Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Remembering a Real American Hero: Smedley D. Butler

Originally posted on, Aug. 5, 2005

In an age of faux heroism, illustrated by the swagger and tough talk of our "president," we should perhaps take time to remember a real American hero.

July 30 was the birthday of Smedley D. Butler, born in 1881. Few Americans have heard of this two-time Medal of Honor winner, who rose to the rank of major general in the Marine Corps. But history teachers ought to note that Butler probably thwarted the first serious conspiracy toward a coup in the United States.

In 1933, soon after he retired from active duty, Butler alleged that he was approached by a representative of a group of super-rich business interests, led by the Du Pont and J.P. Morgan industrial empires, with a proposition. The representative, a top Wall Street bond salesman named Gerald MacGuire, was said to have tried to recruit Butler to lead a move to strip recently inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt of his political power.

Butler testified before a congressional committee that he was promised a militia of 500,000 men for a coup, after which Butler would assume near-absolute power as "secretary of general affairs," with Roosevelt retained as a figurehead. The men behind MacGuire feared a major redistribution of wealth by an FDR administration, and they were prepared to bankroll the force needed to prevent it.

The outcome of Butler's testimony was predictable. The press, at the time mostly owned by business-friendly conservatives, generally played the story way down. The tiny "reports" that did run ridiculed Butler and said he lacked evidence. Those whom he accused of the conspiracy, including former Democratic presidential nominees Al Smith and John W. Davis, professed innocence and did not come under public scrutiny. MacGuire -- known through his correspondence to have been an admirer of Mussolini's fascist rule in Italy -- was the panel's only open-session witness besides Butler. Of course, he told the lawmakers he never made such a proposition. The allegations are now a footnote in history.

But in 1967, journalist John Spivak vindicated Butler (who died in 1940) when he uncovered the House committee's internal, secret report. It clearly confirmed the story. The panel's public report was a whitewash and even omitted the names of the powerful men whom Butler accused.

This was not the only time Butler tangled with the early U.S. military-industrial complex. He had seen its operations firsthand many times, and blew the whistle on it. In a speech delivered in 1933, the same year he went public about the conspiracy, Butler told his audience:

"War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the few at the expense of the masses. ...

"I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

"There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its 'finger men' to point out enemies, its 'muscle men' to destroy enemies, its 'brain men' to plan war preparations, and a 'Big Boss' Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.

"It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. 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 suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

"I helped make Mexico ... 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. ... I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. ... I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped 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 operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."

Today we have other names -- Iraq, Halliburton, Diebold, Rove. We've had two Bush administrations; the first was at best legally questionable, the second possibly elected through voting irregularities in the deciding state and high-tech rigging in others. The stench of war for profit, and of crypto-fascism, is in the air.

Those who discuss this odor are being either ridiculed or ignored by the mainstream media. Perhaps they will be vindicated one day, as Butler was.

Meanwhile, let's honor a real hero, a man who blew the whistle on nascent American fascism.

HISTORICAL SOURCES: Wikipedia; excerpts from an online transcript of a 1933 speech by Smedley D. Butler