Thursday, August 20, 2009

Semper Fi, Racketeers Repent

I was thinking of Smedley Butler - always running into references to his "war is a racket" - and I asked myself something I've never asked self before - why/how does a man of Butler's background go from 33 years active duty, a chest full of medals, some of the highest honors a soldier can receive - how did he become a late-blooming "peacenik"?

Butler says in his 1935 pamphlet: "Truthfulness compels me to. I spent 33 years and 4 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."

Butler joined the military just shy of his 17th birthday in 1898. After WWI he assumed command of the Marine Barracks at Quantico, Va., transforming what had been a temporary wartime camp into a permanent Marine installation. From January 1924 to December 1925, Brig. Gen. Butler was granted a leave of absence from the Corps to serve as director of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Safety, in an attempt to militarize the police force; but mainly a "supercop" closing down speakeasies and bootleggers, cleaning up Philly's vice. There was another temporary leave of absence, for 9 months in 1908, for a "nervous breakdown" although during that time Butler worked in the West Virginia coal mining business; odd as this was the era of the "Rebellion in the Coal Fields". Hmmm... was Butler acting as "a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers" on the home front?

The difficulty is finding the truth from history - which pushes predominantly the material written by supporters and detractors who paint larger than life legends, while the stark factual record raises more questions than it answers.

Butler returned to active duty in 1926, assuming command of the Marine base at San Diego, and a year later returned to China as commander of an MEF sent to protect American interests in Shanghai during a period of intense Chinese nationalist revolutionary activity. Not a traditional military expedition, this was among the first of what would now be called American peacekeeping missions. To the surprise of many, Butler executed his duties with great sensitivity and diplomatic skill. Twice the Chinese awarded him their ceremonial Umbrella of Ten Thousand Blessings, possibly the first foreigner ever to receive that honor.

Even 80 years ago the "racket" was sometimes a "peacekeeping mission."

Butler served around the world, wounded several times; earned more medals than I care to list, until 1931 when he requested retirement. What happened? Does a leopard change its spots?

In 1930, Smedley was expected to be named Commandant of the Marine Corps, but the position was given to Ben Fuller. Butler's father, Thomas, was an influential career congress critter from Pennsylvania, serving from 1897 to 1928, reelected 16 times until he died in office. His father's influence helped Smedley's life and military career. Had his father been alive in 1930 would Butler have been given the commandant promotion?

It seems he was unpopular with pols and powerful civilians for his loose lip over the years. Not loose in that he exposed government/military secrets or wrong doing - but he was known to gossip publicly about powerful people who didn't appreciate it. After his pass on the promotion he did state in a 1931 Liberty magazine interview that he was going to "do a little swatting of some heads of some low-down-bums who tried to ruin my life for me." Was Butler's anti-war stance born from job politics and personal grudges, or was he a genuine born-again anti-imperialist peace activist?

Still, in 1932 Smed was not quite ready to join the Socialist or Communist club - instead he ran for the US senate as a republican from Pennsylvania, daddy's old slot. Butler lost. This is when he apparently turned "left" - anti-war, anti-imperialism. While many think he was also anti-capitalist I find no information to solidly support the idea. He may have been anti-war, anti-imperialism, an isolationist, and against war profiteering, but he didn't appear to be anti-capitalist anywhere other than in the mind of the "left" who too often assume anyone against war and profiteering is anti-capitalism.

Between 1935 and 1937 Butler served as a spokesman for the American League Against War and Fascism (which some considered communist-dominated). The '30s were an era when the communist party in the US saw growth and popularity among the working class, as it did in Europe. But that popularity was brief - after Hitler and Stalin divided up eastern Europe in 1939, the US communist party lost members, and where communists once supported FDR by 1939-40 they considered him a warmonger.

Before the romance of socialism/communism had worn off though, but after Butler's commandant and senatorial loss, in 1934 he made news with the FDR plot, or the Business Plot - a political conspiracy in which wealthy businessmen plotted a coup d’├ętat to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1934, Butler testified that a group of wealthy pro-Fascist industrialists had been plotting to overthrow the government and had approached him to lead it. The investigation supposedly found some merit to the allegations - but was that truth or a ploy to bolster support for FDR who angered many capitalists by signing new acts and new deals - the mood then was much as it is today, from a 1930s cartoon : "spend, spend, spend under guise of recovery, bust the government, blame the capitalists." The tinfoil crowd today claims Prescott Bush was one of the Business Plot plotters.

Butler reportedly was against fascism, so ask yourself - would fascist businessmen hire a man who was anti-fascism to lead a fascist coup? If that makes sense to you, please enlighten me. Butler initially supported FDR but later did not, maybe because FDR praised Benito :

FDR: "I don't mind telling you in confidence that I am keeping in fairly close touch with that admirable Italian gentleman."
FDR: "There seems to be no question that [Mussolini] is really interested in what we are doing and I am much interested and deeply impressed by what he has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy. " (Comments on Benito Mussolini in 1933, as quoted in Three New Deals : Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939 (2006) by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, p. 31.)

So again, why would fascist businessmen want to overthrow FDR when in 1933, at the time of Butler's allegations, Frankie D. didn't seem to have a problem with fascists? Who better to serve the US fascists than the FDR of 1933 who found Benito an honest and admirable gentleman?

Butler's Business Plot conspiracy alone is enough to question his sanity. Butler also alleged Douglas McArthur had organized the 1936 assassination of Huey Long. Huey's 1936 presidential bid promised to name Butler as Secretary of War.

Who better to drive the masses into the arms of tyranny than a man like Butler who spent more than half his life warring and profiting and suddenly "sees the light," who can emphatically state the depression era misery is due to the profiteering he himself participated in for 33 years and 4 months? Would that "muscle man" blurb have been written if Butler had won that 1932 congressional seat? Or would Smed have been a John Kerry of the 1930s - the wounded warrior turned pacifist? Someone who would have posed on a peace platform but approve every round of war funding? Or a John Murtha who was for war before he was against it and who's district and family members grow fat on defense pork? Or perhaps Butler would have been a Kucinich - the token "leftist" trotted out every 4 years to make chatter and change nothing.

Butler did not see action in WWI, he was in China, and he attempted to return one of his Medals of Honor awarded in 1914 for service in Mexico, stating he had done nothing to deserve it. He was told to keep it which he did; the medal toss was not part of pop culture in the 1930s. His second Medal was for suppressing Caco rebels in 1915 Haiti, where Smed boasted of his exploits and that his men "hunted the Cacos like pigs."

We, the commoners, know war is a racket - old adages are proof of that. Question is, why did it take Butler 33 years and 4 months to connect the dots, to publicly claim he was a thug for Big Business? Did "truthfulness compel" Smedley to renounce war and imperialism, or was he guided by expediency rather than principle because of the socialist-leaning hope and change political winds of the 1930s?

(What I would like to know but unlikely to find, is how did Butler feel about black Americans in uniform? In WWI 400,000 black soldiers served in the armed forces. Over half of the black American men who served in the war were stationed in France, my dad was exposed to mustard gas in France in 1918, never received a dime in compensation but had a cough the rest of his life.).

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