The Progressive Imperialism of Smedley Butler
Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire, by Jonathan M. Katz, Macmillan, 432 pages, $29.99
The legend of Smedley Butler has sustained the American antiwar movement for nearly a century.
A Marine commander who committed unspeakable atrocities in Washington’s “small wars” between the Spanish-American War and the Second World War, Butler in the last decade of his life turned against the empire he had fought, killed, and enslaved countless people to build. During the depression of the 1930s, he renounced all that he had done, famously declaring that “war is a racket” for the economic interests of the ruling elite.
Butler led combat units in the military occupations of the Philippines, China, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The politicians who sent him to those places, most notably Woodrow Wilson, claimed that the missions were to preserve stability among restless natives and to make the world more democratic, more free, and more like America. But after retiring from the service, Butler saw it differently. “I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business,” he said toward the end of his life, “for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”
To Jonathan M. Katz, author of Gangsters of Capitalism, Butler’s career represents what he calls the “tension” between “the ideal of the United States as a leading champion of democracy on the one hand and a leading destroyer of democracy on the other.” But perhaps these two ideals are not as opposed as Katz thinks.
* * * * *
A Quaker from a respectable family on Philadelphia’s Main Line, Butler “held on to principles of equality and fairness throughout his life, even as he fought to install and defend despotic regimes all over the world,” Katz writes. But to many, there were two very different Smedley Butlers.
The first Butler ordered the killing of thousands of natives, enslaved legions of civilians to build American-controlled infrastructure projects in the conquered lands, and helped install military dictatorships across Latin America. When Butler and a battalion of Marines arrived in Honduras in 1903 to protect an American fruit company from rebels who wished to seize its possessions, he wrote home that he was “prepared to land and shoot everybody and anything that was anything that was breaking the peace.” They were headed to a part of the world “where we may find some American interests that need protecting.” During this period, the word American racists use to describe black people was used for the brown people who resisted the expanding U.S. empire. “I am anxiously awaiting for a nigger to throw a stone,” Butler told his wife. During this time, a newspaper headline called Butler the “Ideal American Soldier” and Theodore Roosevelt was described as “one of Captain Butler’s most ardent admirers.”
After his military career, the city of Philadelphia hired Butler as police commissioner to enforc
Article from Reason.com