US Marine: General Smedley Butler

From the UK, John Heelan quoted Neall Ferguson, who recalled the remark highly critical of the Marines by a much decorated one, General Smedley Butler.  I said: Most Americans are proud of the Marines, and Smedley Butler must have been a proud Marine once. When and why did he change his mind? Did General Sullivan know him, has he any explanation, and what does he think of him?  I am copying this to Niall Ferguson in the hope that he may have some comments.  Randy Black writes: I found this:
General Butler, who died in 1940, said this: “It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent 33 years and 4 months In active service as a member of our country's most agile military force -- the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from a second lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. “
Smedley Darlington Butler (July 30 <> , 1881 <> ­June 21 <> , 1940 <>
), nicknamed <>  "Old Gimlet Eye," was a Major General <>  in the U.S. Marine Corps <>  and at the time of his death the most decorated marine in U.S. history <> . Butler was twice the recipient of the Medal of Honor <> , one of only 19 to be so honored; he is noted for his outspoken left-wing <> views and his book War is a Racket <> , one of the first works describing the military-industrial complex <> . An immensely popular figure in the United States <>  at the time, Butler led the Bonus Army <>  and came forward to the U.S. Congress <>  in 1933 <>  to reveal a plot to overthrow the government of President <>  Franklin D. Roosevelt <> .
Butler was born in West Chester <> , Pennsylvania <> . He attended Haverford College <>  and was commissioned <>  as a Second Lieutenant <>  in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1898 <> . He fought in the Philippine-American War <>  later that year. In 1900 <>  he received a brevet <>  promotion to Captain <>  for his action during the Boxer Rebellion <>  (which brevet promotion qualified him to receive the Marine Corps Brevet Medal <>  in 1921). Then in 1903, he fought to protect the U.S. Consulate in Honduras <>  from rebels.  Butler was married on June 30 <> , 1905 <> . From 1909 to 1912, he served in Nicaragua <> . Then in April of 1914 <> , Bulter earned his first Medal of Honor <>  for the capture of Vera Cruz <> , Mexico <> . On November 17 <> , 1915 <> , he earned his second Medal of Honor <>  for the capture of Fort Riviere <;action=edit> , Haiti <> . He received a Distinguished Service Medal <>  in 1919. In 1924-1925, Butler was loaned to the city of Philadelphia <>  to serve as a police commissioner <;action=edit> . His duty was to enforce Prohibition <> , a monumentally difficult task. Unlike many at the time, Butler insisted on enforcing the law against all violators, rich and poor, and this earned him both enmity and respect.  In 1927, Butler served a tour in China <> , and returned to the United States in 1929 as a Major General <> . On October 1 <> , 1931 <> , Butler retired from the Marines. Butler was known for his outspoken views against war profiteering <>  and nascent Fascism <>  in the United States. His book War is a Racket <> holds a highly critical view of the profit motive behind warfare. Between 1935 and 1937, Butler served as a spokesman for the League Against War and Fascism <;action=edit> , a leftist organization.
The Camp Smedley Butler <>  ( <> ) Marine Corps base on Okinawa, Japan <>  is named in honor of Butler.

RH:I am still looking for an explanation. When he lived, Navy man Theodore Roosevelt was denouncing big business, but what was Roosevelt's attitude toward the Marines and their incursions in Latin America? About the same time, J. Fred Rippy was writing his books denouncing the role of American bankers in Latin America.  Was it the Great Depression which made Butler turn to the anti-war left? The fact that he led the Bonus Army in Washington would seem to confirm that. Despite his denunciation of the Marines' role in the world, a Marine base in Okinawa was named after him. Remarkable,


Marine General Michael Sullivan writes: I didn't know General Smedley Butler as he had retired before I was born, however, his reputation as a powerful Marine leader and warrior is well known and respected throughout the Corps.  Learning about him was part of our studies as new 2Lts in The Basic School, Quantico, Va, during courses in history and traditions of the Corps.  After his retirement and when he started getting involved politically was not part of our instruction.

My personal views about him trying to answer John Heelan's question is that he was the epitome of a Marine officer, leader of Marines and the ultimate warrior.  He was the recipient of two Medals of Honor for heroism in Vera Cruz, Mexico and Haiti.  After retirement he considered war a racket.  However, as a Marine Corps officer he took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the US.  He was told to follow all lawful orders and, when orders came down from higher authority to send in the Marines. he will comply as the country and the President are asking him to do so.  If he can't follow those orders then he should resign.  Continuing on to Major General and 30 plus years in the Corps, as Gen Butler did, means to me that he agreed with the orders and policies at that time.

General Butler was exposed to a whole new, civilianized world of politics and big business upon retirement.  He believed after his new found enlightenment involving American foreign policy that many of the policies that he helped enforce were detrimental to the people of those countries.  He then spoke out against war, American big business and American foreign policy.  He was a true patriot because he had the spirit of hs convictions both in the Corps and after retirement from the Corps.   

Robert Whealey writes: This Smedley Butler biography leaves out too short memoirs he wrote about 1935. The key to his thinking was that in the 1930s, as a result of examining the costs of World War I and the expanding fascist imperialist states in Europe and in the Pacific, he could foresee that the Roosevelt administration was beginning to rearm.  He knew from his own experience that the U.S. was an imperial power in Latin America and in the Pacific.

His fundamental argument probably came from Senator Nye's Hearings on World War I.  The merchants of death provoke war. He foresaw what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex.   From 1935-1940 General Butler became an isolationist and a pacifist. He took his democratic values seriously and felt that he had been  defending the Constitution as a young man.  At the end of his military service, he felt betrayed by American corporate power.  Fighting in China and Central America had nothing to do with defending democracy.

His reputation from 1941 to the mid 1960s fell rapidly.  During the Vietnam War, his two books were revived again.  It is interesting that, with America's bogging down again in Iraq, Butler has been revived again. I don't know whether his two short books/pamphlets have been reprinted or not.  They are hard hitting.

RH: The Iraq elections suggest the US is not bogged down there.

Cameron Sawyer comments on the Iraq letter to a Marine General forwarded by Mike Sullivan and the piece sent by John Heelan about Marine hero Smedley Butler's disillusionment with the international role of the Marines: To my mind, neither the exaggerated sentimentality of the one general's letter nor the extreme cynicism of the second is really indicative of anything.  General Sullivan's correspondent was undoubtedly as sincere as he could be, but if you substituted the word "socialism" for the word "democracy", the letter could have been written by a Soviet political officer in the early days of the Soviet Afghan War.

General Smedley was undoubtedly also being sincere, but whatever the failings of U.S. interventions in Latin America in the early 20th century, these are cartoonishly oversimplified in Smedley Butler's bitter piece. Our military men are charged with executing military actions; they don't formulate the political basis for them.  Perhaps it is appropriate for them to take such simplified views of politics; that might keep their minds on their own tasks.

RH: It is now widely accepted that the military need not obey an order which they deem illegal. How does "Semper fidelis" fit in with that?

Regarding Marine General Smedley Butler's expression of disillusionment with the role of the Marines in Latin America, I said: It is now widely accepted that the military need not obey an order which they deem illegal.  How does "Semper fidelis" fit in with that? Gene Franklin replies: I gather that the general agreed with or did not question his orders when he was in the field; it was only when he had retired and met politicians that he became disillusioned. I suspect that "Semper fidelis" refers first to the Corps, or perhaps to one's honor, not to the policies of the country. How does the Code of Military Justice treat members of the military (like the truck drivers in Iraq) who refuse to obey an order they deem illegal?  General Butler's actions remind me of the case of John Kerry.   I find both of them acted honorably, as I read their histories.

RH: Has there been a case in US military history of a refusal, later judged correct, to carry out an order deemed illegal?

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 2, 2005