Smedley Butler: A gangster for U.S. imperialism


A review of “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire,” by Jonathan M. Katz. St. Martin’s Press, 2021.

Famous in his day but now virtually unknown, Smedley D. Butler was the Forrest Gump of U.S. imperialism. Born to a wealthy and influential suburban Philadelphia family (his father was a lawyer, judge, and later member of Congress for 31 years), Butler enlisted in the U.S. Marines at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War of 1898. At the age of 16 he was commissioned a lieutenant and fought in Cuba against first the Spaniards and next against the Cubans. In his 34-career he fought in most of the major U.S. imperialist interventions in the first part of the 20th century. His story is the story of U.S. imperial expansion up to his death in 1940, on the verge of U.S. entry into World War II. He not only witnessed early U.S. imperialism, he helped create it. And then Butler became its most outspoken critic.

Jonathan M. Katz has given us a fascinating biography of this forgotten historical figure, along with a history of U.S. imperialism from 1898 to 1931, and a meditation on the traumatic legacy of imperialism. Katz achieves the latter by traveling to all the places that Butler fought in, talking with the people who are descendants of his victims.

Butler’s career was the stuff of legend. Awarded 16 medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor, twice, he rose from lieutenant to brigadier general. During his rise to the top, Butler was in nearly every major U.S. imperialist intervention across the globe.

U.S. seizes Cuba and the Philippines; invades Honduras, Panama & China

Butler first fought in Cuba against the Spanish at Guantanamo Bay, when the American and Cuban mambises (Cuban Freedom fighters, most of whom had be former slaves) captured Guantanamo from the Spaniards and set up a U.S. naval base there, the first U.S. overseas military base and still an important base today.

At the same time that the U.S. was fighting Spain in Cuba and trying to gain control of that island, the U.S. ordered its fleet in the Pacific to attack Spanish forces in the Philippines. U.S. Admiral Dewey attacked Spanish forces in Manila Bay six days after the war started, defeating the Spanish and seizing control of the Philippines. During the peace negotiations with Spain, the U.S. paid $20 million to Spain in exchange for legal recognition of U.S. rule over the Philippines, essentially buying the colony from Spain. This was a double betrayal—earlier, the U.S. had promised the leader of the Philippine independence movement, which had been fighting Spain for decades and was on the verge of victory, that the U.S. would honor Philippine independence. Shortly after the capture of Manila Bay, however, the U.S. denied ever having made such a promise.

The Philippine independence movement did not accept the double betrayal and continued fighting for freedom. The U.S. was now to fight a three-year brutal pacification campaign, complete with U.S. assassination of Philippine leaders, U.S. concentration camps, and the destruction of entire villages, including the systematic burning of huts as was later practiced in Vietnam. Butler arrived with his regiment to fight in this brutal imperialist war in May of 1899 and was involved in several important battles and the destruction of many villages.

Butler and his regiment did not fight for the entire Philippine War; they were needed in China, where the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against European and American domination of China, broke out. So on June 18, Butler and his regiment arrived in China for what was the U.S.’s first undeclared (by the U.S. Congress) war on another country. Butler fought against Chinese troops in both Beijing and Tianjin. The imperialist powers essentially won the war, re-establishing commercial ties and investments in China and imposing harsh conditions on the country in the 1901 “peace” treaty.

After a short time in the United States, Butler again went overseas, this time in 1902 to the new colony of Puerto Rico, to train in jungle warfare and to prepare for the possible construction of a canal in Central America. But before long, in March 1903, Butler and his troops (he was now a decorated Captain for his role in China) were sent to invade Honduras, the first of what would be six invasions by the U.S. in the next several decades. Soon after, in December 1903, he and his troops were re-deployed to the newly independent country of Panama, which the U.S. had helped to create after the Colombian Congress rejected a proposed U.S. canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Butler stayed in Panama until shortly before the construction of the canal started, essentially providing the military forces for the new puppet-regime of Panama.

After a brief time in the U.S, during which Butler fell in love and got married, he was again stationed in the Philippines as the U.S. sought to establish a naval base at Subic Bay, a deeper port more suitable to U.S. warships than Manila Harbor. In the Philippines Butler showed increasing signs of an emotional breakdown and erratic behavior—what we would now associate with PTSD. He returned to the U.S. and temporarily left the Marine Corps to rest and recover, working for a short time as the boss of a coal mine in West Virginia.

Overthrowing government of Nicaragua; invasion of Mexico

Returning to the military in 1909, Butler was promoted to major and placed in charge of a brigade of 1000 troops. His first assignment was to the new U.S. military base in the Panama Canal Zone. On his way, he and his troops were diverted to Nicaragua, to support the efforts to overthrow the democratically elected government there. As soon as the president learned of the approaching Marine Corps invasion, he fled to Mexico. The U.S. Marines stayed to support the new pro-U.S. government. The United States and U.S. companies took direct control of parts of the Nicaraguan government and economy, including the Nicaraguan Custom House.

Butler returned to Panama in late 1910, after he had made detailed and careful reconnaissance of Nicaragua. He and his troops returned to Nicaragua in 1912 when the U.S. regime collapsed, and Butler fought a brutal war against the leaders of the Nicaraguan independence movement, eventually defeating their forces and killing their leader.

Butler again returned to his command in Panama City, but in January 1914 he and his troops redeployed to Veracruz, Mexico. At the time, U.S. capitalists owned approximately 27% of all Mexican land and most of the oil production. Almost immediately, he was sent as a spy to Mexico City. After his return, Butler and special President Wilson’s special representative John Lind developed detailed plans to invade and conquer Mexico, which they then sent to Washington. And on April 21, after an altercation between U.S. sailors and Mexicans in Tampico (an incident known as the Tampico Affair and used in the U.S. as a pretext for war, just as the sinking of the Maine was used to justify the 1898 Spanish-American War, the U.S. launched their second invasion of Mexico, following Butler’s plan. In Veracruz Butler and his troops met with fierce resistance in what for the Marines was their first experience with urban door-to-door combat, what would eventually become a Marine Corps specialty.

The U.S. occupied Veracruz, Mexico’s principal port on its eastern seaboard, for seven months. While Butler and his troops fought fiercely, killing an estimated 10,000 Mexicans, Butler himself viewed the war that he had helped to plan as immoral and pointless. He viewed the Tampico Affair as “a joke” in a letter to his father, one of the few members of Congress to vote against the war (the vote, by the way, took place after the war had started). Butler would later remark that whenever there is some international intrigue, look for oil deposits if you want to get to the bottom of it.

Haitian independence movement is crushed

Butler and his men did not stay long in Veracruz (his troops were replaced by the U.S. Army); they were rushed to Haiti in 1915. U.S. and European powers had controlled Haiti after the defeat of the Haitian Revolution. Haiti’s Central Bank was located at 55 Wall Street in the headquarters of National City Bank of New York, now called Citibank. When World War I broke out, the U.S. moved to secure complete control of Haiti, including seizing its gold reserves and placing its custom houses under the direct control of a U.S. bank.

Using a pretext of a murdered political leader, Wilson ordered an invasion of the country. Marine General Littleton Waller, known as the Butcher of Samar (Philippines) for his actions in the Philippine war, appointed Butler as his second in command. Together they again crushed the Haitian independence movement, known as the Caco Resistance. In the process, Butler developed the fundamentals (also based on his experiences in Cuba and the Philippines) of modern counter-insurgency warfare, which he used in Haiti. Hoping to return to Mexico to fight against Pancho Villa, Butler was ordered to remain in Haiti, where he essentially re-enslaved the Haitian people and created a local military force, trained and equipped by the U.S., to maintain U.S. control in the absence of U.S. forces. This too became a staple feature of U.S. imperialism.

In 1916 Butler briefly left his command in Haiti to invade the Dominican Republic under orders from Wilson. Following the usual pattern, the U.S. used a pretext to invade a country in order to further the profits of U.S. corporations and banks, then established an essentially puppet government to protect U.S. corporate interests. Following the pattern Butler had developed in Haiti, the U.S. established a local military, La Guardia, to protect U.S. interests. U.S. troops were finally withdrawn in 1924 after the Guardia and its commander, Rafael Trujillo (later the longtime dictator) were firmly established.

When the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, Butler was eager to be sent to Europe to join the fighting but was kept in Haiti because he was deemed essential to the U.S. occupation. Finally, in 1918, he got his chance, arriving in France, ravaged by both war and the influenza virus shortly before the war ended and before he could see combat.

By the end of the First World War, Butler’s career as a gangster of and for capitalism was coming to a close. He became commandant of Quantico Marine Corps base, the headquarters and major training facility of the Marine Corps. While there he established the Marine Corps football team and built their stadium, which still bears his name. He also started large-scale Civil War re-enactments as a way to publicize the Marine Corps, and not incidentally, to glorify the slaveocracy’s war of succession. He also took a two-year leave of absence (from January 1924 to December 1925) to act as the police chief of Philadelphia, one of the most corrupt and violent cities in the U.S. at the time. He employed many of the same brutal tactics domestically that he had used overseas. Butler was welcomed back to the Marines in 1926, just in time to be sent on his last intervention, this time again to Shanghai, China—the second of what would be three U.S. invasions of China in the 20th century.

Veterans march on Washington

Butler retired in 1930, deeply burned out and facing financial problems. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1932 but was defeated. He also started moving left politically as a result of his experiences, both overseas and domestically. A major turning point occurred in 1931-32 as a result of veterans’ protests.

The vets started organizing in 1931 to demand payment of their First World War bonus. Facing the high unemployment and poverty of the Great Depression, the veterans were often destitute and needed the promised bonus. They started marching to Washington, D.C., where they established a tent city in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol building. By June 1932 over 45,000 vets, their wives, and their children were camped in D.C. The camp was multiracial and had vets from all parts of the country. The protesters became known as the Bonus Army. They succeeded in getting the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a bill authorizing what in today’s dollars was $46 billion in aid for veterans. The U.S. Senate failed to act, however. When the D.C. police refused to act against the protesters, President Hoover called out the U.S. Army. General Douglas MacArthur was sent in to clear the camps, along with his aide, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower. George Patton led the cavalry charge against the vets in what became known as the Battle of Washington.

This was a hard pill for Butler to swallow. He had visited the camp and was very supportive of the vets, both privately and publicly. They, in turn, respected and were inspired by him. The attack on the vets by the U.S. military and established politicians (many, like Hoover, he had known for years) removed the scales from Butler’s eyes. (For a rich and deeply informative history of the vets’ struggle, see “The Bonus Army: An American Epic,” by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, 2004).

Fascist plots against Roosevelt

But Butler still had a few more lessons to learn. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president. Many in the U.S. ruling class were unhappy with his election and there were at least two fascist plots against FDR. One was by the Liberty League, a group of powerful and rich business leaders that included the owners and leaders of Du Pont, General Motors, General Foods, Sun Oil, and J.P. Morgan. The second was organized by the American fascist and bond salesman Gerald McGuire. McGuire tried to recruit Butler as the symbolic leader of the planned coup. Some members of the ruling class opposed Butler and sought to recruit MacArthur as a more reliable “leader.” Butler exposed the effort to recruit him in the press and condemned the fascist efforts. A congressional committee was convened to investigate and after a perfunctory set of hearings, tried to cover-up the entire plot with little investigation.

Butler knew Benito Mussolini personally and had a deep dislike for him and for Hitler—viewing both leaders and all forms of fascism as a threat to democracy. After he had exposed the coup plotters and was ignored, he realized that the real gangsters and criminals were the ruling class in the various advanced countries. He started to speak out against war and imperialism.

In 1935, Butler completed his journey from a gangster of capitalism to antiwar activist with the publication of his pamphlet “War is a Racket.” Based on his speeches to veteran groups and the general public, this 18-page pamphlet is now considered a classic and can and should be read by all antiwar activists. Here is what Butler wrote in the first two paragraphs: “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 is 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 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.”

Katz’s narrative moves back and forth from Butler and his times to present-day America and the many places Butler invaded, making this an interesting book that should be read by socialists and antiwar activists. But Katz also shows a great deal of sympathy for Butler as a heroic and tragic figure, downplaying the fact that Butler was also a monster and primary builder of the U.S. imperialist empire. Butler has so much blood on his hands that no amount of antiwar or anti-imperialist activity can wash it away.

Another criticism I have with the book is that the title is misleading: the book is certainly about the making of the “American Empire,” but it is not about its breaking. The empire is still strong and dangerous. It will be up to the international struggle of people in the United States and the people oppressed by U.S. imperialism to break the empire.

One comment

  1. Thanks for this article. I just finished re-reading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. This article fills in much information that enlarges on one of Zinn’s themes. This is how the United States government has always been a brutal and repressive regime. These facts are important in demystifying the nonsense we are exposed to every day.

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