Forgotten Hero, Forgotten Veteran, True Patriot

Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, U.S.M.C.

Memorial Day is a time to remember and appreciate Americans who have served, and are serving; who have taken an oath to defend our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and to defend our lives, liberties and property against all enemies, foreign and domestic; and who, despite recurring stupidity, duplicity and criminal acts by political leaders who have used our military forces for self-serving purposes, believe in duty, honor and freedom.

Yet few Americans have heard of a remarkable veteran, a man of integrity named Smedley Butler (1881-1940). He, like George Washington, spoke out against foreign meddling and armed intervention into the affairs of sovereign nations. Throughout his life, Butler demonstrated that true patriotism does not mean blind allegiance to politicians and government policies which do not conform to Constitutional principles.

Butler was born in Pennsylvania and raised as a Quaker. Small in stature, he tried to enlist at age 16 with the outbreak of the Spanish American War (1898). He was turned down because of his age, but got an appointment as a Navy Apprentice, passed a prospective officers exam, then fibbing about his age, was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Described as “short, skinny and stoop-shouldered”, the teenager was shipped off to Cuba. Later, as a 1st Lieutenant, he saw combat in the Philippines, and then, in 1900 found himself in China fighting the “Boxers”. Caught in an ambush, he and his Marines had to pull back. But when he became aware a wounded man had been left behind, he and five men fought their way back, rescued the man and carried him 18 miles through hostile country to a hospital. The four enlisted men were awarded the Medal of Honor. Butler and a fellow officer were promoted to Captain, since officers were not then eligible for the MOH.

In fighting at Tientsin, he was shot in the leg while carrying a man to safety. Sick with Typhoid Fever, a leg wound and an abscessed tooth, he again demonstrated his grit under fire by dragging a British soldier back to a safe position. Due to regulations, he had to refuse a medal from the British Army. Butler was not yet 20 years old.

With Smedley Butler, his men came first. As a result, he had several run-ins with Navy brass. In 1905, in Subic Bay, he and his men were working on gun emplacements and ran out of supplies. When the daily supply ship continued to pass them by, he and several Marines took a native boat to the supply depot during a fierce storm, commandeered a tugboat, loaded it with supplies and headed back to their base, again during a violent storm. The Navy brass were furious and sent him home because of a “nervous breakdown”.

By 1908, he was promoted to Major. During 1909, as Commander of the 3rd Marine Battalion, he was sent to protect the construction of the Panama Canal from revolutionaries. During the next several years, he served in Nicaragua as well as Panama. After the Canal was completed, he and the Marines landed at Vera Cruz, Mexico to protect American interests and citizens, there winning the Medal of Honor for bravery under fire. Butler refused to accept the medal, saying he was simply doing his job as any Marine would have done, but was later ordered to accept the medal and did so.

In 1915, President Wilson sent the Marines into Haiti “to counter foreign intervention”. The rebels held an “impregnable” fortress named Fort Riviere. Butler led an attack with 100 Marines. He was the third man into the fortress and, engaging in violent hand-to-hand combat, he and the two other Marines fought off rebels until help arrived. The fortress was taken in an afternoon. Smedley Butler was awarded a second Medal of Honor.

Butler's character was described as “colorful”, but the word is inadequate in describing his personal courage, his personal integrity and the character which inspired the loyalty of the men who served under him. After retiring from the Marines in 1931, he was an opponent of fascism and war, serving as a spokesman for the communist-influenced League Against War and Fascism. But when the League did an about face and supported intervention in the Spanish Civil War, Butler held fast to his principled stand against intervention in the affairs of other nations. “What the hell is it our business what's going on in Spain?”

In 1934, General Butler exposed an amazing (and almost forgotten) plot to overthrow President Roosevelt. Because Butler was a hero, because of his military skills and because he was a powerful symbol, highly regarded by soldiers and veterans, he was approached by a man named MacGuire who claimed to represent powerful Wall Street interests who wanted Butler to lead an army of 500,000 veterans on Washington, D.C. in what was to be a military coup. At the time, there was a great deal of controversy and political intrigue surrounding the allegations of a plot. The world was being pulled apart by forces of fascism and communism. America was in the Great Depression, buffeted by conflicting political ideologies here at home. Yet Butler would have nothing to do with such a scheme and testified before Congress that he told MacGuire, “If you get these 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I'm going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have a real war right at home.”

It's difficult to categorize Smedley Butler. He was a maverick, an enigma, a hero, a populist, a man who did not favor bloodshed and a man who despised those in high places who used war to gain personal power and wealth. The two-time Medal of Honor winner believed in the founding principles of the American Republic; that our military should be used strictly for defending our borders; and he acted on those principles. He deserves to be remembered and honored as a veteran and for his service to America as a patriot.

Capture of Fort
Capture of Fort Riviere, Haiti, 1915, by D. J. Neary; illustrations of Major Smedley Butler, Sgt. Iams, and Pvt. Gross (USMC art collection)

The following is excerpted from a speech he delivered in 1933. With a very few changes to names and places, Major General Butler's words could have been written yesterday. His words apply to today's “leaders” and circumstances. They're worth reading carefully:

War is just a racket. 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 masses. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

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.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

But the soldier pays the biggest part of the bill.

Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This was the “war to end all wars.” This was the “war to make the world safe for democracy.” No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits. No one told these American soldiers that they might be shot down by bullets made by their own brothers here. No one told them that the ships on which they were going to cross might be torpedoed by submarines built with United States patents. They were just told it was to be a “glorious adventure.”

Thus, having stuffed patriotism down their throats, it was decided to make them help pay for the war, too. So, we gave them the large salary of $30 a month

If you don't believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit any of the veteran's hospitals in the United States.

Until 1898 we didn't own a bit of territory outside the mainland of North America. At that time our national debt was a little more than $1,000,000,000. Then we became “internationally minded.” We forgot, or shunted aside, the advice of the Father of our country. We forgot George Washington's warning about “entangling alliances.” We went to war. We acquired outside territory. At the end of the World War period, as a direct result of our fiddling in international affairs, our national debt had jumped to over $25,000,000,000.

I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

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 me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, 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.

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. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

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 (where have I heard that name before?). 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.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that 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.