The Plot To Seize The White House
By Jules Archer
The Indispensable Man
Smedley Darlington Butler was born July 30, 1881, in West Chester,
Pennsylvania, the first of three sons. Both his parents came from
old and distinguished Quaker families. Some of his forebears
included pacifists who had operated an underground railroad station
for runaway slaves, and grandparents who had joined the Union Army
to defend Gettysburg against Robert E. Lee's army.
On his mother's side he was descended from the Hicksite branch of
the Society of Friends and Congressman Smedley Darlington, the
grandfather for whom he was named. His paternal lineage traced back
to Noble Butler, who came to America shortly after William Penn.
His father, Thomas S. Butler, was a bluntly outspoken judge who
spent thirty-two years in Congress, where he wielded great influence
as chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee. Once when he had
advocated a large Navy, a close Quaker friend reproached him, "Thee
is a fine Friend!"
"Thee," the fine Friend snorted, "is a damn fool!"
The Quaker archaisms thee, thy, and thine were used only within the
family and sometimes to intimate friends. The Quakerism of both
Thomas Butler and his son Smedley was of that order of earlier
hot-tempered Quakers who belabored each other with wagon tongues,
while pausing between the hearty blows they exchanged to invoke
Smedley picked up some of his father's uninhibited language as early
as age five, inviting maternal chastisement until his father went to
his defense by roaring, "I don't want a son who doesn't know how to
use an honest damn now and then!"
Reared in upper-class comfort with a politically prominent father,
grandfather, and uncles, it was taken for granted that he was marked
for prominence. Subtle pressures were exerted by four maiden aunts
who adored and fussed over their first nephew, keeping him in golden
curls and dressing him in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Jeering
peers who mistook the clothes for the boy found his fistwork as
fancy as his finery.
Stirred by tales of both his grandfathers in the Union Army, he
developed a passionate love for tin soldiers, toy cannon, and books
with pictures of battles. His mother, Maud Darlington Butler, sought
to inculcate peaceful doctrines in her son by taking him to Hicksite
Quaker meeting twice a week and sending him to the Friends' grade
school in West Chester.
However, his early fascination with things martial persisted. When
he was twelve, he joined a West Chester branch of the Boys' Brigade,
a preparedness youth movement that went in for military drills. His
father had no objection and even bought his son the first uniform
Smedley ever wore. He felt proud.
At Haverford Preparatory School near Philadelphia, a popular choice
of old Quaker families, he joined both the baseball and the football
teams. Although he was younger and lighter than his teammates, his
fighting spirit, qualities of leadership, candor, and fair dealing
made him highly popular and won him the captaincy of both teams.
He was only a little over sixteen and a half on February 15, 1898,
when the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor at 9:40 P.M.
Americans began chanting, "Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain,"
around public bonfires, and volunteer companies marched happily off
to war singing, "We'll Hang General Weyler to a Sour Apple Tree."
Young Butler found himself swept up by the excitement. Struggling
with math and English seemed a hopelessly insipid pursuit, with the
newspapers full of blazing accounts of the terrible brutality of
Spanish masters of the little Caribbean island they had enslaved.
Smedley yearned to join the noble crusade to liberate Cuba in the
company of the fine fellows he saw marching off from West Chester
Fearful of revealing his aspirations to his parents, he attempted a
fait accompli by seeking to enlist with the 6th Pennsylvania
Volunteers in his hometown. Rejected as under age, he braced himself
to corner his father in the sunlit library of their house on Miner
Street one morning.
"Father," he said, "I want to enlist. Thee could get me into the
Navy, as an apprentice, if necessary."
Thomas Butler tugged at his thick handlebar moustache with stubby
fingers, regarding his slender son skeptically. "I have known of thy
desire to go to war. But thee is too young."
Smedley's jaw jutted. "If thee won't help me, I'll run away and join
the general army!"
"If thee does, it will avail thee nothing," his father said quietly.
"I will see that they discharge thee."
One night the crestfallen youth overheard his father tell his mother
privately that Congress had authorized an increase of the Marine
Corps by two thousand men and twenty-four second lieutenants for the
duration of the war. "The Marine Corps is a finely trained body of
men," his father said. "Too bad Smedley is so young. He seems
determined to go."
A new idea took root. Smedley had seen a Marine in West Chester-a
young god in a magnificent uniform of dark blue coat decorated with
many shiny buttons, and light blue trousers with scarlet stripes
running down the seams. Wouldn't a fellow cut a fine figure in that!
That night he fell asleep with visions of himself as a faultlessly
tailored Marine charging up a Cuban hill, his Mamluk hilt sword
pointed forward, inspiring the men behind him in a victorious
At breakfast, heart pounding, he gave his mother an ultimatum. "I'm
going to be a Marine. If thee doesn't come with me and give me thy
permission, I'll hire a man to say he is my father. And I'll run
away and enlist in some faraway regiment where I'm not known!"
His mother reluctantly agreed to accompany him by train to Marine
Corps headquarters in Washington, without telling his father. In the
competitive examination for Marine lieutenants he ranked second
among two hundred applicants. Joyfully he heard the gates of
childhood close behind him; ahead beckoned the exciting world of
manhood and adventure. But he swallowed hard when he had to face his
father and admit that he had won acceptance in the Marine Corps by
adding two years to his age.
"Well," his father sighed. "if thee is determined to go, thee shall
go. But don't add another year to thy age, my son. Thy mother and I
weren't married until 1879!"
He could scarcely contain his pride when his lean, wiry frame was
encased in a crisp new uniform. Only average in height with sloping
shoulders, one higher than the other, the new second lieutenant
nevertheless managed to look properly fierce because of a long,
large nose and a pair of blazing, protruding eyes that gave him the
bold look of a young adventurer. Huge-handed, he had a husky voice
that quickly developed into a leatherneck growl, and a lively sense
of humor that appealed to his fellow Marines.
His first glimpse of war came the day he arrived at Santiago, Cuba,
on July 1, 1898, past a Spanish cruiser still burning in the harbor.
Rigid with excitement, he boarded another ship that took him to
Guantanamo Bay, where he joined the Marine Battalion of the North
Next day Mancil C. Goodrell, the captain of Butler's company, took
him on a two-man reconnaissance of enemy positions. As they moved
along a mountain trail, a shot rang out, and a bullet whizzed past
Butler's head. He flung himself prone and hugged the earth, his
heart beating wildly.
"What in hell is the matter?" Goodrell demanded.
"That was a ... bullet."
"Well, what if it was? A little excitement now and then keeps you
from going stale."
Soldiering under Goodrell, who had had no formal military education,
Butler became infused with the spirit of the Corps. He relished the
bonds of comradeship, the fierce loyalties, the cool courage, the
pride in being a Marine that united men who considered themselves a
The officers were all professional soldiers who chewed tobacco,
drank raw whiskey, cursed a blue streak, drilled the tails off their
troops in garrison, and were experts on the Lee straightpull 6-mm.
rifle, Gatling gun, and Hotchkiss revolving cannon.
Thoroughly unorthodox, wild in their humor, they were fierce
warriors who set an example for their men in battle by often
fighting on after they were wounded.
In young Butler's eyes they were heroes all.
He was enormously proud of his first two decorations-the Spanish and
West Indian Campaign medals. But he was even prouder simply of being
a full-fledged leatherneck who had shared the bonds of a campaign
with the Marines of Guantanamo. By the time his battalion returned
home, he and two other young Marine officers-John A. Lejuene and
Buck Neville had become an inseparable trio. Lejuene and Neville
were each destined to rise to the rank of commandant of the Marine
"The Spanish-American War was a high point in my life when I went to
it at the age of sixteen," Butler later reminisced wryly, "to defend
my home in Pennsylvania against the Spaniards in Cuba."
Commissioned a first lieutenant on April 8, 1899, Butler left four
days later with a battalion of three hundred Marines bound for the
Philippines. Emilio Aguinaldo had begun a revolution against
American occupation of the islands following Spain's surrender.
He led his company at the head of a battalion attack on Nocaleta, a
fiercely defended rebel stronghold that the Spaniards had never been
able to take. Stumbling onto concealed trenches and rifle pits, his
company met with a blanket of heavy fire. The men went prone,
waiting for his orders.
Desperation overcoming fright, Butler sprang to his feet, waving the
company to charge and open fire. The battle drove the insurgents
back from the trench. He pursued them through waist-high rice
paddies until they turned and fled.
He grew increasingly confident of his ability to survive after
several more skirmishes had driven the Aguinaldo forces north to
mountain strongholds. His pride in the Corps kept growing. When a
Japanese tattoist turned up in the Navy yard at Cavite, he had an
enormous Marine Corps emblem tattoed across his chest. Infection
from the tattoist's needle brought him down with a raging fever.
In June, 1900, he was ordered to a new Asian outpost of trouble
under Major Littleton Tazewell Waller, a crusty bantam of a man with
a fierce moustache. The Marines sailed for China to rescue the
American legation, which had been imperiled by the Boxer uprising.
The expedition numbered only a hundred Marines, but by the time they
arrived in China, the situation had reached crisis proportions.
All of North China was now up in arms against the foreign powers who
had carved the country into colonial spheres of influence. The
Chinese bitterly resented the alien flags that flew over the
imperialist compounds and the foreign ships that dominated Chinese
ports, flooding the country with Western goods. Most infuriating of
all were entrance signs the foreign legations had posted at their
luxurious clubs: "Forbidden to dogs and Chinese." Eventually the
allied nations had to send over 100,000 troops to protect their
The eighteen-year-old Butler, who had no understanding of the
political causes of the Boxer Rebellion, saw his role simply as that
of a Marine doing his duty to protect American citizens on foreign
soil. Waller received word that the legation compound at Tientsin,
twenty-five miles inland, was in desperate straits. A small
defending force of allied soldiers was trying to hold off fifty
thousand attacking Boxers.
Waller, Butler, and their ninety-eight men were joined by a column
of four hundred Russians also en route to relieve the siege. At a
gray mud village later known as Boxertown, bursts of heavy fire
suddenly exploded from trenches on all sides. The Russians, who
received the brunt of it, fell back swiftly through the lines of the
Marines. Waller's men flattened on the plain, returning the fire.
Three Marines were killed, nine wounded. Ordered to withdraw, Butler
counted noses and found a private named Carter missing. With a
lieutenant named Harding and four privates, he ran a gauntlet of
fire to search for him. Locating Carter in a ditch, Butler found
that his leg had been broken. While the four privates fought off
Boxers, Butler and Harding removed their shirts to bandage Carter's
legs together, carrying him off between them. It took them an
excruciating four hours to fight seven miles through the whine of
persistent bullets to catch up with the company. Tripped several
times by his sword, Butler unbuckled it in exasperation and flung it
During the weary retreat of the Marines, Butler constantly fought
off an urge to collapse and give himself over to sleep or death,
without caring too much which. Suddenly the crack of a bullet was
followed by a dull sound right next to him. Startled, he looked up
to see a stream of blood flowing down the face of a grizzled
sergeant. The veteran Marine made no sound, just scowled, pulled his
hat over the wound, and continued the pace of the march. It was an
image of tough Marine courage that engraved itself on Butler's
Stumbling on through a fierce North China dust storm with a raging
toothache, his heels rubbed raw by marches that began at 2:30 A.M.,
famished by hunger, Butler was so miserable that Boxer gunfire
seemed the mildest of his torments.
The Marines finally joined forces with a newly arrived column of
three thousand international troops and fought their way through to
the Tientsin compound. Routing a Chinese cohort, they broke the
siege as overjoyed women and children rushed out to hug their
The international troops defending the Tientsin compound were soon
reinforced by an allied army of seven thousand men. On July 13,
1900, they attacked the native walled city of Tientsin to rout the
Boxers from their stronghold. Butler was in the forefront of the
assault, which required breaking through an outer mud wall twenty
feet high and crossing fifteen hundred yards of rice paddies to an
inner high stone wall.
Leading his company through a hail of Chinese shells and snipers'
bullets, he climbed over the mud wall only to find himself dropping
into a moat. The Chinese had flooded the paddies between the walls.
He and his men splashed through the morass, slipping and lurching in
waist-high muck as they sought to fire their weapons. When they
approached the inner wall gate, thousands of Chinese on the wall
poured down a withering fire, forcing Butler to order a retreat.
A tall private next to him named Partridge was hit and seriously
wounded. Butler and two Marines carried him above water level
through the rain of bullets splashing around them.
A burning sensation in his right thigh puzzled Butler momentarily
until he realized he had been shot. Ignoring his wound, he continued
to help carry Partridge until they reached some high ground. There
he applied first aid to the private's wounds, then limped off in
search of a medic for him.
By the time he found a Marine doctor, blood was pouring copiously
out of his own wound. He protested volubly when the doctor, who
outranked him, insisted on treating him first. By the time he got
the doctor back to Partridge, the private was dead. Grieved and
angry, he refused to leave when the doctor ordered him to the rear
with the other wounded.
His first lieutenant, Henry Leonard, and a sergeant insisted on
dragging him off to the other side of the mud wall. Here he was
joined by a Marine lieutenant who had been wounded in the left leg.
Tying their disabled legs together, they hobbled three-legged back
to the nearest first-aid station. When they had been treated and
bandaged, they helped dress the wounds of hundreds of casualties now
Recommending Butler for promotion, Major Waller declared, "I have
before mentioned the fine qualities of Mr. Butler in control of men,
courage, and excellent example in his own person of all the
qualities most admirable in a soldier."
On July 23, 1900, a week before he turned nineteen, Butler was made
captain while recuperating in the hospital. The enlisted men who had
helped him rescue Private Carter at Boxertown received Medals of
Honor which, until 1914, were not awarded to officers. But Butler's
promotion took cognizance of his heroism, citing his "distinguished
conduct and public service in the presence of the enemy."
Insisting that his leg was fully healed, he painfully concealed a
limp until he had nagged the doctors into getting rid of him with a
hospital discharge so that he could lead his men on a march to
relieve the siege of Peking. They were part of a large, colorful
international army that included French Zouaves in red and blue,
Italian Bersaglieri with plumed helmets, Royal Welsh Fusiliers with
ribbons down their napes, Bengal cavalry on Arab stallions, turbaned
Sikhs, Germans in pointed helmets, and flamboyantly uniformed troops
of half a dozen other countries.
Butler's leg wound throbbed painfully, and he suffered spells of
sickness from polluted water and food. His stomach was not soothed
by sights en route to Peking: two Japanese soldiers, eyes and
tongues cut out, nailed to a door; an old Chinese mandarin pinned to
his bed by a huge sword; village streets strewn with fly-covered
corpses, their skulls smashed in. The Boxers were just as ruthless
with Chinese "traitors" as with luckless foreigners.
In one village a Chinese family, frightened by the allied army's
approach, jumped into a canal and tried to drown themselves. Butler
and his men rescued them and pinioned them firmly while an
interpreter explained that the troops would not harm them. After
some animated conversation, the interpreter told him, "Captain,
these people say that since you have saved their lives, you are
responsible for them as guardians and must now take care of them."
"Good-bye!" yelled Butler, racing off with his men. Reaching the
outskirts of Peking, they ran into blistering fire from the top of
the city's stone and mud wall. They joined a combined
five-thousand-man American and British force hastily digging a
trench before the city.
One British private left the trench in an attempt to wipe out a
Chinese strongpoint at one gate but was hit between the trench and
wall. Butler's friend, Henry Leonard, sped out to rescue him but was
shot and badly wounded. Clearing the trench at a bound, Butler raced
through fire to reach him, but Leonard proved able to scramble back
on his own, so Butler lifted the wounded Tommy on his back instead
and staggered back to the trench with him.
Just as he eased the British soldier over the parapet, a stunning
blow hit him in the chest. Whirling and falling, he lost
When he recovered, he heard one Marine say he'd been shot through
the heart. He tried to speak but found he had no breath to vocalize.
His shirt was torn open, and it was discovered that a bullet had
struck the second button of his military blouse, flattening it and
driving it into his chest. The button had gouged a hole in the eagle
of the Marine Corps emblem he had had tattooed on his chest in the
Philippines. The wound was not serious, although for weeks afterward
his bruised chest ached painfully, and he spat blood when he
He was later congratulated by General A. R. R. Dorward, commanding
general of the British contingent, who called Butler's rescue of the
wounded Tommy the bravest act he had ever seen on the battlefield
and recommended him for the Victoria Cross. But the American
Government in those days did not permit an American officer to
accept foreign decorations of any kind.
By August 14 Peking was in the hands of the allies, and the Boxer
Rebellion was crushed. Butler's company of Marines, the longest in
China, had suffered the greatest casualties in the
fighting-twenty-six killed or wounded. Exhausted, Butler now came
down with a bad case of typhoid fever that wasted his already spare
frame down to a skeletonized ninety pounds.
The ailing captain was shipped to a naval hospital at Cavite, from
which he was invalided home to San Francisco. Arriving on December
31, 1900, he was embraced at the port by his worried father and
mother, who had rushed to the West Coast to meet him. But during his
convalescence he had gained thirty pounds and was almost fully
recovered. He returned home with his parents resplendent in his
dress blues with two new decorations-a Marine Corps Brevet Medal for
"eminent and conspicuous personal bravery" and a China Campaign
The town of West Chester gave him a hero's reception attended by the
Secretary of the Navy and the commandant of the Marine Corps. It was
a heady tribute for a boy not yet twenty.
His parents now suggested that since his enlistment period was about
up, and he had done more than his duty in serving his country, he
might want to return to his Quaker heritage in civilian life. As a
boy he had sometimes talked of becoming a civil engineer. Why not go
to college and study for it?
He found himself powerless to explain why he felt bound to the blue
brotherhood; to make his parents understand his deep pride in the
Corps, the warm bonds of solidarity that united Marines, the
enjoyable excitement of danger, the honor of being foremost in
defense of the nation and its citizens. Any other way of life seemed
pale and drab by comparison.
"I'm reenlisting," he told them.
On October 31, 1902, he was put in command of a company of 101 men
and shipped to the island of Culebra twenty miles east of Puerto
Rico. There was trouble in Panama, and Butler's company was part of
two battalions being stationed in reserve on Culebra while the
fleet, under Admiral George Dewey, conducted maneuvers offshore.
Living on field rations and fighting scorpions, centipedes, and
tarantulas, the Marines built docks and other naval constructions.
In the midst of their perspiring labors Squadron Admiral Joe Coghlan
sent 12,5 Navy gunnery experts ashore to challenge Butler and his
men to a race in dragging five-inch coastal guns up
four-hundred-foot hills. Admiral Dewey sent word that a victory shot
was to be fired from the first gun mounted.
Stripped to the waist, Butler worked like a madman alongside his men
to prove the superiority of leathernecks over bluejackets. At
sunrise a jubilant Butler ordered his men to fire a victory shot.
The shell sailed over Admiral Dewey's flagship, landing a mile
beyond. Instead of congratulating the winners, the furious hero of
Manila Bay sent Butler an icy reprimand for "reckless firing."
Their reward was an order to dig a canal. The work was backbreaking,
with the ground solid rock in many places, marshland in others, all
tenaciously guarded by a ferocious mosquito army. And the Navy
insisted that they had to work under the broiling tropic sun in full
uniform with leggings.
Unwilling to inflict any ordeal upon his men that he was not willing
to endure himself, Butler wielded a shovel in the ditch beside them.
Soon their ranks began to be decimated by tropical fever. A Marine
major asked the Navy flagship, which had an ice machine aboard, for
ice to bring down their fevers. His request scornfully refused, he
returned to camp to find Butler unconscious. The major ordered him
rowed immediately across the bay to a temporary Navy hospital.
Indignant at the Navy's treatment, the major wrote to Butler's
father in Washington to tell him what was happening at Culebra.
Thomas Butler let out an angry roar in the House Naval Affairs
Committee. Secretary of the Navy William H. Moody sent swift orders
to Admiral Dewey that no more Americans were to be used as forced
labor on the miserable canal. The Navy brass fumed, convinced that
it had been Captain Smedley Butler who had complained to his father.
As soon as he was off the sick list, Admiral Coghlan put him in
charge of sixty-five natives hired to finish the canal. Two weeks
later, the canal finished, he collapsed with a relapse of tropical
While Butler was in the hospital, a belated award of the Philippine
Campaign Medal made him think about his old battalion under Major
Waller, who was now back in the Philippines under Army General Adna
Chaffee fighting rebels. He was stunned when an uproar in the
American press compelled Waller's court-martial for killing ten
Filipino native carriers who had balked at orders during a march.
Waller had been acquitted, however, on grounds that he had merely
been obeying "kill and burn" orders relayed from General Chaffee.
Butler was distressed by the news. Having served under both Waller
and Chaffee, he admired them as courageous officers whose code
called for protecting, first, American civilians wher ever they
might be; then the men under them; then their comrades-in-arms. From
his own experience in the Philippines and China, Butler guessed that
Waller had suspected the carriers of being rebels. It was impossible
to tell apart insurrectionists and noncombatant natives.
The twenty-one-year-old Marine captain was not yet troubled by
doubts as to what the Marines were ordered to do in the service of
their country, or why. He shared the easy condescension of most
Marines of that swashbuckling era toward people of underdeveloped
countries as naive natives who had to be patronized, directed, and
protected by Americans.
The Marines were an elite gendarmerie entrusted with the duty of
maintaining international law and order on behalf of civilization. A
Marine's only concern was carrying out his orders as expertly as
possible, without questions. It was only later, as he gradually came
to know native peoples better and learned to admire their age-old
customs and traditions, that Smedley Butler felt impelled to
question his role as an instrument of American foreign policy.
When a revolution broke out in Honduras early in 1903, Butler's
battalion was dispatched there aboard an old banana freighter, the
Panther, as part of a squadron under Admiral Coghlan.
On the second day out the ship's commander summoned all hands to the
quarterdeck to complain that someone had been using profane language
near his cabin. "I know the guilty party cannot be one of these fine
men," he declared, indicating the sailors, "therefore it must have
been one of these men enlisted from the slums of our big cities."
Pointing to the Marines, he restricted their use of the deck. Butler
restrained an impulse to apply the tip of his boot to the seat of
the commander's naval rectitude.
"Then and there," he recalled later, "I made up my mind that I would
always protect Marines from the hounding to which they were
subjected by some of the naval officers."
At the end of his duty in Culebra, his father had reproached him for
not having kept him better informed as to what was going on in
America's naval outposts. Now Butler did not hesitate to write his
father field reports in the Plain Language, sometimes asking him to
use his influence on the House Naval Affairs Committee on behalf of
the Marine Corps. Thomas Butler did not always consent, but did
serve informally as the Marines' court of last resort against Navy
In Honduras Smedley was vague as to what the trouble was all about,
noting, "It all seemed like a Gilbert and Sullivan war." He led a
force ashore at Trujillo between government and rebel forces who
were firing at each other to rescue the American consular agent.
After - seeing some duty in Panama, for which he won an
Expeditionary Medal, he returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard in
1905. A pretty Georgia-born girl named Ethel Conway Peters, some of
whose family had been prominent in the affairs of Philadelphia since
Colonial times, helped him make good use of his leave time. They
were married on June 3o at Bay Head, New Jersey, in a military
wedding. Commented the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Cupid and Mars in a
wedding by the sea at high noon today."
Their honeymoon was a world trip made possible by orders assigning
him to the Philippines as captain of Company E, Second Regiment.
Arriving with his bride by way of Europe, India, and Singapore, he
was stationed at a small naval base on Subic Bay, sixty miles north
of Manila. Here, in November, 1906, his daughter Ethel was born.
Butler's popularity led to her adoption by the regiment. Giving a
dinner for the enlisted men, he carried her to the table on a pillow
as guest of honor. Not surprisingly, she grew up a "Marine brat" and
years later married a Marine lieutenant, John Wehle.
With a detachment of fifty men Butler spent several months dragging
six-inch guns up mountaintops to defend Subic Bay against possible
attack by Japan, an attack that did not materialize for another
thirty-six years. He and his men lived ruggedly on hardtack, hash,
and coffee. A Navy supply tug, which never brought them supplies or
rations, continued to ignore them even when they signaled that they
had run out of hash.
Butler decided to sail to the Navy supply base across the bay. With
two volunteers he set out in a native outrigger. A typhoon blew up
suddenly behind them, ripping away their sail and snapping their
paddles. For five hours they fought to keep from drowning until the
storm finally blew the seafaring trio ashore at the supply base.
Soaked and chilled, Butler lost no time in arranging to have the
supply tug carry beef and vegetables back to his men. The hungry
Marines cheered his return on the tug. The camp dock had been swept
away by the typhoon, so they splashed out into the bay to form a
chain that passed the food they splashed from tug to shore. Butler
was a hero to his men, but not to the Navy brass who heard about his
bypass of official channels.
A Navy board of medical survey decided that his taking the outrigger
into a typhoon, and use of the tug to take supplies hack to his men,
indicated signs of an "impending nervous breakdown." He was ordered
In October, 1908, despite the dim view of him taken by the Navy
brass, be was promoted to the rank of major. His fitness reports
submitted by his commanding officers could not be ignored; all
unanimously rated him "outstanding," commending him as a strict
disciplinarian impatient of inefficiency, laziness, or cowardice.
His contempt for red tape and his personal bravery were acknowledged
to have made him one of the most popular and successful officials in
the Corps. His units were distinguished by a high esprit de corps
because of his devotion to his men, his concern for their welfare
and pride in their accomplishments, and his democratic insistence
upon rolling up his sleeves to work beside them physically.
Soon after his second child, Smedley, Jr., was born, July 12, 1909,
Butler was put in charge of the 4th Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment,
and sent to Panama. Although he was stationed on the Isthmus for
four years until the Panama Canal was opened, he was temporarily
detached three times to command expeditions into strife-torn
Washington had decided to intervene openly in the internal affairs
of that Central American country. Butler's orders each time were "to
protect American lives and property." He soon realized that this
general order involved propping up Nicaraguan governments or
factions that were favored in Washington for business reasons.
The Conservative party was seeking to drive the Liberals out of
power. Their revolt was led by Adolfo Diaz, secretary treasurer of
the La Luz Mining Company, in which Secretary of State Philander C.
Knox was said to own stock. The Liberal Government had smashed
Diaz's forces and pinned 350 survivors at Bluefields, where Butler
had been sent with the 4th Battalion. The American Consul at
Bluefields made it clear to Butler that the State Department wanted
Diaz to prevail.
Two Liberal generals prepared to take Bluefields with fifteen
thousand well-armed men. Before the shooting could start, Butler
sent them a message. The Marines were there only as neutrals
protecting American residents, he told the attackers. The government
forces could take the town but must leave their guns outside the
city so that no Americans were accidentally shot. Marine guards
would be posted outside the city to collect all weapons from
Nicaraguans entering it.
How could they take the town, the dismayed generals protested,
without arms? And why weren't Diaz's forces inside the town also
being disarmed? Butler thought fast.
"There is no danger of the defenders killing American citizens,
because they will be shooting outward," he replied blandly, "but
your soldiers would be firing toward us."
The ploy compelled the government forces to retract, giving the
Conservative forces time to regroup and mount a counterattack that
soon overthrew the Liberals. Juan Estrada became the new President,
with Diaz as Vice-President.
Butler felt somewhat uneasy about the role the Marines had been
compelled to play in this coup, especially since he knew that the
American people had no idea of how Secretary of State Knox was using
the armed forces in Central America, or why. But as a Marine officer
he did not feel responsible for foreign policy. He saw his role
simply as implementing that policy by dutifully carrying out his
country's orders as he was sworn to do.
Before the Marines returned to Panama, he was confronted by a host
of Bluefields shopkeepers who presented him with unpaid bills signed
by members of his battalion, including George Washington, Abraham
Lincoln, and Yankee Doodle. From the handwriting Butler deciphered
the true identity of these pseudonyms and saw to it that they paid
up. The first to defend his men against injustices, he also insisted
that they scrupulously honor their word to tradesmen in whatever
foreign land they were stationed, to protect the Corps's good name.
One month later the Nicaraguan revolutionary pot boiled over again.
General Luis Mena, the Conservative party's Minister of War, had
overthrown Estrada as President and had been overthrown in turn by
Diaz. Mena went into rebellion with government troops loyal to him
and had returned to attack Managua, the capital. Butler was rushed
to Managua with a force of 350 men and ordered to prop up the
faltering Diaz government.
Finding Diaz in the field and government forces in the capital in
chaos, he took command of them. The American minister informed him
that American banking interests had taken over the national railroad
as security for a loan to the Diaz government, so that it must now
be protected as "American property." But it ran through territory
controlled by three thousand of Mena's troops, who had captured a
train and held it against a small Marine force sent to retake it.
Nicaraguan newspapers mocked the Americans' rout. Mena's forces
refused to let any other trains through, cutting off supplies from
On August 25, 1912, Butler was ordered to retake the captured train
and open the railroad line. Angry that a Marine officer had failed
in the task and made the Corps "a laughingstock," he wrote his wife,
"The idea prevails very strongly that Marines are not soldiers, and
will not fight. I cannot stand any slur on our Corps and I will wipe
it off or quit."
With a hundred Marine volunteers behind him, Butler located the
train and approached the rebel forces guarding it with two heavy
cloth bags in his hands. His way was barred by machetes and
bayonets, and he was warned to retreat or have his small force
annihilated. Through an interpreter he informed the rebels that the
bags in his hands held dynamite, and he intended to blow them off
the map if they did not back off and let his men repossess the
The rebel commander hesitated, then glumly ordered his men to yield.
The Marines manned the train, and as it pulled away, Butler calmly
emptied the two bags out of a rear window in sight of the rebels.
They contained sand.
Checking a bridge to make sure it was safe for the train to cross,
be was suddenly confronted by a rebel general with an enormous
moustache who whipped out a huge pistol and shoved it against
Butler's stomach. If the train moved forward one inch, the rebel
officer yelled to Marines clustered around the locomotive, he would
pull the trigger.
The slender Marine major suddenly sidestepped, simultaneously
tearing the pistol out of the Nicaraguan's hand. Emptying the
cartridges out of the barrel, he calmly returned the gun to the
crestfallen general and drew his own revolver. The vanquished rebel
leader meekly marched back to the train as a hostage, and the train
Butler discovered that most Nicaraguans were supporting the
rebellion against the Diaz government, which had hired brutal
Honduran mercenaries to crush it. The people themselves had slain
many mercenaries, who looted, raped, and murdered. Unfortunately for
American prestige, a few Americans had been conspicuous among them.
Butler's hundred Marines aboard the train were regarded with general
hostility as similarly vicious instruments of the Diaz regime.
Butler and his men succeeded in opening the line between Managua and
the port at Corinto. On the way back they had to build three new
bridges and several miles of track. Returning to Managua after a
fifteen-hundred-foot descent with the train's brakes gone, Butler
collapsed into bed and pulled the covers over his face. During the
whole week-long trip he had had just seventeen hours' sleep.
By now the cynicism of the American presence in Nicaragua was
becoming depressingly obvious to him. "I expect a whole lot more rot
about the property of citizens of ours . . . which has been stolen
by the rebels and which I must see restored to their owners," he
wrote his wife on September 13, 1912. The following day he
complained of orders from Admiral William H. H. Southerland, who
headed the fleet at Corinto, "virtually changing our status from
neutral to partisanship with the government forces."
He was next ordered to open the railroad south to Granada, Mena's
rebel headquarters. Another malaria attack delayed the expedition.
Always restless and unhappy when illness forced him to be idle,
Butler held ice in his mouth and drove down his temperature until
the doctor reluctantly let him out of bed. Weak and haggard with 104
° fever, he had to lie on a cot in a boxcar as his troop train
pulled out of Managua. His eyes were so bloodshot and glaring that
his men began calling him Old Gimlet Eye, a nickname that stuck.
Under constant harassment by guerrilla forces, Butler finally sent
word ahead to Granada to warn General Mena that the Americans were
prepared to attack him if he ordered any further assaults on the
train. Mena replied that he was sending a peace delegation. Hoping
to impress the emissaries with his military power, Butler ordered
poles put in the muzzles of two small field guns on flatcars and
covered them with tents to give them the appearance of fourteen-inch
guns. He further awed the emissaries by receiving them seated on a
wooden camp chair mounted on stilted legs like a primitive throne.
Glaring down at them, he warned that unless Mena signed an agreement
surrendering the railroad property and moving his troops out of the
railroad area, Marine "regiments" would attack Mena's
two-thousand-man force in Granada.
His bluff worked so well that Mena not only agreed but, to Butler's
amazement, also offered to surrender himself and his army if the
Americans would provide a warship to take him safely to exile in
Panama. The jubilant Marine major notified Admiral Southerland and
the admiral at once agreed.
Butler was made temporary governor of the District of Granada until
elections could be held. He promptly released all political
prisoners Mena had thrown into dungeons and returned all the
property that had been confiscated from them. He next issued a
proclamation ordering all loot taken from the people by both rebel
and government forces to be restored.
The astonished Granadans hailed him as a liberator.
On September 30, 1912, Butler was dismayed when the admiral
transmitted cabled orders from Secretary of the Navy George von L.
Meyer to side openly with the Diaz regime and turn over to it all
captured rebels. Apologetically he disarmed Mena and his troops,
confining troops, confining them m their barracks under guard.
"I must say," he wrote his wife, "that I hated my job like the devil
. . . but orders are orders, and of course, had to be carried out."
But he protested bitterly to Admiral Southerland at the betrayal of
his promise to Mena. Southerland finally agreed to stand behind his
pledge and explain to Meyer.
Local Granadan politicians, deprived by Butler of their customary
loot, loudly complained to the admiral that he was interfering in
local affairs. Southerland felt compelled to relieve him as
governor, sending him to crush the final remnants of the revolution.
Zeledon's force of two thousand rebels was dug in at a fort on top
of the Coyatepe Mountain, a stronghold that had never been taken in
Nicaragua's stormy history.
On October 4, Butler and Colonel Joe Pendleton charged up the
Coyatepe leading an 850-man Marine force. In a forty-minute battle
twenty-seven rebels were killed in their trenches, nine captured,
and the rest put to flight. Two Marines were killed.
The fall of Coyatepe put the town of Masaya, the last rebel outpost,
in Marine hands. As they occupied it, some four thousand government
troops celebrated by entering the town, looting it, and getting
drunk. Incensed, Butler expressed his bitterness in a letter to his
wife, decrying "a victory gained by us for them at the expense of
two good American lives, all because Brown Brothers, bankers, have
some money invested in this country."
Resting in Masaya, the major began longing to see his family. "I
feel terribly over missing my son's most interesting period of
development, but ... this separation can't last forever," he wrote
Ethel on October g. "I get so terribly homesick at times that I just
don't see how I can stand it."
The Taft Administration had another unpleasant assignment for
him-rigging the new Nicaraguan elections to make certain that Diaz
was returned to power. Checking on the country's election laws,
Butler found that the polls had to be open a sufficient length of
time ("at least that's the way we translated it") and that voters
had to register to be able to vote.
He ordered a canvass of the district to locate four hundred
Nicaraguans who could be depended upon to vote for Diaz. Notice of
opening of the polls was given five minutes beforehand. The four
hundred Diaz adherents were assembled in a line, and two hours
later, as soon as they had finished voting, the polls were closed.
Other citizens had either failed to register or didn't know
balloting was going on.
"Today," Butler wrote Ethel sardonically, "Nicaragua has enjoyed a
fine `free election,' with only one candidate being allowed to
run-President Adolfo Diaz-who was unanimously elected. In order that
this happy event might be pulled off without hitch and to the entire
satisfaction of our State Department, we patrolled all the towns to
prevent disorders and of course there were none."
He consoled himself by reflecting that the constant revolutions in
Central American politics did not represent a struggle for power by
the people themselves, but were most often simply attempts by
rascals out of office to overthrow rascals in office. He had a high
regard for the Nicaraguan people and genuine compassion for their
On November 13, 1912, over five thousand Nicaraguans turned out in
Granada to present him with a gold medal for saving them from troop
disorders and looting. They also gave him a scroll signed by
Granada's leading citizens, expressing gratitude for his "brave and
opportune intervention" that "put an end to the desperate and
painful situation in which this city was placed-victim of all the
horrors of an organized anarchy."
They told him, "From this terrible situation and from the anguish
that the future held for us, we passed as by magic to a state of
complete guarantee for life, property, and well-being for all, as
soon as the American hoops entered the city. The tact and discretion
with which you fulfilled your humane mission, so bristling with
difficulties, was such that your name will be forever engraved in
the hearts of the people."
There were fireworks and a fiesta. "The whole thing was very
impressive and made me feel quite silly," he wrote sheepishly to his
wife, "but rather proud for my darlings' sakes."
A people's committee urged him to stay on as police commissioner of
the district. The twenty-nine-year-old major found himself intrigued
by the prospect of introducing honest law enforcement in Granada.
"What would thee think," he wrote Ethel, "of my accepting a $15,000
job as Chief of this Police down here, not to leave the Marine
Corps, but to have a three-years' leave?" But he finally decided
Despite his reservations about the ethics of the Nicaraguan
campaign, it had filled him with exhilaration of adventure. "This is
the end of the expedition," he wrote his wife. "Would like to have
some parts of it over again; the excitement was fine." He indicated
an early awareness that he was destined to play a meaningful role in
American history: "Be sure to keep all my letters as they are a
diary of my life, and may be useful sometime in the future."
With a second bronze star added to his Expeditionary Medal and a new
Nicaraguan Campaign Medal, the indefatigable young campaigner
returned to Panama and his family. His second son, Thomas Richard,
was born in October, 1913.
With Woodrow Wilson in the White House, war clouds loomed with
Mexico when bandit General Victoriano Huerta overthrew legally
elected Mexican President Francisco Madero. In an angry exchange of
notes, Wilson insisted that Huerta must hold new elections barring
himself as a candidate. Wilson's choice was Huerta's rival for
power, General Venustiano Carranza. Banning all arms shipments to
Mexico, the President asked all Americans without urgent business
there to leave the country and sent the fleet to cruise
significantly in the Gulf of Mexico during a period of "watchful
Defying Wilson, Huerta began importing arms from Europe to crush
Carranza. The President then violated his own embargo and rushed
American arms to the Carranza forces. Full-scale fighting broke out
all over Mexico, during which American industrial property was
destroyed and United States businessmen were compelled to flee
attacks against them from both sides.
In January, 1914, the Marines were ordered from Panama to the fleet
standing off Vera Cruz. Ethel Butler took the children home to
Pennsylvania, and her husband reported to the fleet flagship
Florida, assigned to the staff of Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher.
Welcoming him aboard, the admiral remarked on his courage and daring
in the Chinese, Philippine, and Nicaraguan campaigns. He was just
the man, the admiral thought, for a dangerous special mission for
the War Department.
How did Butler feel about going into Mexico as a "civilian" spy to
make an expert analysis of Huerta's fighting forces in and around
Mexico City, as well as to gather general intelligence, in case war
was declared? He would carry no official orders of any kind, of
course, and if he were caught, the Navy would have to disavow any
knowledge of either him or his mission.
"How soon can I start, Admiral?" he asked.
Beneath a night sky of swollen black clouds, as most of the crew
aboard the Florida watched a Western movie starring Broncho Billy, a
civilian-clad Butler dropped a small traveling bag out of his cabin
port into a small boat, then slipped off the ship after it. His
disappearance from the Florida was carried on the ship's rolls as
Ashore in Vera Cruz, he decided to disguise himself as an
Englishman. There were many English in Mexico at the time traveling
on business. Attiring himself in a tweed suit, spats, deerstalker's
hat, and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses with a black ribbon, he
undertook a stage English accent. A fraudulent British passport and
forged letters of introduction to important Britons in Mexico City
completed his impersonation.
He left Vera Cruz aboard the private railroad car of the line's
superintendent, a secret Carranza supporter cooperating with the
Americans. The train rolled toward Mexico City along the road
American troops would use if they invaded. The superintendent
stopped the train several times en route, letting Butler inspect
electric power plants and reservoirs by introducing him to leading
citizens as "Mr. Johnson," a public utilities expert. Managing to
stray inside some army forts on his own, he was apprehended several
times but released.
"I carried a butterfly net and studied rocks," he grinned in
recollection. "They thought I was a nut and let me pass."
In Mexico City he changed to American garb and posed as a private
detective from the United States seeking a condemned murderer who
had escaped and fled to Mexico. Mexican secret police escorted him
to all the garrisons to help his search for the imaginary criminal.
He soon had vital data on the troop strength and disposition of
munitions dumps around Mexico City.
Making military maps of everything he had seen, Butler buried them
in the false bottom of his bag and took the train back to Vera Cruz.
He became aware that two Mexicans were following him. Apparently he
had aroused suspicions, and the Mexican secret service was keeping
an eye on him.
In the early morning when the train reached Vera Cruz, it paused
temporarily to allow a rail switch to be thrown that took it into
the station. During this pause Butler went to the washroom in
pajamas, his bag concealed under his bathrobe. Locking the door
behind him, he slipped out of the train window. He donned his
clothes in the freight yard, then sped to the American consulate to
contact Admiral Fletcher.
Two naval officers were sent ashore to the consulate. He turned over
all his maps and data to them, then left separately, dressed once
more in his British guise. Seeking to board a British steamer at the
wharf to a port down the coast, from which he would secretly be
picked up and brought back to the Florida, he was suddenly seized by
a squad of police.
They considered it odd for a "British entomologist" to have been
visiting the American embassy. His baggage was opened and searched
thoroughly, but nothing incriminating was found. Threatening "you
blighters" with official reprisals from the British Foreign Office,
Butler bluffed them into letting him go. A few days later he was
safely back aboard the Florida, where Admiral Fletcher warmly
congratulated him on the success of his daring mission.
When war with Mexico seemed inevitable, on April 19, 1914, Admiral
Fletcher put six companies of Marines ashore at Vera Cruz under
Butler's old friend, Buck Neville, now a colonel.
At dawn when the six companies began marching through the city
Mexican troops fired at them from rooftops and house windows, using
machine guns as well as rifles. Marines rushed from house to house
smashing in doors and searching for snipers.
The Marines Butler led were not his own command, and he was not sure
of their behavior under fire. To inspire coolness he led them
through Vera Cruz with no weapon of his own except a stick. The
Marines in two columns kept close to the doorways for cover while he
walked calmly down the center of the street for a better view of
snipers in houses on both sides. Ignoring bullets spurting dust at
his feet, he used the stick to point out snipers to his
By nightfall the Marines had won control of the city, but at a cost
of 135 Americans killed or wounded, 7 of the casualties Butler's
men. Mexican casualties were four or five times as great.
Returning to Panama, Butler relieved tedious garrison duty by
expending his inexhaustible energy in making Camp Elliott an
exemplary Marine outpost. After a visit to the Panama Canal Zone,
Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison wrote him, "I was delighted . .
. to observe the esprit de corps exhibited by your command. Their
alertness, skill, and proficiency were models for military
Congress had by now authorized officers as well as enlisted men to
receive Congressional Medals of Honor. One was now awarded to Butler
for being "eminent and conspicuous in command of his Battalion. He
exhibited courage and skill in leading his men through the action of
the 22nd and in the final occupation of the city [Vera Cruz]."
"I've no more courage than the next man," he protested, "but it's
always been my job to take my fellows through a mess the quickest
way possible, with the loss of the fewest men. You can't do that
from a distance. Besides, I was paid to do what I did. I've been
scared plenty, but if I'd ever let my men know it, they'd have been
scared. And soldiers who are scared aren't worth so much. They'll
keep their lives, but the job won't get done."
To the astonishment of the Navy Department, he refused to accept his
Medal of Honor, explaining that he did not consider what he had done
at Vera Cruz worthy of the nation's highest military award. Admiral
Fletcher, questioned by the Navy, replied that Butler was wrong; he
had certainly merited the Medal of Honor not only for his courageous
leadership in the Vera Cruz battle but also for his heroism as a
The Navy Department thereupon sent the medal back to the reluctant
hero with a terse order to keep it and wear it, but for Butler a
matter of principle was involved. He was proud of his decorations
and would wear none that he did not believe he fully deserved. He
returned the medal to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels,
writing stubbornly, "I must renew my request that the Department
reconsider its action in awarding this decoration." The matter was
shelved by the outbreak of World War I in August, 1914, but Butler
was later pressured into accepting the medal.
Wilson was keeping a careful and worried eye on Haiti. During 1914
four presidents of that volatile little republic were overthrown.
The Germans were threatening to intervene to protect their economic
interests. Wilson suspected that they wanted to use the volatile
little republic as a naval base, which would put them within easy
striking distance of the Panama Canal and the Florida coast.
Then in 1915 a new Haitian president, pursued by an angry mob, was
forced to seek sanctuary in the French legation. The mob dragged him
out and killed him. Now the angry French Government threatened
intervention. Squirming in an agony of indecision, the
anti-imperialist Wilson finally decided to put Haiti under American
control to prevent any of the warring European powers from seizing
Besides, he told Secretary of State Robert Lansing, an American
occupation would give him a chance to bring law, order, democracy,
and prosperity to the wretched people of the misruled little
country. Wilson's missionary impulse dovetailed neatly with less
exalted plans by big-business interests. The National City Bank
controlled the National Bank of Haiti and the Haitian railroad
system. Dollar diplomacy also involved the sugar barons who saw
Haiti's rich plantations as an inviting target for investment and
Rioting in the capital of Haiti in August, 1915, gave Wilson the
excuse he needed to intervene with warships and Marines under
Colonel Littleton Waller, Butler's commanding officer. Haiti was
placed under an American commissioner who controlled the republic's
affairs through the Haitian President. Cabinet ministers were
puppets with only advisory powers. The government was not allowed to
incur any "foreign obligations" without American consent, and an
American customs official collected all money due Haiti. The Marines
"pacified" the population and maintained the President's authority.
When the Haitian National Assembly met in Port-au-Prince, Marines
stood in the aisles with bayonets drawn until Philippe Dartiguenave,
the Haitian selected by the American minister, was "elected"
President by the Assembly. He was the first Haitian President to
serve out his full seven-year term, only because of the occupation
of the Marines.
Under Dartiguenave American control of the island was assured by a
treaty signed on September 16, 1915, which entitled the United
States to administer Haitian customs and finance for twenty years,
or longer if Washington saw fit. The Haitian constitution was
revised to remove a prohibition against alien ownership of land,
enabling Americans to purchase the most fertile areas in the
country, including valuable sugar cane, cacao, banana, cotton,
tobacco, and sisal plantations.
Northern Haiti, however, remained in the grip of rebels known as
Cacos, whose chiefs Dartiguenave labeled bandits. Posing as
nationalists, they were actually precursors of the brutal Tonton
Macoutes of the later Duvalier regime, just as cruel to the peasants
as the government's soldiers were.
Butler led a reconnaissance force of twenty-six volunteers in
pursuit of a Caco force that had killed ten Marines. Like the Cacos
in the mountains, he and his men lived for days off the orange
groves. For over a hundred miles they followed a trail of peels,
estimating how long before the Cacos had passed by the dryness of
the peels. A native guide they picked up helped them locate the
Cacos' headquarters, a secret fort called Capois, deep in the
Studying the mountaintop fort through field glasses, Butler made out
thick stone walls, with enough activity to suggest they were
defended by at least a regiment. He decided to return to Cape
Haitien for reinforcements and capture it. On the way back they were
ambushed by a force of Cacos that outnumbered them twenty to one.
Fortunately it was a pitch-black night, and Butler was able to save
his men by splitting them up to crawl past the Cacos' lines through
Just before dawn he reorganized them into three squads of nine men
each. Charging from three directions as they yelled wildly and fired
from the hip, they created such a fearful din that the Cacos
panicked and fled, leaving seventy-five killed. The only Marine
casualty was one man wounded.
When he was able to return with reinforcements, spies had alerted
the Cacos, and Butler took a deserted Fort Capois without firing a
shot. Only one last stronghold remained to be cleared-the mountain
fortress at Fort Riviere, which the French, who had built it during
their occupation of Haiti, considered impregnable. Butler was told
it would be difficult to capture, even with a strong artillery
"Give me a hundred picked volunteers," he said, "and I'll have the
colors flying over it tomorrow."
Butler earnestly assured his volunteers that they could do the job.
His pep talks were enormously persuasive because they were
sincere-so sincere that after he gave one, he would often feel
emotionally spent and limp. He refused to believe that any job was
impossible for Marines and frequently hypnotized him self into
believing it. His fervor made believers out of his men, who never
hesitated to follow him against overwhelming odds.
His officers gave him unreasoning loyalty, even though he was a
tough taskmaster and never played favorites. One captain, asked to
explain his devotion to Butler, said, "Well, damn him, I don't know.
I'd give him my shirt, and he would not only not thank me, but he'd
probably demand that I give him my other one. I stick because-hell,
I don't know why!"
What happened when Butler led his tiny force against Fort Riviere
was subsequently described in a memo by Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
who visited Haiti in January, 1917, as Assistant Secretary of the
Navy. The Congressional Medal of Honor could not be awarded to an
officer unless a high official of the military branch concerned
first made a personal investigation and authenticated the citation.
When Butler was recommended for the award, Roosevelt went to Haiti
He was taken by Butler on an inspection tour of Haiti and the ruins
of Fort Riviere, which Butler had demolished with explosives after
its capture to deny its reuse to the Cacos. In his memorandum
Roosevelt wrote what he had learned from others about Smedley
Butler's attack on the four-thousand-foot-high mountain fortress in
This was the famous fortification captured by Butler and his 24
Marines in the Caco rebellion of a few months before. The top is a
hog's back ridge a quarter of a mile long. Butler and his Marines
left a machine gun at one end of the ridge while he and about 18
Marines crawled through the grass into the fort itself. Crawling
down into a corner, they found a tunnel into the courtyard, serving
as a drain when it rained.
Butler started to crawl through it (about 2 1/4 ' high x 2' wide)
and the old sergeant [Ross lams] said, "Sir, I was in the Marines
before you and it is my privilege." Butler recognized his right, and
the sergeant crawled through first. On coming to the end within the
courtyard, he saw the shadows of the legs of 2 Cacos armed with
machetes guarding the place. He took off his hat, put it on the end
of his revolver, and pushed it through. He felt the two Cacos
descend on it and he jumped forward into the daylight.
With a right and left he got both Cacos, stood up and dropped 2 or 3
others while his companions, headed by Smedley Butler, got through
the drain hole and stood up. Then ensued a killing, the news of
which put down all insurrections, we hope, for all time to come.
There were about 300 Cacos within the wall, and Butler and his 18
companions killed [many] . . . others jumping over the wall and
falling prisoner to the rest of the force of Marines which circled
I was so much impressed by personal inspection of the scene of the
exploit that I awarded the Medal of Honor to the Marine Sergeant and
Smedley Butler. Incidentally, Butler had received the Medal of Honor
at Tientsin at the time of the Boxer Rebellion.* He had been awarded
at the capture of Vera Cruz in 1914 but declined to accept it. The
third at Fort Riviere he did accept.
Butler saw pathos as well as bravery in the episode at Riviere. "The
futile efforts of the natives to oppose trained white soldiers
impressed me as tragic," he declared. "As soon as they lost their
heads, they picked up useless, aboriginal weapons. If they had
realized the advantage of their position, they could have shot us
like rats as we crawled out one by one, out of the drain."
But the power of the Cacos was broken, and the revolution was over.
Surviving Cacos sought to keep the movement alive, but their ancient
horse pistols, Spanish cutlasses, Napoleonic sabers, French
carbines, and even flintlocks were futile against the superior
weaponry and training of the Marines.
President Dartiguenave awarded Butler the Haitian Medal of Honor,
with great praise for his dynamic personality, intense
determination, direct and unrelenting attacks against heavy odds,
and masterful ability to lead men.
Soon after peace was restored, Butler sent for his wife and
children. They had seen little of him since the beginning of his
tour in Panama, because of his three expeditions to Nicaragua
followed by the Mexican and Haitian campaigns.
They joined him at Port-au-Prince in a large, comfortable house with
white verandas and a pleasant, shaded garden, located on the
outskirts of the town. Sumptuous by island standards, it
nevertheless lacked indoor plumbing, and the family had to share a
A stern taskmaster in the Corps, Butler was a gentle and undemanding
father. It was Ethel Butler who disciplined the children, a matter
of necessity because of his frequent absences. The children loved
the exotic flavor of the tropical republic. Smedley, Jr. was sent to
an integrated school with Haitian children and a few other white
youngsters. Young Ethel went to a convent taught by nuns in French
Never allowed into town, as it was considered unsafe, they were
accompanied everywhere by a gendarme. One night while the family was
seated on the veranda, a Caco concealed somewhere on the hillside
took a shot at their father, narrowly missing him.
Washington decided to reorganize the ineffective Haitian military,
which had almost one general for every three privates in its
thirteen-hundred-man army. Dartiguenave agreed to its replacement by
a native constabulary of three thousand men to be trained and
directed by Butler. Although still only a major, Butler's rank as
head of the Haitian Gendarmerie was major general, and his power
that of Minister of the Interior.
He was paid $3,000 a year as commandant of the Gendarmerie, which
cost the American Government $800,000 a year. Ostensibly under the
direction of the Haitian President, the new force was actually
controlled by Washington. All of its officers were Marines.
Haiti's foreign minister demanded that the Gendarmerie be put under
Haitian control. Butler refused, pointing out that according to an
agreement signed by Dartiguenave, the commandant alone was made
responsible for the force. The foreign minister angrily drew up a
new constitution for Haiti that would force the Americans to
relinquish their power over both the Gendarmerie and Haiti itself,
and prepared to introduce it in the Haitian National Assembly.
Alarmed, Dartiguenave told Butler that the foreign minister had the
support of a majority of the Assembly's legislators, who intended to
ram the new constitution through the Chamber of Deputies and the
Senate. Then they planned to vote to impeach Dartiguenave,
ostensibly for violating the old constitution, in reality because
they considered him an American pawn.
The American minister, A. Bailly-Blanchard, cabled a warning to
Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who cabled back that since the
new constitution was "unfriendly" to the United States, it must not
be approved by the Haitian Legislature. Bailly-Blanchard was ordered
to take any steps necessary to prevent its passage. He summoned
Butler, Butler's regimental commander, Colonel Cole, and the top
naval commander, Admiral Anderson, to a conference, and read them
It was decided that Americans would have no legal justification for
interfering in Haiti's internal affairs, but that Butler, as major
general of the Haitian Constabulary, did have that right. Commanded
to carry out the State Department's orders, Butler went to see
Dartiguenave, who urged him to use the Gendarmerie to dissolve the
But Butler had no relish for the role of dictator. If Dartiguenave
and his cabinet wanted the Assembly suspended, he insisted, then
they had to take full responsibility. He refused to act until they
had apprehensively signed a decree ordering dissolution of the
Assembly "to end the spirit of anarchy which animates it."
When Butler led his gendarmes to the National Assembly, he was
greeted with loud, prolonged hissing. The gendarmes began cocking
their rifles. Many, veterans of previous coups d'etat, were amazed
at Butler's order to lower their guns.
He then handed the President's decree to the presiding Assembly
officer to be read aloud to the chamber. Instead the latter launched
into a wrathful tirade against the American occupation. His outburst
threw the hall into an uproar.
Fearful of being charged, the gendarmes again threw up their
weapons, and Butler once more snapped an order to ground arms. The
reluctant presiding officer finally read Dartiguenave's decree and
bitterly declared the Assembly dissolved. The gloomy legislators
then filed into the street, and the gendarmes locked the hall behind
The Marine Corps promoted Butler to lieutenant colonel in August,
1916. Winning commendation as a capable administrator, he kept Haiti
stable and at peace for the first time in half a century. He grew
fond of Dartiguenave while acknowledging, "I knew lie was an old
political crook." Typical of the President's expenditures from the
treasury was sixteen hundred dollars "to have the hole in a carpet
Traveling all over Haiti without a gun, despite the Cacos, Butler
established a postal service, a country school system, a network of
telegraph lines, a civil hospital in Port-au-Prince, and a
five-hundred-mile road system; he also restored lighthouses and
channel buoys. Although these civic and economic improvements
unquestionably benefited American investors, Butler's primary
purpose was to improve life for the Haitians.
"I was, and have been ever since, very fond of the Haitian people,"
he wrote later, "and it was my ambition to make Haiti a first-class
black man's country."
But no amount of Butler's "good works" could erase from Haitian
minds the humiliating awareness that they had been robbed of their
independence by a military occupation. Haitians had no shortage of
legitimate grievances. The supreme power on the island was not
Butler, who was preoccupied with the Gendarmerie, but the commanding
officer of the Marines in Haiti, Littleton Waller, who was made a
brigadier general in the fall of 1916. As the officer who had once
been court-martialed for brutality toward Filipino natives, he did
not inspire among his staff officers any vast respect for Haitian
In the interior they talked as casually of shooting "gooks" as
sportsmen talked of duck-hunting. Patrolling against the Cacos, some
Marine officers looted the homes of native families they were
supposed to protect. Others talked of "cleaning out" the island by
killing the entire native population. Prisoners were beaten and
tortured to make them tell what they knew about Cacos' whereabouts.
Some were allowed to "escape," then were shot as they fled.
Haitians in the interior were forced to carry bon habitant (good
citizen) passes. Any native stopped by a Marine and unable to
produce a bon habitant could be either shot or arrested.
Understandably, many Haitians became convinced that all Americans
were racial bigots who hated black men. And behind the Americans in
uniform were the American businessmen, who plundered the wealth of
the island with impunity.
Butler, now in his early thirties, did not take Haitian politicians
very seriously. He viewed most of them as banana republic
opportunists not too different from the crooked ward bosses who
infested the American body politic. The ingenuity and pretensions of
the shrewdest, like Dartiguenave, tickled his sense of humor, but he
regarded the Haitian people themselves with respect and affection,
if blind to the irony implicit in the presumption to offer superior
government to a black republic by a nation that had signally failed
to solve its own serious race problem.
His eyes opened increasingly, however, to the fact that he was being
used by big-business interests to pacify the population in order to
protect profitable American investments.
"The Haitian Government, such as it is, either yields perforce to
American pressure," reported correspondent Herbert J. Seligmann in
The Nation, "or finds itself in feeble and ineffectual
opposition.... The present Government of Haiti, which dangles from
wires pulled by American fingers, would not endure for twenty-four
hours if United States armed forces were withdrawn; and the
President, Dartiguenave, would face death or exile."
Butler protested to Washington about some of the injustices of the
occupation. On April g, 1916, he wrote to the State Department to
point out that the Haitians logically objected to the retention of
Marine officers in the Gendarmerie unless they were made subject to
trial by Haitian courts. since otherwise the United States could
mount a coup d'etat whenever it chose to order one. His protest fell
on deaf ears.
By the spring of 1916 Haitian discontent was growing rapidly. Waller
warned Butler to be on guard because Cacos, spreading the rumor that
the Americans would soon pull out, were urging the people to rise
and destroy them now.
Butler felt deeply discouraged. Despite everything he had tried to
do for the people, the dollar sign behind the occupation had made
all his efforts useless. In July he wrote to Lejeune, "All of us
gendarmes are mighty tired, and I for one am going to ask to be
relieved at the first opportunity presenting itself."
In August Waller ordered him into Santo Domingo, the Dominican
Republic sharing the island with Haiti, to put down a revolt led by
Celidiano Pantilion and "stabilize the economy." The Dominican
Government had defaulted its obligations to American banks and paid
for its sins with an American occupation to protect U.S. investments
that lasted eight years.
When he returned from Santo Domingo, mission accomplished, a letter
was waiting for him from Lejeune. "Assistant Secretary Roosevelt
came back with glowing accounts of the splendid work being done by
the Marine Corps in connection with the Gendarmerie," Lejeune wrote
enthusiastically. "You certainly deserve the greatest credit for
what you have done in making a soldier out of the ignorant Haitian."
But Butler had begun to brood about the virtue of leading American
boys into battle, causing some to lose their lives and others to
suffer permanent disablement, to protect American business interests
in the Caribbean. He grew quietly cynical about some of the
compliments paid to him.
In neighboring Santo Domingo revolutionists joined bandits in
shaking down American plantation managers for money. Repulsed, they
set cane fires and sought to prevent cane from being cut and ground.
The American sugar interests there wanted Butler to come to their
rescue once again.
"Members of the Sugar Association and myself," their spokesman,
businessman Frank H. Vedder, wrote to Roosevelt, "desire to express
to you our appreciation of . . . the improvement in conditions, the
hard work being done by the marines in the field. . . . The dangers
from bandit operations are by no means past or remote. Additional
troops would be of great assistance in clearing up the situation."
To Butler's relief Roosevelt replied, "I appreciate, of course, that
the complete elimination of bandit operations is at the present time
exceedingly difficult, but I trust that the Acting Military Governor
will be able to give all the protection necessary with the forces
under his command."
Butler sought to convince the State Department that the Haitians
would never cease to be anti-American until Washington allowed them
to hold honest elections and choose their own President. Spies
tipped off Dartiguenave, who grew chilly toward Butler for putting
his job in jeopardy.
But Haiti received little attention now from the State Department,
which was carefully studying developments in World War I. Reading
about the war from his remote outpost, Butler regarded it with
loathing as "madness . . . a European bloodbath." He fervently hoped
that Wilson would have the good sense to keep American boys out of
When the President took America into the war, however, Butler
instantly appealed to Lejeune for a combat assignment in France,
where he felt that he would at least be serving his country instead
of Wall Street. Lejeune replied that the State Department was so
pleased with his work as an administrator in Haiti that it had
refused to transfer him to the European war front. Unappeased,
Butler moaned to Lejeune in June, 1917, "The service is becoming
more and more detestable every day, and the knowledge that I am not
allowed to fight for my country makes it even more unbearable."
He appealed to Roosevelt. "Secretary Roosevelt and I," replied John
McIlhenny, head of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, "are of the
same opinion that the work which you have in hand should not be
interfered with or disturbed because it is the most potent factor in
maintaining a peaceful occupation."
An entreaty to his father also failed to work. "Your father," wrote
Representative W. L. Hensley, of the House Naval Affairs Committee,
"has gone into all these matters with the Secretary of War
concerning your ambitions. They feel you are doing a great work
where you are, and for you to be transferred from there would turn
Disconsolate, Butler threw himself into a new orgy of roadbuilding.
In forty-five days lie built a new road from Port-au-Prince to Cape
Haitien, across twenty-one miles of the roughest, densest tropical
country he had ever seen. After he had driven the first car over it,
Secretary of State Lansing cabled congratulations. McIlhenny wrote
him, "I think your achievement in building a road from
Port-au-Prince to Cape Haitien in such a time and at such a cost is
"Someone has misled you," he replied impatiently, "concerning my
value to this country, and to the aims of the U.S. down here, for I
am simply a subordinate to the Chief of the American Occupation . .
. and have no independent authority."
By now Butler was strongly suspicious that he was being held in
Haiti by the War Department's lack of confidence in his fitness for
a command in France. When he asked a friend in Washington to snoop
and investigate for him, he was assured that his suspicions were
unfounded: The government was really having trouble finding a
competent man to replace him.
He still didn't believe it. His instincts told him that his old
enemies in the Navy Department were working against him. He had
trodden on a good many other important toes as well during his two
years in Haiti, and he had heard rumors spread by some naval
officers that he had won all his medals and promotions because of
his father's influence.
He did not hesitate to try to use that influence when Thomas Butler
became chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee in 1918. But
his renewed pleas to be allowed to serve in the A.E.F. failed to
move his father, and he remained bogged down disconsolately in
Haiti. He grew increasingly unhappy with the government's management
of the island's affairs.
Under wartime censorship Port-au-Prince's newspapers were
suppressed, and their editors jailed, for suggesting that since Mr.
Wilson was so concerned about the fate of poor little nations
overrun by powerful military aggressors that he had gone to war in
Europe for them, he might consider rescuing little Haiti from its
Some years later when Harding succeeded Wilson in the White House,
Dartiguenave called upon him to remove all Marines from Haiti and
liberate the Haitian people. To dramatize his case, Dartiguenave
accused Butler of having dissolved the Haitian National Assembly by
force of arms, without authority, conveniently ignoring the fact
that he had begged Butler to do it and that he had written him upon
his departure, "I regret to see you obliged to cease your services
in this country, and I was well pleased with the broad and
intelligent cooperation that you have constantly given to the
Dartiguenave's memorial to Harding, published widely in the United
States, "stirred up a hell of a commotion," as Butler put it. The
Senate appointed an investigating committee with Senator Medill
McCormick, of Illinois, as chairman. Butler was summoned as a
witness. A lawyer for the American N.A.A.C.P. demanded to know on
what authority he had presumed to dissolve the Haitian National
"The President [Dartiguenave] himself dissolved the Congress,"
Butler replied. "I merely carried his decree of dissolution to the
Haitian witnesses jeered at this assertion, but their faces fell
when Butler produced the decree signed by Dartiguenave and his
cabinet; it had been prudently saved among Butler's memorabilia. The
upset Haitian politicians denounced it as a forgery, but were
compelled to acknowledge it as authentic when it was compared with
other documents signed by Dartiguenave. His case won, Butler saw no
need to embarrass the State Department by also revealing that
Secretary of State Robert Lansing had secretly ordered "any steps
necessary" to stop the National Assembly from passing an
Soon afterward Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby asked Butler to
return to Haiti as High Commissioner with a "civilian financial
adviser" who, Butler knew, would represent American big-business
investors and dictate economic policy. He had had enough of letting
Wall Street profiteers use the Marines as their private army. He
would prefer not to go, he told Denby, and certainly not with any
civilian financial adviser. In that case, Denby said coldly, he need
not go at all.
In March, 1918, bursting with frustration over his inability to get
into the action on France's battlefields, Butler decided to press
the matter personally with Lejeune, who was now a general, during a
medical leave to Washington for dentistry.
Lejeune finally succeeded in getting him detached from Haitian
service, but to Butler's dismay, instead of being sent overseas, he
was ordered to take over a swampy new Marine base at Quantico,
Virginia, on the Potomac, thirty miles south of Washington. Here he
had to train regiments of raw boots for the front and glumly watch
them pull out for France without him.
He felt irked with his father for failing to use his influence to
get him into combat. Thomas Butler had visited the front and had
been greatly disturbed by the high casualties of American troops.
Smedley wondered whether his father had refused to help him get
overseas out of a dread of losing him in the European carnage.
He persisted in nagging Marine headquarters for an overseas command,
but his refusal to be discreet even now antagonized his superior
officers. Learning that a move was afoot to raise the rank of the
Marine commandant to lieutenant general, he spoke out against it as
a rank piece of opportunism. No similar promotions were being
suggested, he pointed out acidly, for the leathernecks in the
trenches of France.
His friends in the Corps moaned at this bull-in-a-china-shop gaffe,
warning him that his indiscreet candor was hurting his career. He
remained stubbornly convinced of his right to speak out vigorously
against injustice in the Corps.
He finally found a way to get overseas when the 13th Marines came to
Quantico for training. Josephus Daniels, Jr., son of the Secretary
of the Navy, was with the regiment. Meeting his father, Butler
persuaded Daniels, Sr., that young Marines like his son needed the
protection overseas of veteran Marine commanders like Smedley
Butler. Despite the opposition of the desk admirals in Washington,
Butler was finally ordered overseas with the regiment.
Bidding farewell to his family, Butler was happy in the conviction
that he was heading for the front at last. For twenty years, he told
his wife, he had been preparing for the big war that he had dreaded,
yet had anticipated. At last he would be serving his country in its
greatest hour of crisis. In his patriotic zeal his qualms about the
commercial intrigues he had learned to suspect behind troop
movements were swept away.
Anchoring at Brest on September 24, 1918, he and his men were
assigned to a dreary Army debarkation center, Camp Pontanezen,
consisting of seventeen hundred acres of mud flats occupied by
75,000 American soldiers, of whom 16,000 had the flu. Returning
casualties had complained of scandalous conditions at Pontanezen,
where they had been forced to await ships home lying in mud, hungry,
chilled, and medically neglected.
Day after day he waited impatiently for his orders to move up to the
fighting zone. After two weeks he was handed a telegram from A.E.F.
Commander General John J. Pershing informing the
thirty-seven-year-old Butler that he had been promoted to the rank
of brigadier general, making him the youngest Marine ever to achieve
that rank. And he was finally assigned his new command-in charge of
Butler read the telegram three times, unable to believe it. Then be
let out a roar of fury. The bastards! The unutterable bastards! They
couldn't do this to him. After twenty years as a fighting Marine, to
be denied the opportunity to lead his men into battle and be forced
to sit instead in a dirty mud hole a light-year away from the
To make matters worse, he discovered that one officer after another
had been put in charge of the miserable concentration camp and pest
trap that was now his responsibility, only to fail dismally in their
attempts to clean it up. It was obvious to him that he had been
handed a "lemon" of a command, ending his dreams of fighting in the
Meuse-Argonne. Bitter, he added Pershing to his list of enemies in
Pershing, actually, had been motivated only by the desperate need
for a good administrator who could do something about the mess at
Pontanezen, the linchpin for troops and equipment coming into France
and for wounded and sick troops going home. Butler's record as an
able administrator in Haiti and Quantico had marked him as the man
for the job. So he was forced to watch glumly as the 13th Marines
left for the front, leaving him behind in command of an all-Army
outfit in Brest.
Shaking off his despond and self-pity, Butler went to work. Not long
afterward writer Mary Roberts Rinehart arrived with orders from
Secretary of War Newton Baker to investigate the terrible conditions
at Pontanezen. Touring the camp talking to the troops, she was
astonished to find morale high. One private told her
enthusiastically, "I'd cross hell on a slat if Butler gave the
word!" She wrote later:
In charge of the camp was that dynamo of energy, courage and sheer
ability, General Smedley Butler of the Marines. And Butler was no
red tape man. In defiance of regulations he was issuing double
rations of food, and serving hot soup all day long to those who
needed it. He had issued, also, six blankets to each man, and as the
ground under the tents was nothing but mud, he had raided the wharf
at Brest of the duck-boards no longer needed for the trenches,
carried the first one himself up that four-mile hill to the camp,
and thus provided something in the way of protection for the men to
To have produced the morale I found under existing conditions was
nothing short of a miracle of ability, and I said so. Even the flu,
taking its daily toll of men in the hospital nearby, was practically
non-existent in the camp. . . . I had never seen General Butler
before, and I went prepared to send in a blistering report to
Washington. . . . But the men were in fine condition, and cheerful.
Her report to Baker was so glowing that the Secretary of War
promised to send Butler everything he needed.
Soon after the Armistice Butler threw the gears of camp operation
into reverse. In a single day 26,000 men were processed onto ships,
2,000 newcomers were processed into France, and 10,000 men fresh
from the line were processed into camp. Every man back from the
front was deloused, bathed, and freshly dressed and equipped within
twenty-four hours. The camp was the outstanding marvel of American
efficiency on French soil,
During an inspection visit by Pershing, the commander of the A.E.F.
noticed that as Butler drove him around the camp, doughboy after
doughboy failed to salute them. Irked, he snapped to Butler, "Don't
you think they should be taught to salute?"
"Well, General," Butler said with a shrug, "if the Army had them
from six months to six years and they haven't learned to salute, you
can't expect a Marine to teach them in six days!"
He was always on the side of the powerless against the brass. One
day while he was absent his superior, General Helmick, made a
surprise inspection of Pontanezen. Finding wastefulness in one mess,
Helmick savagely tongue-lashed the lieutenant in charge. When Butler
learned about it, he phoned the Army Chief of Staff.
"If the general has any complaint with the camp," he stormed, "tell
him to pick on me and not on a young lieutenant who is doing his
level best!" When Helmick came to see him, Butler pounded on the
desk and told his superior what he thought of him for "jumping on a
After Butler's angry outburst had subsided, Helmick replied, "Now,
Smedley, I'll talk. I've let you abuse me, your commander, for two
reasons. First, because you've been of such tremendous value to my
organization, and second, because I know I didn't do the right thing
by that boy. I realize also that you've worked yourself into a state
of nervous collapse to make the camp a success. I know you don't
mean what you're saying. I never permit myself to be aroused by a
tired man's utterances, when that tired man is a good man."
"General, by God," Butler said hoarsely, struck with admiration,
"you are some commander!"
Helmick then went with Butler to the young lieutenant and apologized
to him publicly in front of all the cooks and KP's.
Torn between court-martialing him for his frequent intransigence
toward higher authority and decorating him for his accomplishments
in an almost impossible job, the Army finally awarded him its
Distinguished Service Medal. The Navy felt impelled to follow suit
with its own Distinguished Service Medal. The French awarded him
their Order of the Black Star. He wore these decorations proudly
beside his World War I Victory Medal with French clasp.
But the reward he treasured most was the gratitude of hundreds of
thousands of doughboys back from the misery of the trenches,
grateful for his efforts to ease their hardships as they waited for
evacuation home. He did a lot of hard thinking as he watched the
wounded and maimed pass through Pontanezen, some with their nervous
systems irreparably shattered.
"Gradually it began to dawn on me to wonder," he related later,
"what on earth these American boys are doing getting wounded and
killed and buried in France." This uneasy reflection began to plant
seeds of doubt in his mind about the ethics of his chosen calling.
With America once more at peace and Congress slashing military funds
drastically, the future of the Marine Corps looked bleak. Butler was
indignant when Marine Corps headquarters failed to protest its
reduction to a mere appendage of the Navy. In disgust he announced
his decision to retire and wrote his father urging that John Lejeune
be appointed the new commandant in 1920 to save the Corps.
Thomas Butler saw eye to eye with his son on the need to preserve
the Marine Corps's independence and agreed that Lejeune, who had
distinguished himself in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, was the man to
fight for it in Congress. So on January 30, 1920, Lejeune became the
new commandant. He, in turn, coaxed Butler into staying on in
command of Quantico to help in the struggle to save the Corps.
To dramatize the Corps's need of funds for modernization, Butler
held summer maneuvers that restaged the Battle of the Wilderness
between Grant and Lee. On the first day it was "fought" as it had
happened; next day it was restaged with a significant difference-the
use of modern equipment. The presence of President Warren G.
Harding, a Civil War buff, helped win widespread news coverage.
Butler's shrewd tactic was highly effective in getting a reluctant
Congress to vote adequate funds for the Corps.
It was a forty-mile march from Quantico to the battleground. As
usual wearing no insignia to identify him, Butler marched at the
head of the column walking his horse, carrying full gear on his back
in the hot July sun. When one soldier faltered, Butler told him
gently, "Son, I'm more than twenty years older than you, but we're
going to do this together." He said later, "I wanted to show them
that they could force themselves to do things that would be
necessary in war." And they all did.
His troops never learned that following one such battlefield
exercise the forty-year-old commander experienced a minor heart
attack, for which a doctor prescribed rest and digitalis. The word
that spread through Quantico was that it was useless to try to fall
out of a hike, because the Old Man would just pick up your pack, add
it to his own, and hike right alongside you with it.
The humdrum garrison life of peacetime, with no alarums and
excursions to divert him, took its toll of Butler's temper. "I was
itching for a scrap-action-something with a snap to it," he admitted
But he was never irascible in any matter that pertained to ailing
Marines who had served under him. In August, 1920, a private wrote
him, "I have been a patient in St. Elizabeth's hospital for the
Insane since Sept. 20, 1918. I am writing to ask if you will arrange
to have me transferred to one of the institutions in Philadelphia,
so that I can be close to the folks at home."
"I will look into the matter and let you know," Butler replied
gently. "You can be assured that everything will be done for your
comfort, for you are one of the prize soldiers of the Marine Corps,
and we all like you very much."
He grew increasingly incensed at what he considered the ingratitude
of the nation toward its veterans. Once the war crisis was over and
Americans felt safe, he reflected, the shattered heroes of yesterday
were ignored as the "bums" of today. He was particularly embittered
by the indifference of big business toward the men in uniform who
had so often been called upon to spill blood for corporate profits.
The profiteering of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the price they
charged for transporting troops led him to write his father angrily,
"I am at a loss to understand why the Pennsylvania people are so
antagonistic to men in uniform. The railroad can haul civilians from
Washington to Philadelphia and back every Sunday for $3.78 and want
$14.00 to haul soldiers. . . . These Pennsylvania people are a lot
of damned hogs and I hope that something will happen to them."
Butler raised Marine Corps morale by developing a great football
team that became the talk of the sports world, and began building a
sports stadium with volunteer Marine labor and with cement
contributed by cement companies.
Proliferating veterans' groups vied with each other for the
distinction of adding his name to their letterheads. He tactfully
declined invitations to join, offering his view that all such groups
"must be nonpolitical, and should never be heard on the floors of
Congress." In June, 1923, he sent regrets to the Marine Corps
Veterans Association explaining, "I have very decided views on
associations, and I am not a member of any but the American Legion,
and most inactive, at that-only joining it because General Lejeune
requested me to do so." He considered the Legion too political and
undemocratic, with leaders who used it as a mouthpiece for
Late in 1923 Butler's career took an unorthodox twist.
W. Freeland Kendrick, the new mayor of Philadelphia, urged him to
take a leave from the Marines to become the city's Director of
Public Safety. The job was that of a "supercop," in charge of the
police and firemen, with the task of smashing the links between
crime and politics in Philadelphia.
Under Prohibition the city had become one of the most corrupt
municipalities in the country. Over eight thousand places sold
bootleg liquor without fear of prosecution; gangsters ran wide-open
gambling joints and brothels; robberies, holdups, and other crimes
were soaring. All attempts to clean up the City of Brotherly Love
had failed because of a profitable alliance among gangsters,
speakeasy operators, and crooked ward bosses, who bribed and
controlled the police.
Kendrick, a conservative Republican politician, had been elected
mayor on a law-and-order campaign and was now under heavy pressure
to keep his pledge. He was advised to bring in an outsider,
preferably a military man, who could not be bought, bluffed, or
bullied, to head the police. Brigadier General Smedley Butler, now a
vigorous forty-two and a colorful war hero with an impressive list
of credits in Who's Who in the Services, seemed a perfect choice to
please the voters. He had even had police experience organizing the
But Butler declined the job. On November 21 he wrote Kendrick,
"While this position would appeal to me very greatly if I believed
there were the slightest chance of success, I am convinced that the
present political conditions existing would ... throw away the work
of a lifetime in a perfectly hopeless undertaking."
He was relieved when the Navy ordered him to report for orders to
the Scouting Fleet. But Kendrick and the Republican party of
Pennsylvania now needed him desperately to still a storm of public
criticism. So Kendrick, Congressman Bill Vare, and Pennsylvania's
two senators went to the White House to plead with President Calvin
Coolidge that Butler be given a year's leave of absence to clean up
Only a man with Butler's reputation for total honesty, and the
ability to discipline men while capturing their imagination and
winning their loyalty, they told Coolidge, could reorganize the
Philadelphia police force. The President finally agreed and sent
word to Butler that the White House would like him to tackle the job
in the interests of good government. His father warned him against
it as a political quicksand, but Butler did not see how he could
refuse a mandate from both the people of Philadelphia and the
His reluctant consent brought wondering letters from old comrades
all over the world, many of whom imagined that he had resigned from
the Corps. Butler assured them that it was only temporary. "This job
is a terrible one and I will probably be cut to pieces," he wrote to
Lieutenant Colonel H. L. Roosevelt in Paris. "On January 7 I will be
sworn in as a Philadelphia cop, for better or worse."
Butler told a reporter for the Philadelphia North American,
"Kendrick has his neck in a noose with me. If I fall or I am run
out, lie is going to go down also. If he reverses me just once I'll
quit, and the resignation will be in the form of a telephone call
telling him I am on my way back to Quantico, and that the keys to my
office are on my desk. I do not care whether the state laws or city
ordinances are right or wrong. From January 7 they are going to be
enforced." He was not opposed to drinking in principle, he added.
What was at stake was enforcement of the law, pure and simple, not
the ethics of Prohibition.
Even before he took office, "Boss" Vare sent an emissary to him,
Judge Edwin O. Lewis, to offer Vare's "suggestions" for key
appointments in reorganizing the police department. None too
politely, Butler made it clear what Lewis and Vare could do with
He rented a home in nearby Overbrook, but his wife and children
seldom saw him there because he spent seven days a week on the job,
working until after midnight.
Sworn in on January 7, 1924, he took the oath of office in his
Marine uniform, but half an hour later changed it for one of his own
design. Blue with gold trim, it had a cape taken from the Marine
mess jacket with a flaring red lining. It was dramatic and
impressive, and meant to be.
He promptly summoned all police inspectors to his office.
"I want the lieutenants in your forty-two districts to clean up in
forty-eight hours," he snapped, "or face immediate demotion. That is
all." Then he visited each one of the districts until he had spoken
to every man on the force. The new motto, he announced, was short
and sweet: "Clean up or get out!"
In his first week on the job he raided and shut down 973 liquor and
gambling joints, without even warning Mayor Kendrick. Philadelphians
were electrified. The police winked at each other, convinced that
Butler was a smart "grandstander" who would make a big splash for
the headlines, then quiet down and take it easy. Vare would see to
Going night after night with only a few hours' sleep, he pressed his
raids and inspections relentlessly. He demanded from his men a
dedication to duty equal to his own, but many of them, cut off from
former sources of graft, were hostile and resistant to the new broom
sweeping too clean.
"Sherman was right about war," Butler sighed wearily, "but he should
have tried leading the Philadelphia police!" Nevertheless he began
to show results. Worried Philadelphia bootleggers began unloading
their stocks at cut prices. Many crooks and gamblers began streaming
out of the city in search of more hospitable territory.
Encouraging excessive zeal among his forces, Butler took
responsibility for police who went too far on raids by using axes
freely to destroy furniture and fixtures, searching private homes
and vehicles on suspicion, and closing premises that had a right to
stay open to sell nonintoxicating beverages. Magistrates began
refusing to issue search warrants to permit police to enter known
speakeasies masquerading as private residences. Many cases were
dismissed on grounds of insufficient or illegal evidence.
Butler realized that he would have to modify his tactics, and
astonished Philadelphians by frankly confessing his mistakes to both
the press and the police.
"Guard against anything that will embarrass Mayor Kendrick's
administration," he now ordered police. "Keep away from the
hippodrome stuff. I must admit that I have sinned in this latter
respect more than any of you, and the only excuse I have to offer is
that I was unduly excited and enthusiastic."
Such candor won the affection and respect of reporters, who found
Butler colorful copy and loved to join him for midnight suppers on
Chestnut Street. There was never any question he would not answer
for them directly and honestly. But if they were for him, their
publishers-with the exception of the Philadelphia Record-were not;
their editorial pages sought to ridicule and discredit him
"They insisted on treating me like a queer animal from the circus,"
Butler related. "My chance remarks were twisted and distorted to
paint me in the worst light. . . . About fifty of the minor
officials and correspondents of the newspapers became my loyal
friends, but they had no influence in shaping the editorial point of
By March angry Republican ward leaders were furious at Butler for
disrupting their network of police control. They vigorously
applauded City Treasurer Thomas J. Watson at a meeting when he
shouted, "This country, as well as the Republican organization,
would be a hell of a sight better off without Butler!" The
Philadelphia City Council closed ranks against him.
"My foolish notion that the laws of our country applied to rich and
poor alike accounted for the growing feeling of antipathy toward
me," he recalled later, adding, "By the end of 1924 I had been
cussed, discussed, boycotted, lied about, lied to, strung up, and
reviled. Several times I was on the point of resigning. The only
reason why I continued in my unpopular and uncomfortable position
was to see what the hell was going to happen next!"
Try as he might, he was unable to break the power of the ward
bosses. In April he was forced to admit that be had been
double-crossed by about half of his police lieutenants, who had
bowed to ward-boss pressure to permit shuttered saloons, gambling
houses, and speakeasies to reopen.
Studying the structure, he found that every ward had one police
station. The ward leader named the captain of the station, and the
police thus belonged to the ward leader. In an attempt to destroy
the power of the ward bosses, Butler now cut the stations down from
forty-six to thirty-three.
Infuriated politicians, racketeers, and realtors, who hated him for
having cost them the rents of fifteen hundred closed brothels as
well as the income from other illegally operated properties, joined
forces to demand that Kendrick fire him.
But nearly five thousand church congregations adopted resolutions in
July demanding that the mayor give full support to the general.
Added to this pressure were thousands of letters from women's clubs,
civic groups, business organizations, and individuals. Kendrick,
alarmed at being caught between the voters and the brokers of power,
wavered back and forth.
A report that he was preparing to knuckle under to the political
bosses brought another roar of protest from the citizenry. A mass
meeting of four thousand Philadelphians resolved that Butler must be
kept in office: "Since General Butler has been in command here, more
has been accomplished for the suppression of vice and crime than in
any period of like duration in this city!" They flooded Secretary of
the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur with letters urging that Butler's leave of
absence from the Marines be extended for another three years.
President Calvin Coolidge reluctantly agreed to extend the general's
leave for one more year, but he pointed out to the citizens of
Philadelphia that the Federal Government could not continue
indefinitely to be responsible for solutions to local problems: "The
practice of detailing officers of the United States military forces
to serve in civil capacities in the different states on leaves of
absence is of doubtful propriety and should be employed only in
cases of emergency. . . . Local self-government cannot be furnished
from the outside."
Reappointed, by the end of the year Butler had raided almost 4,000
speakeasies, shutting down 2,566, and had seized over a thousand
stills, arresting 10,000 violators of the Volstead Act. But to his
dismay, political pressure in the court system resulted in only
2,000 indictments by the grand jury, with only 300 convictions.
Police magistrates, who were handpicked by the politicians, imposed
only token fines on all but 4 percent of arrested speakeasy
operators. Struggling to get honest law enforcement, Butler
complained to the press, was like submitting to Chinese water
"Drops of water have been dripping on my head since I have been
here. . . .Either I am unpopular, or the enforcement of the liquor
laws is unpopular in this city. . . . When the people of
Philadelphia or any other city stop playing the game of `Enforce the
law against others but not against me,' they will begin to win the
fight against lawlessness."
He was bitter when he learned of a secret deal between the brewers
of Philadelphia and the Republican State Campaign Committee. A
royalty of two dollars for each barrel of illegal beer distributed
was to be paid into the Republican campaign fund, provided the
politicians put the White House under heavy pressure to recall
Butler to duty with the Marines.
Toward the end of 1925, whether this deal was responsible or not,
Coolidge refused to extend Butler's leave. The general was ordered
to report after the first of the year to command the Marine post at
San Diego. With his recall assured, Mayor Kendrick now shrewdly
sought to make points with pro-Butler voters by declaring that he
wished it were possible to keep the general as Director of Public
Safety for the remainder of his own administration.
A "Keep Butler" movement sprang up all over Philadelphia. Forced to
go along with it, Kendrick told one mass meeting, "To announce that
General Butler is to leave his post here would be tantamount to
inviting an army of criminals to Philadelphia." But the mayor lost
no time in grooming his successor.
Meanwhile Butler had become increasingly irked by the fact that the
pressure of powerful hotels and the Hotel Association had kept their
ballroom social affairs, at which liquor was served to young
teen-age girls from socially prominent Philadelphia families, from
being raided for liquor violations.
Ordering a raid on a formal ball at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, he
seized evidence showing that bootleg liquor was being served.
Confronting Kendrick, he demanded that the mayor institute padlock
proceedings against the Ritz-Carlton.
"And I mean the whole hotel," he insisted. "Something must he done
to teach these big fellows that they must obey the law as well as
the little fellows!"
A howl of outrage was heard in the ranks of the Republican party's
wealthiest adherents. Politicians were threatened with a wholesale
withdrawal of campaign contributions unless Butler was now
unceremoniously dumped. Greatly upset, Kendrick urged him to "lay
off" the big hotels. To the mayor's horror, Butler firmly announced
his intention to organize a special police squad in evening clothes
to invade all Philadelphia hotels, and signal for raids whenever
they found liquor-law violations.
His fighting spirit was now thoroughly aroused. Although he longed
to get back to his beloved Marine Corps, it rankled him to leave a
mission incomplete. If he left Philadelphia now, he would have
enforced the law against small operators who bootlegged liquor to
the poor, but not against the big operators who made it available to
the rich. His egalitarian nature pressed him to balance the scales.
He also felt an obligation to the honest cops who had defied the
ward bosses to support his fight against corruption. Once he was
gone, he feared, they would be punished for their loyalty to him. He
decided that he owed it to them to sacrifice his career in the
Marine Corps to stay on and finish the job, especially since
Kendrick had made it clear-or so Butler believed-that he needed and
The morning papers carried the story that Butler was resigning from
the Marine Corps to remain as Director of Public Safety. Appalled,
the hotel owners of the city joined with local politicians in a
demand that Kendrick fire Butler immediately. The mayor was reminded
that the Hotel Association's cooperation with City Hall was
absolutely essential for the success of a sesquicentennial
celebration of American independence being planned for Philadelphia.
Worried and upset, Kendrick called Butler to his office and told
him, "I don't want any resigned generals around me. You ought to go
back to the Service where you belong. The President doesn't want you
Shocked at the mayor's spineless surrender, Butler stalked out,
storming, "Oh, hell, I can't talk to such a weak fish!"
Kendrick then fired him by phone. In choice Marine language, Butler
told Kendrick exactly what he thought of him. Clearing his desk, the
general withdrew a blue-steel Army Colt .q5 from it and inserted it
in a holster engraved, "To General Smedley D. Butler from W.
"Give him this letter of resignation and the pistol," he told his
aide. "He can publish the letter and he can do what he pleases with
the gun. I'm going back to the troops!"
His letter of resignation declared, "Last week I decided that it was
in keeping with my promise to the police of Philadelphia that if
they stood up with me, I would do everything in my power to remain
in Philadelphia.... I am being dismissed from public service because
I am making the greatest sacrifice any Marine can make, and I
should, without any other ties, be of more service to the City of
Philadelphia than I was before." He had been fired, he charged,
because "the gang that has ruled Philadelphia for many years" had
been out to get him, and did.
The Philadelphia Record; which had consistently supported Butler
during his two years as the city's supercop, declared, "He was
honest; that was taken for granted or he would not have been
appointed. But he was 100 percent honest. We think we are doing the
mayor no injustice in expressing the belief that this was a little
more than he had counted on."
Reviewing his experience in Philadelphia, Butler declared
ironically, "The fact the mayor didn't know me led to my being
chosen. The fact I didn't know the mayor led me to accept. I had a
funny idea that law was applicable to everybody. I was a fool. I
didn't get anywhere, except for getting a lot of money as the
highest paid cop in America, $18,000 Had the kids educated, lost 35
pounds and my teeth, bought a car and ended up $300 in debt. . . .
What Philadelphia really wanted was something to talk about, a real,
live general. No other city had one as a cop. ... They wanted to
throw up a smoke screen and make people think Philadelphia had
thrown off the yoke of crime."
Mary Roberts Rinehart, who visited Butler in Philadelphia to study
his cleanup, wrote about it in her biography:
He did a fine job. He replaced the old roundsman, fat and portly,
with young and active men, and then he put into them something of
the marine esprit de corps. He put the fear of God into the gamblers
and dive keepers. He cut down the enormous graft which they had paid
year after year. But they were only waiting. They could afford to
wait. When Butler lost the front page they would come back....
I watched Butler and admired him; the same sheer ability, energy and
knowledge of men which had succeeded at Brest were evident in all
that he did. But it was an unbeatable game, that of the crooks,
gamblers, bootleggers and dive keepers.
As soon as he was fired, the mayor of Syracuse, New York, sent him a
wire urging him to head that city's new Committee of Public Safety.
But now Commandant John Lejeune quickly insisted that he withdraw
his resignation from the Corps.
"I told General Butler that I could not with equanimity contemplate
his leaving the Marine Corps," his old friend told the press. "I
have the highest regard for General Butler with whom I have served
for twenty-seven years, and I don't want the Marine Corps to lose
him." Butler was given a holiday leave with his family to his old
home in West Chester for a "quiet, old-fashioned, jolly Christmas"
before reporting to take over the San Diego Naval Operating Base.
On the eve of his departure Philadelphia Record reporter Paul Comly
French and other newsmen who admired his honesty and courage gave
him an informal midnight dinner. They presented him with a square
silver token, explaining, "It's the only kind of money he'll
"Cleaning up Philadelphia's vice," lie told them with a sigh, "is
worse than any battle I was ever in."
One group of Philadelphia citizens raised funds for a bronze tablet
to honor his services to the city. The inscription read: "He
enforced the law impartially. He defended it courageously. He proved
incorruptible." He thanked them but protested wearily, "If I have to
keep earning that epitaph, it will wear me out!"
Visiting his father in Washington, lie admitted that his health had
been impaired by working eighteen hours a day and longer, and he was
bitter at having been used.
"I was hired as a smoke screen," lie charged. "The politicians were
buying the reputation I had earned in twenty-six years' service as a
Marine. I was to make a loud noise, put on a brass hat, stage
parades, chase the bandits off the streets-and let vice and rum run
their hidden course!"
He was outraged by the huge sums lie saw being made illegally by
everyone involved in violating the Volstead Act, while Marines who
served their country were paid a paltry twenty dollars a month. In
December, 1926, he wrote his father angrily, "I do not suppose thee
or the other men who are responsible for this Government have ever
stopped to think what these $20 a month men arc doing towards the
preservation of the dignity of this Government. Now where can this
Government get such devoted service for a total cost per capita of
$1,300 a year? Where can we hire men for $20 a month?"
His health still suffering, he began to think of retirement. But
Lejeune urged him to stay in uniform: "In the years to come the
Corps will need your enthusiasm, and I had in mind that you would
receive the next promotion to the rank of Major General. "My
retirement according to age is not very far in the future, and there
is always the possibility of one of the Major Generals causing a
Brooding over the whole question of Prohibition and law enforcement,
Butler began to suspect that perhaps he had been wrong in trying to
enforce an unenforceable law that the majority of the American
people did not seem to want and went out of their way to violate.
The government was wrong, he finally decided, in trying to legislate
In view of his fame as a stern enforcer of Prohibition, prudence
suggested that he keep his changed views to himself. He was
unpopular enough with the wets; to speak out now against the
Volstead Act would only alienate millions of drys who considered him
one of their knights in white armor. But popularity had never been
as important to Smedley Butler as his compulsion to blurt out the
truth in public and to kick sacred cows in the rump when they
loitered in the path of justice.
On January 7, 1927, in Washington, D.C., he gave the reporters a
story that flashed from coast to coast. The Volstead Act, he now
declared, was "a fool dry act, impossible of enforcement." It was,
furthermore, "class legislation," because the rich could avoid it
and the poor could not.
The sensational denunciation of Prohibition by one of its leading
Republican crusaders plunged the dry forces of the nation into
consternation. Democrats, rejoicing, began laying plans to make
repeal of the Volstead Act one of the key issues in the presidential
campaign of 1928.
Butler's presence in Washington was occasioned by the outbreak of a
fresh crisis in China. To his delight, Lejeune informed him that lie
would soon be headed overseas once more at the head of a combat
China was being torn by civil war between Chiang Kai-shek, commander
in chief of the new Nationalist armies of the South, and northern
warlords led by Chang Tso-lin. Chiang Kai-shek had organized an
anti-British boycott and had threatened to clear China of all
foreign imperialists. Warlord Chang Tso-lin, supported by the
colonial powers, had declared himself dictator of North China.
As Chiang Kai-shek's forces fought their way north and battles broke
out between his army and Chang Tso-lin's, panic swept foreign
residents in the North. American missionaries and businessmen
appealed to Washington for protection.
The forty-six-year-old decorated hero of the Boxer Campaign who had
helped relieve the sieges of Tientsin and Peking was made commander
of a new Marine expeditionary force-the 3d Marine Brigade. His
orders were "to protect the lives and property of our Nationals in
Tientsin; to offer temporary refuge in Tientsin for our Nationals;
evacuation from the Interior and to make safe evacuation to the
The War Department warned Butler to be extremely prudent in anything
he did or said; the smallest error of judgment on his part might
have disastrous consequences in the highly volatile situation. Not
without good reason, Lejeune added some prudent parting advice: "Be
careful to avoid talking to newspaper correspondents."
He arrived in Shanghai on March 25, 1927, to find tension running
high. Chinese troops had attacked several consulates at Nanking,
killing many foreigners, looting and burning the city. American
businessmen and missionaries had escaped on gunboats to Shanghai,
whose port was now swarming with ships. Never before in history had
the war vessels of so many different nations anchored together in
Barbed-wire entanglements had been erected, and the International
Settlement was under martial law. All legations had ordered their
nationals from the interior of China, from which there were daily
reports of murders and outrages. A more violent version of the Boxer
Rebellion seemed in the making, and the white settlements were
Butler's 3d Marine Brigade disembarked at the Standard Oil dock in
the Whangpoo River opposite Shanghai and set up tents in the
Standard Oil compound. Shortly afterward Butler was taken aboard the
flagship of Admiral C. S. Williams, who greeted him frostily.
"What do you think of the situation, and what do you think of our
"We don't have half enough men to perform our task here," Butler
replied. "We need more men to do it properly."
The admiral snorted. "So you're one of these fellows who wants to
build a big job for himself and get promoted."
Butler saw red. "I intend to retire in a year," he snapped, "and
don't care whether I am promoted or not. You asked for my opinion
and I gave it to you. Now if you don't care to take my advice, and
some Americans are murdered in this town, and you sit quietly here
with half of the Marines available in the United States doing
nothing but guarding coal piles, you will be held responsible!"
The admiral glared at him, but not without an aspect of respect. He
was soon one of Butler's chief admirers.
Careful to keep the American forces from getting involved in the
fighting between the rival Chinese armies, Butler sought to maintain
cordial relations with the Chinese people themselves. He had no
stomach for any more Haiti-style interventions that would jockey him
into the position of defending American business interests against
native rebels, and he did not intend to risk a single Marine's life
to get the job done he had been sent to China to do, unless it
became absolutely necessary.
Military leaders of other nations sought to organize a punitive
expedition against the Kuomintang for the Nanking uprising. To
Butler's relief, Admiral Williams refused to have anything to do
with the scheme, although it had the enthusiastic endorsement of the
American minister at Shanghai.
On May 31 Butler wrote Lejeune, "Now for a little 'secret stuff.'
The American Minister ... is a nervous wreck. He sits up all night
and talks in circles and would have had me in my grave had I stayed
much longer. He feels discredited because our Government has not
adopted his plan, which meant an invasion of China, followed by
intervention and military Government, and is desirous of going home
on leave to explain his side to the President with a hope of
He later observed, "I held to the principle that the Chinese had to
settle their own form of government and pick out their own rulers.
Any attempt to solve the Chinese tangle would have been shadow
boxing. All we could do was to see that mutinous Chinese troops
didn't get out of hand and shoot Americans. It was up to me to
prevent a repetition of the Boxer and Nanking difficulties."
When the danger to Shanghai seemed to ease while growing more
critical in the North, Butler left two thousand Marines stationed in
the city under Colonel Henry Davis, and led four thousand men up to
Tientsin. Not too clear about the mission expected of him, he wrote
his father asking for clarification. His father replied:
I do not think that anyone knows our State policies concerning the
situation in China. I do not believe there are any....I have but one
word of caution to give thee; do not hurt a Chinaman unless it is
absolutely necessary in order to protect the life of Americans in
China or other foreigners associated with them. Do not interfere in
I have not heard one person worthy of quoting who does not deplore
the presence of Americans in China. . . . We are not in China to
maintain order. In a single word, use thy open hand to protect our
people but don't kill the Chinamen to protect their property. . . .
The Congress will never permit the use of its military to
permanently protect it.
Following this advice, he persistently reminded his men that they
were there to keep the peace, not violate it. Any Marine who laid a
hand on a ricksha coolie would be court-martialed, he warned, urging
them to win goodwill for the Corps by friendly behavior. He himself
cultivated the friendship of the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs
and was invited to over twenty Chinese banquets. At one of them he
met an American-educated Chinese woman named Mrs. Lu, who reminded
him that he had helped evacuate her family by boat from Tientsin
twenty-seven years earlier, when she had been three. and their
society is said to number twenty million members.
"I well remember carrying you," he said to her delight. "You
considered me a hateful `foreign devil' and shrieked lustily,
struggling every inch of the way."
As fighting between the rival armies raged closer to Tientsin, the
roar of guns echoed through the city. Butler kept the Marines on the
alert as a defense force, as well as a rescue force ready to leave
in minutes for any place in North China they were needed. To make
sure that none of the warlords, whose allegiances were mercurial,
entertained any notion of attacking his brigade, he invited them to
review a dress parade.
Some warlords were not intimidated and demanded that Butler take his
Marines out of China. Explaining firmly that they were not going
home until American nationals no longer needed protection, he
insisted that they recognize one square mile of the base at Tientsin
as a sanctuary where Americans could move about safely without being
The warlords refused until lie persuaded them by pointing out
shrewdly that it was good insurance for them in their fight against
Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists: "What if you lose? Why, you can come
into that square mile, tool"
When they protested against the flights of Marine planes over
Chinese territory, Butler gave them pause for thought by reminding
them, "You might want to escape in one some day." He also convinced
them it would be imprudent to attack the American forces by taking
them up in Marine planes for bombing practice.
He later declared that he had fulfilled United States foreign policy
requirements by intimidating the most hostile of the Chinese
warlords "with considerable ease. He shared the detestation of the
Chinese people for the warlords and their troops, expressing his
sympathy with the people in a letter to Lejeune:
There is a movement out here which is gaining great headway and is
being conducted by a society known as the "Red Spears." Their aims
and policies are similar to those of the Boxers in 1900 and is
causing considerable uneasiness on the part of our people. The "Red
Spears" are farmers and their society is said to number twenty
million members. The have been so terribly treated by the soldiers,
who every fall regularly billet themselves on them, driving out the
men and misusing the women.
This the farmers have tired of and now murder every soldier they can
catch. I am on the side of the "Red Spears" and it may be this will
be a good way to end this pathetic slaughtering of innocent people
by a lot of brutal war-lords.
The troops of other nations in the International Settlement marched
around their perimeter defenses to intimidate the warlords and
discourage any thought of attack. After flexing his muscles to
impress them similarly at first, Butler then discreetly sought to
"keep in the background as much as possible, and not in any way
behave like an army of occupation-more like a fire company, ready to
spring out to the rescue of our people, behaving simply as rescue
On November 5, 1927, his wife, having left the children in San
Diego, arrived in Tientsin and joined him in a small hotel next to a
godown where the Marines had been quartered during the Boxer
fighting and where he had been carried when he was wounded in the
China's civil war had quieted down for the moment. In a report from
Shanghai Colonel Henry Davis wrote Butler:
I had dinner last night with General Chiang Kai-shek. How in the
name of God he ever exercised the control over these people to the
extent he did last summer is a mystery to me. Usually a man of
strong character will demonstrate it in some way without ever
speaking a word. This bird has nothing of that kind so far as I
could see, and looked and acted like a love sick boob, his fiance,
Miss May Soong [later Madame Chiang Kai-shek], also being present at
the dinner. . . . Of all the stupid boobs I ever met he is it. I
don't believe he ever was the brains behind the movement of last
summer.... He looks like a stupid ricksha coolie and grunts like a
pig when spoken to.
By the end of December Butler found himself in a financial bind and
complained to his father of the struggle to get along on a brigadier
general's pay of $530 a month, out of which he had to pay income tax
and "maintain an establishment for Snooks [daughter Ethel] and Tom
Dick in the United States, and send Tommy [Smedley, Jr.] thru
college, to say nothing of supporting Bunny [wife Ethel] and myself
here in China." He added, "I must entertain many, due to' my
official position, and I must pay for the little entertainment out
of my own pocket."
His father consoled him with the reflection that although he might
be better off financially if he were home with no challenge to his
abilities, "thee would rot and the world would have been no better
because thee happened to live in it."
Lejeune wrote him that at special ceremonies on December 7, with the
Secretary of the Navy present, Lejeune had accepted the bronze
tablet honoring Butler, presented by a committee of Philadelphia's
grateful citizens, and it had been put up in the Navy Building in
Washington. He also revealed that Thomas Butler was leading the
fight in the House for a larger naval defense force, but the public
was in a budget-cutting mood.
Butler wrote his father:
Thy courage in advocating something which will cost money fills me
with pride. Our people are all gluttons and their desire to hoard
money is so great that they will probably turn on thee and beat thee
to death. It would probably be a good thing for our nation if we
were to get a good trimming sometime, and perhaps they would learn
that there is more in this world than unnecessarily fat bank
accounts. The amount of money wasted by five rich men in America in
one year would be sufficient to build and maintain a navy capable of
preserving our position as a world power.
The day before Christmas, 1927, the Standard Oil plant on the
outskirts of Tientsin caught fire during a battle between the rival
Chinese armies. Nine minutes after the alarm, Butler was leading a
battalion of Marines to battle the blaze, utilizing fire-fighting
experience he had gained as Director of Public Safety in
Philadelphia. He arrived on the scene to find two huge warehouses
blazing, with a warehouse filled with gasoline twenty feet away and
six 3-million-gallon oil tanks close by. If they exploded, the death
and devastation in Tientsin would be horrendous.
Putting in a call for another thousand Marines, he fought furiously
to contain the fire. They built a sixteen-foot wall of earth, empty
drums, doors, and anything else that wouldn't burn between the
blazing warehouses and the stores of gas, and had the fire under
control by nightfall. But at 3:00 A.M. the main drain of the plant
blew up, showering the river with a stream of burning oil. They
worked through Christmas Day building a bulkhead around the mouth of
the drain, only to have ice floes carry off part of it. The river
flamed again, threatening the foreign compound on the opposite
They fought the conflagration for four days before Butler succeeded
in bringing it under control.
On New Year's Eve he wrote his father, "It was a glorious fight and
has done a great deal to weld this command together. ... Everybody
in Tientsin and Peking is highly pleased with the magnificent
showing of our men."
Standard Oil estimated their loss at a million dollars but thanked
Butler for having saved them four million more. At the height of the
blaze the admiring official in charge of the company's Tientsin
holdings had vowed to donate twenty thousand dollars toward a
recreation hall for the Marines. Once the fire had been brought
under control, however, Butler heard no more of the promise. He was
disgusted with the company but on principle did not remind them.
When he told Smedley, Jr., about it, his outraged son swore never to
use a tank of Esso gas in his car for the rest of his life, and kept
Butler began having dark thoughts once more about the use of Marines
to defend big-business profits overseas. Was the government's
professed concern for the protection of Americans in China during
the civil war the real reason for the presence of the Marines? Or
was it to defend the properties of Standard Oil and other big
Serving under him in China was David M. Shoup, later to win a
Congressional Medal of Honor at Tarawa and become a commandant of
the Marine Corps as well as a celebrated critic of the Vietnam war.
"Butler was one helluva soldier-no doubt about his military
capabilities," Shoup recalled later in admiration. "I really felt I
wanted to emulate him in every way. Everything I saw in Tientsin
indicated that he was a helluva showman, too, but a good warrior in
the service of his country."
The author questioned General Shoup about the Marines' mission in
China in 1927-1928 "I would say it was pretty hard to say who we
were supporting there," he replied. "It was just our presence there
that was the thing. I heard no solid reason for why we were being
sent; we were just told we were going to fight the Chinese. We
didn't know what the mission was. But we landed at the Standard Oil
docks and lived in Standard Oil compounds and were ready to protect
Standard Oil's investment. I wondered at the time if our government
would put all these Marines in a position of danger, where they
might sacrifice their lives in defense of Standard Oil. Later I
discovered that of course it would, and did. It was only some years
later that I learned that General Butler had been thinking the same
way. I thought I had been alone in suspecting it."
All through 1928 Butler nevertheless carried out his orders
scrupulously and prevented a shot from being fired in anger. In
March he wrote his father that he was wary of involvement with any
other power represented in China because of his suspicion of their
The Japanese are most anxious to control all of North China,
particularly Manchuria, and will sacrifice anything and back anyone
who will assure to them this control. . . . The British are
perfectly willing . . . if the Japanese will allow them to have the
Yangtze Valley and, unless I am greatly mistaken, these English
"cousins" of ours will be absolutely guided by their own selfish
political and commercial interests. . . . It behooves us to keep
absolutely aloof from everyone and to do nothing which is not
directly in line with the saving of lives.
Letters from home told him that his father had become very ill.
Deeply worried, he wrote Thomas Butler in April:
I do so hope . . . thee will not run thy legs off for this fool
Navy. The American people never do know what they want and it is up
to a few men like thee to guide them and persuade them to do the
right thing but, after all . . . thy children think more of thy
health than all the ships afloat. . . . We are so wholly controlled
by selfish capital . . . abetted by foolish, short-sighted but no
doubt well-meaning pacifists. We can never hope to be prepared for
an emergency and sooner or later will suffer.
That was the last communication between them. His father died on May
26, 1928. When the news reached him in Tientsin, Butler wept. He was
so stunned by the loss of the father who had been as much confidant
and friend as parent that six weeks later he wrote his mother,
Father always took pride in the fact that I was ever to be found at
the front, and now, though it is simply killing me, I must go on and
on trying to do the Nation's work. Ah, I don't care any more but
must pretend I do-just hate it all, but Father drove himself to
death for the Navy and I must do the same, I suppose. . . . I am all
confused and dazed. Does thee know I am unable positively to
remember the last time I saw Father? . . . Father has left us all
such a beautiful reputation for kindly firmness that I am constantly
overwhelmed with the responsibility of living up to it. . . . Be
sure to write me fully any message that Father may have left for me,
and if in his suffering he didn't leave any-make up one. It will be
all the same-I must have something to go on.
As usual when he was depressed, he threw himself into an orgy of
activity. Storms having washed away a bridge on the Tientsin-Peking
main road in September, he ordered the Marines to build a temporary
structure out of scrap lumber to keep the highway open. The
delighted villagers urged him to allow the bridge to remain; instead
he magnified Chinese-American goodwill by building a more permanent
bridge for them. Chinese officials named it after him and made him
an honorary Chinese citizen. He then offered to rebuild the whole
road from Peking to Tientsin with Marine equipment, to make it
suitable for motor use, if they would supply soldier labor. They
happily provided fifteen hundred Chinese troops for the job, which
he personally supervised. The Chinese peasants were grateful for the
road and bridges that helped them get their fresh produce to market.
When the road was officially opened, the governor of the province
held a celebration at which Butler was the guest of honor. Ancient
Chinese custom decreed that when the citizens of a town or district
unanimously voted a man to be a great public benefactor, he could be
awarded an Umbrella of Ten Thousand Blessings-a magnificent canopy
of red satin with small silk streamers proclaiming his greatness. No
foreigner in Tientsin or Peking had ever rated one. But now the
people of Tientsin presented a Blessings Umbrella to Smedley Butler.
Soon afterward he drove into Boxertown just as a detached column
from Chiang Kai-shek's army advanced into the opposite end of the
town to loot it. His car kicked up so much racket that it sounded
like machine-gun fire. The Nationalists, thinking he had an army
behind him, fled. Despite Butler's protests that he had done nothing
at all to help them, the people of Boxertown hailed him as a
When he received a second Blessings Umbrella with its silk streamers
inscribed in Chinese, one banner read, "Your kindness is always in
the minds of people." The other: "General Butler loves China as he
The second award moved him deeply, because Boxertown was the very
same town from which Boxers, twenty-eight years earlier, had poured
fire on his company, killing three Marines and wounding nine. After
he made a speech recalling this event, he learned that five old men
in the crowd that had just presented him with Boxertown's greatest
honor had been among the Boxers who had shot at him in 1900.
He was equally popular with his men, frequently working beside them
when there was physical labor to be done. Junior officers were so
caught up by his gung-ho leadership, General Shoup recalled, that
they, too, worked voluntarily beside the enlisted men. "Never before
or since," one of them said later in awe, "have I ever known a
general who could actually inspire officers to want to do physical
In the fall of 1928 Butler followed developments by radio in the
presidential race between Herbert Hoover and A1 Smith, deeply
interested in the campaign issues that touched two facets of his
personal experience-Prohibition and Latin American relations. He
wrote Lejeune in October, "There seems no doubt that Hoover will be
elected President-I guess, however, the country will survive."
Orders for the Marines to begin pulling out of China came from
President Coolidge in December. As he left China in January, 1929,
Butler's affection and admiration for the Chinese people was so
great that he wrote Lejeune, "It may be that when I am retired I
will live among them." Their enthusiasm for him was equally
unrestrained. A friend with the Asiatic Fleet wrote him, "The
sendoff which the newspapers at Tientsin gave to you and Mrs. Butler
was a great and just tribute to the cordial relations which you had
so successfully established, not only with the Americans and the
Chinese, but with everybody you came in contact with during your
stay in North China."
Butler was awarded the Yangtze Service Medal and in July, 1929,
promoted to major general-at forty-eight the youngest Marine officer
ever to have reached this rank. The Navy Department declared,
"Probably no finer example of successful arbitration by American
officers has been demonstrated in recent years than the peace-making
achievements that crowned General Butler's efforts in China in 1927
Back home, Butler winced when Lejeune asked him to take command of
the Parris Island, South Carolina, base. Weary after his China
stint, he felt a need to renew his ties with kith and kin in his
hometown of West Chester. He talked of retiring.
"I had better begin to think what is best for me and my family," he
told Lejeune. "I have given over thirty years of my best to the
He was given a long leave home, where he became aware of a rising
tide of American sentiment matching his own growing distrust of the
reasons for which armed forces were sent overseas. It had begun with
a belated disillusionment over World War I, sparked by such books as
All Quiet on the Western Front and Merchants o f Death. In 1925 a
National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War had been founded,
and a rapidly developing pacifist movement had compelled the
government to enter disarmament negotiations. By August, 1928, the
antiwar movement was worldwide.
Assigned once more to command the base at Quantico, Butler made it a
Marine showplace and developed Marine football, baseball, and
basketball teams with such high esprit de corps that they played the
best college teams of the East and often beat them. His fatherly
interest in his men led him to help them with personal problems, get
them out of trouble, and encourage them to write home. The
admiration of Marines' families was expressed in a typical letter to
him from Philadelphia: "My brother in the Marines just came back
from Nicaragua and he ask to be transferred to Phila. his Mother was
Ill you complied with his wishes. His Mother was operated for
Tumbers but it was a baby boy and to day it was Christend Smedley D.
Military and patriotic organizations persistently sought to lure him
into joining. He wired the Sons of the American Revolution, "My
ancestors were all Quakers and I regret to say took no part, as far
as I know, in the American Revolutionary War, so I am not entitled
to be a Son of the American Revolution." Actually, recently
discovered evidence indicates that his great-great-grandfather,
William Butler, although a Quaker, probably served in the
Revolution, along with three brothers.
He did, however, finally yield to the pleas of American Legion
official James J. Deighan that he attend the national convention in
Scranton as a guest of honor. "The success of the 11th National
Convention ... last week was in large part due," Deighan wrote him
gratefully afterward, "to the fact that you were our guest.... The
Legionnaires are all for you."
News came that John Lejeune was resigning as commandant to head the
Virginia Military Academy and would be replaced by Butler's other
old friend, Buck Neville, now a major general. Thirty years had gone
by since they had been an inseparable trio in the feverish days of
the Cuban campaign. Butler began to feel the weight of time and too
many campaigns. The endless demands on him made retirement and rest
Asked once too often for a speech, he replied in October, 1929, "I
am not a crusader or a propagandist, nor have I message for anybody,
so there is no object in my appearing anywhere, except for money."
He began to charge stiff lecture fees to cut down demands for him to
travel everywhere to address luncheons and meetings as guest of
Perusing the morning papers on October z, he noted a statement by
Charles E. Mitchell, of the National City Bank: "I know of nothing
fundamentally wrong with the stock market or with the underlying
business and credit situation."
The following day there was a minor panic on the New York Stock
Exchange, and a day later the market collapsed. On October 29 the
bottom fell out in the blackest day in stock-market history, and
within two weeks over thirty billion dollars in stock values were
The Great Depression had begun, and with it a swift rush of events
that would involve Smedley Butler in a fantastic plot to overthrow
the American Government.
At first the American people imagined that the stock-market crash
was something that merely affected Wall Street. In a message to
Congress President Hoover reassured them that there was nothing to
worry about; business confidence had been reestablished.
Bootleggers, gang wars, and crime continued to be the major
preoccupation of the public.
Despite Butler's reluctance, more and more organizations insisted
upon hearing the general who never pulled his punches speak out on
the law-and-order problem. There was a ground swell in Pennsylvania
to nominate Philadelphia's former crimebuster for governor on the
Republican ticket. A friend wrote from Washington, "I note that some
of the politicos may draft you as Dictator for Washington."
In December, 1929, Butler was glad when a demand arose for a Senate
investigation of the use of Marines to intervene in Latin American
affairs. He upset the Hoover Administration by shooting from the hip
in an extemporaneous speech he made in Pittsburgh, revealing that
the State Department had rigged the Nicaraguan elections of 1912 by
ordering him to use strong-arm methods during the Marine
"The opposition candidates in Nicaragua were declared bandits when
it became necessary to elect our man to office," he explained. And
he said of Diaz, "The fellow we had there nobody liked, but he was a
useful fellow to us, so we had to keep him in. How to keep him in
was a problem." Then he described how the election had been rigged,
under orders, for that purpose. "When a Marine is told to do
something," he said, "he does it."
Butler's disclosures, picked up by the press, created a sensation in
Washington. Alarm bells rang in the State Department; the last thing
the administration wanted was an investigation concerning Marines
then stationed in Nicaragua. Officials angrily attacked Butler for
Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson wrote a furious memo to
Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams:
. . . If the remarks are authentic, I consider them a highly
improper and false statement as to American policy, and that I
should call it to your attention for appropriate action. There is
nothing that can do this Government more disservice than such a
misstatement of our policy in a Latin American country, and I am
astounded that such an expression-if he is correctly quoted-should
emanate from a commissioned officer of the United States.
Navy Secretary Adams, a wealthy, polo-playing yachtsman, sent for
Butler and delivered a blistering reprimand, declaring that he was
doing so at the direct personal order of the President of the United
States. Butler saw red.
"This is the first time in my service of thirty-two years," he
snapped back, "that I've ever been hauled on the carpet and treated
like an unruly schoolboy. I haven't always approved of the actions
of the administration, but I've always faithfully carried out my
instructions. If I'm not behaving well it is because I'm not
accustomed to reprimands, and you can't expect me to turn my cheek
meekly for official slaps!"
"I think this will be all," Adams said icily. "I don't ever want to
sec you here again!"
"You never will if I can help it!" Butler rasped, storming out of
his office livid with anger.
Just two days after his attack on the government's gunboat
diplomacy, which provoked a great public commotion, Undersecretary
of State J. Reuben Clark privately submitted to Secretary of State
Stimson the draft of a pledge that the United States would never
again claim the right to intervene in the affairs of any Latin
American country as an "international policeman." The Clark
Memorandum, which later became official policy-for a while at
least-repudiated the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe
Doctrine that Smedley Butler had unmasked as raw gunboat diplomacy.
Defying Adams, Butler continued to express his convictions freely
and publicly about current problems on which he felt qualified to
speak out. He was delighted in May, 1930, when Congress, over
President Hoover's veto, passed a Spanish-American War pension bill
for veterans. With the unemployment rate climbing steadily to almost
five million that year, he urged passage of a bonus bill for all
veterans. The government had a solemn obligation to citizens who had
risked their lives to protect it, Butler insisted, to see to it that
they, their wives, and their children were not allowed to languish
in hunger, poverty, and despair.
Two deaths that year saddened him. His brother Horace was killed in
a car accident in Texas, and his old friend Buck Neville died
suddenly after briefly replacing Lejeune as commandant.
Now Butler was the senior-ranking major general in the Marine Corps,
the logical choice as next commandant. An official inspection report
had also praised Quantico as the finest post in the United States.
But on the same day that it appeared, Marine Corps headquarters sent
Butler a curt letter suggesting that he make fewer speeches, because
his Quantico post was in poor shape as a result of his frequent
In July, 1930, Secretary Adams paid a visit to Quantico, undoubtedly
to lay the groundwork for an official excuse to reject Butler's
fitness to be appointed commandant. Butler was equally determined to
demonstrate that the rebuke he had received about the "poor shape"
of his post was totally unwarranted. Escorting Adams everywhere over
the barracks and parade grounds, he proved that Quantico was a model
of efficiency. The dress-uniform review of his crack regiments was
flawless, and the Marine air squadron performed brilliant maneuvers.
The secretary acidly observed that Quantico was the most expensive
place in the nation for training men. Controlling his temper, Butler
pointed out the sports stadium built at almost no cost to the
"That's one of your damned follies!" Adams muttered. He was clearly
attempting to provoke the volatile Butler into flaring up, and
Butler knew it. Clenching his jaw, the general remained outwardly
calm but could not resist telling a sharply barbed joke about "an
old buzzard" who couldn't be pleased by anything.
Several weeks later a Navy selection board met to choose a new
commandant. One staff admiral declared that he'd be damned before
he'd see Butler made commandant; in no time at all the damned fellow
would be trying to run the whole Navy. Others agreed. Adams happily
discarded Butler's name and proposed instead Brigadier General Ben
H. Fuller who, despite being junior in rank, was approved by the
The news was the last straw for Butler, who now determined to retire
within a year to devote himself to advocating the defense of the
United States as he believed it ought to be defended. Resolutely
opposed to military intervention overseas on behalf of Wall Street
interests, he planned to arouse the American people into preventing
any more. At the same time he had doubts about the wisdom of
entering world disarmament agreements, as leading pacifists
proposed. Could the United States afford to disarm and trust the
word of military dictators like Italy's Mussolini, with Hitler's
swiftly growing Nazi party in Germany already laying the groundwork
for a new war by renouncing the Versailles Treaty?
In a speech before the influential Contemporary Club of Philadelphia
on January 19, 1931, he declared, "I agree with Dr. Hull of
Swarthmore; if we could all lay down our arms, there couldn't be any
war. But there are mad-dog nations who won't get the word, who will
refuse, to sign the agreement, or, if they sign it, refuse to abide
Seeking to impress his listeners with the kind of men dictators
were, he added, "A friend of mine said he had a ride in a new
automobile with Mussolini, a car with an armored nose that could
knock over fences and slip under barbed wire. He said that they
drove through the country and towns at seventy miles per hour. They
ran over a child and my friend screamed. Mussolini said he shouldn't
do that, that it was only one life and the affairs of the state
could not be stopped by one life."
His listeners gasped audibly. Arms akimbo, his head thrust forward
angrily, Butler demanded in a scornful voice, "How can you talk
disarmament with a man like that?"
He had been told that the audience was a private one and that he
could speak in confidence, but he soon learned that there was no
such thing as confidential speech for a man so often in the public
eye. Among his listeners, unknown to him, was an Italian diplomat
from Washington who had been invited to attend.
The outraged diplomat at once reported Butler's remarks to Italian
Ambassador de Martino. The embassy sent a frantic cable to Rome,
then filed an official protest with the State Department. The
morning papers broke the story, and it made sensational headlines. A
high-ranking American officer, wearing the Marine uniform on active
duty, had publicly insulted the head of a friendly power.
Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson felt compelled to deliver a
formal apology to Mussolini: "The sincere regrets of this government
are extended to Mr. Mussolini and to the Italian people for the
discourteous and unwarranted utterances by a commissioned officer of
this government on active duty."
The Washington military-diplomatic bureaucracy now decided that this
time Butler had gone too far. Formal charges against him were
hastily drawn and presented to President Hoover, who promptly signed
them. On the morning of January 29 Marine Commandant Ben Fuller
phoned Butler at Quantico.
"General Butler, you are hereby placed under arrest to await trial
by general court-martial. You will turn over your command to your
next senior, General Berkeley, and you will be restricted to the
limits of your post. The Secretary of the Navy wishes you to know
that this action is taken by the direct personal order of the
President of the United States."
The charges were "conduct to the prejudice of good order and
discipline" and "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman."
These accusations were known in the armed forces as Mother Hubbard
charges because they "covered everything." Most Marine officers were
convinced that the powers-that-be had decided to "throw the book" at
Old Gimlet Eye and drum him out of the Corps dishonorably, in
revenge for his well-known fighting man's scorn of Washington's desk
Butler notified Brigadier General Randolph C. Berkeley, his junior
officer at Quantico and a good friend, that he was under arrest-the
first general officer to be placed under arrest since the Civil War.
Butler's two-star command flag was lowered on the Quantico
flagstaff, and he offered his sword to Berkeley, who indignantly
refused to accept it.
Berkeley was outraged that Smedley Butler, who wore eighteen
decorations and was one of only four military men in American
history who had ever been awarded two Medals of Honor, should be put
under arrest by a telephone call. He was even more indignant that
Butler had been confined to the post, hindering his ability to
arrange for his own defense at the court-martial.
Defying the wrath of Adams, Berkeley himself went to Washington to
get Butler's old comrade-in-arms Henry Leonard, who had lost an arm
fighting beside him in the Boxer Rebellion and who now had a law
practice in the Capital, to act as Butler's counsel. Leonard rushed
off to Quantico immediately.
A prisoner on his own post, Butler was wryly amused by an invitation
to be guest of honor at a sportsmen's dinner. His aide-de-camp, L.
C. Whitaker, replied dryly for him: "As General Butler is under
arrest, he will be unable to attend."
News of his arrest brought an outpouring of sympathy and support for
him not only among his far-flung and influential staunch friends but
also among millions of Americans who despised Mussolini and
everything the dictator stood for. Admiring Butler for speaking out
against fascism, they were appalled that he was being
court-martialed for being a patriot who believed in democracy, the
Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and distrusted dictators who
denied such civil liberties to their own people.
Butler also had the support of millions of veterans who knew him as
a magnificent fighting man and hero, as well as a general who was on
the side of the enlisted man against the brass; and of hundreds of
thousands of admirers who still remembered the courageous fight he
had waged against the crooked politicians and racketeers of
Many Americans, moreover, were fed up with the Hoover Administration
for sitting on its hands with the Depression rapidly worsening, and
esteemed a public leader who at least had the courage of his
convictions and spoke them bluntly. Italian-American anti-Fascists
also rallied to Butler's support by bitter protests against
Stimson's apology to Mussolini.
The administration grew alarmed as a rolling tidal wave of angry
criticism oŁ Butler's arrest swept across the country.
"Unless we are mistaken," declared a Washington Daily News
editorial, "the American people are likely to consider these Cabinet
officials guilty of a strange timidity toward Mussolini on one hand
and of an unwarranted harshness toward a splendid American soldier
on the other."
Public opinion on the side of Butler made itself felt so quickly and
emphatically that the administration found it necessary to
ameliorate the conditions of his arrest. His restriction to the post
was lifted, allowing him to travel where he needed to in order to
arrange for his defense.
He wired New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had presented
him with one of his Medals of Honor as Undersecretary of the Navy,
"Am in great trouble. Can you assist me in securing services of John
W. Davis as counsel?" Davis, a leading Wall Street corporation
lawyer, had been the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for President
in 1924. Roosevelt persuaded Davis to agree to argue Butler's case
at the trial.
A visit to Butler's aunt, lawyer Isabel Darlington, also enlisted
Roland S. Morris, a former ambassador to Japan, as Henry Leonard's
counsel in preparing the case.
Thousands of sympathetic messages poured into Quantico. Butler was
deeply touched by two letters especially: Both Governor Roosevelt
and former Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels volunteered to
testify in his behalf at the court-martial. That news stunned Adams
The trial date was set for February 16. Butler was impatient to have
it sooner, anxious to get all the facts before the public, but
Leonard and Morris argued that the torrent of favorable publicity
was helping his case. They proved correct. Protests against the
court-martial were pouring into the White House by the sackful. The
trial threatened to become a cause celebre, with, implications for
the whole system of military justice, especially after a Marine
colonel denounced American court-martials as basically unjust.
The impending trial was also throwing a spanner into Secretary of
State Stimson's plans for forging an international naval arms
limitation agreement. Crucial to that agreement were preliminary
negotiations between Italy and France, which feared Italian and
German fascism. Resisting Stimson's pressure to sign an arms
limitation agreement with Mussolini, the French cited as
justification popular American support of Butler's view that
Mussolini could not be trusted and widespread protest over his
arrest for saying so.
Mussolini himself, alarmed by the bad press he was getting in the
United States, with a few notorious exceptions, sent word to Stimson
that he considered the whole incident an "unfortunate error" and
believed it would be best for all concerned if the whole plan to
court-martial Butler could be quietly dropped.
Stimson, who now realized that he had a tiger by the tail, passed
the word to the crestfallen Adams. The Secretary of the Navy now had
to beat a hasty retreat with as much dignity as he could muster out
of his humiliating predicament. He sent Leonard a letter announcing
his decision to "settle" the matter by calling off the court-martial
and simply detaching Butler from his command with a reprimand,
placing him on the inactive list with the limbo status of "awaiting
In polite language Leonard told Adams to go to hell. A few hours
later, after checking with his principals, the Secretary of the Navy
then offered to let the whole thing drop by just detaching Butler
from the command and issuing a reprimand. Again Leonard turned him
down flatly. Adams frantically tried a third proposal. The
administration would settle, he now pleaded, for an official letter
of apology. There would be no court-martial and no removal of Butler
Roaring a third refusal, Leonard demanded that Adams stop dawdling
and proceed to trial. By now the administration, in a state of near
panic, meekly asked Leonard just what terms for settling the matter
would be acceptable to General Butler.
Leonard, jubilant at this abject surrender, conferred with Morris
and Butler. Angry at his persecutors, Butler wanted to insist upon
the court-martial, but as he confided to a relative on February 12,
"Mother and Bunny [his wife] were both breaking under the strain,"
and he decided that it wasn't worth their anguish to fight the
establishment to a finish. "I feel we could have licked them badly,"
he added, "but now I have a club over their heads, as they were
warned that we would tell if they tried any more persecutions."
Since he had already won a clear moral victory, he decided he could
afford to let the government save a little face. He agreed to write
a letter reiterating his explanation that the Mussolini speech had
been made at a private club meeting and expressing regret that
anything he had said "caused embarrassment to the Government." He
would accept an official gentle "reprimand," which was, however, not
to be written by Adams but by Leonard himself for Adams to sign. In
return for these concessions the government would announce that it
was dropping its court martial and was immediately restoring the
general to his command with full rank and privileges, without
prejudice of any kind.
The administration hastily accepted Butler's terms, and the suitable
papers were drawn. On February 9 the court-martial was canceled, and
a mild reprimand credited Butler's explanation that his speech had
been intended to be "confined to the limits of four walls," as well
as acknowledging his "long record of brilliant service." One
newspaper headlined the story: "YOU'RE A VERY BAD BOY"- SAYS ADAMS
The general's admirers grinned in delight. He was released from
arrest and restored to duty, his command flag once more fluttering
over Quantico. It was a signal and remarkable victory for a lone
Marine officer to win over the President of the United States and
the Secretaries of State and the Navy.
"I was glad to sec Smedley Butler get out of his case as he did,"
Will Rogers wrote in his column on March 15, 1931. "You know that
fellow just belongs in a war all the time. He don't belong in Peace
time. He is what I would call a natural born warrior. He will fight
anybody, any time. But he just can't distinguish Peace from war. He
carries every medal we ever gave out. He has two Congressional
Medals of Honor, the only man that ever got a double header.* You
give him another war and he will get him another one.... I do admire
The press was reluctant to let the story die. The wire services
carried journalist Cornelius Vanderbilt's revelation that he had
been the one who had told Butler the true story about Mussolini. He
corrected a few details. After running down the child, Vanderbilt
said, Mussolini had observed the journalist looking back in horror
and had patted his knee reassuringly, saying, "Never look back, Mr.
Vanderbilt-always look ahead in life." Italian officials now sought
to deny that Vanderbilt had ever ridden in a car with Mussolini.
Butler was appalled, but not too surprised, to read that Ralph T.
O'Neill, national commander of the American Legion, had presented to
Italian Ambassador de Martino a resolution in praise of Mussolini,
passed by the National Executive Committee. There were powerful and
influential wealthy elements in the Legion leadership who admired
Mussolini's shackling of Italian labor unions under the guise of
Now that he had defeated the attempt of his enemies to court-martial
him, Butler revealed to his friends that he intended to go ahead
with his original plan to retire at the end of the year. On March 1
he informed the press, barking, "Get this clear-I are not
Butler now found himself in greater demand than ever as public
speaker. The Alber Lecture Bureau of Cleveland pleaded with him to
take a leave of absence and satisfy the groups all over the country
clamoring to hear him. He was offered half of admission fees
charged, with a minimum guarantee of $250, $25 a day expenses and
railroad fare. At the same time Philadelphia's Mayor Mackey asked
him if he would assist in raising funds for the city's Committee for
Unemployment Relief. Applying for a two months' leave of absence to
make a speaking tour, he turned over half his fees of about six
thousand dollars to the unemployed and also to the Salvation Army,
which he respected as being genuinely responsive to the needs of
both the poor and the doughboys in trenches.
He explained the impulse for his decision by a letter he had
received while he was under arrest during the Mussolini affair.
"General," a veteran had written him, "the stamp on this letter cost
me the two of my last four cents, but I wanted you to know that I am
"I almost cried," Butler admitted. "I feel that if that poor fellow
could give me half of what he had, I can give him half of what I've
got." He was also strongly influenced in his sympathy for the
luckless by his aunt, Isabel Darlington, who headed the Chester
County Poor Board and fought county authorities vigorously to
increase welfare funds.
Publishers begged him for a book. "I am making far more money out of
making speeches than I ever could out of writing a book," he replied
practically, "so unless Bobbs-Merrill are going to outbid the
public...I would be cutting off my nose to spite my face by writing
instead of talking." But he finally consented to dictate his war
memoirs to adventure writer Lowell Thomas, who published them as a
book, under the title Old Gimlet Eye.
Aware that his imminent retirement meant a sharp drop in income and
an increase in expenses, with little or nothing saved, he sought to
organize his time as profitably as possible. He accepted radio
offers to relate his experiences in the Marines.
If Butler did not consciously seek publicity, there was little doubt
that the headlines sought him out. His rapport with the press was
explained by one newsman's observation that he was "colorful copy
and a helluva guy." He often said himself, "There are three types of
people who understand me-Marines, policemen, and newspapermen." His
chief interest in stories about him in the press was less vanity
than a determination to disseminate views he held strongly.
With the first ominous rumblings of war beginning to be heard in
both Europe and Asia, he was determined to steel the American people
against letting themselves be dragged into any more foreign wars. He
would tell them the whole truth about the use that had been made of
the Marines by the government in the name of protecting democracy
and "American interests" abroad.
On August 21, 1931, invited to address an American Legion convention
in Connecticut, he made the first no-holds-barred antiwar speech of
his career. It stunned all who heard it or read it in the few papers
that dared report it in part:
I spent 33 years . . . being a high-class muscle man for Big
Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a
racketeer for capitalism. . . .I helped purify Nicaragua for the
international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I helped
make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests
in 1916. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American
sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place
for the National City [Bank] boys to collect revenue in. I helped in
the rape of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit
of Wall Street....
In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way
unmolested. . . . I had . . . a swell racket. I was rewarded with
honors, medals, promotions.... 1 might have given A1 Capone a few
hints. The best he could do was to operate a racket in three cities.
The Marines operated on three continents. . . .
We don't want any more wars, but a man is a damn fool to think there
won't be any more of them. I am a peaceloving Quaker, but when war
breaks out every damn man in my family goes. If we're ready, nobody
will tackle us. Give us a club and we will face them all....
There is no use talking about abolishing war; that's damn
foolishness. Take the guns away from men and they will fight just
the same. . . . In the Spanish-American War we didn't have any
bullets to shoot, and if we had not had a war with a nation that was
already licked and looking for an excuse to quit, we would have had
hell licked out of us....
No pacifists or Communists are going to govern this country. If they
try it there will be seven million men like you rise up and strangle
them. Pacifists? Hell, I'm a pacifist, but I always have a club
behind my back!
Earlier that same day, before Hoover had had a chance to read the
speech, reporters asked the President if he would seek to delay the
"I assume that if General Butler wishes to retire, the authorities
will approve," Hoover answered cautiously. "The general is a very
distinguished and gallant officer and I have no doubt that if the
country has need, it always can secure his services." Next day, when
Butler's attack on big business was reported, attempts to get any
statement from the White House met with icy silence.
And on that day, providing a punctuation mark to Butler's doubts
that the Kellogg-Briand Pact protected any nation from aggression,
Japan invaded Manchuria and reduced the pact to a worthless scrap of
On October 1, 1931, friends of Smedley Butler from all stations in
life, and from all periods of his career, gathered at Quantico as
his two-star command flag was hauled down once more, this lime with
full honors. At the age of fifty, after spending all of his life but
the first fifteen years in a Marine uniform, under fire over 120
times, he retired from the Corps and was once more a civilian.
In his farewell speech to his beloved leathernecks his voice was
more than customarily hoarse, and tears misted his fierce glare. "It
has been a privilege to scrap for you just as you have scrapped for
me," he told them. "When I leave I mean to give every one of you a
map showing you exactly where I live. I want you to come around and
see me, especially if you ever get into trouble, and I will help you
if I can. I can give you a square meal and a place to sleep even if
I cannot guarantee you a political job."
He meant every word, gave out the maps, and kept his promise for as
long as he lived.
Demands flooded in now for Butler's services as a lecturer. He had
embarrassed governments, large and small, including his own, by his
relentless candor, but his courage and honesty had ' won the
admiration of millions of Americans. His speeches be' came more
vitriolic than ever, scorching the hides of the powerful and the
He met eager requests for articles by magazines and newspaper
syndicates with the help of his friend E. Z. Dimitman, who was now
night city editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Dimitman would flesh
out his views on war and peace, which Butler then edited and revised
to his own satisfaction.
There never seemed to be enough money. Although he received some
lecture fees up to $500, the average fee came to $25o and in many
cases turned out to be far less. Most of what he managed to earn
went into putting Tom Dick through Swarthmore and Smedley, Jr.,
through California Tech and M.I.T., and paying off the house he and
Ethel had bought in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.
It was an old square farmhouse that had been gutted by fire except
for its walls. Butler had rebuilt it with glass-enclosed porches and
a huge, high hallway in which he erected his two treasured Chinese
Blessings Umbrellas, opened like canopies at each end of the hall.
He had thought to remodel the house for $35,000, but it had turned
out to cost far more, and he was forced to sell most of the land to
pay off the mortgage.
As a civilian Butler was close-fisted with money, gently but firmly
resisting the endless letters he received begging for handouts,
because he had no money to spare. His thrifty wife kept an old,
ragged, shabby fur coat in the closet, over thirty years after he
had brought it home for her from the Boxer Rebellion. She never wore
it, but could not bring herself to throw it away. He himself upset
many military organizations by canceling his membership and journal
subscriptions without offering any explanation. He was too proud to
admit the real reason; he simply had to prune expenses.
Out of uniform, he took pride in his appearance and dressed well but
conservatively. Unable to break the traditions of thirty-three years
of dress parade, he polished his shoes daily and buffed the buttons
on his white, custom-made summer suits. His thought patterns, too,
continued to dwell primarily on military concerns.
One of his objectives was to stir up a demand that the Marine Corps
be removed from under the thumb of politically appointed desk
admirals of the Navy and set up as a separate branch of the armed
forces under their own leaders. He gave his reasons in an article
called "To Hell with the Admirals! Why I Retired at Fifty," which
appeared in Liberty Magazine on December 5, 1931:
The clique of desk-admirals who seem to hold sway in the Navy
Department in Washington demand an Annapolis man as head of the
Marine Corps. They desire to have the Corps an insignificant part of
the naval service, a unit directly under their collective thumb. It
dismays and appalls them to learn of the heroic deeds of Marines on
foreign duty. They feel it detracts from the prestige of the navy. .
This group of admirals did everything possible to keep me from being
named commandant. . . . And now those officers of the Marine Corps
who have been particularly loyal and friendly to me ... are being
transferred all about the country and abroad. . . . As I go I am
tempted to say to that shipless clique: "To hell with the admirals!"
Outraged, Admiral Pratt issued a statement denouncing his broadside.
The tablet that had been erected in his honor in the Navy Building
was removed. Later located and rescued by a Butler Memorial
Commission, it was installed in Philadelphia's City Hall after his
Another article Butler wrote for Liberty stirred the wrath of the
Honduras Government by exposing the collaboration of Honduran and
other Central American dictators with American banking and
commercial interests. The controlled Honduran press accused him of
misrepresenting the situation and showered him with epithets. From
Tegucigalpa a New York Times correspondent wired, "It is realized
that he is now retired, and not subject to the restraint which can
be imposed on an officer in active service."
More and more of Butler's attention was directed to the steadily
worsening Depression and what it was doing to the country. He was
outraged when hunger marchers who had gone to Washington on December
7 were denied admission to the White House to petition for jobs.
During 1932 stocks fell go percent, farm products 6o percent,
industrial production 50 percent. By the end of the year fifteen
million Americans were in the ranks of the unemployed. Homeowners
and farmers were being dispossessed for nonpayment of taxes and
debts. Outraged neighbors in many communities were setting up
roadblocks with guns to bar outside bidders at foreclosure auctions
so that the property could be bought for a song and returned to its
owners. Alarmed bankers saw this development as a Communist threat.
Butler's antagonism toward big business intensified. On February 14,
1932, the United Press quoted him as saying, "I've about come to
tile conclusion that some American corporations abroad are, in a
measure, responsible for trouble with the natives simply because of
the way they treat them. . . . I've seen hundreds of boys from the
cities and farms of the United States die in Central American
countries just to protect the investments of our large
corporations." How could Washington criticize Japan for its takeover
in Manchuria, he demanded, when we ourselves had been just as
In the spring Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot urged Butler to
throw his hat into the political ring and oppose James J. Davis,
former Secretary of Labor under Hoover, for the Re-publican
nomination for senator. His admirers were already demanding that
Butler run for governor.
"I am not going to run for the Senate or governorship," he growled
to newspaper friends, "and then have the politicians laugh at me."
But Pinchot's entreaties were too strong and persistent, and Butler
Stumping the state, he appealed to Republican voters with a platform
promising jobs for the unemployed and home property loans for
debtors. Campaigning for a bonus bill, be placed all his decorations
and uniforms in a vault, publicly vowing never to wear them again
until soldiers got their bonus. Although he was personally popular,
two issues he campaigned for in 1932Prohibition and the soldiers'
Despite receiving half a million votes, he was defeated. Paul Comly
French of the Philadelphia Record revealed that Governor Pinchot had
set Butler up for defeat to eliminate him as a political threat,
making a secret deal to support Davis. The Pinchot political machine
had been used against Butler in key election districts.
Reporter Jesse Laventhol, later city editor of the Philadelphia
Record, who had been Butler's press secretary during the campaign,
told the author, "Butler's sponsors failed him . . . , trading off
votes for Davis in return for electing certain state senators to
give the governor control of that body."
So Smedley Butler never went to Congress like his father.
In the early summer of 1932 over twenty thousand veterans and their
families joined in a Bonus Army march to Washington, camping on the
edge of the Capital to demand payment of a two-billion-dollar cash
bonus to all veterans. The House, tinder pressure, quickly passed
the Patman Bonus Bill on June 17, but the Republican Senate rejected
it, 62 to 18.
Butler was indignant at the failure of Congress to honor America's
pledge to its fighting men and was thoroughly disgusted with
Hoover's failure to do anything about the plight of the nation
except issue optimistic reports that prosperity was "just around the
On June 30, while the Democratic convention was in session, he
announced that he might, for the first time in his life, vote
Democratic "if the right man is nominated for President." It was no
secret that he saw the right man as New York's governor, Franklin D.
Roosevelt, who had already broadcast an impressive speech on the
need of the American Government to discover its "forgotten man."
When Roosevelt won the nomination, pledging a New Deal along with
the repeal of Prohibition, Butler wired him, "We salute your
nomination as one of the greatest blessings granted any nation in an
hour of desperate need." He offered to help F.D.R.'s campaign any
way he could, and Roosevelt asked him to get in touch with
Democratic campaign manager James A. Farley, or Roosevelt's chief
secretary, Louis Howe. Butler soon began stumping for F.D.R. In a
speech before the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in New
York on July 7 he warned that the government had to be rescued from
"the clutches of the greedy and dishonest":
Today, with all our wealth, a deathly gloom hangs over us. Today we
appear to be divided. There has developed, through the past few
years, a new Tory class, a group that believes that the nation, its
resources and its man-power, was provided by the Almighty for its
own special use and profit.... On the other side is the great mass
of the American people who still believe in the Declaration of
Independence and in the Constitution of the United States.
This Tory group, through its wealth, its power and its influence,
has obtained a firm grip on our government, to the detriment of our
people and the well-being of our nation. We will prove to the world
that we meant what we said a century and a half ago-that this
government was instituted not only to secure to our people the
rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but the right
to eat and to all our willing millions the right to work.
A lecture bureau urged him to undertake a national speaking tour of
100,000 miles through the United States. He agreed, not only to earn
the money involved but also because he saw the trip as a way to get
to know his fellow Americans better. He knew more about the Cacos of
Haiti than the residents of Michigan Boulevard, more about the
thinking of Nicaraguans and Chinese than of Manhattanites and
Californians. As "a stranger to my native land and to my fellow
citizens," he felt a strong compulsion to "sec America last" and
learn about them, too. So he began visiting over one hundred cities
in forty-eight states, "keeping my eyes and cars open all the time."
Years of delivering training talks to his troops and pep talks
before and during battle had made him an articulate extemporaneous
speaker. Without a note to refer to lie held audiences spellbound,
and each time be delivered a talk it was different. A fast thinker
on his feet, he spoke in the colorful idiom of everyday language,
which he used with the impact of a shower of arrows.
He was only partially successful in his attempts to civilianize his
colorful barracks argot. One Milwaukee newspaper, describing a
speech lie made at a First Methodist Episcopal church in September,
1932, ran a story headlined: BUTLER TALKS IN CHURCH, USES NICE
LANGUAGE. "Only one `hell' and two `damns' spiced his remarks
throughout the evening."
What he heard and saw on his tour convinced him that Americans were
hungry for a change in the administration especially for a turn away
from foreign affairs to home problems. But he found no indication
that Main Street America either wanted revolutionary change or
thought it likely, despite alarm over a Red menace in the
"I held personal conversations with more than two thousand persons
in all walks of life," he said on October z, 1932, after his tour,
"and they gave me a new and true insight into the people of America.
I learned that the average American is convinced that no change in
the form of our government is necessary or advisable."
The attempt by conservatives to smear "anyone who utters a
progressive thought" as a Red, he pointed out, was helping a
"handful of agitators in their vain efforts to foment disorder and
discontent with our form of government." He branded Republican
warnings that a Democratic victory would turn America socialist an
When a new political group called the Roosevelt Republican
Organization was formed in Philadelphia, Butler was asked to take a
leading role in it. Louis Howe assured him that Roosevelt would be
most grateful for any help he could give the governor in that
A week before Election Day Butler made a slashing attack on Hoover
in a speech to an enthusiastic rally of Queens, New York, veterans,
describing himself as "a member of the Hoover-for-Ex-President
League because Hoover used gas and bayonets on unarmed human
"Nobody has any business occupying the White House who doesn't love
his own people," he declared, adding, "I was raised Republican, but
I was born American. I have no ring through my nose, and I vote for
whom I please."
He insisted that the bonus must be paid: "The bonus is an amount of
money that the American people owe the soldier, but anybody
demanding it is charged with lack of patriotism. During the war
nobody charged the officers of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation or
any of the other corporations who received enormous bonuses with
`raiding the Treasury.'"
American big business, he accused, had been responsible for United
States entry into World War I and was now "getting ready to start
another one in the East."
On November 8 Butler's choice for President won, and the House of
Representatives went Democratic by a margin of three to one. A
chorus of newspaper fury and frustration reflected the dismay of
banking and industrial interests over Roosevelt's election.
Less than three weeks before the President-elect's inauguration, an
unsuccessful attempt was made to assassinate him at Miami. Could the
assassin's bullet possibly have been negotiated for, Butler
speculated, by a big-business cabal that hated Roosevelt and dreaded
a New Deal?
Many veterans' posts now started a movement to have Butler appointed
administrator of the U.S. Veterans Bureau in January, 1933, and sent
resolutions to Roosevelt to this effect.
Soon after the N.R.A. began, General Hugh Johnson asked Butler to
work with him in administering the program. Butler thanked him but
refused, explaining, "I don't want to be tied up with anything I
don't know about."
Meanwhile lie watched with fascination the swift unfolding of
developments in the New Deal from the time Roosevelt declared at his
inauguration on March 4, 1933, "Let me assert my firm belief that
the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Next day the new President proclaimed a national bank holiday and
embargoed the exportation of gold. The famous "Hundred Days
Congress," in a special session called by the President, swiftly
enacted into law the principal policies of the New Deal. As the
American people stirred with new hope that at last the government
was beginning to fight the nightmare Depression, Butler noted with
satisfaction that the bankers and industrialists of the nation were
Meanwhile between July and December he had been pursued and wooed by
Jerry MacGuire, the bond salesman for Grayson M.-P. Murphy and
Company, who had sought to enlist him in the schemes of the
financial group he represented. It was with some relief that he was
temporarily freed from these persistent attentions on December 1,
when MacGuire went abroad on an unexplained mission for his backers.
Early in December, 1933, Butler began touring the country for the
V.F.W. and made headlines by speaking out with characteristic
bluntness to attack the leadership of the American Legion. He told a
large gathering of veterans in New Orleans that the V.F.W. commander
"would not sell out his men as the officers in charge of the
American Legion have."
Sharing the platform with Senator Huey Long, he urged Long to
concentrate on fighting for the veterans' bonus and forget less
important matters. "What the hell do you know about the gold
standard?" he challenged Long. "Don't pay any attention to what the
newspapers say. Stand by your friends and to hell with the rest of
Taking Long's political demagoguery at face value, he believed him
to be sincere in his advocacy of a redistribution of national wealth
and praised him as a man "with nerve enough to maintain a fight
against Wall Street." He urged the veterans to "make Wall Street
pay, to take Wall Street by the throat and shake it up." If they
wanted to get the bonus that had been promised them, they would have
"to organize . . . to get together . . . to do as the veterans of
other wars have done."
It was a fighting speech in the classic populist vein, and it
sparked national controversy. The Cincinnati Times Star, a newspaper
controlled by American Legion officials, angrily accused Butler of
advocating a "soldier dictatorship."
Interviewed afterward in Atlanta about his attack on the Legion, he
stuck by his guns and added fuel to the fire by stating grimly,
"I've never known one leader of the American Legion who has never
sold them out!"
As for the Star's accusation that he wanted a military dictatorship,
he replied with a speech denouncing crackpot rightist movements that
advocated such a course for America. His suspicions about Clark and
Maguire were obviously very much on his mind when he made it.
"To many it may seem strange for a military man to denounce
dictatorship," he declared. "Generally it is the military men who
are advocates of this stern measure. . . . But we do not need a
dictator and we would not have one anyway, because our temperament
and traditions forbid it."
He made it clear that he was stumping the country only on behalf of
the ordinary "forgotten soldier," just as F.D.R. had crusaded for
the "forgotten man."
He told reporters, "I went on the retired list after thirty-three
years of making wars, to rock and rock. So many former soldiers came
to me with their pathetic stories that I bounced out of retirement.
All we soldiers are asking is that the nation give us the same break
that is being given the manufacturers, the bankers, the
industrialists. . . . Jimmie [Van Zandt] and I are going around the
country trying to educate the soldiers out of the sucker class."
If American Legion officialdom was furious at Butler's charges, the
rank and file were not. Typical of the barrage of fan mail cheering
him on was a letter from a Los Angeles Legionnaire: "Every word you
say is true, and I, as an ex-soldier and one of the rank and file,
respectfully request that you assume the active leadership of the
ex-servicemen. These five million men and their families need you
for a leader and will stick through thick and thin. The leadership
of the American Legion voice actually the opposite of the true
wishes of the membership. . . . Sir, the ex-serviceman of the United
States is at your command."
But Butler's first bombshell was mild compared to his next broadside
against the establishment, made in his Atlanta speech to the V.F.W.
the next day. The New York Times featured it under the headline GEN.
BUTLER LAYS WAR TO BANKERS.
War was "largely a matter of money," he told the veterans who had
gathered to hear him. "Bankers lend money to foreign countries and
when they cannot repay the President sends Marines to get it. I
know-I've been in eleven of these expeditions." The world was not
yet through with war, he warned, but we can help get rid of it when
we conscript capital along with men."
He pointed out that soldiers who went through the horrors of war
were not the same when they came back, adding vehemently, "We ought
to make those responsible pay through the nose." That was why the
V.F.W. was calling for immediate payment of the soldiers' bonus, in
addition to compensation asked for disabled veterans and pensions
for veterans' widows and orphans.
Ex-servicemen were made the butt of an Economy Act passed by
Congress, Butler charged, because "the principle of taking care of
soldiers is nothing at all but an old-age pension to which the
nation eventually will come, and the bankers don't want it." He
added caustically, "If Charles Dawes got ninety million dollars for
a sick bank, soldiers ought to get it for sick comrades." Pointing
out that veterans could muster twenty million votes among themselves
and their families, he urged them to use this pressure at the polls
to force decent care of the disabled.
If the "Democrats take care of you," he advised, "keep them in. If
not-put 'em out!" He warned veterans not to believe "the propaganda
capital circulates" in the press, which he condemned as largely
capitalist-controlled. "The paper that takes the part of the
soldier," he charged, "loses advertising."
His concern for disabled veterans was not mere rhetoric. He met many
of them in the eighteen veterans' hospitals he visited during his
tour of the country. His walks through the wards to talk with them
filled him with an angry grief. In his days of combat he had seen
many men killed and wounded. But the crushing impact of seeing fifty
thousand young men gathered together in "living graveyards,"
forgotten by their country and the people for whom they had
sacrificed arms, legs, faces, and minds, moved him to rage against
the old men in power who had doomed them to lives of empty despair.
"Seventeen years ago they were the pick of the nation," he wrote
grimly. ". . . In the government hospital at Marion, Ohio, 1,800
wrecks are in pens. Five hundred are in a barrack, under nurses,
with wires all around the buildings and enclosing the porches. All
have been mentally destroyed. They don't even look like human
beings." He added in cold rage, "A careful study of their
expressions is highly recommended as an aid to the understanding of
the art of war."
On February 19, 1934, all the disabled veterans in the Veterans
Administration hospital at Albuquerque signed a petition to Butler,
urging him to testify in Congress to demand passage of the Bonus
Bill and restoration of adequate compensation to disabled veterans.
He replied, "I am doing everything humanly possible to help the
veterans," and urged them to swamp Congress with letters and
George K. Brobeck, legislative representative for the V.F.W., wrote
Every member of our National Staff is deeply appreciative of your
fine cooperation in our battle for the disabled men. I can think of
no greater service that America's military leaders might dedicate
themselves to than the one you have carried on so unceasingly, and I
wish to repeat what Admiral R. E. Coontz said to me the other
day.... You always know where Butler is and whether you like it or
not, he is always on the level."
Army posts lie visited often hailed the ex-Marine with a military
band, partly a tribute to his fame as commandant of the Army camp at
Pontanezen, but even more for his championship of the Bonus Army and
veterans' hospitals. Wherever he spoke to veterans' meetings and
rallies, enthusiastic ex-soldiers invariably outnumbered ex-Marines
in his audience.
In his speeches for the V.F.W. he continued to plead their cause,
along with assailing war-makers and demanding payment of the
veterans' bonus. In March he was urged to attend the Indiana
convention of the V.F.W. at Marion, which had the largest veterans'
hospital in the United States.
John R. James, its chairman, asked him to come and "say something to
these poor boys here to cheer them up in their lonesome
surroundings. We need you here at this time more than any other
person in the country. The Veterans all love you and look to you to
guide them and tell them what to do. . . . I am unable to mention
your name in a meeting without getting a round of applause."
He was gratified to read on April 12, 1934, that the Senate had
voted an inquiry into the manufacture of and traffic in arms.
Senator Gerald P. Nye, of North Dakota, as chairman of the Senate
Munitions Investigating Committee. began holding public hearings
stressing the heavy profits made by American financiers and
armament-makers during World War I.
The Nye Committee produced shock waves by exposing the pressures
exerted by the armament industry on the government to take America
into that war. Oswald Garrison Villard, editor-publisher of The
Nation, wrote, "I never dreamed that I should live to see the time
when public opinion in the United States would be practically united
in recognizing that we were lied to and deceived into going to war .
. . and when Congress would actually put a stop to those processes
by which Wilson, House, Lansing and J. P. Morgan and Company brought
us into the war." The Nye investigation, continuing until 1936,
strengthened isolationist sentiment in the United States and
inspired a series of neutrality acts during 1935-1937.
Following the hearings closely, Butler was tremendously impressed
and influenced by their disclosures. They also confirmed his
suspicions that big business-Standard Oil, United Fruit, the sugar
trust, the big banks-had been behind most of the military
interventions he had been ordered to lead. In a broadcast over
Philadelphia radio station WCAU he described his experiences in "the
raping of little nations to collect money for big industries" that
had large foreign investments.
Authentication for this view came thirty-eight years later when
Milan B. Skacel, President of the Chamber of Commerce of Latin
America in the United States, acknowledged on October 16, 1971,
"Most of us freely admit that some of the past business practices of
U.S. firms in Latin America were unconscionable."
Testifying before the Nye Committee, Eugene G. Grace, president of
Bethlehem Steel, admitted that his corporation had received almost
three million dollars in bonuses during World War I. He nervously
expressed concern that such a revelation might "leave a bad taste"
in the mouths of veterans who had served their country for a dollar
a day, but nevertheless labeled their bonus movement an
"Bethlehem Steel made ten times as much money during the war as
before," Butler roared over WCAU, "and this band of pirates calls
the soldiers Treasury raiders!"
He urged reporter friends to get transcripts of the Nye hearings and
read them, insisting, "You fellows ought to know this stuff." One
wanted to know what had prompted him, even before the Nye
disclosures, to "pull the whiskers off" the face of commercialism
behind the pomp and patriotic glory of war.
"As a youngster, I loved the excitement of battle," he replied.
"It's lots of fun, you know, and it's nice to strut around in front
of your wife-or somebody else's wife-and display your medals, and
your uniform. But there's another side to it, and that's why I have
decided to devote the rest of my life to 'pulling off the
During his V.F.W. lecture tour he met an old war comrade, G. D.
Morgan, who was now adjutant of the V.F.W. post in Hazlehurst,
Mississippi, and confided in him about the scheming of MacGuire,
Doyle, and Clark. On May 14, 1934, Morgan wrote him, "My Dear Smed:
I wish you would send me the Statistics as near as possible that you
have on those two Ex-Service men and the Banker. We are getting in
the middle of a hot Congressional Campaign and one Senator has been
very adverse to our cause, so we want to shoot the works."
That month the Farmer-Labor party of Colorado urged Butler to become
the party's candidate for President in 1936, stating, "We know of no
other man in the U.S. that is as well informed on the situation with
the nerve to carry out, make possible these reforms, and that has
the confidence of the masses. The people need you badly."
In August, when Jerry MacGuire returned from Europe, the bond
salesman had insisted upon another meeting with Butler on a matter
"of the utmost importance." And at their discussion in the empty
restaurant of Philadelphia's Bellevue Hotel, MacGuire had sought to
get him to agree to lead a Fascist coup to capture the White House.
While smoking out the plot as far as he could and then getting
reporter Paul Comly French to investigate it for corroborative
evidence in preparation to exposing it, Butler continued his crusade
against war and on behalf of justice for the veterans. Once more he
found himself running into censorship trouble.
Radio station WAVE, carrying his speech on October 3 to the V.F.W.
national convention, cut him off the air for "objectionable
language" used before "a mixed audience." The convention unanimously
adopted a resolution condemning WAVE for "unceremoniously curtailing
the address of General Butler, an honored and beloved member of this
Louis G. Burd, Adjutant of the Butte, Montana, post, wrote him:
... This assertion is just some more of the same old hooey to
mislead the public. In our opinion you were cut off simply because
you are one man before the public who has the courage to . . . give
the public the true facts that they hunger to hear, and in a
language of which there is no misunderstanding. . . . Be assured,
General, that this effort to prevent the searchlight from being
turned onto the malefactors of great wealth and veterans' enemies
will prove futile [to stop] your untiring fight for justice for the
veterans and the common people.
On Armistice Day Butler was vigorously applauded for a speech to a
New York Jewish congregation appealing to all religious groups to
"stop the war racket." He created a sensation in the press by flatly
declaring that he would never again carry a rifle on foreign soil.
He proposed two constitutional amendments. The first would make it
impossible for war to be declared except by the exclusive vote of
those physically able to fight. The second would prevent United
States warships from going beyond a two-hundred-mile limit, and
airplanes from going more than five hundred miles from the American
On the same night from Richmond, Virginia, American Legion Commander
Frank N. Belgrano, Jr., a banker, indirectly replied in an angry
speech attacking "radical tendencies":
"Some, it would seem, have forgotten that our country requires of us
high and willing duty today as it did when we went forth to fight an
enemy in the open. We are facing a new and more dangerous foe today.
It has seeped quietly into our country and whispered into the ears
of our workers and our people everywhere that our ideals of
government are out of date. We of the Legion are mobilized to meet
that enemy and we are calling upon loyal Americans everywhere to
join us in ridding our country of this menace."
To Butler that sounded suspiciously like the reams of propaganda the
American Liberty League was now sending out, along with lecturers,
to denounce the "socialism" of the Roosevelt Administration and call
for a return to the doctrines of a laissez-faire economy.
The League's campaign failed to make any impact in the congressional
elections of 1934, however, and F.D.R. won an enormous Democratic
majority in both houses of Congress.
Meanwhile gossip was spreading around Washington that the American
Legion was going to provide the nucleus of a Fascist army that would
seize the Capital. John L. Spivak, a crack reporterwhose specialty
was exposing American Fascists and of whom Lincoln Steffens once
said, "He is the best of us," heard about it from an eminent
Washington correspondent with excellent sources of information and
decided to investigate it.
The rumors also reached the McCormack-Dickstein Committee of the
House of Representatives. This was the first House Un-American
Activities Committee, at that time equally oriented against Fascist
and Communist activities. Under Representative John W. McCormack,
later Speaker of the House, it spent considerable time and energy
unmasking Fascist agents in America. Not until 1939, when a new
version of HUAC was reconstituted under the chairmanship of Martin
Dies, did this committee become infamous for its relentless
persecution directed almost exclusively against liberals and
leftists of every persuasion, while ignoring subversion on the
One of the McCormack-Dickstein Committee's investigators contacted
Butler to ask if there was any truth in the rumors that he could
shed light on. Now that he had Paul Comly French's testimony to
corroborate his own, Butler decided that there was little more to be
gained by playing MacGuire along; between French and himself, the
plotters' secret plans had been ferreted out to a significant
Come hell or high water, press ridicule or denunciations terming him
a madman, he was now determined to testify before the committee and
spread the plot for a Fascist takeover of the United States all over
the front pages. He would destroy it before it had a chance to crush
democracy in the country he loved and had served all his life.
But would he be believed, even with the support of French's
testimony? What if he wasn't? Worse, what if he had waited too long
to unravel the whole sordid story, and it was already too late to
stop the conspirators?
*Roosevelt's error; officers at the time of the Boxer Rebellion
could not win the Medal of Honor.
*Rogers's mistake was a common error. In addition to Smedley Butler,
three other Americans have each won two Congressional Medals of