Smedley Butler at the time of his death was the most highly decorated marine in US history. Born to Quaker parents he broke with his family traditions and joined the military just before he turned 17. He took part in military actions across the globe in the Philippines, China, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Haiti. In the aftermath of the Great War, Butler began a nationwide lecture opposing the growth of militarism in the US. His lectures became the basis of a famous 1935 pamphlet entitled “War is a Racket” which laid out his opposition to US intervention abroad, and the connections between war and big business.
Smedley Butler was born in Westchester, Pennsylvania on July 30, 1881. His parents were Thomas and Maud Butler. Butler attended the West Chester Friends Graded High School, before transferring to the more prestigious Haverford School. While Butler was at Haverford his father was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he served until his death in 1928.
While a gifted student and athlete, Butler chose to leave Haverford in 1898 to take part in the Spanish American War. Butler obtained a direct commission as a second lieutenant in the US Marine Corp. He joined the Marine Battalion, North Atlantic Squadron and took part in operations around Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
US Marines withdrew from the area later in the year, and Butler served aboard the USS New York until being discharged in February 1899. However he was able to obtain a first lieutenant’s commission in April and rejoined the marines. He was then ordered to Manila, to help suppress the Philippine insurgency and took part in the capture of the insurgent held town of Noveleta in October.
While on his way to join a marine garrison on the Island of Guam, Butler and his group under the command of Major Littleton Waller were detoured to China, in order to aid the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion.
In July of 1900, Butler took part in the Battle of Tientsin. During the battle Butler was shot in the leg while trying to rescue a fellow officer. For his actions Butler received a promotion to captain. He then fought in the Battle of San Tan Pating, where he was wounded in the chest, before returning to the United States in 1901.
In 1903 while stationed in Puerto Rico, Butler was ordered to Honduras to help secure and evacuate the American consul during a revolt in Honduras. He returned to the United States in 1905 and married Ethel Peters.
Soon after his wedding he was ordered back to the Philippines as part of a military garrison. In 1908 Butler, now a major, suffered a nervous breakdown and was ordered to take nine months leave to recover. During this time he worked briefly in coal mining, but soon returned to the Marines.
In 1909 Butler received command of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment on the Isthmus of Panama. He remained in Panama until August of 1912.
He was ordered to take a battalion to Nicaragua in August of 1912. He then took part in the bombardment and capture of Coyetepe in October.
In January of 1914, Butler was ordered to join Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher off the coast of Mexico to monitor military activity during the course of the Mexican Revolution. In March Butler posed as a railroad executive to get access to the Mexican interior and monitor the situation. Butler also took part in the American intervention in the Mexican revolution, and led the Marine contingent when US forces landed at Veracruz. Butler directed the marines through two days of fighting before the city was captured, and for his actions he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
In 1915 Butler led a force from the USS Connecticut ashore on Haiti to put down a revolution that had overthrown the Haitian president Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. Butler was sent ashore to help protect American business interests in Haiti (like the Haitian American Sugar Company HASCO) and to help overthrow a new constitution that prevented foreign ownership of land. Butler won several engagements with the Haitian revolutionaries, won a second Medal of Honor for his capture of Fort Rivière (one of only two marines to win the Medal of Honor twice).
His success resulted in the American occupation of Haiti and ratification of the Haitian-American convention which granted the US government the right to provide security for, and administer the finances of Haiti. The American occupation continued until 1934.
In April 1917, after the American entry into World War I, Butler, now a lieutenant colonel began lobbying for a command in France. On July 1st, 1918 Butler received a promotion to colonel and command of the 13th Marine Regiment in France. Though Butler worked to train the unit it never saw combat operations. Butler was promoted to brigadier general in early October and oversaw Camp Pontanezen at Brest, an important debarkation point for American troops.
Butler returned to the United States in 1919, and was given command of Marine Corp Base Quantico in Virginia, and for the next five years was responsible for turning the wartime training camp into a permanent base.
In 1924, at the request of President Calvin Coolidge and Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick, Butler took a leave from the marines to serve as director of public safety in Philadelphia. He returned to the Marine Corps in 1925.
Butler Briefly commanded the Marine Corps base in San Diego, California. In 1927 he was sent to China to protect American interests in the country and was given command of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. He returned to Quantico in 1929, and was promoted to Major General.
At Quantico Butler resumed the task of making the base into a showpiece for the Marine Corps. On July 8, 1930 the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Wendell C. Neville, died. While tradition was that the senior general would temporarily fill the role, Butler was passed over for Major General Ben Fuller, in part because of remarks Butler had made that were critical of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini
Butler filed for retirement, and left the Military on October 1, 1931.
There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights.Smedley Butler
After his retirement, Butler became harshly critical of US military involvement abroad and militarism in general. Throughout the early 30’s he toured the country giving lectures advising against US intervention abroad, and criticizing the use of wars for profit by big business. He also harshly criticized the separation between the top and bottom of American Society; between those who paid and fought for wars, and those who led men into war and reaped the profits.
In keeping with these views, Butler publicly supported the demands of the Bonus Army. He went to Washington along with his son, and ate and camped with the soldiers. He spoke before the assembled veterans and told them that they had as much right to lobby congress as any company. When the protestors were forcibly cleared by General MacArthur, Butler identified himself as a “Hoover for Ex-President Republican” and campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.
In 1933 Butler was contacted by a bond trader named Gerald McGuire claiming to be speaking on behalf of a group of powerful businessmen. He approached Butler about leading an army of 500,000 veterans in an attempt to depose President Roosevelt. Butler testified before congress as to what became known as the “Business Plot”. The few businessman who McGuire named as his backers denied any involvement, and modern historians disagree whether any such plot actually existed, or whether Butler was the victim of a con by McGuire.
Regardless, the offer deeply distressed Butler who became suspicious of the power of big business in shaping policy both domestic and foreign, and he became even more zealously anti-militarist and anti-fascist. In 1935 in the socialist newsletter Common Sense Butler reflected on his time in the armed forces, writing:
“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. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the 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 on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
That same year his famous book “War Is A Racket” was released. The book was an adaptation of many of the speeches he had made during his nationwide tours.
In it he listed what he saw as the serious ties between war and big business, focusing particularly on World War I. Near the end he argued for a strict isolationist policy for the American military; he stressed a strong navy that would be limited to operating only 200 miles of the American coast, and an air force limited to only 500 miles off of American territory. He also argued that land forces should be strictly limited to operating only on US soil.
Butler also argued that the decision to go to war ought to be reached by a plebiscite conducted only among those of military age, and condition, and that for the duration of the war wages for executives, and defense industry employees should be tied to those of soldiers.
Through 1935 to 1937 he served as a spokesman for the American League Against War and Fascism, and also participated in the Third US Congress Against War and Fascism. Butler broke with the league over the issue of the Spanish Civil War and its support for the International Brigades.
In 1940 Smedley Butler died of cancer in his home state of Pennsylvania. At the time of his death he was the most highly decorated Marine in the history of the service. He is buried in West Chester.