Warrior for peace.
SMEDLEY BUTLER was a real hero of the Old Republic. He served with distinction in the Marine Corps for more than 30 years, rose to the rank of major general, was awarded the Medal of Honor twice. He strove to be in the midst of the action, and he frequently succeeded. But as compelling as his service record is, Butler's career after the Marines is what makes his story so fascinating: in retirement, Butler became a populist firebrand and antiwar activist.
With Devil Dog, David Talbot gives the old general the treatment he deserves. The book is the first in a line of what its publisher calls "pulp history." It is a brief biography of the general with illustrations by radical underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez. Devil Dog doesn't purport to be comprehensive, but it is an appropriate treatment for a man whose life appears to have been ripped right out of pulp fiction.
Butler faced danger many times in his career. Talbot describes a 1912 incident in Nicaragua that made him a Marine legend. While attempting to guide a train through a dangerous area, Butler was confronted by a rebel leader who threatened to shoot if the cars moved. "The World stopped ... if he backed down, he would humiliate his beloved Marine Corps.... In a flash, Butler made a grab for the rebel's gun, snatching it from the shocked man's grip. Then for a theatrical flourish, the marine emptied the cartridges onto the ground. There was stunned silence. And, suddenly, hundreds of men--Nicaraguans and Americans--all burst into laughter. The death spell had been broken."
Butler was decades away from becoming an antiwar activist, but he was already trouble by his mission in Nicaragua, which was to shore up U.S. banking interests. He wrote to his wife, "it is terrible that we should be losing so many men, all because Brown Bros. have some money down here."
The Marine Corps' fateful occupation of Haiti added to Butler's notoriety. The Marines landed on the dirty streets of Port au Prince in July 1915, and the occupation continued until 1934, three years after Butler retired. Woodrow Wilson was president when it began, and U.S. occupations were supposed to be based on high-minded ideals, not the needs of Wall Street. Wilson wanted the other countries in the hemisphere to join the United States "upon those great heights where there shines, unobstructed, the light of the justice of God." Butler had seen enough in his years of service to question Wilson's rhetoric and characterized the Marines' role in Haiti as "glorified bill collectors" for the National City Bank of New York.
Yet Butler effectively became Haiti's ruler. He dissolved the Haitian National Assembly to keep it from ratifying a constitution detrimental to U.S. business interests and established a gendarmerie of Haitian "chocolate soldiers" to maintain order. Butler also received a Medal of Honor in Haiti: he and two of his men charged through a drainage tunnel into a fort against direct fire from Haitian rebels, creating an opportunity for their fellow Marines to come in and defeat the undisciplined Haitians.
The Haitian adventure would become a source of irritation for Butler. His role there effectively kept him out of action during World War I, though he eventually made it to France. Later, a Senate investigation of the occupation threatened to bring opprobrium on Butler's cherished Marine Corps. Marines had employed torture and used slave labor to build and repair roads. Butler, Talbot writes, "took a pugnacious attitude toward the proceedings. Though the worst abuses occurred after he left, he felt that the honor of his beloved USMC was at stake. The marines were being used as scapegoats for Washington's controversial Haiti policy."
Though Butler didn't make it to the trenches, he would still manage to distinguish himself while in France. Before he arrived, the U.S. Marines had already earned the moniker--devil dog--that would stick and become a favorite in the Corps. Butler, meanwhile, soon became a brigadier general and received one of his favorite nicknames. His troop ship had been stricken with the Spanish Flu before landing at Camp Pontanezen in Brest, France. To his chagrin, Butler was given command of the camp, whose muddy condition was scandalous. He lifted his men out of the muck by seizing warehouses full of duckboard--wooden pallets used for trench floors. Ignoring the army quartermaster, who refused to release the duckboard without proper authorization, Butler "rounded up 7,000 men from the camp and marched them down to the docks. Bursting into the warehouses, they brushed past the startled sentries and helped themselves to the stacks of duckboard," which they used to form walkways in the camp and raise the troops out of the mud. For this, Butler earned the sobriquet, "General Duckboard."
While Butler saw no combat in the war, he did see its horrifying results in the mangled bodies and souls of the men who returned from the Western Front. "They had been swept into the jaws of an industrial killing machine.... Some of them had been mangled in breathtaking ways--shorn-off noses and chins, melted faces. But the ones whose wounds were inside seemed even more deeply broken. Shellshocked, the doctors called it."
Butler retired from the Marine Corps in 1931, but he continued to distinguish himself as an active citizen, making a failed run for the U.S. Senate--his father had been a powerful member of the House for years--and supporting Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Talbot discusses Butler's support for the Bonus Expeditionary Force, Great War veterans and their family members who marched on Washington and set up camp to demand an early payment of service certificates that were to be disbursed in 1945. Butler shared a meal with the protesters and told them that they had "as much right to lobby here as the United States Steel Corporation!"
The marchers were eventually violently dispersed by U.S. Army forces led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Devil Dog contrasts MacArthur and Butler, men of about the same age whose paths crossed many times. "If Smedley Butler was a soldier's general--the kind who would join a doughboy in the chow line or carry his rucksack--Douglas MacArthur was the very epitome of the imperial general. Butler couldn't stand his fellow war hero; he thought he was a stuffed shirt and an elitist."
Butler's hour of greatest notoriety arrived when he denounced militarism and indicted his own service record. Butler declaimed that he had been a "racketeer for capitalism"--intervening abroad to protect the financial interests of the wealthy and powerful. In the pages of the leftist magazine Common Sense, Butler discussed his career: "I helped purify Nicaragua for the International House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912.... I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil when on its way unmolested.... Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents." Butler fleshed out his denunciation of militarism in his aptly titled pamphlet War is a Racket.
The final chapter of Devil Dog covers Butler's exposure of a plot against the White House concocted by titans of industry. Two visitors came to see him in 1933 with what appeared to Butler to be an offer to take over the American Legion, but soon he realized that much more was involved. "They wanted him to mobilize 500,000 veterans and march on Washington. They knew he could do it--they had seen him at work during the Bonus March and at veteran's rallies across America. The show of force would compel President Roosevelt to step aside, and Butler would ... run the country along with a committee of Wall Street financiers." The plot was farfetched, but the conspirators appeared to be serious. Robert S. Clark, heir to the Singer sewing-machine fortune, met with Butler and told him that he was willing to spend half of his own $30 million fortune.
Butler exposed the plot to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1934. The committee to took his charges seriously but failed to call some of the powerful figures he implicated, including members of the DuPont family and representatives of powerful banking interests. Butler took to the airwaves to denounce HUAC, asking "why didn't this committee call all the important figures mentioned in my testimony--men like Colonel Grayson, M.P. Murphy [both of the anti-FDR American Liberty League] and General Douglas MacArthur?"
Devil Dog does not cover the last years of Butler's life, in which he spent a great deal of time denouncing war and militarism. Maverick Marine, by Hans Schmidt, relates Butler's life in greater detail, though with less flair. Talbot writes that "as Hitler's juggernaut menaced Europe, Butler clearly wrestled with his antiwar convictions." Yet Butler told the head of a Republican women's group in 1940, as quoted in Schmidt, " I feel sure there is no use talking any more about this war business. The people of America are fools. If they want to have their children shot in order to keep Franklin Roosevelt on a pedestal, they will just have to do it."
Butler died shortly thereafter, and the country lost a true original. There has been no shortage of military men in the last decade to stand up and denounce the Iraq War--they include retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni and the Army's John Batiste, who retired as a major general rather than be promoted under Donald Rumsfeld. Decorated former Marine officer James Webb became a U.S. senator on an antiwar platform. But they all pale next to the powerful example of Smedley Darlington Butler, who closed War Is a Racket with an exclamation point: "I say, 'TO HELL WITH WAR!'"
Clark Stooksbury, a former Marine, writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.
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|Title Annotation:||Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America|
|Publication:||The American Conservative|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2011|
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