General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History
(excerpt from chapter called "To Hell with the Admirals")
By Hans Schmidt
Denied the commandancy, Butler did not dig in for a prolonged sulk as major general manqué. In the letter in which he vowed to block Naval Academy rivals for the next fifteen years, he also alluded to a resilience that precluded anything like General Barnett's last stand as commander of the Pacific: "We must keep our faces to the Sun and out of the shadow. Keep our tails up and go on and what ever comes of this, it will be for the best in the end." Several months later he was making up his mind to retire. He met with Arthur Burks for advice, after which Burks wrote him thoughtfully summarizing the pros and cons. Burks observed that "the mental uncertainty which prompted you to ask me to that conference was totally unlike you, and came down in favor of early retirement and an offer fromJoseph Alber's lecture bureau. Smedley had said that now he would never be commandant, and that the Corps was being ruined. Burks argued that he might stay in to try and save it. But there was the prospect of "leaping" from the "top of the heap" in the marines to "a neighboring heap which may be higher, if your legs are springy enough-which they won't be at sixty four." And if Smedley were to succeed his father in Congress, he would "be back in the driver~s seat," with no military regulations to hamper him.'8
With what he thought was almost half his life ahead of him, Butler decided to retire. The decision preceded the Mussolini incident. Being beaten at the top rung of command politics did not, however, mean he would go out quietly. Now definitely an outsider in Corps and navy politics, he continued in command at Quantico and resumed his extracurricular public speeches. Recent developments freed him from careerist constraints and from any need to defer meticulously to superiors. Despite not going out of his way to foment trouble, this fragile situation soon broke down, and he again ran afoul of brittle and maladroit chiefs in the Hoover administration.
In a speech on "how to prevent war" delivered to the Philadelphia Contemporary Club in January 1931, Butler related an anecdote about Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini while making the point that "mad-dog nations" could not be trusted to honor disarmament agreements. Butler recounted a story told him by an unnamed friend who had been taken by Mussolini for a high-speed automobile ride through the Italian countryside, in the course of which the dictator ran down a child and did not bother even to slow down: "My friend screamed as the child's body was crushed under the wheels of the machine. Mussolini put a hand on my friend's knee. 'It was only one life,' he told my friend. 'What is one life in the affairs of a State.'" '~
The Italian government protested, Rome newspapers denounced the speech as "insolent and ridiculous," and Mussolini issued a categorical denial: "I have never taken an American on a motor-car trip around Italy, neither have I run over a child, man or woman." Secretary of State Stimson issued a formal apology to Mussolini for "discourteous and unwarranted utterances by a commissioned officer of this government on active duty." Smedley was placed under arrest and ordered court-martialed by President Hoover. 20
The New York Times, in its lead story, characterized this as surprisingly severe and as yet another instance of the State Department dominating the navy. It was the first time a general officer in the U.S. services had been court-martialed since Major General Fitz John Porter was cashiered for disobedience of orders following a Union Army battle loss in 1862. More recently there had been the famous 1925 prosecution of Colonel Billy Mitchell, and the upcoming Butler trial promised similar fireworks. A cabinet officer warned Hoover that he could "see no profit in putting the Admirals up against a dashing Marine with a unique flair for publicity." And in a bizarre non sequitur, the Navy Department released a brochure, "The United States Navy in Peace Time," which included the commendation:
"Probably no finer example of successful arbitration by American officers has been demonstrated in recent years than the peacemaking achievements that crowned General Butler's efforts in China in 1927 and 1928." 21
With Butler and Mussolini as principals, public discussion was intense and replete with moral posturing. Senator James T Heflin flaunted his congressional immunity, making Butler's court-martial seem petty and vindictive by contrast: Mussolini was a "red-handed murderer" to whom "General Butler must bow down and crawl in the dust and apologize to." Heflin entered into the CongressionalRecord three pages of mail backing Butler ("Don't let them degrade one of our finest and most courageous generals") and condemning the apology ("What we need in Washington are more Americans and less diplomats"), along with reportage from the New York antifascist newspaper II Nuovo Mondo substantiating the hit-and-run charges.22
In Washington, according to the New York Times, the Butler case occupied "first rank in public interest." Theater crowds applauded heartily when his picture came on in newsreels, and showed "signs of disapprobation" at Mussolini and Stimson. The Washington Daily News featured an autobiographical series on Butler's life and ran doggerel championing "that blunt, outspoken devil-dog. . . the Ace of our Marines!" Ten days after the original speech Mussolini, now attempting to play the issue down, wired his ambassador in Washington to communicate "that I consider closed the incident, which, for my part, I have already forgotten." The episode, according to the historian of American reaction to Mussolini, "cast a shadow over the dictator's heretofore almost immaculate image."23
Outlook magazine, in a gossipy "Backstage Washington" survey of military staff officers, came up with solid pro-Butler sentiment, "except the bureaucratic bell boys." But few had "any personal sympathy for the famous 'devil dog,' since most of them look upon him as a bit of a braggart and a limelight lover." Two weeks later the same magazine, in an article entitled "The Bad Boy of the Marines," reported that the privates loved him. The author also dug up a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt referring to Smedicy as "the ideal American soldier."24
Butler's informant turned out to be socialite journalist and world traveler Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. A lecture bureau chief declared that the story, based on what Vanderbilt had said to a meeting of the Affiliated Bureaus of America in New York, "was just as Vanderbilt told it to the last detail." Another bureau head agreed, as did members of the Reno Rotary Club and classes in journalism at the University of Nevada, who had heard essentially the same story during a recent Vanderbilt visit. The Italian Foreign Office, having denied Mussolini ever met Vanderbilt, searched its records and conceded that Mussolini received him in 1926 but "emphatically" reiterated that there had been no car ride. Vanderbilt himself refused comment and then evasively accused Butler of having "garbled" the story.25
Years later Vanderbilt substantially confirmed Smedley's version in Farewell to F~/I/I Avenue (1935) and Man of the World: My Lfe on Five Continents (1959). In the latter he related a four-day boisterous rip with Mussolini through northern Italy: "A small child standing on the right tried to beat the Fiat across the road. The car shuddered, and I felt the car wheels go up, then come down. I turned quickly to look. I can still see the little crumpled-up body lying in the road. Then I felt a hand on my right knee and I heard a voice saying, 'Never look back, Mr. Vanderbilt, never look back in life."'26 In effect, Butler's version was essentially correct, although based upon a somewhat shifty source. All this, however, was irrelevant to the court-martial, which focused on Smedley's deportment as an officer and gentleman, not on Mussolini's driving habits.
While under house arrest at Quantico, Butler procured Major Henry Leonard as counsel. Leonard had lost an arm in the Battle of Tientsin in 1900 shortly after rescuing Smedley and was now a successful Washington attorney, circumstances which made good press copy. A junior officer at Quantico went to see Butler at this time and was told a choice Tientsin anecdote: "One of the American civilians was hiding with the women under someplace or other. So they went and saw who it was, and it was this engineer chap. They hauled him up out of the hideout and put him on the wall and treated him rough. He [Butler] says, 'You know who that was? Herbert Hoover."' Leonard reminded Smedley of the story. This tidbit, for what it was worth, was apparently bruited about as part of the deepening ButlerHoover antagonism. After Smedley's release from arrest, the Washington Herald reported him and Leonard playing "hide and seek all day with eager crowds that sought to catch a glimpse of the famous general." New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Josephus Daniels, and General James G. Harbord offered to testify in his behalf.27
Within the Cabinet, Secretary of State Stimson took the lead in pressing for maximum severity. In his diary he recorded having "made it rather uncomfortable for poor little Adams, who apparently was rather timid about ordering a court-martial on account of Butler's political influence. The President felt the way that [Secretary of War Patrick J.] Hurley and I did, and, if there is any backbone there, we will put something into it, I think." Several days later Stimson found Hoover "rather alarmed and worried about it... afraid it would make a great mess ... some of the Boy Scouts [military?] had gotten hold of him and gotten him scared." Stimson urged firmness. When Hoover drafted a statement seeking to give Butler "an opportunity to let himself down easily, and opportunity for amends," Stimson advised him to stay out of it. But after two weeks, with hostile public reaction continuing to build up, Stimson himself came around to dropping the court-martial and pressured Adams, who was understandably concerned "that it might be thought a weakness," to back down.28
Negotiations between the State Department and Leonard started with an offer to drop formal charges in return for Butler's accepting a reprimand, detachment from command, and indefinite status awaiting orders. Leonard rejected this and subsequent more lenient offers. With the trial little more than a week away, Butler held the whip hand and State finally accepted his terms, which were that he and Leonard write the reprimand and that in all other respects he be restored to rank and privileges. He was also asked to submit a letter of apology, and this became the ultimate quid pro quo. Conspicuously, at no point was there any apology to Mussolini. When releasing the documents, Adams announced that Smedley had received milder punishment because of his "long record of brilliant service."29
Literary Digest ridiculed the reprimand in an article entitled "Our Comic Opera Court-Martial." In a private comment, Captain John H. Craige wrote Lejeune, "It is a little difficult to imagine the type of genius that thought of the plan to courtmartial a prominent and brilliant officer on such a charge." Craige was in Philadelphia, which had "been much excited over the Butler case, just as has the rest of the country only more 50."30
Several months later the tables were turned when Butler asked Adams and the State Department to demand an apology from Haitian Minister Dantès Bellegarde. Bellegarde, commenting on one of Smedley's autobiographical articles, had pronounced that Fort Rivière did not exist. Behind the scenes, in a remarkable moment of smugness at the seat of American imperial power, Hoover discussed the incident with Stimson:
When I saw the President at the White House, he brought up that subject himself and told me confidentially that he had received a full account of the battle of Fort Riviera [sic], in Haiti, in which Butler got his Medal of Honor, and that the account he had received was not very flattering to Butler. It had come, however, from Dr. [Joel T] Boone, and both the President and I know how accurate and trustworthy Boone is. The worst thing about the story was that after the fort had been captured, under Butler's orders fifty of the Haitians were put to death in cold blood. Boone was present and saw it, and the thing took place without any casualties on the part of the Marines; Boone being the medical doctor knew of that from personal contact.
Bellegarde was corrected by a spate of public denunciations, including one by Governor Roosevelt, who recounted the whole saga of the Medals of Honor.3'
After the Mussolini affair, newspapers published long-standing rumors that Butler intended to resign and run for the Senate. He announced his retirement, to take effect in the fall, and set out on a lecture tour, with half his earnings committed to Philadelphia unemployment relief. In May he took a leave of absence to help organize the new Oregon state police on the principles of an apolitical, militarized, motorized, radio-equipped force to be composed of young unmarried men. Similarly, he continued to advocate a federal police force in his many speeches on crime and gangsterism.32
On 22 September 1931, with tears in his eyes and flanked by Governor Pinchot and Mayor Harry A. Mackey of Philadelphia, Smedley faced the troops at Quantico for the last time. A large number of friends and public figures were on hand for a brigade mobilization, air review, boxing smoker, dinner, dress parade, and the climactic lowering of his two-star flag. He loved the marines and had passionately involved himself in Corps affairs, to the extent of being able to recite from memory the names of all its commissioned officers.33 But he had gone as far as he could.
He fired a parting shot in an article entitled "To Hell With the Admirals! Why I Retired at Fifty," published in Liberty magazine. He specified to Dimitman, who ghosted it, that he intended to "do a little swatting of some heads of some low-down-bums who tried to ruin my life for me." The article reviewed his long career, quoting from the many commendations and excellent fitness reports, and came to the conclusion, "Because I am not a Naval Academy man, a clique of admirals-without-ships determined that I should never be commandant of the Marine Corps." The chief of naval operations warily expressed admiration for Butler's record, and then replied, "It's all piffle-this talk about 'desk admirals.' ... I can't think of a single one who would come under that category." President Hoover, in an earlier comment on Butler's retirement, had characterized him as "a very distinguished and gallant officer."34
In retirement he mainly avoided Marine Corps politics, and as a public figure dwelt upon larger issues of crime, gangsterism, imperialism, wao and peace. But on several occasions he made gestures to uphold the warrior ethos in the Corps that he saw being eclipsed by highbrow bureaucratism. In 1933 he wrote President Roosevelt supporting Brigadier General Harry Lee and the "class of Marines which is fast passing out, discouraged and broken in spirit." The Academy clique had destroyed his own career; now the "clique of favorites" was plotting to promote Brigadiers Dion Williams, who could make "no claim to soldierly distinction," and Russell, with Russell then favored for the commandancy. Both were junior to Lee, who in contrast had strong combat credentials as a regimental commander in France. Lee had written Butler complaining that the Academy faction had for years "been working to navalize the Corps, ... hurdling the Academy men over our heads to retire them as Major Generals, not caring a damn what became of us."35
His efforts to thwart Russell's 1935 confirmation fixed Butler as the leading symbol of old-guard, anti-intellectual recalcitrance, just as Russell symbolized to Smedley and others all that was going wrong with the Corps. The central issue was Russell's 1934 success in obtaining a Marine Corps personnel act that allowed for "plucking" overaged and ostensibly incompetent officers and retiring them to make room for younger officers on the basis of merit-most readily attested to by educational credentials. Commandant Russell presided over the Selection Board, and inevitably made enemies, as had been the case with the 1919 Russell Board. Most victims were World War combat veterans up from the ranks who were deemed professionally unqualified for promotion and had created "humps" in the junior officer grades. The chance to turn the tables came in 1935 when Russell, a temporary major general as commandant, was up for promotion to permanent major general, which required confirmation by the Senate.
Butler came out of retirement as the most prominent marine opposing Russell, but he was probably not the instigator. There had always been opposition to Russell because of his long diplomatic stint in Haiti and favored status as the State Department's protégé. Harry Lee, one of Russell's rivals, wrote Lejeune in 1933 referring to "anticipated opposition from the Senate" to Russell's confirmation as commandant. Lejeune, from retirement, apparently played it both ways, backing Lee while later variously supporting and kicking Russell. He got Josephus Daniels, now ambassador to Mexico, to support Lee. Butler was in touch with Lee, but could do little. Then, a month before Russell's 1935 confirmation hearings, Smedley received an appeal from retired Colonel "Fritz" Wise asking, "Are you willing to help me chew John Henry Russell whose permanent Maj. Gen. is being held up.
Source: Hans Schmidt, excerpts from Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History, University Press of Kentucky (1987). Excerpts, pp. 208-211, 214