Smedley Butler

Smedley Butler

Smedley Darlington Butler was born in Pennsylvania on 30th July, 1881. His father, Thomas Stalker Butler, was a lawyer and politician and in 1897 was elected to the House of Representatives.

Butler was educated at the Haverford School, a private secondary school for the sons of wealthy Quaker families in Philadelphia. Although brought up as a pacifist he runaway from school at sixteen to join the army. Butler lied about his age and secured a second lieutenant's commission in the US Marines.

After six weeks of basic training Butler was sent to Guantanamo, Cuba, in July 1898. He saw action against the Spanish before being sent to China during the Boxer Rebellion. At the Battle of Tientsin on 13th July, 1900, Butler was shot in the thigh when he climbed out of a trench to retrieve a wounded officer. In recognition of his bravery Butler was promoted to the rank of captain. Butler was badly wounded for a second time when he was shot in the chest at San Tan Pating. In 1903, Butler was sent to Honduras where he protected the U.S. Consulate from rebels.

In 1914 Butler won the Medal of Honor for outstanding gallantry in action while fighting against the Spanish at Veracruz, Mexico. Major Butler returned his medal arguing that he had not done enough to deserve it. It was sent back to Butler with orders that not only would he keep it, but that he would wear it as well. Butler won his second Medal of Honor in Haiti on 17th November, 1915.

Promoted to the rank of brigadier general at the age of 37 he was placed in command of Camp Pontanezen at Brest, France, during the First World War. This resulted in him being awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the French Order of the Black Star.

Following the war, Butler transformed the wartime training camp at Quantico, Virginia into a permanent Marine post. In 1923 the newly elected mayor of Philadelphia, W. Freeland Kendrick, asked Butler to leave the Marines to become Director of Public Safety. Butler refused but eventually accepted the appointment in January 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge requested him to carry out the task.

Butler immediately ordered raids on more than 900 speakeasies in Philadelphia. He also ordered the arrests of corrupt police officers. Butler upset some very powerful people in his crusade against corruption and in December 1925 Kendrick sacked Butler. He later commented "cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I was ever in."

Butler returned to the US Marines and in 1927 was appointed the commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force in China. Over the next two years he did what he could to protect American people living in the country.

At the age of 48, Butler became the Marine Corps' youngest major general. Butler became the leading figure in the struggle to preserve the Marine Corps' existence against critics in Congress who argued that the US Army could do the work of the Marines. Butler became a nationally known figure in the United States by taking thousands of his men on long field marches to Gettysburg and other Civil War battle sites, where they conducted large-scale re-enactments before large crowds of spectators.

In 1931, Butler said in an interview that Benito Mussolini had allegedly struck a child with his automobile in a hit-and-run accident. Mussolini protested and President Herbert Hoover instructed the Secretary of the Navy to court-martial Butler. Butler became the first general officer to be placed under arrest since the Civil War. Butler was eventually released without charge.

Major General Wendell C. Neville died in July 1930. Butler was expected to succeed him as Commandant of the Marine Corps. However, he had upset too many powerful people in the past and the post went to Major General Ben Hebard Fuller instead. Butler retired from active duty on 1st October, 1931.

In 1932, Butler ran for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary in Pennsylvania, allied with Gifford Pinchot, the brother of Amos Pinchot, but was defeated by James J. Davis.

Butler went to Senator John McCormack and told him that there was a fascist plot to overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt. Butler claimed that on 1st July 1934, Gerald C. MacGuire a Wall Street bond salesman and Bill Doyle, the department commander of the American Legion in Massachusetts, tried to recruit him to lead a coup against Roosevelt. Butler claimed that the conspirators promised him $30 million in financial backing and the support of most of the media.

Butler pretended to go along with the plot and met other members of the conspiracy. In November 1934 Butler began testifying in secret to the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities (the McCormack-Dickstein Committee). Butler claimed that the American Liberty League was the main organization behind the plot. He added the main backers were the Du Pont family, as well as leaders of U.S. Steel, General Motors, Standard Oil, Chase National Bank, and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

Butler also named Prescott Bush as one of the conspirators. At the time Bush was along with W. Averell Harriman, E. Roland Harriman and George Herbert Walker, managing partners in Brown Brothers Harriman. Bush was also director of the Harriman Fifteen Corporation. This in turn controlled the Consolidated Silesian Steel Corporation, that owned one-third of a complex of steel-making, coal-mining and zinc-mining activities in Germany and Poland. Friedrich Flick owned the other two-thirds of the operation. Flick was a leading financial supporter of the Nazi Party and in the 1930s donated over seven million marks to the party. A close friend of Heinrich Himmler, Flick also gave the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) 10,000 marks a year.

On 20th November, 1934, the story of the alleged plot was published in the Philadelphia Record and the New York Post. Four days later the McCormack-Dickstein Committee released its preliminary findings and the full-report appeared on 15th February, 1935. The committee reported: "In the last few weeks of the committee's official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist government in this country... There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient."

Although the McCormack-Dickstein Committee claimed they believed Butler's testimony they refused to take any action against the people he named as being part of the conspiracy. Butler was furious and gave a radio interview on 17th February, 1935, where he claimed that important portions of his testimony had been suppressed in the McCormack-Dickstein report to Congress. He argued that the committee, had "stopped dead in its tracks when it got near the top." Butler added: "Like most committees, it has slaughtered the little and allowed the big to escape. The big shots weren't even called to testify. Why wasn't Colonel Grayson M.-P. Murphy, New York broker... called? Why wasn't Louis Howe, Secretary to the President of the United States, called? Why wasn't Al Smith called? And why wasn't General Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, called? And why wasn't Hanford MacNider, former American Legion commander, called? They were all mentioned in the testimony. And why was all mention of these names suppressed from the committee report?"

John L. Spivak, who had been mistakenly given access to the unexpurgated testimony of the people interviewed by the McCormack-Dickstein Committee. He published an article in the New Masses entitled Wall Street's Fascist Conspiracy on 5th February 1935. This included the claim that "Jewish financiers" had been working with "fascist groups" in an attempt to overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt. The article was dismissed as communist propaganda.

In November 1935 Butler wrote an article 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."

Butler also published a book entitled War is a Racket (1935). It was a powerful denunciation of war. He wrote: "In the (First) World War a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows. How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?"

Smedley Butler continued to campaign against the Military Industrial Complex until his death on 21st June 1940.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) McCormack-Dickstein Committee Report (February, 1935)

In the last few weeks of the committee's official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist government in this country.

No evidence was presented and this committee had none to show a connection between this effort and any fascist activity of any European country.

There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.

This committee received evidence from Maj. Gen Smedley D. Butler (retired), twice decorated by the Congress of the United States. He testified before the committee as to conversations with one Gerald C. MacGuire in which the latter is alleged to have suggested the formation of a fascist army under the leadership of General Butler.

MacGuire denied these allegations under oath, but your committee was able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler, with the exception of the direct statement suggesting the creation of the organization. This, however, was corroborated in the correspondence of MacGuire with his principal, Robert Sterling Clark, of New York City, while MacGuire was abroad studying the various forms of veterans organizations of Fascist character.

(2) Smedley Butler, interview on WCAU (17th February, 1935)

The committee stopped dead in its tracks when it got near the top...Like most committees, it has slaughtered the little and allowed the big to escape. The big shots weren't even called to testify. Why wasn't Colonel Grayson M.-P. Murphy, New York broker ... called? Why wasn't Louis Howe, Secretary to the President of the United States, called? . . . Why wasn't Al Smith called? And why wasn't General Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, called? And why wasn't Hanford MacNider, former American Legion commander, called? They were all mentioned in the testimony. And why was all mention of these names suppressed from the committee report?"

(3) Hans Schmidt, Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History (1998)

Journalist John L. Spivak, researching Nazism and anti-Semitism for New Masses magazine, got permission from Dickstein to examine HUAC's public documents and was (it seems unwittingly) given the unexpurgated testimony amid stacks of other papers. Spivak's two-part feature "Wall Street's Fascist Conspiracy" appeared in early 1935, a month after the hearings closed. He cogently developed a case for taking the suppressed testimony seriously. But this relevant material was embellished with overblown aspersions against "Jewish financiers working with fascist groups" - a mishmash of guilt-by-association that connected Morgan interests with Jewish financier Felix Warburg, HUAC, and certain members of the American Jewish Committee. Spivak was intent upon grinding his own axes, and elucidation of the plot was obscured. The suppressed Butler-MacGuire conversations could hardly support all this. Moreover New Masses possessed a limited readership; the scoop was stigmatized as "red" propaganda and generally not cited elsewhere."

(4) Smedley Butler, Common Sense (November, 1935)

There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its ‘finger men’ (to point out enemies), its ‘muscle men’ (to destroy enemies), its ‘brain men’ (to plan war preparations), and a “Big Boss” (super-nationalistic capitalism).

It may seem odd for a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to.

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups.

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.

I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket.... I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents....

Our exploits against the American Indian, the Filipinos, the Mexicans, and against Spain are on a par with the campaigns of Genghis Khan, the Japanese in Manchuria and the African attack of Mussolini. No country has ever declared war on us before we first obliged them with that gesture. Our whole history shows we have never fought a defensive war."

(5) Smedley Butler, War is a Racket (1935)

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

In the (First) World War a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few – the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

(6) Smedley Butler, War is a Racket (1935)

The World War, rather our brief participation in it, has cost the United States some $52,000,000,000. Figure it out. That means $400 to every American man, woman, and child. And we haven't paid the debt yet. We are paying it, our children will pay it, and our children's children probably still will be paying the cost of that war.

The normal profits of a business concern in the United States are six, eight, ten, and sometimes twelve percent. But war-time profits – ah! that is another matter – twenty, sixty, one hundred, three hundred, and even eighteen hundred per cent – the sky is the limit. All that traffic will bear. Uncle Sam has the money. Let's get it.

Of course, it isn't put that crudely in war time. It is dressed into speeches about patriotism, love of country, and "we must all put our shoulders to the wheel," but the profits jump and leap and skyrocket – and are safely pocketed. Let's just take a few examples:

Take our friends the du Ponts, the powder people – didn't one of them testify before a Senate committee recently that their powder won the war? Or saved the world for democracy? Or something? How did they do in the war? They were a patriotic corporation. Well, the average earnings of the du Ponts for the period 1910 to 1914 were $6,000,000 a year. It wasn't much, but the du Ponts managed to get along on it. Now let's look at their average yearly profit during the war years, 1914 to 1918. Fifty-eight million dollars a year profit we find! Nearly ten times that of normal times, and the profits of normal times were pretty good. An increase in profits of more than 950 per cent.

Take one of our little steel companies that patriotically shunted aside the making of rails and girders and bridges to manufacture war materials. Well, their 1910-1914 yearly earnings averaged $6,000,000. Then came the war. And, like loyal citizens, Bethlehem Steel promptly turned to munitions making. Did their profits jump – or did they let Uncle Sam in for a bargain? Well, their 1914-1918 average was $49,000,000 a year!

Or, let's take United States Steel. The normal earnings during the five-year period prior to the war were $105,000,000 a year. Not bad. Then along came the war and up went the profits. The average yearly profit for the period 1914-1918 was $240,000,000. Not bad.

(7) Smedley Butler, War is a Racket (1935)

A few profit – and the many pay. But there is a way to stop it. You can't end it by disarmament conferences. You can't eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can't wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war.

The only way to smash this racket is to conscript capital and industry and labor before the nations manhood can be conscripted. One month before the Government can conscript the young men of the nation – it must conscript capital and industry and labor. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our munitions makers and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted – to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.

Let the workers in these plants get the same wages – all the workers, all presidents, all executives, all directors, all managers, all bankers –

yes, and all generals and all admirals and all officers and all politicians and all government office holders – everyone in the nation be restricted to a total monthly income not to exceed that paid to the soldier in the trenches!

Let all these kings and tycoons and masters of business and all those workers in industry and all our senators and governors and majors pay half of their monthly $30 wage to their families and pay war risk insurance and buy Liberty Bonds.

(8) Butler Shaffer, Where Is Smedley When We Need Him? (2003)

Smedley Butler is a name with which you may not be familiar, even though he twice won the Congressional Medal of Honor. If he were to appear on television today, he would be identified as "Maj. General Smedley Butler, USMC (ret.)" But even if he were still alive, he would not appear on any network television news shows because, late in life, he openly expressed his opposition to the war system. He went on to expose the symbiotic relationship existing between the institutional interests of corporate America and the state. Many former top generals and admirals have written memoirs around the theme "war is hell," but Gen. Butler went a step further, writing a book titled War Is a Racket.

Smedley defined a racket as "something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people." War, he goes on, "is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious" of rackets. Reflecting upon his own early 20th century career, he noted that, "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, a gangster for capitalism." He related how he had helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests, Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank, a number of Central American countries more pleasant for Wall Street interests, the Dominican Republic more conducive to the sugar industry, and China more compatible with the interests of Standard Oil. Then, after observing how he had helped supply the coercive, deadly force to advance corporate interests throughout various parts of the world, Butler added: "I could 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." You can see that his book does for adults what The Emperor’s New Clothes does for children.

I have my doubts that we shall be hearing such candor anytime soon from the Bush administration’s appointed military ruler of Iraq, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner. I have seen far too many retired military officers on network television news and talk shows faithfully reciting the Establishment’s position on the necessity for, the success of, and the bright prospects for the American government’s military involvement in Iraq (and, perhaps, other Middle Eastern countries as well). The media – which has been eager to ferret out the economic or ideological interests of those who oppose administration policies – could demonstrate a bit of "truth-in-advertising" by identifying the defense industry interests for whom these various retired generals, admirals, and colonels now work!

American military academies have apparently expanded their curricula to include the training of future officers to become military occupiers of other countries. One West Point cadet expressed an awareness of the interconnected nature of her military training and the political domination of a nation. Contemplating her possible assignment to Iraq upon graduation, she pondered how she "might have to go over there and basically be mayor of a town." This young woman would be well advised to read Gen. Butler’s book!