The Progressive Imperialism of Smedley Butler

The Marine turned anti-imperialist had two very different legacies, but both clearly emerged from the same man.


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.

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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 enforce Prohibition. Butler promptly militarized the police force and launched a campaign of mass incarceration. Hundreds of Philadelphians were arrested daily during Butler's reign.

The second Butler—the former Marine and former police commissioner—stood with the Bonus Army of World War I veterans who marched on Washington in 1932 to demand financial help at the beginning of the Depression. He gave speeches across the country identifying bankers and capitalists as the enemies of peace and freedom. And in 1934 he claimed that he had been recruited to lead a fascist coup against the Roosevelt administration.

Katz connects the later Butler with all that is good in America and the early, murderous Butler with Donald Trump and "America's imperial history." The movement that Trump built, which Katz believes "still dreams of reinstalling him by force," is "a product of the greed, bigotry, and denialism that were woven into the structure of U.S. global supremacy from the beginning."

During the 1910 invasion of Nicaragua, Butler indicated some of the ambivalence Katz identifies in his thinking. On one hand, he called Nicaraguans "Spigs," declaring them "the most worthless, useless lot of vermin I have struck yet, even worse than our 'little brown brothers' the Filipinos." At least those "Fuckers will fight and these dogs won't," he asserted. But he also began to suspect that his orders were coming more from corporate board rooms than from democratic legislatures: "The whole revolution is inspired and financed by Americans who have wild cat investments down here and want to make them good by putting in a Government which will declare a monopoly in their favor. The whole business is rotten to the core….The whole game of these degenerate Americans down here is to force the United States to intervene and by doing so make their investments good."

This was the 1910 Butler speaking, the one Katz calls the proto-fascist ancestor of Trump and the Make America Great Again movement. Yet already he was starting to question his role. Then again, Trump was more likely than earlier presidents to question—rhetorically at least—the imperial system of regime change and nation-building that Smedley Butler helped build.

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Katz misses an important part of Butler's story: He was sent overseas as part of the American progressive movement's mission to uplift what it saw as the savages of the tropics.

In Haiti, Butler developed a special friendship with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then an assistant secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson's administration. In the winter of 1917, Roosevelt's interest turned to Haiti, where a quintessentially progressive project was underway, made possible by Butler's Marines. Wilson had ordered the troops to Haiti in 1915 to stave off revolutionary forces hostile to American business interests and to pre-empt German incursions on the island. The U.S. established itself as the sovereign authority of the country with a permanent Marine deployment and used the occupation as an opportunity to make Haiti into an example of progressive uplift. As in the southern states during Reconstruction and the Philippines following the Spanish-American war, roads and bridges were built, hospitals employing Western medical techniques were established, and schools were launched that taught not just skills but Protestant virtues.

Roosevelt was eager to participate in the grand reform. He received permission, and Navy funding, for an investigative junket to what he called the "Darkest Africa of the West Indies." For two weeks Roosevelt and Butler toured Marine outposts and met with American military governors and collaborationist Haitian officials. The young FDR heaped praise on Butler, the administrator of the island's police force, who oversaw the killing of hundreds of rebels and the forced labor of 6,000 civilians compelled to build public works projects.

When Roosevelt returned to Washington, he recommended the Medal of Honor for Butler, and five years later he penned a vigorous defense of the occupation. Before the United States intervened, he wrote, "the inhabitants of Haiti, taken as a mass, were little more than primitive savages" and the country had no more been a "Republic in our accepted sense of the term, than were the principalities of India, before the advent of the British." Roosevelt was so taken with Haiti that he thought often of buying portions of it and moving his family there during the winters.

Butler was an enthusiastic supporter of Roosevelt during his early presidency, when FDR instituted the closest thing to a fascist political economy as the United States has ever seen. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), passed in June 1933, became the defining legislation of the so-called first New Deal. In a repudiation of free and competitive markets, the NIRA created cartels of businesses in every major industry that would decide how much products would cost, how much workers would make, and how much companies would produce. These cartels were called "code authorities." In Italy, such institutions were called "corporatives." In Germany, they were known as "industrial cartels." But in all three nations they held similar powers, and in all three nations they could be overruled only by the head of state.

Trumpism certainly has authoritarian elements too, and it has at times lashed out with irrational fury at America's adversaries. But it tends to recoil from this urge to remake the world. J.D. Vance and other MAGA candidates have been excoriated by the progressive media for declaring "I don't really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another."

When Butler was an imperialist, he was an imperialist in the progressive mold, like Wilson and Roosevelt. In fact, this country's wars have since its founding almost always been initiated by true believers in this country as the best hope for mankind—people like Smedley Butler when he was burning villages in order to build democracy, and the very same Smedley Butler who later believed that such brutality contradicted the "true" aims of this always imperial republic.