Smedley Darlington Butler, Major General - United States
Marine Corps (Retired) was born in West Chester, Pa.,
two old and distinguished families of Quakers. His father was Thomas S.
Butler, for over thirty years a Representative in Congress from the
Delaware-Chester County district of Pennsylvania, and a longtime chairman of
the House Naval Affairs Committee. Smedley Darlington
Butler was educated at Haverford School and married Ethel Peters of
Philadelphia in June 30, 1905.
He joined the Marine Corps when the Spanish American War
and was still in his teens when he was appointed a Second Lieutenant.
In 1899, Lieutenant Butler was assigned to duty with the Marine Battalion
at Manila, Philippine Islands.
From June to October 1900, he served with
distinction in China during
the Boxer Rebellion
and was promoted to captain by brevet for distinguished conduct and public
service in the presence of the enemy near Tientsin, China where he was
wounded in battle.
Returning to the United States in 1901, he
served at various posts within the continental limits and on several ships.
He also served ashore in Puerto Rico and the Isthmus of Panama for short
periods. In 1909, he commanded the 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment on the
Isthmus of Panama.
he was temporarily detached to command an expeditionary battalion organized
for service in Nicaragua, and participated in the bombardment, assault and
capture of Coyotepe in October. He remained on duty in Nicaragua until
November 1912, when he rejoined the Marines at Camp Elliott, Panama.
Then a Major, h
was awarded two congressional medals of honor for
distinguished conduct in battle
in the capture of Vera Cruz, Mexico in 1914. Maj. Butler was "eminent and
conspicuous in command of his battalion. He exhibited courage and skill in
leading his men through the action of the 22d and in the final occupation of
The following year, he was awarded the second Medal of Honor for bravery and
forceful leadership as Commanding Officer of detachments of Marines and
seamen of the USS Connecticut in repulsing Caco resistance on Fort
Riviere, Haiti, 17 November 1915.
Capture of Fort Riviere, Haiti, 1915, by D. J. Neary; illustrations of Maj
Smedley Butler, Sgt Iams, and Pvt Gross (USMC art collection)
As Commanding Officer of detachments from the 5th, 13th,
23d Companies and the marine and sailor detachment from the U.S.S.
Connecticut, Maj. Butler led the attack on Fort Riviere, Haiti, 17 November
1915. Following a concentrated drive, several different detachments of
marines gradually closed in on the old French bastion fort in an effort to
cut off all avenues of retreat for the Caco bandits. Reaching the fort on
the southern side where there was a small opening in the wall, Maj. Butler
gave the signal to attack and marines from the 15th Company poured through
the breach, engaged the Cacos in hand-to-hand combat, took the bastion and
crushed the Caco resistance.
In France during
World War I,
Butler was promoted to Major General and
commanded the 13th Regiment of Marines. For exceptionally meritorious
service, he was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy
Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star. When
he returned to the United States in 1919, he became Commanding General of
the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia,
where he was called
"Ol' Gimlet Eye,"
by the thousands of Marines he commanded.
He served in this capacity until January 1924
Unhappy with the Marine Corps bureaucracy,
he was granted leave of absence to accept the
post of Director of Public Safety of the City of Philadelphia,
but encountered much opposition from government officials who were in league
with the illegal liquor syndicates. In
February 1926, he assumed command of the Marine Corps Base at San Diego,
California. In March 1927, he returned to China for duty with the 3d Marine
Brigade. From April to October 31, he again commanded the Marine Barracks at
In July 1930, when the Commandant of the
Marine Corps Wendell C. Neville died unexpectedly, it was widely assumed
that the responsibility would pass to the most senior major general on the
active list, General Smedley Butler. But his candid comments regarding
military misapplication had won him many political enemies, including
President Hoover, and he was consequently denied the appointment. His
irritation increased when he was threatened with a court-martial due to an
uncomplimentary comment regarding Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
On 1 October 1931, he was retired upon his
own application after completion of 33 years' service in the Marine Corps.
About six months later, he stood before
20,000 frustrated World War 1 veterans who had surrounded Capitol Hill
in Washington DC. The men who had become unemployed by
the Great Depression, were gathered to lobby for an early payout of their
Service Certificates; a pension which had been granted to them in 1924,
but was not scheduled to be paid for another thirteen years. "Old Gimlet
Eye" Butler spoke to the marchers amidst a storm of applause, describing the
event as "the greatest demonstration of Americanism we've ever had." Three
days later, two cavalry regiments led by Douglas Macarthur descended upon
the veterans' encampment. Brandishing rifles, bayonets, and tear gas, the
soldiers scattered the Bonus Army and set their shanty town ablaze in
violation of orders by Hoover.
To earn extra income Butler became a lecturer throughout
the 1930's, speaking against American armed
intervention into the affairs of sovereign nations. Throughout his life,
Butler demonstrated that true patriotism does not mean blind allegiance to
government policies with which one does not agree.
In 1932, Butler
was a Republican Candidate for Senate and in 1933 he was asked to head an
alternative government by right-wing industrialists.
Big Business plots to
In the summer of 1933,
shortly after Roosevelt's "First 100 Days," America's richest businessmen
were in a panic. It was clear that Roosevelt intended to conduct a massive
redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. He had to be stopped at
Their answer was a military coup. It was to be secretly financed and
organized by leading officers of the Morgan and Du Pont empires. This
included some of America's richest and most famous names of the time:
- Irenee Du Pont -
Right-wing chemical industrialist, founder, American Liberty League,
assigned to execute plot.
- Grayson Murphy -
Director of Goodyear, Bethlehem Steel and a group of J.P. Morgan banks.
- William Doyle - Former
state commander of the American Legion and a central plotter of the coup.
- John Davis - Former
Democratic presidential candidate and a senior attorney for J.P. Morgan.
- Al Smith - Roosevelt's
political foe, former governor New York, codirector of the American
- John J. Raskob* - A
high-ranking Du Pont officer and a former chairman of the Democratic
- Robert Clark - One of
Wall Street's richest bankers and stockbrokers.
- Gerald MacGuire - Bond
salesman for Clark, former commander of the Connecticut American Legion.
*In later decades, Raskob would become a
"Knight of Malta," a Roman Catholic Religious Order with a high percentage
of CIA spies, including CIA Directors William Casey, William Colby and John
The plotters attempted to recruit General
Smedley Butler to lead the coup.
They selected him because he was a war
hero who was popular with the troops. The plotters felt his good reputation
was important to make the troops feel confident that they were doing the
right thing by overthrowing a democratically elected president.
However, this was a mistake: Butler was
popular with the troops because he identified with them. That is, he was a
man of the people, not the elite.
When the plotters approached General
Butler with their proposal to lead the coup, he pretended to go along with
the plan at first, secretly deciding to betray it to Congress at the right
What the businessmen proposed was dramatic. They wanted General Butler to
deliver an ultimatum to Roosevelt. Roosevelt would pretend to become sick
and incapacitated from his polio, and allow a newly created cabinet officer,
a "Secretary of General Affairs," to run things in his stead. The secretary,
of course, would be carrying out the orders of Wall Street. If Roosevelt
refused, then General Butler would force him out with an army of 500,000 war
veterans from the American Legion.
MacGuire assured Butler the cover story
would work: "You know the American people will swallow that. We have got the
newspapers. We will start a campaign that the President's health is failing.
Everyone can tell that by looking at him, and the dumb American people will
fall for it in a second."
The businessmen also promised that money
was no object: Clark told Butler that he would spend half his $60 million
fortune to save the other half.
And what type of government would replace Roosevelt's New Deal?
MacGuire was perfectly candid to Paul
French, a reporter friend of General Butler's: "We need a fascist government
in this country… to save the nation from the communists who want to tear it
down and wreck all that we have built in America. The only men who have the
patriotism to do it are the soldiers, and Smedley Butler is the ideal
leader. He could organize a million men overnight."
Indeed, it turns out that MacGuire
travelled to Italy to study Mussolini's fascist state, and came away
mightily impressed. He wrote glowing reports back to his boss, Robert Clark,
suggesting that they implement the same thing.
If this sounds too fantastic to believe, we should remember that by 1933,
the crimes of fascism were still mostly in the future, and its dangers were
largely unknown, even to its supporters. But in the early days, many
businessmen openly admired Mussolini because he had used a strong hand to
deal with labor unions, put out social unrest, and get the economy working
again, if only at the point of a gun.
Americans today would be appalled to learn
of the many famous millionaires back then who initially admired Hitler and
Mussolini: Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, John and Allen Dulles, who,
besides being millionaires, would later become Eisenhower's Secretary of
State and CIA Director, respectively, and, of course, everyone on the above
list. They disavowed Hitler and Mussolini only after their atrocities grew
to indefensible levels.
The plot fell apart when Butler went public.
The general revealed the details of the
coup before the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, which would later become the
notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. The Committee heard the
testimony of Butler and French, but failed to call in any of the coup
plotters for questioning, other than MacGuire. In fact, the Committee
whitewashed the public version of its final report, deleting the names of
powerful businessmen whose reputations they sought to protect. The most
likely reason for this response is that Wall Street had undue influence in
Even more alarming, the elite controlled
media failed to pick up on the story, and even today the incident remains
little known. The elite managed to spin the story as nothing more than the
rumors and hearsay of Butler and French, even though Butler was a Quaker of
unimpeachable honesty and integrity. Butler, appalled by the cover-up, went
on national radio to denounce it, but with little success. Butler was
finally vindicated in 1967, when journalist John Spivak uncovered the
Committee's internal, secret report.
MacGuire denied [Butler's] allegations
under oath, but the committee was able to verify all the pertinent
statements made to General Butler, with the exception of the direct
statement suggesting the creation of the organization. This, however, was
corroborated in the correspondence of MacGuire with his principle, Robert
Sterling Clark, of New York City, while MacGuire was abroad studying the
various form of veterans' organizations of Fascist character.
Ultimately the investigative HUAC committee concluded that
there was indeed compelling evidence of a plot, as outlined in their report:
"In the last few weeks of the Committee's official life it
received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to
establish a fascist organization in this country…. There is no question but
that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed
in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.
"This committee received evidence from Major General Smedley D. Butler
(retired), twice decorated by the Congress of the United States. He
testified before the Committee as to conversations with one Gerald C.
MacGuire in which the latter is alleged to have suggested the formation of a
fascist army under the leadership of General Butler.
"MacGuire denied these allegations under oath, but your Committee was able
to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler, with the
exception of the direct statement suggesting the creation of the
organization. This, however, was corroborated in the correspondence of
MacGuire with his principal, Robert Sterling Clark, of New York City, while
MacGuire was abroad studying the various forms of veterans' organizations of
Even a 1936 letter to Roosevelt from William Dodd, the US
Ambassador to Germany, failed to prompt any action:
"A clique of U.S. industrialists is hell-bent to bring
a fascist state to supplant our democratic government and is working
closely with the fascist regime in Germany and Italy. I have had plenty
of opportunity in my post in Berlin to witness how close some of our
American ruling families are to the Nazi regime…. A prominent executive
of one of the largest corporations, told me point blank that he would be
ready to take definite action to bring fascism into America if President
Roosevelt continued his progressive policies."
Butler died of cancer at Naval Hospital, Philadelphia,
June 21, 1940. Throughout his life of war and perilous action, Maj. Butler
was conspicuous for his bravery and forceful leadership.
General Smedley Butler speaks out: