curtail them. Toward the end, he reviewed the platitudes that American doughboys had been sent into the trenches to die for:
When our boys were sent off to war they were told it was a “war to make the world safe for democracy” and a “war to end all wars.” Well, eighteen years after, the world has less democracy than it had then. Besides, what business is it of ours whether Russia or Germany or England or France or Italy or Austria live under democracies or monarchies? Whether they are Fascists or Communists? Our problem is to preserve our own democracy.
Smedley Butler didn’t live to see the U.S. enter the war that he devoted the last several years of his life to stopping. He died in June 1940. In those last years, he remained true to his beliefs. He occasionally spoke before a communist front group called the League Against War and Fascism, but he broke with them over the Spanish Civil War. At one meeting, in his blunt fashion, he asked, “What the hell is it our business what’s going on in Spain?”
In early 1940, a tired and cynical Smedley Butler canceled a speech for health reasons and told the head of a Republican women’s group,
I feel sure there is no use talking any more about this war business. The people of America are fools. If they want to have their children shot in order to keep Franklin Roosevelt on a pedestal, they will just have to do it.
America sorely needs another Smedley Butler. His message of military isolationism is alien among our political and journalistic elites. In the wake of the ghastly attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, this country may soon be involved in its most extensive war since Vietnam. Neoconservative chickenhawks such as William Kristol and Robert Kagan have been beating the drums for war with several countries in the Middle East. Kristol and other talk-show commandos do a lot of talking about war. But, as Smedley Darlington Butler would point out, they won’t do the dying.