General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History
(Excerpts dealing with some of his radical, post-retirement activities)
By Hans Schmidt
After the Mussolini affair Butler announced his retirement and set out on a lecture tour, with half his earnings committed to Philadelphia unemployment relief.
[Press for Conversion! Editor's Note: The "Mussolini affair" refers to an incident when during a speech on January 19, 1931, General Butler recounted a story told to him by journalist Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt had been in a car with Benito Mussolini when they ran over and killed a young boy who was crossing the street. Mussolini told the driver to continue driving and that the boy's life was insignificant. Mussolini and his government were at the time being widely praised by all of the mainstream U.S. media, and the American elite generally. They considered Mussolini's Italy to be a great model which the the U.S. should follow. They particularly admired his efforts to crush labour unions and communism. When General Butler denounced Mussolini for this hit-and-run incident, the U.S. Army began courtmarshall proceedings against Butler. F.D. Roosevelt (who would later become President) was among those who came to Butler's defence. The court-marshall charges against Butler were were eventually dropped.]
He [Butler] fired a parting shot in an article entitled "To Hell With the Admirals! Why I Retired at Fifty," published in Liberty magazine (Dec.5, 1931). He specified to [ghost writer] E.Z. Dimitman, that he intended to "do a little swatting of some heads of some low-down-bums who tried to ruin my life for me."
In retirement, he mainly avoided Marine Corps politics, and as a public figure dwelt upon larger issues of crime, gangsterism, imperialism, war and peace.
He had started letting loose before retirement. In August 1931, according to Jules Archer, he used the "racketeer for capitalism" epigram that appeared variously in his speeches and writings thereafter. Most frequently cited was the 1935 Common Sense article:
"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 boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purifly Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested... . Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents."
In January 1932, Nation reported him characterizing the U.S. military as "a glorified bill-collecting agency" and saying he "wouldn't want to see a boy of mine march out with a Wall Street collar about his neck."
Butler made the analogy between imperialism and domestic crime into an explicit indictment. His argument was rooted in conventional morality that had long sustained overseas and domestic coercion in the names of uplift and reform. When used to conquer injustice and backwardness and to spread the American way of life, the use of force was good. Conversely, force used for evil was all the more hateful when tainted with deceit and hypocrisy. Current popular fascination with gangsterism-the dozens of Hollywood gangster films each year-provided convenient jargon which Smedley used to drive home a conviction that had evolved out of a lifetime of military and police experience.
He had been inveighing against gangster-political manipulations since at least 1912, when he was outraged in Nicaragua by predatory client-government officials, the "gang," being allowed to subvert his own "honest" administration in Granada. Now his renunciation of war as a racket and imperialism as gangsterism matched exactly his invective against Capone. Crime fighting at home was sustained by ideals of uplift and fair play-the same as official rationales for intervention overseas. Abuse of the military for corrupt purposes overseas was equivalent to police corruption at home. The logic was inescapable once one had dispensed with the patriotic symbols, pious rhetoric and specious legalism that had wafted a long succession of overseas military expeditions.
His anti-imperialist, anticapitalist rhetoric was offset neatly by vigorous support for domestic law and order. Likewise, his antiwar theme was complemented by unflinchingly militaristic support for national defense. He was always the patriot and battling marine, never the sniveling pacifist or convoluted ideologue. The marriage of extreme left-and right-wing themes enhanced his warrior method of attack.
Butler was careful not to commit himself to the many partisan organizations he encountered as an orator and propagandist. He maintained a degree of credibility across the political spectrum and published his radical views in such diverse forums as Woman's Home Companion, Reader's Digest, Common Sense and New Masses. Even when toleration for dissent narrowed with the coming of war in the late 1930s, he remained a popular spokesman on the veterans' circuit.
Butler wrote five articles for non-Marxist, socialist Common Sense magazine in 1935-36. Butler became a prominent spokesman for the League Against War and Fascism, which was considered by many to be Communist dominated.
Following [John] Spivak's 1935 "Wall Street Fascist Conspiracy" articles, New Masses published "Where Smedley Butler Stands." The author, Walter Wilson, recalled attending a left-wing veterans' meeting in New York where Smedley spoke after James Ford, a black veterans' leader and Communist Party vice presidential candidate. Butler said New York newspapers had tried to stop him coming: "They told me I'd find a nest of communists here. I told them 'What the hell of it!' In 1917 the government went around drafting boys into the army; they didn't ask then what a man's politics were; they merely asked if he had a sound body and a strong back."
Noting that many of Butler's statements had been vague so that "a lot of people mistakenly considered him a demagogue in the Long or Coughlin class," Wilson tried to pin him down. Smedley replied with his current views. Big Business and Wall Street were the enemies, bent upon "the same tricks used by European dictators to keep capitalism on the top of the economic heap." Workers had an absolute right to strike, and calling them Bolsheviks was just a pretext for repression. Company unions were "a racket." He endorsed the American Federation of Labor but was critical of its leadership: "Why, I'm more radical than most of them." For political affinities, he named Congressmen Maury Maverick and Vito Marcantonio, and Senator Ernest Lundeen, all on the far left of the congressional spectrum. While conceding undemocratic aspects and need for reform, he firmly believed in American democracy. On a personal level, he said he had now given over 1,200 speeches in 700 towns and cities. He needed the money, but recently declined a personnel manager job with a large corporation because "of course that simply meant keeping the workers fooled." Driving Wilson to the station after the interview Smedley pointed out the homes of his affluent neighbors, and Wilson gathered that many old associates were now hostile. "He told me that even certain relatives had lined up against him. It would seem that he has broken irrevocably with the upper classes."
Butler was indeed moving in different circles from those usually habituated by retired generals mellowing in pensioned comfort. The left-wing veterans' meeting, for instance, took place at the Star Casino on 107th Street in East Harlem and featured Communist Party General Secretary Earl Browder and Congressman Marcantonio as well as Butler, Ford, and radical veterans' leaders. Smedley taunted the vets for supporting FDR:
"When he runs again in 1936, you soldiers will be out there voting for him again, too." There was a loud chorus of noes. A year later he joined Senators Gerald P. Nye and Elmer A. Benson, Professor Robert Morss Lovett, and Clarence Darrow in the Non-Partisan Committee for the Re-Election of Representative Vito Marcantonio; Joseph Brodsky, attorney for the Communist Party, presided at the public announcement.
In a series of 1935 radio speeches over Philadelphia's WCAU, a Columbia network affiliate with national shortwave reach, Butler supported the current Camden shipyard strike and the Connery bill banning use of federal equipment by the National Guard against strikers. It was a year marked by vicious antilabor violence. One of the speeches was on the theme "a life is worth less than a pane of glass": "Some thug hired by the mills slams a blackjack across the head of a striker. And someone hurls a rock. Maybe it breaks a 6-cent pane of glass in the factory and maybe it doesn't. The hired thugs or the police-or maybe the national guard-whoever is there to guard the property-gets excited and starts shooting. And a striker or an innocent victim, maybe a woman or a child, gets shot." The thirteen quarter-hour weekly broadcasts, sponsored by Pep Boys automotive stores, were drafted by Dimitman and then read over the air, an awkward regimen for Smedley, who much preferred ad-libbing in his public lecture style. He complained to another journalist, "I don't like this broadcasting. It irritates me and is rapidly destroying my digestion."
[Press for Conversion! Editor's Note: As a reporter for the Philadelphia Public Ledger in the 1920s, E.Z. Dimitman covered Butler's efforts to enforce Prohibition. At that time, Butler was on loan from the Marines to the Philadelphia police force where he filled the role of Director of Public Safety. In 1926, Dimitman accompanied Butler on a 26-day cruise from Brooklyn to San Diego. The thirty-part series that resulted, called "Smashing Crime and Vice," ran in a hundred newspapers. Butler donated his half of the revenue to a fund for prosecuting politicians who interfered with the Philadelphia police force.]
His major collaboration with Dimitman was the 1935 book War Is a Racket (52 pages). It was condensed in Reader's Digest as a book supplement, prefaced by Lowell Thomas commending Smedley's "moral as well as physical courage . ... 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."59
War Is a Racket was an expansion of an earlier magazine article. Dimitman said he dictated the draft manuscript to his wife in a single night. Briskly written, it began with the catch phrase, "War is a racket," and ended with "TO HELL WITH WAR!" War and imperialism were functions of capitalists' greed: "Newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few-the self-same few who wrung dollars out of the blood of war." America had respected Washington's (actually Thomas Jefferson's) warning against "entangling alliances" before 1898, but had become "internationally minded" thereafter: "It would have been far cheaper (not to say safer) for the average American who pays the bills to stay out of foreign entanglements. For a very few this racket, like bootlegging and other underworld rackets, brings fancy profits, but the cost of operation is always transferred to the people-who do not profit."60
Chapters entitled "Who Makes the Profits?" and "Who Pays the Bills" cited data culled from Senate hearings on profiteering during the World War. The victims were taxpayers and a generation of young men whose minds were twisted through psychological manipulation-about which Smedley the charismatic commander could have claimed to be an authority:
"They were made to 'about face'; to regard murder as the order of the day.. . . We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think nothing at all of killing or being killed." Many were "destroyed, mentally, because they could not make the final 'about face"' back to civilian life. Men were made to feel ashamed if they shunned military service. War propaganda was "so vicious that even God was brought into it." Clergymen, avowing that "God is on our side," incited the soldiers to "kill, kill, kill." Making the "world safe for democracy," "war to end wars" and other "beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die." They were told it would be a "glorious adventure." And they were paid $30 a month, less deductions for Liberty Bonds which were later sold at discount contributing to bankers profits "in the hocus-pocus of manipulated Liberty Bond prices."61
In the chapter "How to Smash this Racket!" he urged an assault upon capitalist warmongers and their political allies. Capital, industry, and labor should be conscripted a month before any general manpower draft in wartime, to serve for $30. Everyone must "be restricted to a total monthly income not to exceed that paid to the soldier in the trenches!" After thinking it over, the warmongers would change their minds. A law should be passed requiring a plebiscite before declaration of war, with voting lists restricted to young men of military age who had qualified for the draft.
There must be laws restricting the military to defensive functions. Lobbying by militarists must be thwarted. "Swivel-chair admirals" were smart:
"They don't shout that 'We need a lot of battleships to war on this nation or that nation.' . . . [first] they let it be known that America is menaced by a great naval power. . . . the great fleet of this supposed enemy will strike suddenly and annihilate our 125,000,000 people. Just like that. Then they begin to cry for a larger navy." Next the admirals stage maneuvers-not right off the Pacific Coast but two or three thousand miles off the coast: "The Japanese, a proud people, of course will be pleased beyond expression to see the United States fleet so close to Nippon's shores. Even as pleased as would be the residents of California were they to dimly discern, through the morning mist, the Japanese fleet playing at war games off Los Angeles."62
Much of War Is a Racket was stock antiwar, anti-imperialist idiom, part of an American tradition dating back to the eighteenth century. Butler's particular contribution was his recantation, denouncing war on moral grounds after having been a warrior hero and spending most of his life as a military insider. The theme remained vigorously patriotic and nationalistic, decrying imperialism as a disgrace rooted in the greed of a privileged few.
No consideration was given to geopolitical factors by which a Great Power's spheres of influence, hegemony over satellite states, and preemptive military actions might be rationalized. But, especially since the recent extravagant propaganda of the Great War, public discourse over these issues was almost entirely on a moral and idealistic plane. Proponents of overseas military interventions seldom raised cynical justifications, lest they discredit the high-minded crusading purposes that were their rallying cries.
Butler emphasized class interest and a populist projection of the anti-imperialist message. As a renegade warrior and gruff soldiers' general, he had an appeal and authority quite different from the usual run of pacifist intellectuals, reformers, statesmen, and clergy who crusaded on these issues. But then, the 1930s were unique in that antiwar sentiment attained unprecedented popular scope, ranging from national college student strikes to the veterans' resolutions and petitions in Butler's domain.
Apart from the veterans' circuit, he associated with all manner of antiwar groups and presented his case at a variety of levels. In 1935 he began his two-year association with the League Against War and Fascism, a united front of socialists, communists, and various church, college, trade union, and women's groups. In Cleveland in early 1936, he gave a talk entitled "War Is a Racket" as main speaker of the Third US. Congress Against War and Fascism, after having given another speech on behalf of the League over the ABC radio network that afternoon. Other speakers included Rabbi Barnett R. Brickner, Langston Hughes, Heywood Broun, and Roger Baldwin. Baldwin, longtime head of the American Civil Liberties Union, who at this time moved furthest left in a lifetime of left-liberal politics, later recalled:
"My fears [of fascism] were shared by my colleagues, most surprising of whom was a retired general of the marines, Smedley D. Butler, who often spoke with me at League meetings. The general was the most colorfully outspoken opponent of war, armies, fascism and reaction I'd ever met. He got fairly good fees for it, but conviction was his motive."63
In November 1936 the League's local branch in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, was denied use of the high school auditorium by the board of education which said Butler's speaking might incite a riot. He went through with the meeting anyhow. One member recalled:
"His coming was on all radio stations with the threat of riot emphasized and we had the largest paid audience ever in a loft with the whole town police force in attendance.. . . Many of his Nicaraguan soldiers came and shook his hand. It was fun. He spoke of colonial warring and said it was not for the flag but for big business. Much applause - no riot. . . . He wasn't very big but he was great and we were very grateful."
But Smedley opposed all overseas military intervention, and broke with the League when it favored intervention during the Spanish Civil War. He told one meeting, "What in hell is it our business what's going on in Spain."64
By 1936 he had long since abandoned the New Deal. Earlier attacks over the veterans' bonus gave way to criticism of what he took to be FDR's guileful preparations for war. In 1935 he told 4,000 veterans at the VFW annual convention that America was "rapidly drifting toward another war through the medium of dictatorship. The political leaders of this country are for another conflict to cover up their blunders." In early 1936, anticipating FDR's first covert moves toward the World War II alliance system, Butler advocated requiring the secretary of state to read all diplomatic correspondence over the radio to preclude secret commitments.65
He even took a swipe at his old Haiti quartermaster, now FDR's assistant secretary of the navy: "Complacent and credulous Assistant Secretary Henry Latrobe Roosevelt performs his duties as a yes-man for the gold-braided bureaucrats [admirals] with no questions asked." Yet earlier that year, chiding himself for being a "nut or a sentimental old fool," he sent a warm note to HLR recalling the old days: "The sight of you sitting in that Committee Room yesterday brought over me a great wave of affection for you personally." But this was qualified with reference to present disputes: "I don't like your playmates or the gang you run with."66
Butler's critique focused particularly on naval expenditures and naval diplomacy, areas in which he had considerable expertise and a strong personal sense of historical perspective. Naval policy was FDR's foremost military passion, and the navy was the first service to undergo extensive rearmament corresponding to an increasingly militaristic foreign policy. The doldrums in military spending were over, and Butler was quick to blow the whistle. In the 1935 Common Sense article subtitled "'Happy Days Are Here Again': The Navy," he called FDR "the biggest of the big navy men" who was reversing an anti-imperialist trend maintained by Republican presidents since World War I. None of the Republicans had "shown much concern about protecting our overseas possessions," notably his old adversary Herbert Hoover whom Smedley now lauded for prescribing "that the army and navy should be large enough to prevent invasion-nothing more."67
He recalled that half a century ago the navy had built coast-defense battleships "far more responsive to the national will and far more in step with our traditional policies," but then Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt had administered "their respective shots of imperialistic hasheesh." Subsequent naval interventions had "coerced small countries into bowing to the wishes of our commercial interests." Now naval expansion was broached in terms of defense, but in reality it was a recrudescence of imperialism "at direct odds" with current neutrality legislation. The navy did not "possess a single plan that does not contemplate an attack on another country. Its true policy is the bewhiskered imperialistic slogan 'the best defense is the offensive' . . . to be able to sail to foreign waters and attack its enemy of the moment at the first opportunity."68
Regarding most of this, he might well have delved into his own efforts as a marine propagandist in the 1 920s, and his father's long involvement as a principal architect of the modern "big navy" in three decades on the House Naval Affairs Committee. But he never mentioned his father in public, nor did he publicly discuss Marine Corps politics and personalities except in the 1935 attempt to block Commandant Russell's confirmation. He still considered himself very much a loyal marine and by and large honored the confidentiality of past relationships including his own complicity at the policy-niaking level. And yet he was an ardent convert, suggesting in his denunciations that he knew whereof he spoke and had been on the high road himself. As an insistent and self-confessed turncoat, he had to maintain his personal dignity or else succumb to ridicule-to which he was, in any case, no stranger. He repeatedly pushed his public credibility to the limits and beyond and took an enormous amount of abuse accordingly.
In opposing the remilitarization of American foreign policy, he called for a viable defense exclusive of imperialistic capabilities. With existing US. military capability, no foreign enemy or likely coalition could invade America. It would take a force of at least a million men to invade a nation of 130 million. They would have to arrive all at once to be effective. There was not enough shipping in the entire world to transport such a force across 3,000 miles of ocean in a period of ten days. In the last war it had taken four months, using the enemy's biggest ships as well, to get a million men to Europe. A strong US. coastal defense would be a final and insurmountable obstacle. In Woman's Home Companion, also in 1936, he advocated a constitutional amendment to prohibit removal of armed forces from the continental United States and Panama Canal, and to restrict warships to within 500 miles of the coast and aircraft to within 700 miles, somewhat extended from distances proposed in War Is a Racket. The real danger of war was American military adventurism, not foreign invasion.69
Similarly, he was an early and dedicated supporter of Congressman Louis Ludlow's proposed constitutional amendment to require a national referendum prior to declaration of war. Ludlow invited him to testify atJudiciary Committee hearings, where Butler pointed out that he had "invaded country after country, at the direction of the President of the United States, without a declaration of war." A referendum would delay war and thus make presidential circumvention less feasible. He urged restriction of voting to those between eighteen and forty-five years of age and their wives. In November 1935 he spoke favoring the Ludlow bill to a crowd of 10,000 peace demonstrators in Philadelphia following a parade up Broad Street. The crowd chanted "no more war" and "unite for peace," one of many such spectacles in the mid-1930s. In 1937 Ludlow asked him to help form a national committee.70
A critical juncture for remilitarization was the 1938 Naval Expansion (Vinson) Act for construction of battleships, aircraft carriers, and cruisers to create a two-ocean navy with long-range attack capabilities. Butler testified at length to Senate Naval Affairs Committee hearings regarding his past career "running around the world guarding Standard Oil tins" and "robbing little Central and South American countries in the interests of Wall Street." He described himself as a "military isolationist" who believed "in having all sorts of friendly contacts and commercial contacts with all other nations on earth," but in keeping military forces "within our own boundaries." This was in opposition to a "very, very small minority that think we should police the world, that we should guard every American wherever he might be, and every dollar wherever it might be." Another group, also a small minority, wanted to police just the Western Hemisphere. The majority, in which Smedley included himself, would guard the continental United States only. There was another small group, outright pacifists, "that thinks we ought to disarm and trust to the 'ring-around-the-rosy' loving each other procedure to insure our safety."71
As a military isolationist, Butler did not turn against the military as such. He was isolationist only insofar as he denounced overseas military interventions, which he saw as tantamount to imperialism-or international gangsterism, as he had come to understand and loathe it. Imminently, however, massive overseas military intervention and rampant militarization of US. foreign policy during and after the coming World War resulted in drastic reformulation of public debate. Crusading military interventionism was again termed "internationalism," as in the Wilsonian precedent. Again represented as messianic patriotism, it was self-justifying and self-glorifying as against a succession of evil empires that threatened America's global reach. The regime of wartime propaganda, extending to paranoia during the Cold War, redefined tolerable public discourse to exclude Butler's viewpoint. Military expeditions were again equated with making the world safe for democracy-dubious inference that required an extraordinary exercise in ideological distortion. "Isolationism" was relegated to the dustbin of history, exorcised of its anti-imperialist heresy and then ridiculed as rustic, narrow-minded, and xenophobic.72
During the height of the Cold War, many interventionist euphemisms that Butler had denounced in the 1930s attained full sway. For instance, the isolationist maxim of strong military defense was usurped and distorted by doublethink such as renaming the War Departament the Defense Department and garrisoning "strategic defense perimeters" in the far corners of the world. The marines, for reasons of their own, banned "expeditionary" terminology in the mid-1930s and changed the Expeditionary Force to the politically neutral Fleet Marine Force.73 Had Butler denounced "robbing little Central and South American countries in the interests of Wall Street" before a Senate committee in the 1950s, he would have been reviled as unAmerican, an insult he would have furiously resented.
Butler did not live to see the "internationalist" versus "isolationist" debate perverted to this extent. But he could clearly foresee the coming interventionist sanctification of war, and spent his last years trying to demystify it. The mystique of militarism, as he well knew, was largely based on the arrogation of special expertise to imply professional infallibility. "There isn't any secret about this business," he testified to the Senate Naval Affairs Committee: "My experience was in the bushes, but, nevertheless, I got to be a general officer, and I was one for 14 years before I retired. I sat on these boards and I saw all this stuff. It was as easy as rolling off the logs." Generals, he wrote, "besides being reactionary," were possessed of "the backwardness of the military mind."74
Japanese aggression did not impress him: "Japan happens to be the enemy this year. Next year it may be somebody else . . . . The next thing we may be loving the Japanese to death." The 1937 sinking of a US. gunboat on the Yangtze in company with three Standard Oil tankers was proof that American forces were posted where they had no business being: "Why don't those damned oil companies fly their own flags on their personal property- maybe a flag with a gas pump on it." Marines, soldiers, and gunboats in China should all be brought home. "United States citizens should get the hell out of China and stay out. ... let the financial interests who are crying over there run up their own flags and fight their own baffles." The United States must abandon the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, to which he now added the Panama Canal, rather than war for them.75
As for Europe, the United States had nothing to do with "Hitler's landgrabbing" or with "promises Britain and France made to Poland." He elaborated in the 1939 anthology Common Sense Neutrality, playing upon presumed American moral superiority but drawing opposite conclusions from the interventionists-America was above the baffle: "These are some of the SMELLY things in this pit of European back-alley politics into which we will be sucked if we don't watch our step-if we are fools enough to get all excited about this brawl that is going on over there, as such brawls have, almost since the dawn of history." The anthology, edited by his ally in the 1934 Wall Street plot exposé, Paul Comly French, included pieces by Charles A. Beard, a number of senators, Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Norman Thomas, and the commander of the American Legion. Elsewhere, Smedley conceded that, along with "90 percent of the American people," he sympathized with the western allies. But this was no reason to intervene or rearm beyond "an iron clad defense a rat couldn't crawl through."76
One of his more desperate gestures, at the crest of the peace movement when public pressure still confounded the interventionist Roosevelt administration, came at the 1937 [Veterans of Foreign Wars] VFW annual convention in Buffalo. The VFW, with 300,000 members as against the American Legion's one million, held that year's encampment under the slogan "Peace for America," and heard speakers including New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Senators Bennett Champ Clark, Josh Lee, and Arthur H. Vandenberg. The press photo of Vandenberg at the convention showed him against a backdrop picture of horse marines in Shanghai over the slogan "Take the Dollar Signs Out of the Baffle Flags." "Loudest cheers," according to Time magazine, "were reserved for an old VFW favorite, Major General Smedley Butler.""
Smedley exhorted the vets, "It's your crowd that's going to do the dying and bleeding, not the Wall Street bunch of flag wavers," and the convention, "lifting chunks from the Vandenberg and Butler speeches," adapted an antiwar resolution calling for mandatory neutrality and withdrawal of all American forces from foreign soil. Then, just before the convention closed, Smedley was reintroduced to make a special announcement. As reported by the New York Times, he "amazed the session" by reading a letter ostensibly sent by FDR expressing appreciation of the veterans' "red-blooded, soldierly resolution" and agreeing that "other countries must make their damned wars without our help." The veterans "whooped and whistled in appreciation" until Butler concluded saying, "It ain't signed. Wouldn't it be fine if we did get such a letter from the President?" He predicted that a real letter would be forthcoming, but this rather silly ploy aborted.78
As the peace movement waned in the face of totalitarianism and militarism, he met with increasing disparagement in the interventionist press. In March 1939, Time ridiculed a performance at Wesleyan University:
"Noisy, beak-nosed Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, US.M.C., retired, exploded with a characteristic bit of Butlerese: 'If there is another war I intend to make James Roosevelt [FDR's son] go to the front line trenches.... I am not afraid! Let them shoot me! I'm all through. Let's get shot here at home if we're going to be shot."' It was easy to patronize such an outspoken firebrand, particularly when he overstepped the bounds of propriety, as he often did. In private Josephus Daniels, who went against the internationalist grain by praising Butler in a 1937 war monument speech at Brest, wrote apologetically to FDR: "I felt it was due Smedley to pay tribute to his good work here. If he was as wise in speech as he was brave in war, he would not have lost the prestige he deserved."79
During these last years, Butler was increasingly cut off from old connections. Of his lifelong friends in the Marine Corps, only Torchy Robinson came regularly to visit, also occasionally Vandegrift, and Smedley came to feel that many of his old cronies had had ulterior motives. Lejeune kept in touch but was reserved. Smedley tended more toward reflection; his son Tom remembered seeing him sitting alone in the back yard for hours on end, staring at the horizon. One of his granddaughters recalled listening from an upstairs bedroom at night to loud arguments going on below, probably about politics.80 But whatever the private frustrations, Smedley persisted as a magnetic public personality and committed activist.
With war a reality since 1937 in the Far East and since 1939 in Europe, the prospects for keeping America out were fading fast. Butler's radio broadcasts, several on national networks, were delivered in an emotional, hoarse, low gravelly voice, not unlike the intimate style popularized by Gabriel Heatter and other radio personalities of the day. Smedley's speeches were characterized by colorful language and frequent aphorisms, condemning "war dogs" and war as "a mean, cruel, yes filthy racket." In an October 1939 broadcast introduced by Senator Clark, he urged the mothers of America not to let their sons be sent overseas as "cannon fodder":
Now - you Mothers, particularly! The only way you can resist all this war hysteria and beating of tom-toms is by asserting the love you bear your boys. When you listen to some well worded, some well-delivered war speech, just remember it's nothing but sound. No amount of sound can make up to you for the loss of your boy. After you've heard one of those speeches and your blood's all hot and you want to bite somebody like Hitler .- go upstairs to where your boy's asleep.. . . Look at him. Put your hand on that spot on the back of his neck. The place you used to love to kiss when he was a baby. Just rub it a little. You won't wake him up, he knows it's you. Just look at his strong, fine young body because only the best boys are chosen for war. Look at this splendid young creature who's part of yourseW then close you eyes for a moment and I'll tell you what can happen....
Somewhere-five thousand miles from home. Night. Darkness. Cold. A drizzling rain. The noise is terrific. All Hell has broken loose. A star shell burst in the air. Its unearthly flare lights up the muddy field. There's a lot of tangled rusty barbed wires out there and a boy hanging over them-his stomach ripped out, and he's feebly calling for help and water. His lips are white and drawn. He's in agony.
There's your boy. The same boy who's lying in bed tonight. The same boy who trusts you.. . . Are you going to run out on him? Are you going to let someone beat a drum or blow a bugle and make him chase after it? Thank God, this is a Democracy and by your voice and your vote you can save your boy.81
In early 1940 Butler set out on a grueling six-week western speaking tour during which Germany launched its Blitzkrieg in northern and western Europe. Returning home, he wrote the head of an Independent Republican Women's group that he was tired and in poor health, and so would have to defer a speech: "I hope you realize that I am about run to death making speeches professionally and I feel that I must take a rest this summer as my engagements run clear up into June. Also I feel sure there is no use talking any more about this war business. The people of America are fools. If they want to have their children shot in order to keep Franklin Roosevelt on a pedestal, they will just have to do it."82
Appropriately, among what proved to be his few remaining appearances were talks to Quaker Meetings in West Chester and at Swarthmore-close to home and the antiwar taproot of family beliefs. On 22 May he gave a last speech in his usual style to a Temple University Alumni dinner at the Penn Athletic Club, warning that the United States should not get "panicky" over British and French military collapse. England was not finished until its navy was sunk; by then Hitler would be too weak to attack the United States. Americans should defend their own country only, "everything else is a damned commercial racket of some kind." The Inquirer noted that he showed the strain of a long illness that had caused him to lose twenty-five pounds.83
The next day he entered Philadelphia Navy Yard hospital for what was thought to be a rest. Newspapers were filled with war news, and a cartoon in the Inquirer entitled "Break that Stranglehold" showed a snake labeled "Fifth Column Activists" wrapped around a gun marked "US. Defense Program." A week before, Congressman Martin Dies of the revamped Un-American Activities Committee had called for a crackdown on fifth columnists.84
Butler died four weeks later on 21 June, the day before the French surrender at Compiegne. His doctor described the illness as an incurable condition of the upper abdominal tract, presumably cancer. He was conscious until the end and attended by his family, which brought his new 1940 Oldsmobile, which he never drove, and parked it so he could see it from his hospital window. Later Mrs. Butler wrote Lejeune, "He was working so hard for his country, and came home always so tired.We were afraid of a breakdown but never dreamed there was anything serious." He left an estate of $2,000.85
He was eulogized extensively in the press and the Congressional Record, but evasively, indicating the extent that antiwar and anti-imperialist dissent had already been shut down. The New York Times ran a three-column obituary that made no mention whatsoever of his apostasy or antiwar activities. The Inquirer, without naming specifics, commended his "innate honesty and reckless courage," his fearlessness in speaking and acting "with complete disregard of the consequences to himself," and his heroic career as a soldier. The latter point was accentuated by a testimonial from Theodore Roosevelt that he was "the finest fighting man in the armed forces." Ex-Mayor Kendrick said he was "a man of strong character and absolutely a straight shooter... we remained close friends to the end." Farmer-Laborer Senator Lundeen, after an oblique reference to "a wild and fantastic [US.] defense plan contemplating the rescue of the British Empire" that was the sole veiled allusion to anti-imperialism in all the eulogies, said his "courage and patriotism cannot be questioned . . . if there ever was a patriot, and a noble, courageous warrior, it was General Smedley D. Butler, a man who was unafraid in the presence of kings and presidents, and who dared to speak his mind .at all times." FDR sent a personal message to Mrs. Butler, "I shall always remember the old days in Haiti," brushing aside the awkward recent years. -
Funeral services took place beneath the Chinese Thousand Blessings Umbrellas in the Butler home. A dozen uniformed marine officers, including Colonels Vandegrift and Ellis B. Miller, attended along with friends, members of the family, several congressmen, and nearly forty Philadelphia police officers. In the absence of an official military guard of honor, the policemen lined up outside the house as the casket was carried away.87
Butler's memory was subsequently honored by the 1941 commissioning of the destroyer USS Smedley D. Butler. In 1942 he was featured in an episode of the Hearst syndicate's wartime "Heroes of Democracy" newspaper cartoon series: three frames depicted heroic exploits in China, Nicaragua, and Mexico, and one frame showed him in civilian clothes, tie pulled loose and shirtsleeves rolled up, bellowing into a microphone, "1,000 Marines can whip 10,000 of any other soldiers!"-a line apparently lifted out of context from a 1937 VFW antiwar speech.88 In none of this, needless to say, was there any mention of his apostasy. The marine base on Okinawa is named after him.
A month after Smedley's death, a plaque commemorating his police work in Philadelphia reappeared in City Hall, and it was later permanently mounted on the outside facade. It had been out of sight in storage for the previous decade. Within the family Mrs. Butler, who did not drive, kept the 1940 Oldsmobile until 1956. She could not bear, and refused over the years, to listen to recordings of Smedley's radio broadcasts. The Butler home was kept by her and their children more or less intact the way Smedley left it, complete with Chinese Blessings Umbrellas, regimental banners, and other memorabilia, down to the present.89
Source: Hans Schmidt, Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History, University Press of Kentucky (1987)
Smedley Butler and the FBI
Most surprising, was Butler's reputation in the law enforcement community as an expert and proponent of state and federal constabularies while he simultaneously expounded left-wing views on capitalism and imperialism. He frequently boosted the FBI as the shining example of how the federal government should respond to crime. Butler's FBI file contains a half dozen reports by field agents who heard and often shared speakers' platforms with him during the late 1930s. Hoover sent Smedley thank you notes and invited him to tour the Bureau in Washington. Butler often quoted Hoover in his speeches. Butler told a 1936 dentists' convention in Chicago that the FBI was one of the few government departments "which did not smell to high heaven." An FBI agent reported that the remainder of Smedley's speech, entitled "The Munitions Racket," was "rather radical ... he castigated everybody from the President down, and particularly the present Secretary of War."
The FBI was aware of the alleged 1934 Wall Street plot but apparently did not investigate. In a curious sequel, while visiting the bureau in 1936, Butler told Hoover about a plot by Father Charles Coughlin to invade Mexico to protect the Catholic Church from harassment. Smedley said that Coughlin, the famous "radio priest" whose voice he recognized, had approached him by telephone and that the call was traced back to Coughlin afterward. It seems that Butler was being hoaxed. In any case, he was clearly wary of becoming involved in another publicized plot exposé. Butler mentioned the Coughlin plot again to an FBI agent in 1940 in connection with what he termed dozens of "screwball" organizations that had invited him to appear as a speaker. (Butler did turn over to federal authorities, like the Treasury Department Secret Service, literature that he received from some organizations.)
Butler's affinity with Hoover reflected what historian Samuel Walker bemoaned as a trend toward highly centralized authority by which police executives were given "almost complete discretion" to do as they liked: "Like General Butler in Philadelphia and Boss Frank Hague in Jersey City, J. Edgar Hoover proved that the techniques of professionalism and efficiency could easily be perverted" (Critical History of Police Reform, 1977). Walker also castigated Hoover for manipulating public fears of a crime wave during the 1930s by mounting an FBI "publicity blitz" regarding a few sensational criminals. A most disturbing aspect was the "vicious quality of the rhetoric" used, in which Hoover referred to criminals as "vermin and "Public Rat Number One." Butler, with his fervid warrior-style exhortations to "put the law books in cold storage and bring out the high-powered rifles and machine guns," was a leading exponent of this trend ("Wipe Out the Gangs," Forum, Oct. 1931).
Source: Hans Schmidt, excerpts from Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History, University Press of Kentucky (1987).