We Can Learn a Lot From the Story of a US War Hero Who Became an Anti-War Activist, Author Says
Smedley Butler is known as one of the most decorated U.S. Marines. So how did he become an anti-war activist? Jonathan M. Katz traces his life in “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire."
Smedley Butler was one of the most decorated U.S. Marines of the 20th century. Having lied about his age when he was 16 to join the fight in Cuba against the Spanish empire in the Spanish-American War in 1898, Butler went on to participate in nearly every U.S. invasion thereafter.
But by the end of his career, he grew to renounce many of the things he’d done.
By learning about Butler’s life and deeds, it may help us better understand America’s complicated place in the world, said journalist Jonathan M. Katz’s, author of “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire.”
Katz told Inside Edition Digital that Butler’s critiques of U.S. policy and his own actions make him a “really fascinating and really unique character in American history.”
“Complicated dude,” Katz said. “He's doing all these things in war. He's killing other people; other people are trying to kill him. He's destroying democracies. He then risks his reputation to defend democracy in the United States.”
Butler was born in 1881 to a wealthy Quaker family near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After returning from the Spanish-American War, Butler participated in almost all conflicts, big and small, in which the U.S. became involved.
“The wars that Butler fought in … are wars that most Americans have never heard of,” Katz said. “They're wars like the Philippine-American War when the United States colonized the islands of the Philippines. The U.S. invasions and occupations of Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, the Dominican Republic. The U.S. conquest of Puerto Rico, the U.S. invasion of Mexico, 1914. Butler participated in not one but two invasions of China the first in 1900 in response to what is known as the Boxer Rebellion. And the second was in the 1920s during essentially an internal civil war that then becomes what is known by historians as the Chinese Civil War between the communists and the nationalists in the late 1920s.”
He served until the 1930s, when he retired holding the rank of Major General. He served diligently and dutifully, something that was not lost on Americans—or in Hollywood.
“He became really, really famous and really, really popular for the things that he did in the Marines,” Katz said, noting he consulted on the MGM film “Tell It to The Marines,” which starred actor Lon Cheney, one of the famous screen legends of his time.
“In ‘Tell It to The Marines,’ he plays essentially Smedley Butler,” Katz said. “He mimics Smedley Butler's mannerisms.”
But by the end of his life, something inside of Butler appeared to have shifted.
“For the last 10 years of his life in the 1930s, he became an anti-war, anti-imperialist activist who among other things blew the whistle on a fascist coup to overthrow President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934,” Katz said.
Butler knew to a certain extent while actively serving in the military that he had participated in wars that saw the U.S. exploit and rob, but he more fully realized the wars he was a part of were those that the U.S. was not proud of after he retired, Katz said.
“So in the 1930s, Butler undergoes something of a change, it actually starts in 1931 when he's court-martialed for insulting the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini,” Katz said. “Then in 1934, he blows the whistle on the Business Plot, a fascist coup to overthrow President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
The following year, he wrote a book called “War Is a Racket.”
“He's talking about the collusion between essentially the U.S. government, the U.S. military, and big business,” Katz said. “He says, ‘Looking back on it, I was a muscle man for big business for Wall Street and the banks. I was a racketeer for capitalism.’”
It was a striking admission for a war hero to make.
“The fact that he then has this burst of insight and then spends years really taking himself to task and wearing the hair shirt that makes him a really, really fascinating and really unique character in American history, and really, in world history,” Katz said.
Butler died at the age of 58, at the start of World War II, but his warnings to the U.S. have remained worth considering. About two decades after Butler’s death, what he had warned of was given the catchier title of “military-industrial complex” by President Dwight Eisenhower.
“Basically that you've got the military, you've got industry, and that they are together in a complex where they're sort of working together to advance one another's interests and involve us in wars to essentially make money for a small group,” Katz said.
But such a system comes at a cost.
“The history of these wars, the things that Smedley Butler and his generation of Marines did, isn't remembered in the United States for the most part, but it is very much remembered in other places overseas,” Katz said. “It [helps] explain our relationship with Haiti. It helps explain our relationship with Mexico. It helps explain our relationship with Nicaragua, helps explain our relationship with Puerto Rico. Why do Puerto Ricans feel like they're a colony? Why do a lot of Puerto Ricans feel like they're a colony of the United States? Because they are, because they remember the things that Smedley Butler and the Marines did.”
American should take heed that the things done abroad have a way of coming back home, Katz continued.
“If we don't hold our own people and ourselves accountable for the things that we do in places like Central America, the things that we do in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, those then have a way of coming back and rebounding on us and being used as justification for violence and authoritarianism at home,” he said.
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