Smedley Butler Helped Build American Empire. Then He Turned Against It.

Smedley Butler was born to privilege and power, becoming a powerful general in the most powerful military in the world. But he realized he was playing a key role in an evil system, US imperialism — and used his privilege and power to speak out against it.

Major General John A. Lejeune, head of the Marine Corps, calls on General Smedley Butler in camp at Frederick, Maryland in 1922. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Born into a family of congressmen and millionaires in 1881, Smedley Butler was destined to succeed in the career of his choice while promoting the interests of his class. And that’s what he did, at first.

After matriculating in elite schools, Butler enlisted in the Marines as a second lieutenant at the age of seventeen. The trajectory of his life as a soldier traced the arc of US imperial expansion in the early twentieth century, from Cuba to the Philippines to Nicaragua to Haiti to Shanghai, with many stops in between. Along the way, he attained a kind of public glory few soldiers even dream of. Butler was the youngest major general in Marine Corps history, and at the time of his death, he was the most decorated Marine who had ever lived.

But accolades were not enough to ease his troubled conscience. As the fearsome roar of the early century faded into the unease of the Great Depression, Butler exchanged his military garb for a civilian suit and jacket, leaving the Marine Corps behind to pursue a new vocation as the most prominent antiwar orator in America.

Turning his back on the defense establishment, Butler forcefully rejected not only the military command hierarchy but also the entire project of US warmaking. In the process, he became an avatar of the rumbling discontent that gripped the country in those years, as hundreds of thousands of aggrieved war veterans demanded relief from an intransigent government and, in doing so, ended up challenging the legitimacy of the American political system.

The social atmosphere of the interwar period was so primed for a figure like Butler that his transformation from celebrity soldier to antiwar firebrand took only a few years. Having previously taken an extended leave from military service to supervise Philadelphia’s police department during prohibition, Butler finally left the Marines for good in 1931. He soon began touring veterans’ halls and fairgrounds, speaking to crowds of thousands, and by the end of 1932, he was nationally recognized as one of the most charismatic and uncompromising tribunes of the ascendent veterans’ movement.

Crisscrossing the country, Butler denounced US warmaking abroad and ruling-class violence at home as two sides of the same bloody coin, telling audiences from Racine to Roanoke that America was divided into “two classes”:

On one side, a class of citizens who were raised to believe that the whole of this country was created for their sole benefit, and on the other side, the other 99 percent of us, the soldier class, the class from which all of you soldiers came.

Butler published a short book, War Is a Racket, collecting the key themes of his orations in 1935. Later, in an essay in the socialist magazine Common Sense, Butler confessed to having been a “racketeer for capitalism,” elaborating that, as “a member of our country’s most agile military force,” he had served as “a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers.” In 1936, Marine Corps informants sent to spy on the ex-general observed him speaking on a panel alongside self-identified Communists and reported that “the General appeared to us to be either insane or an out and out traitor.”

Smedley D. Butler. (Library of Congress)

After his death in 1940 at the age of fifty-eight, Butler faded into semi-obscurity. Those in a position to memorialize him were often people he would have probably rather forgotten: he is name-checked in the anthem sung by Marine recruits, and the only public monument to him, a plaque in Philadelphia’s city hall, was erected by his onetime allies in the temperance movement. And in the twenty-first century, as putschism becomes an increasingly salient concern in US political discourse, Butler is recalled by many as the man who foiled the “Business Plot,” a conspiracy of financiers who solicited the ex-soldier, at the height of his popularity, to be the figurehead of a fascist coup against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Butler turned them in to the House Un-American Activities Committee; the plotters faced no consequences, and Butler was widely ridiculed in the press.)

In each of these versions of himself, Butler appears as a caricature: the swashbuckling jarhead; the bullheaded cop; the naive, if ultimately honorable, contrarian who narrowly avoided a brush with American fascism. Each of these caricatures, while containing kernels of truth, obscures the full significance of Butler’s life and times. Butler was a man who, as journalist Jonathan M. Katz writes in a new biography, “made a life in the overlapping seams of capital and empire,” and so embodied the story of American expansion more than any other national figure.

Katz’s Gangsters of Capitalism refuses to separate Butler from the US-dominated world order he participated in creating — and which, in the end, also created him. “His contradictions are America’s,” Katz writes of Butler. “He died without ever fully reconciling his deepest contradictions, leaving them to scatter kaleidoscopically across the edges of communal memory: the decorated hero, the conspiracy whistleblower, the mechan [evil] imperialist, the rogue critic.”

Drawing on an archive of letters and personal writings, as well as conversations with Butler’s living granddaughter, Gangsters of Capitalism uncovers the ex-Marine’s hidden moments of personal reckoning while turning an unsentimental eye on the real evils he committed during his time as a blunt instrument of US domination. But Katz is a reporter, not a historian — his first book, The Big Truck That Went By, is a stunning account of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and its aftermath, which he first covered for the Associated Press — and so he doesn’t limit his sources to old letters.

Instead, Katz reconstructs the pathways Butler trod over the course of his peripatetic life, visiting frustrated revolutionaries in Nicaragua, resistance reenactors in the Philippines, modern-day celebrants of the Boxer movement in China, and many others as he grapples with Butler’s role in establishing, through cruelty and might, the unequal and frequently violent world we still live in today.

The World the Marines Made

Like Butler himself, Katz’s book is singular and hard to pin down. The book’s table of contents traces the trajectory of Butler’s life like thumbtacks on a world map. Each chapter bears the name of a place where Butler or his Marines expeditioned — Guantanamo; Samar; the Canal Zone; Port-au-Prince — and its front matter also contains a two-page map of the entire globe, with each country that suffered Marine intervention during Butler’s lifetime shaded a foreboding gray.

Every chapter contains a collage of stories separated in time by as much as a century, as Katz oscillates between Butler’s exploits and his own account of their afterlives. This folding and bending of time creates a whiplash effect that generates its own kind of narrative momentum, and Gangsters of Capitalism quickly picks up steam to become an exhilarating hybrid of studious history and adventuresome travelogue. As a result, it contains within its 350 pages a much more ambitious set of arguments than military biographies can typically accommodate.

Katz frames his book as a corrective to the whitewashed story of US hegemony. The narrative that predominates today, not only in the pages of books written for history buffs but also in the common sense of an entire nation, is that “the global dominance of US capital and the unparalleled reach of the US military had been coincidences, or fate,” he writes. But in reality, the establishment of that dominance was a cruel and hubristic enterprise, a campaign “at once more sweeping and smaller than one might expect,” and one that was premised on “the subversion of democracy by force.”

Following anti-colonial critics like Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, Katz points out the recursive nature of the United States’ subversive militarism. He identifies in Butler a dawning recognition that the antidemocratic violence inflicted abroad would, eventually, be visited upon those who demanded a more just society at home — including war veterans themselves.

The linkage between US military might and the worldwide ubiquity of US commercial and cultural products is a motif of the book. Boarding a fishing boat in the Philippines, for example, Katz observes “the detritus of the global economy” floating in the water around him: “Downy fabric softener packages and Nestlé candy wrappers,” Gatorade bottles that local fisherman use as markers for their traps. The hegemon’s influence is obvious everywhere, even in the litter that bobs in the foam of a remote maritime channel thousands of miles from the seat of political and economic power in Washington.

Despite the ubiquity of American influence, the US imperial project has been startlingly successful at obscuring its own operations, even as its territories and spheres of influence steadily grow. After generations of westward expansion in North America, in 1898, the emergent empire turned to Spanish colonial holdings in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, “liberating” them from Spain, only to impose its own form of malignant control immediately afterward.

The historian William Appleman Williams — whose influence hangs over every page of Gangsters of Capitalism, as it does over other recent books, like Daniel Immerwahr’s How To Hide an Empire and Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth — famously characterized the militarist contradiction at the heart of US society as “the tragedy of American diplomacy.” Even as American popular culture celebrated self-determination as its highest political value, the US security state could never tolerate the revolutionary changes true decolonization demanded.

Thousands of enlisted soldiers like Butler believed themselves to be “the vanguard of an international crusade” against tyranny, in Katz’s words, even as they systematically annihilated liberation movements around the globe. The United States’ self-defeating drive to remake the world in its own image through force persisted well beyond the Spanish-American war, of course, motivating a whole century of unilateral military interventions and inaugurating a multigenerational pattern of overseas “forever wars” that, even today, show few signs of slowing down.

Graves of Marines killed in battle at Guantanamo, 1898. (Library of Congress)

The so-called American century was not the “natural” outcome of “a galaxy of individual choices, freely made by a planet hungry for an endless supply of Marvel superheroes and the perfect salty crunch of McDonald’s fries,” Katz writes. It was maintained through aggression and atrocity. The guarantors of American prosperity were (and are) people like the young Smedley Butler — idealistic in some ways, cynical in others, but always armed with the best weapons money could buy and forever willing to inflict catastrophic violence in any country but their own.

What Butler intuited in the final years of his life, and what Katz illustrates beyond a shadow of a doubt in Gangers of Capitalism, is that eventually, inevitably, every war comes home.

The People’s Turncoat

At no point in his life could Butler credibly claim to be a member of the ordinary class of Americans he celebrated from behind the podium. His membership in Philadelphia’s upper crust was inscribed in his very name, Smedley Darlington Butler — Darlington for his mother’s family, one of the wealthiest on the Main Line, and Butler for his father’s, which contained no fewer than two long-serving and prominent congressmen.

The family was more than capable of advancing their son’s professional status and preserving his public reputation. Still, Katz suggests that toward the end of his life “Butler may have suspected a deeper truth” about his privilege than others of his station were willing to acknowledge. Placing the reader inside Butler’s head as he addresses an audience of University of California students in 1939, Katz speculates that the ex-Marine saw “the students’ comfortable cheap cotton clothes, the Packards and Fords lined up outside on College Avenue, the bananas and breakfast cereals in their bellies” and knew that they “owed everything to his sacrifices and his crimes — what he and his Marines had done to millions of others . . . in jungles and drought-stricken fields thousands of miles away.”

Students at the University of California at Berkeley filing in to listen to Smedley Butler’s Peace Day address in 1939. (Library of Congress)

On the eve of World War II, Butler was also beginning to understand that his country, drunk on its own wine, had fought itself blindly into a terrible trap. To preserve the privilege they inherited but did not earn, the new generation of Americans he saw before him on that sun-dappled California quad would now have to face down the rival powers that threatened to wrest the United States’ hidden empire away. The overseas wars Butler and his collaborators had initiated decades prior simply refused to end.

Despite the silver spoon he was born with, Butler displayed an obvious affinity for rank-and-file soldiers throughout his career as an officer, violating military protocols in service of their needs on a semiregular basis. And when his military term was over, Butler eschewed the approval of other elites and instead advocated a movement of the poor against the cartel of state and business interests that maintained their destitution.

A key turning point for Butler came in the form of the Bonus Army movement of the early 1930s, when desperate veterans, many of them maimed by wartime injuries, demanded the payment of a service bonus they had been promised following World War I. In 1932, hundreds of thousands of these aggrieved veterans converged on Washington in what they called, in a nod to the imperial adventures of Butler’s generation, the Bonus Expeditionary Force. They established a tent city just paces from the US Capitol, which Butler visited shortly after his departure from the Marines.

“Nobody can kick me anymore. I’ll say what I please,” he said to the assembled veterans. “Who in the hell has done all the bleeding for this country, and for this law, and this Constitution anyhow, but you fellas?” he roared, his hair mussed and his “arms flying dramatically in the air,” in Katz’s telling.

The Bonus Expeditionary Force was “a clarifying moment” for Butler — and also for the military command hierarchy and its civilian handlers. General Douglas MacArthur, still a few years removed from the European battlefields that would cement his place in history, led a detachment of active-duty soldiers in driving the bonus marchers from their encampment, even unleashing chemical armaments on the fleeing crowds. It was his outrage over this “Battle of Washington” that caused Butler to solidify an idea “he’d been mulling since Nicaragua,” according to Katz: “that America’s wars were started by capitalists at the expense of the soldiers sent to fight them.”

Now, the ex-general could no longer ignore what he himself had insinuated during his brutal tenure as Philadelphia’s police commissioner, when he told his cops that “a policeman who shoots a bandit” was like a “soldier . . . firing at his enemies.” The spectacle of veterans fleeing active-duty bayonets through the streets of the American capital confirmed what Butler had long ago begun to suspect: the wars were coming home.

Smedley Butler leans in to speak to Senator Homer T. Bone, member of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. Butler spoke before the committee in 1938 in opposition to a major naval expansion bill. (Library of Congress)

Gangsters of Capitalism is a book about the profundity of historical connection, the strands, both hidden and obvious, that bind all things to precursors of themselves. And so Butler’s experience of recursive and cyclical warmaking in the 1900s to 1920s can’t help but bring to mind the more recent historical experience of the “war on terror.”

On an early visit to Guantanamo, Butler’s first destination as an active Marine, Katz is denied access to anything related to the extrajudicial prison located there. Later, standing in a cell used by Nicaragua’s Guardia Nacional, a paramilitary police force the Marines helped establish, the author recalls the infamous photographs of caged and hooded men on the United States’ Cuban base. And in the book’s memorable final scene, Katz finds himself standing at Butler’s grave with a veteran of his own generation’s forever wars, an airman preparing for a second deployment to Iraq. Though he’s driven sixty miles to visit the gravestone, the airman won’t call Smedley Butler a hero, because he doesn’t think the ex-general would describe himself that way.

Gangsters of Capitalism doesn’t try to make Butler heroic — far from it. Nor does it castigate him entirely. Butler was a player in a historical process much larger than himself, one that ensnared millions of lives and distorted any common vision of a global future beyond the constraints of US hegemony. It took him a lifetime to strip off the blinders, but by the time he understood what he was doing, Butler rebelled with all his might against the institutions that led him to his terrible vocation. This spelled the end of any political aspirations he may have harbored; it certainly cut him off from the family tradition of serving in Congress.

American elites, then and now, are loath to acknowledge the consequences of their own errors, and they don’t take kindly to being reminded. Even eighty years since Butler’s death, with Pax Americana irreparably fractured and the US security state increasingly crushed under the weight of its military commitments, elites still refuse to acknowledge the untenable future they are hurtling toward — and from which Butler attempted to save them (and everyone else).

History can never absolve the young Smedley Butler for the atrocities he committed while serving as the tip of his country’s spear. But history has surely vindicated the older Smedley Butler, the man who threw himself against the wheel of American militarism even though he knew he was powerless to stop its churning.