War is a Racket - Smedley Butler

Appendix I: How a Military Hero
Blew the Whistle on War Profiteers.

by Adam Parfrey

The U.S. government thanked the efforts of World War I soldiers with a "war bonus" of approximately $1,000 to be paid late as 1945. But as Great Depression and the Dust Bowl misery touched the continental states, unemployed veterans desired to have their bonus paid sooner. In May 1932 out-of-work vets arrived in Washington D.C. to impress their bonus pleas to Congress. A pro-bonus bill sponsored by Wright Patman was threatened veto by President Hoover and overturned House passage by a Republican Senate. As tens of thousands of Hooverville-occupying vets demonstrated their discontent in a "death march," Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur moved in on the veterans with a fresher contingent of the U.S. Army. Two died, including an infant, and hundreds of veterans were injured, in MacArthur's successful attempt to "gain control" of D.C.

The Bonus Marchers' primary upper-ranked supporter? Smedley D. Butler, the Brigadier General who was twice awarded the Medal of Honor and once the so-called "Brevet medal," when the Medal of Honor was not given officers. Known for his fair play to soldiers regardless of rank, Butler's support of the "Bonus Marchers" helped boost the desperate foot-soldiers' movement. The Brigadier General's disparaging of the mass media and "big business" was particularly popular in the Depression. But those same big business interests, buoyed by the ability of Italian Fascist "Corporatism" to turn back labor demands in the restructuring of its economy, took special note of Butler's support from a half-million veterans, which would have made an intimidating force against FDR and his hated New Deal, and his elimination of the gold standard. But as far as Smedley Butler was concerned, "I believe in making Wall Street pay for it [the bonuses]—taking Wall Street by the throat and shaking it up."

As a Marine officer, Butler oversaw American forays into China, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti, and this is where he picked up his frequently expressed opinion that he was no more than a bully boy for American corporations. Butler's skepticism about the U.S. government may have been partly the result of his Quaker background. During the Prohibition, Butler was made Police Chief of the mob-plagued city of Philadelphia in 1924 and 1925 where in a non-war interlude he effectively moved against open saloons, bars and speakeasies. Mass magazines, like the early diet and fitness periodical Strength (March 1924 issue), featured Butler's military-type run against the Philly "gangsters."

General Butler's Iron Grip

"Courage is Strength, Ditto Unswerving Purpose—That is Why Philadelphia's Crooks and Bootleggers Flee From the Mailed Fist of "Old Hell's Devil Butler". You've read much, perhaps, of the great heroes of fiction. Perhaps they were not all great heroes. Some of them may have been just ordinary leading characters, knights errant, adventurers, soldiers of fortune. Probably you've admired them, thrilled to their deeds, longed to emulate them, and possibly got just a wee bit tired of them all with their calm, piercing and various other kinds of eyes, their tremendous energy and all that sort of thing.

"How would you like to meet one of them? A lot of Philadelphians have just had that opportunity, and a great many of them didn't care for it one bit. Of course, you know we are referring to Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler of the United States Marine Corps, who has just recently been appointed Director of the Department of Public Safety in the Quaker City.

—T. Von Ziekursch, Strength Magazine, March 1924

In a 1931 speech, Butler recounted a story about Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, how he had run over a child with his car, and said, as he moved on, "It was only one life. What is one life in the affairs of the State." This remark caused a great commotion among U.S. authorities after Mussolini strongly denied the episode, and Butler was quickly placed under arrest and ordered court-martialed by President Hoover. Pre-World War II worship of Italian Fascism in America can be seen in the July 1934 issue of Fortune magazine, which celebrated the Italian corporatist state. Due to hostile public reaction, the court-martial against Butler was dropped entirely. The Brigadier General soon after announced his retirement in the Liberty magazine article, "To Hell with the Admirals! Why I Retired at Fifty."

When he no longer wished to be known as a "racketeer for capitalism," Butler became a widely-quoted spokesman for constitutional American principles over imperialist American practice. Lowell Thomas, the journalist famous for referring to the British liaison to the Arab revolt of World War I as "Lawrence of Arabia," took on "The Adventures of Smedley D. Butler" in his 1933 book Old Gimlet Eye, complete with endpaper illustrations of Smedley putting down revolting, barefoot sword-wielding Haitians with pistol and rifle.

But referring to Butler as "anti-war" is not entirely accurate, as he saw himself as a crusader against war profiteers, and an isolationist in foreign policy, rather than a pacifist. He favored a defensive and accountable military, and suggested that the U.S. "build an ironclad defense a rat couldn't crawl through."

Since his retirement from active service, Butler mainly invoked against capitalist greed:

"I helped make Mexico, 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 benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested."

Strangely enough, Reader's Digest saw fit to condense "War Is a Racket" as a book supplement. Lowell Thomas says in his introduction to the Reader's Digest version:

"Even his opponents concede that in his stand on public questions, General Butler has been motivated by the same fiery integrity and loyal patriotism which has distinguished his service in countless Marine campaigns."

General Butler was active during the 1930's working to convince Americans to oppose foreign wars and not allow the country to be dragged into any further conflicts in Europe or Latin America. He wrote "War is a Racket" in 1935 and would undoubtedly have opposed American entry into World War II, but unfortunately he died of unknown causes in 1940, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities.