Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,139

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,139


This is the grave of Smedley Butler.

Born in 1881 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Butler grew up in the Gilded Age Pennsylvania elite. His father was a long-time member of Congress who served thirty years in the House and was chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee during the 1920s. His grandfather served a couple of terms in Congress as well in the 1880s. So Butler went to all the best schools in the Philadelphia area, was a good athlete, and then was headed to college…or maybe not. Butler was also a young man who wanted adventure. And 1898 was a good year for that. Just weeks before he graduated from high school, Butler, over the infuriated wishes of his father, dropped out of high schools to go play war in Cuba. He never did make it back to college.

Butler was so well off that even though he was 17 years old, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines. He got to Cuba shortly after the surrender of the Spanish, so no fun there. With the military downsizing as rapidly as it upsized, he was released from his commission, but he was determined a military life was for him, so he managed to reenlist as a second lieutenant in the permanent Marines. He was off to the Philippines in what would the first of his many adventures in American colonialism. That’s what the military did after 1898. It was the enforcer of American capital’s demands in Asia and especially Latin America. At first, Butler was down with the adventure, but he was a smart guy and eventually came to think about just what it was he and the nation were doing. As you all know, this is why we remember Butler today, but let’s not put the cart before the horse here.

It took very little time for two things to happen. First, Butler impressed his superiors and he rose very quickly. Second, he became a soldier of choice to enforce the desires of American corporations overseas. This was the peak period of American quasi-imperialism. It didn’t take the nation long to realize it didn’t really want direct imperialism. Actually owning colonies such as Puerto Rico and the Philippines required resources and responsibility. That was a pain. But if we just placed lackeys in small countries and then sent the Marines in if they annoyed us or defied the real ruler of the nation–the various American corporate interests investing there–and we could overthrow that government and find a new puppet.

So this was Butler’s career. He was central to a lot of the worst actions of American history. That started with the Boxer Rebellion, when he was among the American forces sent to China, where he was shot in the leg but pulled another wounded officer behind the lines. He received a brevet promotion to captain for that and would have received the Medal of Honor but that was only for enlisted men at that time (four were given out for that battle). But where Butler really proved valuable was in Central America. The banana companies owned Guatemala and Honduras and Nicaragua and the Marines were their private military force under public funding. Great deal for United Fruit and Standard Fruit if you could get it.

Butler first led forces into Honduras in 1903, when a rumored rebellion supposedly took place there and he figured he could bravely lead men onshore and they could just clean up, but it took them time to find the action. Then he helped the conservative Manuel Bonilla lead a coup against the Honduran government, which helped fruit company interests. Between 1909 and 1912, Butler was involved in the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua, a direct public investment in ensuring fruit company control over that nation. He was involved in several battles there against “rebels” by which we really mean anti-colonial and anti-imperialist freedom fighters.

In 1914, Butler was part of the force to invade Veracruz in Mexico as part of the American intervention in the Mexican Revolution. He used a ruse about looking for a lost soldier, a total lie, to investigate the city and get a sense of the defenses that he then reported back to Washington to prepare for the invasion. That this invasion was in the same spot that Cortés had invaded four hundred years earlier remains very not lost on Mexicans today. Butler then led the invasion. He got a Medal of Honor for this (now available for officers). It was a tough enough fight there that the U.S. decided to just occupy Veracruz rather than engage in a deeper invasion of the nation.

After Veracruz, Butler got to lead the invasion into Haiti in 1915. This is another of the horrible actions of American history. The U.S. would occupy Haiti for nearly twenty years. His men were known for just shooting down Haitians like pigs, as it was said. This all impressed the Navy enough that he got his second Medal of Honor.

Much to his chagrin, Butler was not given a battle command in France during World War I, with the Marines believing him more valuable elsewhere. Not everyone can specialize in imperialism after all! He was promoted to brigadier general in 1918 but was working in logistics in France, moving troops to the battlefield. Then after the war, he was placed in charge of the effort to revamp Quantico into a permanent Marine post. While there, he was told that a farmer had found Stonewall Jackson’s missing arm. Butler went to investigate, found out it was true, and placed the modern marker at the site. Great times there, a memorial to a treasonous limb remains a desired iconic site for treason lovers today.

In 1924, Philadelphia mayor Freeland Kendrick was trying to clean up his corrupt city. He wasn’t messing around. He went to Calvin Coolidge and asked for military assistance. What a huge violation of what the military is supposed to do in this nation but Coolidge didn’t really care. He sent Butler, who became director of public safety for the city for nearly two years. Butler led nearly 1,000 raids of speakeasies over that time, many of them immediately. Enforcing prohibition was his main mission. He basically declared martial law in the city. This was only going to last for so long before the local residents exploded in fury and Kendrick had to get rid of Butler in late 1925.

Now, Butler was also a very difficult man. He was politically controversial and he had a big mouth. He talked a lot of smack. He gossiped to reporters. His father was still in Congress and could protect him. But then dad died and Herbert Hoover became president. Hoover thought Butler a dangerous man and basically despised him. When Butler told reporters that Benito Mussolini had run over and killed a kid with his car, the Italians complained about a violation of diplomatic protocol and this gave Hoover the room to act, or perhaps overreact. Hoover forced the Secretary of the Navy, Charles Francis Adams III, to arrest and court-martial Butler. This scared Butler into apologizing and he was just given a reprimand. But the writing was on the wall. In 1930, Hoover named Ben Fuller Commandant of the Marine Corps, jumping him over Butler. So Butler resigned from the military.

Butler had played politics forever. So he immediately ran for the Senate from Pennsylvania as a Republican who supported Prohibition. That went about as well as you’d expect in 1932 and he lost the primary to a wet. But Butler changed as he aged. It seems that the Bonus Army was key here. He was a big proponent of the Bonus Army and thought these were good veterans on hard times. He went to the encampment, spoke to the soldiers, gave his support. Then Hoover and Douglas MacArthur destroyed it with fire. Butler was furious.

Butler leapt to the left politically. He repented his past and publicized his nasty deeds. He supported Norman Thomas for president in 1936. He spoke out to peace groups and called for the abolition of war. He went on a 1933 tour where he recruited Veterans of Foreign Wars members into opposing war, saying that they were suckers of a capitalist class, and no one knew more about how the capitalist class used the military like Smedley Butler! In 1935, he wrote for the socialist magazine Common Sense:

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 mean, when you’re right, you’re right!

This leads me to another point. Those liberals who want to be taken seriously on foreign policy, by which they usually mean be within the realm of what gets published in Foreign Affairs, often dismiss leftist foreign policy as conspiratorial. And I mean, sometimes that’s for good reason. But let’s be honest here–the left has a point. American foreign policy has been a direct conduit of corporate power since 1898 and it’s hard to deny the point. It still is today in many, many ways. Are our officers gangsters for capitalism today? I mean, yes. Yes they are. It is a bit more hidden than in 1920, absolutely. But this is still a huge part of the point of what the American military does. He also wrote War is a Racket, his 1935 book exposing his own crimes.

Butler also claimed knowledge of military officers and business leaders attempting a fascist military coup against FDR. While at the time he was seen as a conspiracy theorist for saying this, in what became known as the Business Plot, it’s at least clear that there was initial talk among some leaders about this.

In his last years, Butler lived in Pennsylvania. He died of cancer in 1940, at the age of 58. Would have been really interesting to see how his politics changed after World War II.

Smedley Butler is buried in Oaklands Cemetery, West Chester, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit some of the figures Butler worked with as part of being a gangster for capitalism, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray is in New Orleans and Ben Fuller is in Annapolis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Linkedin
This div height required for enabling the sticky sidebar
Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views : Ad Clicks : Ad Views :