Smedley Butler was among the most decorated U.S. Marines in 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 to a wealthy Quaker family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1881.
After his return from the Spanish-American War ended, Butler took part in almost every conflict in which the U.S. got 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 1930, when he retired with 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 stated that he was consulted about the MGM film “Tell It to The Marines,”The film starred Lon Cherney, an actor who was one of the greatest screen icons of his generation.
“In ‘Tell It to The Marines,’ he plays essentially Smedley Butler,” Katz said. “He mimics Smedley Butler’s mannerisms.”
Butler’s life ended with a strange remark: something had changed inside him.
“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 understood to a certain degree that he had served in the military in wars where the U.S. exploited and robbed. However, Katz said that he realized that the wars that he was a participant in were not ones the U.S. proud of once he retired.
“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 book, “The Year After,” was published the next year. “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.’”
This was an astonishing admission by a war hero.
“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 in World War II at the age 58. However, his warnings to America have been 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.
However, such a system has its costs.
“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.”
Katz said that Americans should remember that things done overseas can be brought back home.
“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.