Why Smedley Butler left the imperialist front despising ‘Gangsters of Capitalism’
Smedley Butler was one of the most decorated Marines in U.S. history, and by the end of his life he was also one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. imperialism that he had spent most of his life enforcing. That contradiction between Butler the antiwar critic and Butler the builder of empire is at the heart of an important new book by Jonathan Katz, Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. Katz’s book is an essential reminder of what the U.S. did during those decades and of the lasting effects that those interventions had on the countries where Butler went.
Butler took part in America’s so-called “small wars” in Asia, the Caribbean, and Central America in the early twentieth century. Like those wars, his military career has mostly been forgotten by the American public. That career was defined by aggressive military interventions on behalf of corporate interests, and by the end he was disgusted by it. As the author of War Is a Racket, Butler has been an inspiration to many antiwar and anti-imperialist Americans over the years, but he was also one of the military officers responsible for implementing destructive American colonialist designs at the expense of other nations. Twice awarded the Medal of Honor, he never believed he had done anything to deserve it, and the massacre that he took part in at Fort Rivière in Haiti haunted him.
In his later life, Butler came to see much of his career as a disreputable series of actions in the service of wealthy American interests, and he called himself a “racketeer for capitalism.” The racket he denounced was one that benefited a very few at the expense of the many. That core problem with our foreign policy that Butler identified almost ninety years ago is still very much with us. The U.S. still wages unnecessary wars based on flimsy pretexts against countries that cannot possibly threaten us, and today it also enables other wars with its weapons sales. The military budget grows every year despite the extraordinary physical security that the United States enjoys, and the hunt for new monsters to slay is unending. The racket is bigger and more destructive than ever.
Katz has produced a superb book in which he traces Butler’s steps from his first deployment to Cuba through his last mission in China. Through extensive use of Butler’s correspondence with his family, Katz is able to reconstruct to a remarkable degree what Butler thought about his various missions. Occasionally, there are flashes of anger at policies he was ordered to carry out that anticipate his later antiwar arguments. Appalled by the losses suffered during the invasion of Veracruz in 1914, he applauded his father’s belated vote in Congress against the mission. Katz writes, “The trauma fed Butler’s misgivings about the immorality and pointlessness of war.”
To read Butler’s story is to be reminded of our country’s long and ugly history of dominating many of our weaker neighbors. As Katz shows throughout the book, these countries are still living with the effects of those policies a century later. Katz traveled extensively to visit all the places where Butler served to learn more about his experiences and to document the legacy of the interventions in which Butler participated, and he bears witness to the lasting damage that U.S. policies have done. While most Americans know little or nothing about these interventions, many people in the affected countries still remember what U.S. forces did when they were there.
Butler is most loathed in Haiti, where he is viewed simply as “the Devil” and mechan (evil), because of his role in forcibly dissolving Haiti’s National Assembly to push through a new constitution, his reintroduction of a cruel system of forced labor, and the counterinsurgency campaign he waged against Haitian resistance to American rule. The Gendarmerie that Butler created became the national army and went on to interfere in and dominate Haitian politics for much of the rest of the century.
The outrages that the U.S. committed in its wars in the Philippines and Haiti, among other places, still affect how the U.S. is perceived today. The police and military institutions that the occupying U.S. authorities created in several countries became the apparatus of oppression used by later dictators, some of whom, like the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo, had been trained by the U.S. and became U.S. client rulers. During his brief time as the head of Philadelphia’s police force, Butler used the tactics he had employed against insurgents in other countries to fight “bandits” at home in an early example of the militarization of the police and the abuses that came with it.
The period of U.S. foreign policy between the start of the war with Spain and WWII is often wrongly described as “isolationist,” but no one can look at these decades of frequent, violent intervention in the affairs of other nations in the early twentieth century and still believe that. The U.S. took sides in Mexico’s civil war, it invaded other countries on the slightest pretext that a foreign rival might be gaining influence, and it militarily occupied some of them for years or decades. Like colonial empires the world over, the U.S. dominated weaker nations because it could and because its political leaders saw some economic advantage to be exploited.
While these interventions benefited private interests and were done on their behalf, they did nothing to make the United States more secure and were never really intended to. As Butler concluded in his later years, America’s colonial possessions in the Pacific only exposed the country to the dangers of a new, much larger war. “Sooner or later, if we hold onto them, America will be jerked into a damn war before we know what it’s all about,” Butler told a reporter in 1933. That was why he became an early supporter of independence for the Philippines as part of his broader antiwar advocacy. Butler did not live to see that prediction come true, but he was proven right eight years later.
Today there are still some neo-imperialists that look back on the “small wars” Butler fought as a model for how the U.S. should police the globe. Butler would be among the first to reject that idea out of hand. If his experience teaches us anything, it is that wars for empire cause tremendous harm to both the people being dominated and to the people sent to fight in those wars. Gangsters of Capitalism is an excellent account of Butler’s career, and it is also an outstanding history of the development of overseas American imperialism. The wars that Butler fought in anticipated and paved the way for the later militarization of U.S. foreign policy, and they serve as cautionary tales of the long-term harm that military intervention usually does to the nations that experience it. In order to find a way to stop the endless wars for good, we need to remember and learn from the brutal history of America’s empire-building.