The Anti-War War Hero

Those who have dared to criticize U.S. foreign policy have often faced accusations of cowardice, disloyalty, and sedition. The anti-war “movement” — if one could call it that — is a coalition of various political ideologies, but they are all branded with the same attacks. However, the history of anti-war activism includes a rather stunning figure: a U.S. Major General turned radical, who spent the last years of his life denouncing U.S. foreign policy, and fighting against what he saw as war for profit.

Smedley Darlington Butler was born to an upper-class Pennsylvania family in 1881. His father was a lawyer and a judge, and expected his son to move into the professional class just as he had done. However, he spurned his father’s wishes and joined the Marines at age 17, just in time for the Spanish-American War. This would launch his 33-year career in the Marines. He went on to lead military operations in the Philippines, China, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, Mexico, and France. For his service, he received two Medal of Honors, a Marine Corps Brevet Medal, and an Army Distinguished Service Medal, making him one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. history. He was promoted to the rank of Major General, which at the time was the highest rank in the Marine Corps. His courage and skill on the battlefield was unquestioned, and his dedication to the United States was universally recognized.

General Butler entered the U.S. military at a unique time in history; the U.S. had finally ended its westward expansion and the European powers were busy conquering Asia and Africa for themselves. The U.S. had emerged as a major industrial power after the Civil War, but there was a problem: it lacked colonies. Fortunately, in the close of the 19th century, an opportunity presented itself. Spain, which had historically controlled Latin America, was now on the decline. Its once-great empire faltered, and its weakness allowed the U.S. to make its debut on the imperial stage.

This brings us to General Butler’s first assignment: the Spanish-American War. Cuba had been a Spanish colony since the 16th century, but after centuries of slavery and exploitation, the Cubans yearned for liberty. There was a revolt against Spanish rule in 1895, and the colony achieved partial independence by 1897, but Spain’s presence in the region remained. In 1898, a U.S. battleship inexplicably exploded in the harbor of Havana. Americans pinned the blame on Spain, despite no real evidence of a deliberate attack.

The U.S. declared war and quickly defeated Spain, annexing Cuba alongside Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and the West Indies. This inaugurated a new chapter in American history in which the U.S. moved to exert control beyond its coasts. General Butler joined just in time to see America turn into a proper empire. 

Cuba is a great example of emerging American imperialism. The U.S. formally granted the country independence in 1903, but in reality, American interests continued to dominate the country’s politics and economy. JFK admitted this when speaking about the Cuban Revolution almost 60 years later:

Secondly, in a manner certain to antagonize the Cuban people, we used the influence of our Government to advance the interests of and increase the profits of the private American companies, which dominated the island’s economy. At the beginning of 1959 United States companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands — almost all the cattle ranches — 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions — 80 percent of the utilities — and practically all the oil industry — and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports. 

Following America’s victory in the Spanish War, these newly won territories had to be pacified. So General Butler was deployed to the Philippines to lead a group of 300 Marines. The Filipinos didn’t consent to foreign rule under the American flag, and so they clashed with American troops invading the island. This precipitated the Phillippine-American War, in which at least 200,000 civilians were killed. There was no attack on the U.S. or the troops, The Americans made no attempt at justification, leading a blatant offensive war orchestrated to secure U.S. imperial possessions. General Butler performed his duty as a soldier, successfully securing the town of Noveleta from Filipino insurrectos — independence fighters. The war lasted three years, and the U.S. retained the Philippines until 1946.

After three decades of service, General Butler eventually came to believe that the American corporate elite exploited these wars to maximize profits, as the territories ceded from Spain were rich in fertile land, minerals, oil, and other resources. In fact, this period of U.S. intervention in Latin America in now known by scholars as the Banana Wars, a reference to the immense profitability of certain cash crops, such as bananas, which drove U.S. companies to use violent measures to maintain power. As General Butler himself said:

I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from 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, a gangster for capitalism. 

I helped make Mexico, 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 benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could 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.

After retiring in 1931, he became a popular advocate for those anguished by the Great Depression. In particular, the fate of the Bonus Army troubled him. When WWI veterans marched on D.C. to demand the immediate payment for their service, they were driven back by tear gas, tanks, and police officers. The government’s cruel response to the poverty occasioned by the collapse of the U.S. financial system made General Butler question the system he had fought to defend. By 1933 he was touring the country, delivering speeches denouncing war profiteering and corporate power. 

His speeches became so popular that he decided to officially publish them, and in 1935 War is a Racket was released. This fantastic little book is well worth a read; within it, he articulates his argument in simple, direct terms. It is not a comprehensive analysis of the military industrial complex, but rather a passionate call for action by a man who dedicated his life to what he believed was a just cause. 

War is a Racket presents a way to resolutely end imperialist wars: simply take the profit out of them. Simply “conscript” all the industries that profit off of war and eliminate their ability to collect immense wealth from the war effort.

Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our munitions makers and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted — to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.

General Butler’s plan was never implemented. Instead, the defense budget ballooned and the profits of military industries continue to soar to this day. President Eisenhower is famous for coining the phrase “military industrial complex” and cautioning against corruption in the U.S. military, but General Butler’s earlier activism is often forgotten. His insistence on taking the profit out of national defense would foreshadow modern criticisms of the “war on terror.” Although the anti-war movement survived after he died in 1940, it never made any real progress in dismantling the “racket” and I conjecture General Butler would have been very disappointed by the current state of U.S. interventionism. Both parties are fundamentally committed to keeping us involved in these endless conflicts, and there is no popular movement which could effectively change this state of affairs. However, if war profiteering and defense lobbying are eventually put an end to, then we would owe a huge debt to General Butler for trying to “smash the war racket” nearly 90 years ago.



Categories: Domestic Affairs

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