General Smedley Butler
By John Spivak
With the [MacCormack Dickstein] Committee having enough credence in the now-common rumors to take the General's testimony, I kept asking myself why Butler had been selected to head the putsch. What was there about him that made him the choice?
I knew that in 1924-25, Philadelphia, then the third largest city in the country, had borrowed Butler from the Marine Corps because of his reputation for honesty and integrity. Philadelphia was then reputed to be one of the most corrupt municipalities in the land. Political machines controlled its life, and, as in most communities with such problems, the people were apathetic. When crime and graft mounted and corruption became a political issue, the city fathers, either for public relations reasons or in an earnest desire to get an incorruptible man, tapped Butler to serve as their Director of Public Safety. The General did not last long in this job, however; the machine was too big and too well rooted.
I knew, too, that Butler's prestige among American servicemen
was greater than that of any living military leader except perhaps
General John J. Pershing. The more I dug into the Marine's past,
the more I was convinced that the conspirators were incredibly
incompetent in picking him. In many ways the General was an extraordinary
man. He was a Quaker who made war his career. He was one of the
few men in American history to be twice awarded the Congressional
Medal of Honor, and he held sixteen other decorations from a grateful
nation. His ancestors were pacifists who operated an underground
station to help runaway slaves, and during the Civil War, when
Confederate soldiers approached Gettysburg, his grandfathers on
both sides of the family took up muskets.
Butler was sixteen when the battleship Maine was sunk. Despite his parents' disapproval, he enlisted in the Marines and, without ever attending an officers' training school, went from private to commanding officer. He was known for his strictness and toughness but, equally well, for never ordering his men to do anything he would not do himself. Those who served under him told how in the heat of battle he went out personally to bring in wounded Marines, and how when he happened by and saw his men unloading railroad cars he pitched in with a helping hand. As a result his men gave him extraordinary devotion. When he retired he did a good deal of public speaking, especially to veterans' groups. He delighted in calling his listeners "dumb, stupid soldiers." His audiences would grin and nod in agreement; from him they were willing to take almost anything, because they sensed that behind the gruffness was a genuine affection and concern for their welfare. He believed the American soldier's job was to defend the United States and its democratic system of government-not to give up his life on alien soil to protect American foreign investments. As a Marine he had fought wherever his superiors ordered and had come to the conclusion that "war is a racket." Labor's Untold Story quotes him as writing, after he retired:
I spent 33 years [in the Marines] and during that period I
spent most of my time being a high class muscle man for Big Business,
for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer 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 to collect revenues
in. 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. 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 its way
Source: Excerpts from a chapter of A Man in His Time,
"The Plot To Seize Washington."