The Plot To Seize The White House
By Jules Archer
About seven weeks after Butler and French had testified, John Spivak
asked McCormack for an interview, and it was granted. McCormack had
no fear of talking to a reporter from the New Masses, for which
Spivak was writing at the time. Communis-toriented or not, McCormack
knew that the Masses was in the forefront of exposing Nazi and
anti-Semitic activities in the United States.
Asked about the deleted testimony, McCormack at first suggested that
Spivak was relying on gossip. When Spivak revealed and convinced
McCormack that he had 'seen the transcript of the executive session,
the congressman grew annoyed and canceled the interview. He agreed
to let Spivak leave questions with him, however, and said he would
reply to those he chose to answer within three days.
Writing Spivak a letter three days later, he gave no specific
answers to questions about the American Liberty League, the American
Legion's passage of the gold resolution, and the report that John W.
Davis had written the speech that MacGuire and Clark had wanted
Butler to make.
"The reason for certain portions of General Butler's testimony in
executive session being deleted from the public record," he wrote,
"has been clearly stated in the public record."
He went on to make a broad attack against the plotters and to
suggest that the hearings had defeated them: "As a result of the
investigation, and the disclosures made, this movement has been
stopped, and is practically broken up. There is no question but that
some of the leaders are attempting to carry on, but they can make no
headway. Public opinion, as a result of the disclosures of the
investigation, is aroused."
Spivak went to see Dickstein and asked him why Colonel Grayson M.-P.
Murphy had not been called upon to testify. "Your committee knew,"
Spivak reminded him, "that Murphy's men are in the anti-Semitic
espionage organization, Order of '76."
"We didn't have the time," Dickstein replied. "We'd have taken care
of the Wall Street groups if we had the time. I would have had no
hesitation in going after the Morgans."
"You had Belgrano, commander of the American Legion, listed to
testify. Why wasn't he examined?"
"I don't know," Dickstein replied, and referred him back to
McCormack for the answer.
Spivak decided to inform General Butler, who, he was sure, did not
realize it, that portions of his and French's testimony had been
omitted in the official report issued by the McCormack-Dickstein
Committee. "If he knew and said so publicly," Spivak reasoned, "he
would reach a vastly greater audience than was available to me
through the New Masses."
Telephoning the general, Spivak announced that he was from the New
Masses and wanted to see him about his testimony. "Come on out,"
Butler said promptly. "Glad to see you." The roads had not been
cleared of a heavy snowfall of the night before, and Spivak trudged
to the house in Newtown Square through knee-deep snow. His spartan
march appealed to Butler, who welcomed him heartily with the
approval he had always shown to soldiers who disregarded the foulest
weather to push on doggedly with their assigned missions.
Spivak saw a slender man with receding hair, lined and sunken
cheeks, thick eyebrows, furrowed lines between keen eyes, generous
nose, and jutting underlip. He liked Butler instantly, and the
feeling was apparently mutual.
During their talk Butler revealed that he was intensely preoccupied
with the corporate exploitation of the military for profit. Anxious
to arouse Americans to this spoliation, he now believed it might be
done by a more sophisticated book of memoirs and reflections than
Old Gimlet Eye.
"I think you're the man I've been hoping to run into to help me do
an autobiography," he told Spivak. "There are things I've seen,
things I've learned that should not be left unsaid. War is a racket
to protect economic interests, not our country, and our soldiers are
sent to die on foreign soil to protect investments by big business."
Spivak said regretfully that he felt compelled to continue
investigating and exposing a more urgent and dangerous situation
-Nazi activities in the United States. Butler agreed at once that
this activity was more important and offered to help by opening any
doors he could for Spivak.
During their discussion Spivak learned "things about big business
and politics, sometimes in earthy, four-letter words, the like of
which I had never heard." Butler spilled over with anger at the
hypocrisy that had marked American interference in the internal
affairs of other governments, behind a smoke screen of pious
expressions of high-sounding purpose.
"We supervised elections in Haiti," he said wryly, "and wherever we
supervised them our candidate always won."
Admiring Butler's candor, Spivak did not want to mislead him or sail
under false colors. He reminded the general that he was from the New
Masses, and in case Butler didn't know it, added, "It's supposed to
be a Communist magazine."
"So who the hell cares?" Butler shrugged. "There wouldn't be a
United States if it wasn't for a bunch of radicals. I once heard of
a radical named George Washington. As a matter of fact from what I
read he was an extremist-a goddam revolutionist!"
Because of his fierce anti-Fascist and anti-big-business views,
Butler was sometimes Red-baited. He was scarcely unique in being
made a target for this kind of attack by rightists and
ultraconservatives. As George Seldes told me, "If you are saying
anything in general about the fight against fascism in America, it
seems to me that a point to emphasize is that the entire Red-baiting
wave which culminated in the McCarthy era was successful in
inundating the anti-Fascists by making every anti-Fascist, whether
liberal, socialist, or Communist, a Red."
Butler was shocked when Spivak showed him copies of the portions of
his and French's testimony that had been deleted from the official
report of the hearings. His scowl deepened as Spivak revealed that
Belgrano had been dismissed without being asked a single question
about what had happened at the "gold-standard resolution" Legion
convention in Chicago.
According to Spivak, upon learning that the committee had reported
to Congress that it had verified the authenticity of the plot, yet
no action had been taken about MacGuire's wholesale denials under
oath, Butler lost control of his volatile temper.
"I'll be goddammed!" he roared. "You can be sure I'm going to say
something about this!"
Spivak asked him to hold off long enough to let the tiny circulation
New Masses break the story first. Butler agreed. When the Masses
appeared with the expose, it was a sensational news scoop, but none
of the Washington correspondents dared touch it or follow it up.
"Several expressed regret," Spivak related, "that the exposes were
appearing in the New Masses; when they quoted from one of my
stories-solely on its news value-their editors cut the material out
and advised them that quotes from `that magazine' might make readers
say the paper was spreading Red propaganda. So great had the fear of
communism and `Red propaganda' become that even editors who did not
swallow all of it themselves went along because it was the popular
In his broadcast over WCAU on February 17, 1935, Butler revealed
that some of the "most important" portions of his testimony had been
suppressed in the McCormack-Dickstein report to Congress. The
committee, he growled, had "stopped dead in its tracks when it got
near the top." He added angrily:
Like most committees, it has slaughtered the little and allowed the
big to escape. The big shots weren't even called to testify. Why
wasn't Colonel Grayson M.-P. Murphy, New York broker ... called? Why
wasn't Louis Howe, Secretary to the President of the United States,
called? . . . Why wasn't A1 Smith called? And why wasn't Gen.
Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, called?
And why wasn't Hanford MacNider, former American Legion commander,
called? They were all mentioned in the testimony. And why was all
mention of these names suppressed from the committee report?
This was no piker set-up. MacGuire, who was the agent of the Wall
Street bankers and brokers who proposed this organization, told me
that $3,000,000 was "on the line" and that $300,000,000-and that's a
lot of money even today was in view to put over this plot to bluff
He kept up a running attack on the conspirators night after night,
revealing facts that had been omitted in the official committee
report. In another broadcast he lashed out at the American Legion
with no holds barred:
Do you think it could be hard to buy the American Legion for
un-American activities? You know, the average veteran thinks the
Legion is a patriotic organization to perpetuate the memories of the
last war, an organization to promote peace, to take care of the
wounded and to keep green the graves of those who gave their lives.
But is the American Legion that? No sir, not while it is controlled
by the bankers. For years the bankers, by buying big club houses for
various posts, by financing its beginning, and otherwise, have tried
to make a strikebreaking organization of the Legion. The groups-the
so-called Royal Family of the Legion-which have picked its officers
for years, aren't interested in patriotism, in peace, in wounded
veterans, in those who gave their lives. . . No, they are interested
only in using the veterans, through their officers.
Why, even now, the commander of the American Legion is a banker-a
banker who must have known what MacGuire's money was going to be
used for. His name was mentioned in the testimony. Why didn't they
cal] Belgrano and ask him why he contributed?
Butler was incredulous when he read that Colonel William E.
Easterwood, national vice-commander of the Legion, while visiting
Italy in 1935, had pinned a Legion button on Mussolini, making him
an "honorary member," and had invited the dictator to the next
Legion convention in Chicago.
Why, Butler wondered, did the Legion membership stand for such an
abuse of the organization in their name? Apparently an uproar of
sorts did break out, because Mussolini's honorary membership was
later canceled as "unconstitutional" on grounds that the Legion had
no honorary members.
Representative Dickstein was given the job of replying to Butler's
radio blasts in a broadcast over the same network. The
fifty-year-old congressman gave the committee's version of the
General Smedley Butler saw fit to employ this radio network to
indulge in genera] criticism of the work done by the Congressional
Committee on Un-American Activities and to cast aspersions on the
character of such men as Alfred E. Smith, Louis Howe, General
MacArthur and Hanford MacNider....
The committee felt it should hear General Butler and ... follow out
the "leads" which the general furnished to the members of the
committee. The testimony given by General Butler was kept
confidential until such time as the names of the persons who were
mentioned in his testimony could be checked upon and verified. The
committee did not want to hear General Butler's allegations without
giving itself the opportunity to verify the assertions made by him.
It did not feel like dragging into the mud of publicity names of
persons who were mentioned by General Butler unless his statements
could be verified, since untold damage might be caused to a person's
reputation, by public discussion of testimony which could not be
This accounts for the fact that when the results of the hearings
were finally made public, references to Alfred E. Smith and others
were omitted. They were wholly without consequence and public
mention might be misinterpreted by the public.
The essential portions, however, of General Butler's testimony have
been released to the public and his specific charges relating to the
proposed organization of a "soldier's movement" have been thoroughly
aired and passed upon by the committee. . . .
General Butler asks why Clark was not called before the committee.
Well, the reason was that Mr. Clark has been living in France for
over a year, as General Butler well knows, and naturally he could
not be subpoenaed, but on the 29th of December, 1934, Mr. Clark was
represented before the committee in the person of his attorney, and
full information was given the committee. Mr. Butler didn't tell you
this. . . .
For whatever additional light could be shed on the plot to take over
the White House that he had helped to expose, I interviewed John W.
McCormack on September 17, 1971. At seventy-nine, lean, bright,
warm, and friendly, the former Speaker of the House revealed a
sharp, clear memory that enabled him to recall spontaneously many
names and details of the hearings over which he had presided as
chairman thirty-four years earlier.
I reminded him that the committee had said that it wanted to hear
Clark's testimony, and Clark had stated that he would return from
Europe to testify, but had not done so. Yet he had not called or
subpoenaed Clark to do so. Why not?
"We couldn't subpoena Clark to testify at the executive session
because they were held outside of Washington," McCormack explained.
"According to the law of that day, we had no power to subpoena
anyone to executive sessions outside the Capital. I subsequently
recommended changing the law to give congressional committees that
right, and the change was in fact made."*
Asked whether he knew what the reaction of President Roosevelt or
Louis Howe had been to the exposure of the plot, he replied that he
Why had the Department of justice under Attorney General Homer
Cummings failed to initiate criminal proceedings against the
"The way I figure it," he replied, "we did our job in the committee
by exposing the plot, and then it was up to the Department of
Justice to do their job-to take it from there."
John L. Spivak was equally mystified by the lack of any action taken
by the department against the conspirators. When I asked him about
it, he replied, "I have no knowledge why the Attorney General did
not pursue this matter except that most likely it was deemed
politically inadvisable." He thought it possible that the decision
might actually have been made in the White House on a basis of sheer
pragmatism. As he speculated in his book A Man in His Time:
What would be the public gain from delving deeper into a plot which
was already exposed and whose principals could be kept under
surveillance? Roosevelt had enough headaches in those troubled days
without having to make a face-to-face confrontation with men of
great wealth and power. Was it avoidance of such a confrontation?
Was it a desire by the head of the Democratic Party to avoid going
into matters which could split the party down the middle, what with
Davis and Smith, two former party heads, among those named by
I asked McCormack what his own reactions had been to MacGuire's
testimony denying all of Butler's allegations.
"There was no doubt that General Butler was telling the truth," he
replied. "We believed his testimony one hundred percent. He was a
great, patriotic American in every respect."
"In your considered judgment, Mr. Speaker, were those men Butler
named as involved in the plot guilty?"
"Millions were at stake when Clark and the others got the Legion to
pass that resolution on the gold standard in 1933," he answered.
"When Roosevelt refused to be pressured by it, and went even further
off the gold standard, those fellows got desperate and decided to
look into European methods, with the idea of introducing them into
America. They sent MacGuire to Europe to study the Fascist
organizations. We found the evidence that Clark and [Colonel]
Grayson Murphy, who underwrote the American Legion with $125,000,
were involved when we examined MacGuire's records and bank
I asked him about Colonel Murphy's role in the plot.
"Grayson Murphy was a number-one kingmaker in the Legion. His firm
had clients of great wealth. Those fellows were afraid that
Roosevelt would take their money away by taxes. They were desperate
and sought to take power and frighten Roosevelt into doing what they
wanted. But they made the mistake of approaching the wrong man to do
"Had the plotters only wanted to take over the White House to
restore the gold standard, or were they also out to destroy the New
Deal and set up a Fascist dictatorship to run the country through an
McCormack reflected a moment, then said, "Well, we were in the
depths of a severe depression, and we had a good man, Roosevelt, in
the White House, and he'd revived the hopes and confidence of the
American people. The plotters definitely hated the New Deal because
it was for the people, not for the moneyed interests, and they were
willing to spend a lot of their money to dump Mr. Roosevelt out of
the White House."
"Could you say definitely that the American Liberty League was the
organization of `big fellows' that MacGuire had described as being
behind the plotters?"
"I don't know anything about the Liberty League," he replied in a
crisp manner that did not encourage me to pursue any further
interrogation along that line.
"Mr. Speaker, why were the plotters so insistent that General Butler
accept their proposal that he be the one to head the Fascist march
on Washington they planned?"
"They chose Smedley Butler because they needed an `enlisted man's
general,' not a `general's general.' They had to have a colorful
figure half a million or more veterans who had been privates and
noncoms would follow. General Butler was the most popular one."
"If General Butler bad been an ambitious man like Aaron Burr and had
been willing to be the Man on the White Horse for the plotters, do
you think their conspiracy to take over the White House, with all
that money behind it, might have succeeded?"
"Well, if General Butler had not been the patriot he was, and if
they had been able to maintain secrecy, the plot certainly might
very well have succeeded, having in mind the conditions existing at
that time. No one can say for sure, of course, but when times are
desperate and people are frustrated, anything like that could
And we might have gone Fascist?"
"If the plotters had got rid of Roosevelt, there's no telling what
might have taken place. They wouldn't have told the people what they
were doing, of course. They were going to make it all sound
constitutional, of course, with a high-sounding name for the
dictator and a plan to make it all sound like a good American
program. A well-organized minority can always outmaneuver an
unorganized majority, as Adolf Hitler did. He failed with his
beer-hall putsch, but he succeeded when he was better organized. The
same thing could have happened here:'
"How did it come about that the committee first approached Butler
before he approached the committee?"
"Oh, we heard something about it and asked the general if he knew
anything," McCormack replied. "He said he certainly did. He was
giving the plotters a come-on and trying to get the whole story from
them. When he had all the information on who was behind it, and what
they were up to, he wanted to come to Washington, testify before our
committee, and break the whole thing wide open."
Finally I asked him, "Then in your opinion America could definitely
have become a Fascist power had it not been for General Butler's
patriotism in exploding the plot?"
"It certainly could have," McCormack acknowledged. "The people were
in a very confused state of mind, making the nation weak and ripe
for some drastic kind of extremist reaction. Mass frustration could
bring about anything."
He reminded me that the international smell of fascism had been very
much in the air during the hectic days of the plot and that much
undercover Fascist activity had been going on in the United States
that the American people knew nothing about. The McCormack-Dickstein
Committee had exposed Ivy Lee, the noted public relations expert
ostensibly employed by the German dye trust, but actually on the
payroll of the Nazi Government to help them win favorable publicity
in the American press. The committee had brought about passage of
the Foreign Agents' Registration Act to smoke out hidden Nazi and
Soviet agents into the limelight.
This committee was not the headline-seeking, witch-hunting
extravaganza that HUAC became under Martin Dies. "Its manner of
investigation commanded special respect," notes historian Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr. "McCormack used competent investigators and
employed as committee counsel a former Georgia senator with a good
record on civil liberties. Most of the examination of witnesses was
carried on in executive sessions. In public sessions, witnesses were
free to consult counsel. Throughout, McCormack was eager to avoid
hit-and-run accusation and unsubstantiated testimony. The result was
an almost uniquely scrupulous investigation in a highly sensitive
Schlesinger noted that the McCormack Committee had "declared itself
`able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler'
except for MacGuire's direct proposal to him, and it considered this
more or less confirmed by MacGuire's European reports.... James E.
Van Zandt, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and
subsequently a Republican congressman, corroborated Butler's story
and said that he, too, had been approached by `agents of Wall
I queried McCormack about one final point. One newspaper reporter
had suggested that Butler had not himself taken the plot very
seriously. "Oh, no, General Butler regarded the plot very gravely
indeed," McCormack said emphatically. "He knew that this was a
threat to our very way of government by a bunch of rich men who
I also discussed this point with the Butler family. Smedley Butler,
Jr., agreed with McCormack and explained why his father did not
immediately go to Washington when he realized what the plotters were
up to: "Dad was not stupid. He had no proof, and he could not name
names, so he had to be careful about it."
In fairness to the American Legion today, it needs to be pointed out
that the Legion leadership of our times is far different from what
it was in the period during and preceding the Butler hearings, when
so many former commanders and high officials were involved in the
conspiracy and antilabor activities dictated by big-business
John L. Spivak explained why:
A long struggle followed within the Legion between those who would
use the members for their own business and political interests and
those who wanted the organization used for the benefit of former
servicemen. The latter won. At the time of the plot, the cleavage
between the rank and file and the Royal Family seemed-as it indeed
turned out to be-a permanent one. In the generation that followed,
the Legion underwent drastic changes and a mellowing. . . . Members
now rarely participate in antilabor activity. In fact, many
Legionnaires are themselves loyal union men.
To carry his warnings further to the American people, Butler began
touring the country in a series of lectures. On the podium lie held
audiences fascinated not only by his vigorous exposes of big
business, war-makers, the American Liberty League, and the American
Legion "Royal Family," but by the sheer dynamism of his personality.
As he grew more and more heated, he would roam the stage,
gesticulating vigorously as he made his points, often
extemporaneously, in salty, sometimes ribald, always blunt language.
He was flooded with requests for appearances at huge veterans' bonus
rallies staged by the V.F.W. all over the country. In his speeches
to veterans he would growl at their naiveté as "dumb soldiers"
because they didn't organize politically to fight for veterans'
benefits due them. They would grin and applaud enthusiastically,
knowing that behind his gruff manner was a genuine fondness and
concern for their welfare. "
Acknowledged as the spokesman for the "forgotten veteran," he was
besieged with requests for help in getting adequate pensions for
disabled veterans, and through the V.F.W. put pressure on the
Veterans Administration in hundreds of cases.
The worshipful attitude of veterans toward Butler was expressed in a
typical letter to him in March, 1935, by a veteran who wrote, "We
all know that you speak our language, and that the Vet is about as
close to your heart as anything else in the world."
There was no generation gap between the fifty-four-year-old general
and youth leaders of that period, who were organizing the American
Student Union to fight "against war and fascism." They felt a close
kinship with the war hero who hated wars, and hated the men who had
sent him to fight them. Now constantly proselytizing against war in
the hope of stopping any new ones, Butler also wrote magazine
articles condemning Marine intervention in the affairs of China.
Speaking to a Y.M.C.A. in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in February, he
accused the big industrialists of America of fattening on the blood
of soldiers. He pointed out that the average profit of the Du Ponts
from 1910 to 1914 had been only $6 million, but had soared to $58
million between 1914 and 1918. The jump in the same periods for
Bethlehem Steel had been $6 to $49 million; for International
Nickel, $4 to $73 million.
"It makes you feel proud," he said bitingly. "A lot of the
stockholders are members of the National Economy League, and, after
I complete my investigation, I will probably find they are also
members of the American Liberty League."
On February 25 Time magazine ran a two-column photo showing Butler
and comedian Jimmy Durante, who attended a dinner in Pittsburgh
where the general was speaking, facing each other "nose to nose" in
a light moment for the photographer. The caption read "SCHNOZZLE,
GIMLET EYE. Fascist to Fascist?"
In a tiny footnote at the bottom of the page, in five-point type
that could barely be read, Time informed those of its readers with
20-20 vision, "Also last week the House Committee on Un-American
Activities purported to report that a two-month investigation had
convinced it that General Butler's story of a Fascist march on
Washington was alarmingly true." This was Time's microscopic amends
for its lengthy page-one ridicule of the plot a dozen weeks earlier.
In March, 1935, Butler began lecturing to mass meetings called by
the V.F.W., speaking on behalf of the Patman Bonus Bill. He lost no
opportunity to warn veterans also against those big-business
interests who favored war and fascism. His convictions were
strengthened by a new book based on the Nye munitions investigation,
The Road to War, by Walter Millis.
He wrote a small antiwar book of his own that year, based on an
earlier magazine article m which he favored a foreign policy of
strict neutrality. In War Is a Racket he advocated an "ironclad
defense a rat couldn't crawl through," but only to defend the United
States against attack. The job of the armed forces, he insisted, was
only to protect democracy at home-not waste lives on foreign soil to
protect American investments overseas:
[War] is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of
the masses. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.... How many
of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? . . . Newly acquired
territory promptly is exploited by the . . . self-same few who wring
dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the
bill.... Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds.
Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all
its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and
For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was
a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it.
Now that I see the international war clouds again gathering, as they
are today, I must face it and speak out....
There are 40,000,000 men under arms in the world today, and our
statesmen and diplomats have the temerity to say that war is not in
the making. Hell's bells! Are these 40,000,000 men being trained to
be dancers? . . . [Mussolini is] ready for war.... [Hitler] is an
equal if not greater menace to peace. . . . The mad dogs of Europe
are on the loose....
Yes, they [munitions makers, bankers, ship-builders, manufacturers,
meat packers, speculators] are getting ready for another war. Why
shouldn't they? It pays high dividends. But what does it profit the
masses . . . who are killed? [American boys in past wars] were made
to . . . regard murder as the order of the day.... We used them a
couple of years and trained them to think nothing at all of killing
or being killed. Then suddenly, we discharged them and told them to
do their own readjusting. . . . Many, too many, of these fine young
boys were eventually destroyed mentally....
The soldiers couldn't bargain for their labor. . . . By developing
the . . . medal business, the government learned it could get
soldiers for less money. . . . We gave them the large salary of $30
All they had to do for that munificent sum was to leave their dear
ones behind, give up their jobs, lie in swampy trenches, eat canned
willy [when they could get it], and kill and kill and kill ... and
But there is a way to stop it. You can't end it by disarmament
conferences ... by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only
by taking the profit out of war.
The only way to smash this racket is to conscript capital and
industry and labor before the nation's manhood can be conscripted. .
Let the officers and directors and the high-powered executives of
our armament factories and our steel companies and our munitions
makers and our ship-builders and our airplane builders . . . as well
as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted-to get $3o a
month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.
Let the workers in these plants get the same wages . . . yes, and
all generals and all admirals and all officers and all politicians.
. . . Why shouldn't they? They aren't running any risk of being
killed or having their bodies mangled or their minds shattered. . .
Give capital and industry and labor thirty days to think it over and
you will find, by that time, there will be no war. That will smash
the war racket-that and nothing else.
Industrialists and financiers were shocked by Butler's "radical"
notion. But if they had checked the Oxford Dictionary, they would
have found as one definition of conscription: "taxation or
confiscation of property for war purposes to impose equality of
sacrifice on non-conscripts."
Butler's speeches at bonus rallies and over the air helped put
pressure on Congress to pass the Patman Bonus Bill. As it went to
the White House, Butler urged the President to sign it into law,
pointing out that it was one way the nation could make amends to the
veterans for their exploitation by big business in America's wars of
the twentieth century. In a radio broadcast on May 9 he urged his
listeners to deluge Roosevelt with a million wires and letters
supporting the bill.
But the President vetoed it. On May 21 Butler conferred with Senator
Elmer Thomas, of Oklahoma, in Washington on tactics to get Congress
to override the veto. Afterward he declared his hope of organizing a
large-scale political movement of veterans to press for the bonus.
"My idea," he told the press, "would be a mammoth organization like
the Grand Army of the Republic, which would bring political pressure
to bear to take care of the soldiers."
Now he criticized not only the American Legion but also the V.F.W.
for avoiding the political arena: "They're no good. They've got
provisions in their bylaws which say they can't engage in political
action. The politicians put them to sleep. . . . If the soldiers
don't get theirs now, they'll organize and get it. There'd be about
five million of them."
He was asked who would head the new organization. "I don't know who
we'd get to lead it," he replied.
He was instantly besieged with requests from various veterans groups
that he take them over as the nucleus for his battle for the bonus
and veterans' pensions. Morris A. Bealle, publisher of Plain Talk
magazine, wrote Butler on May 24 that he had already begun such an
organization, calling it the Iron Veterans. He urged Butler to
assume its leadership. "You may be interested to know that Bill
Doyle tried to finance this organization for us," Bealle wrote, "but
acted so suspicious[ly] at Miami that I thought he was trying to
take it over for the Royal Family of the American Legion, and
declined to do business with him." This was the same Doyle who had
accompanied MacGuire in the plotters' first contact with Butler.
Bealle added, "A few weeks later I discovered to my horror that he
was trying to take it over for the House of Morgan."
But Butler, made wary by the Fascists' plan for a veterans'
"superorganization," began to have second thoughts about the wisdom
of any attempt to organize a national veterans group for political
"To attempt a national association in the beginning," he wrote to
the organizer of the American Warriors in Iowa, "would only lead to
great financial expense and exploitation of the veterans by
chiselling professionals. . . . While it might be possible to find
those who would contribute the necessary funds, it would put the
veterans under obligation to the contributors."
His fight for the Bonus Bill, and his bare-knuckled attacks against
the establishment, led to cancellation of his radio broadcasts as of
July 3. A month earlier, when Van Zandt urged him to come to Montana
to speak for the soldiers' bonus at a V.F.W. rally there, Butler
"Such a trip would be a very heavy drain on my pocketbook," he
explained. "And as long as I am being put off the air for being too
noisy in my criticism of this administration and for taking the part
of the soldiers, I more or less shall have to conserve my
But he was determined to get the truth as he saw it out to the
American people and undertook a new lecture tour that would cover
the country. Roosevelt had not been able to get the press to carry
his message to the people, so he had turned to national radio.
Butler had not been able to get national radio to carry his message,
so he turned to town-hall meetings all over America.
On June 12 the American League of Ex-Servicemen asked him to speak
at a rally in favor of the bonus with American Labor party
Congressman Vito Marcantonio. Butler agreed, with the understanding
that he spoke as an individual only, not as a representative of any
group. The League adjutant quickly agreed, adding, "Millions of
rank-and-file veterans have always looked to you as a champion of
their cause in fighting for their rights and to receive justice from
Meanwhile a vigorous debate was taking place in Congress, sparked by
the Nye Committee revelations and the weakness of the League of
Nations, over the Ludlow Resolution calling for a national
referendum before war could be declared. The resolution failed, but
on August 31 Congress passed the First Neutrality Act. It forbade
transportation of munitions to any belligerents after the President
had declared a state of war to exist between them and authorized the
President to prohibit travel by American citizens on the ships of
Butler regretted the failure of the Ludlow Resolution to pass,
because he saw it as a way to prevent powerful men from making
decisions that could drag the country to war. He praised Congress
for passing the Neutrality Act, however, believing that it would
help take the profits out of war for American munitions-makers, and
also make it difficult for them to embroil the United States in a
foreign war by stirring passions over Americans lost at sea in naval
When a book by Senator Huey Long appeared, hopefully called My First
Days in the White House, it listed as members of Long's mythical
cabinet Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, with Smedley
Butler as Secretary of War. On September 15, one week after Long was
assassinated, Butler was interviewed in Atlanta. He was asked how he
felt about his inclusion in the late senator's proposed cabinet.
Characterizing it as "the greatest compliment ever paid to me,"
Butler smiled, "I certainly felt in good company."
Asked about his own political ambitions, Butler shrugged, "I'm just
a gentleman farmer now." Reporters then asked him to comment on the
government's transfer of veterans who had been lobbying for the
bonus from Washington to Florida, where some had been killed in a
"What I'm interested in," Butler replied, "is who approved the order
to send them down there. They were in Washington, lobbying or
pleading under their constitutional rights, when they were sent down
to the sandspits. There are other lobbyists in Washington. Why not
deport them, too?"
On October 5, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee invoked an arms embargo against both countries
under the Neutrality Act. Although Butler sympathized with Ethiopia,
he approved of Congress's determination to keep clear of involvement
in any foreign war.
On Armistice Day he spoke to a crowd of ten thousand in Philadelphia
at a peace rally held by the Armistice Day Celebration Committee and
the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Deglamorizing the first war he had fought in, the Spanish-American
War, he shouted, "That war was caused by the newspaper propaganda of
William Randolph Hearst, and he's been trying to get us into another
war ever since. Don't let the man you send to Washington get you
into another war ... that is surely coming along." Urging an even
stronger neutrality law to keep America at peace, he declared:
My interest in peace is personal. I have three grown sons* and I'll
be damned if anybody's going to shoot them! . . .
We pay the farmers in the West not to grow corn. We pay other
farmers not to raise hogs . . . not to grow cotton. Let us pay the
munitions makers not to make munitions! . . . We must work against
war now. Wait until the war drums beat and you'll go half crazy.
You'll march up Broad Street and raise Liberty loans to help Europe
pay off its debts to the House of Morgan. . . .
The present man in the White House, Mr. Roosevelt, says he will do
his utmost to keep us out of war. That language isn't strong enough
for us. We want him to say we won't have war!
He told a Y.M.C.A. audience that Mussolini was invading Ethiopia to
get oil because the nation was bankrupt:
The only way out for Mussolini is to declare war on somebody. That's
the regular way of dealing with such situations.
If this country ever gets busted, you can look for a war in about
six months. Before he started it, Mussolini called a conference with
England and France ... and he thought he had everybody's permission
to go ahead. Diplomacy is reeking with rotten polities. None of the
representatives of any of the nations is sincere. I wouldn't trust
any of them anywhere.
Interviewed on an N.B.C. radio program, he reported:
After the war I began visiting the veterans' hospitals, where I saw
the ghastly, human wreckage of that war.... What right have we to
send men away from their homes to be shot? I'd limit the plebiscite
to those who are actually going to do the fighting and dying, to the
men of military age....
Do you want your son to go? Do you want your son to leave his home
and lie down on the ground somewhere on the other side of the world
with a bullet in him, cut down like a stalk of wheat? Oh, no, not
your son! I've got three sons and I know! I've just come back from a
9,000-mile trip around the country and I know this, too. None of the
American men I spoke to want to nominate their sons for the Unknown
Soldier of the future!
Seeing the war clouds gathering over Europe, he grew worried that
Americans would once again be fed slogans and half-truths to distort
their judgment, and fall victims to professional propagandists for
those who would urge war in support of one favored country or
another. He sensed the President's growing internationalism and
joined other liberal pacifists in demanding that Roosevelt stick to
implementing the New Deal and steer clear of any foreign adventures.
Addressing the Third U.S. Congress Against War and Fascism in
Cleveland on January 3, 1936, he urged strict neutrality:
Every indication points to a second World War.... The nations of
Europe and Asia are spending billions of dollars each year in
military preparations. . . . These nations are bound to go to war
because the men in charge of the governments of some of them have
worked their people into a fanatical frame of mind. . . . Now that
their people are getting out of control, these so-called leaders
must attack some foreign objective if they are to remain in control.
With many of them it is a question of a foreign war or being
overthrown. None of these dictators is willing to cut his own
throat, hence this war. . . .
If we pass a single, tiny thread of help to these leaders gone
insane, these same leaders will pull a bigger line after the little
one until the rope is so big they can drag us in with it.... When
you take sides, you must eventually wind up by taking part. . . .
See that our Congress writes into law a command that no American
soldier, sailor or Marine be used for any purpose except to protect
the coastline of the United States, and protect his home-and I mean,
his home-not an oil well in Iraq, a British investment in China, a
sugar plantation in Cuba, a silver mine in Mexico, a glass factory
in Japan, an American-owned share of stock in a European factory-in
short, not an American investment anywhere except at home! . . . Let
Congress say to all foreign investors: "Come on home or let your
money stay out of the country-we will not defend it."
As the nation grew increasingly polarized between anti-Fascist
interventionists and antiwar isolationists, Butler's uncompromising
stand against war was sometimes confused with the right wing
propaganda of pro-Fascists who wanted no American help given to the
victims of Mussolini and Hitler.
In April, 1936, the Tacoma News-Tribune published an editorial on
his antiwar speeches, intimating that he was "credited with fascist
leanings." The Olympia, Washington, post of the United Spanish War
Veterans immediately passed a resolution protesting this libel.
Demanding a retraction, they pointed out, "Less than three years ago
he stifled an incipient fascist rebellion in the eastern United
States, an accomplishment due solely to his own prompt initiative,
thereby demonstrating once more his stalwart Americanism."
While Butler had become an isolationist out of disillusionment with
the motives of those who had engineered armed U.S. intervention in
other countries, he hated fascism as fervently as he hated war. He
warned angrily that the Fascist fifth column in America was so
active that one in every five hundred Americans had become "at heart
a traitor to democracy."
One of his long-fought crusades ended in triumph in January, 1936,
when Congress, under heavy pressure from the nation's veterans
aroused by Butler, Senators Patman and Thomas, and the V.F.W. bonus
rallies, finally passed the Patman Bonus Bill over Roosevelt's veto.
Many veterans groups now urged him to throw his hat into the
presidential race of 1936. A realist, he declined, explaining, "I am
too ignorant to be President of the United States and have not a
definite plan for curing our present ills. I am doing the best I can
to educate myself, but feel that no man should invite others to
follow him unless he has a definite objective, and has the course
marked out, day by day. I, of course, learned the above from my
He devoted all his energies to keeping America out of the war he saw
coming. Preoccupied with writing and speaking against it, as well as
reading to learn more about it, he had no time for the theater,
radio, or tennis, which he loved and played brilliantly. At the
dinner table at home and elsewhere, guests listened to him
spellbound in complete silence. He was kept talking so much that he
frequently left the table without having had more than a mouthful of
A thoroughgoing extrovert, he was not ostensibly an egotist; it
simply came naturally to him as a Marine general to be in command of
any situation. His children could not recall any gathering at which
their father did not hold forth, less because he wanted or needed
to, than because he was urged on by a barrage of interested
questions. People were fascinated by his views and experiences.
He was not, however, among the honored guests when the American
Liberty League, in January, 1936, organized a banquet for two
thousand of its members at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. The
principal speaker was Al Smith.
In his speech Smith warned Americans that they faced a choice
between "the pure air of America or the foul breath of Communistic
Russia." The New Deal, he charged, was taking the nation into
communism. The press, 8o percent anti-Roosevelt, warmly applauded
his attack. Militant C.LO. labor leader John L. Lewis growled that
Smith had undoubtedly been "well paid" by his present employers for
what he had said. New Deal partisans denounced Smith as a tool of
"I just can't understand it," Roosevelt told Secretary of Labor
Frances Perkins. "All the things we have done in the Federal
Government are like the things A1 Smith did as governor of New York.
They're the things he would have done as President. . . . What in
the world is the matter?"
The American Liberty League banquet marked the opening of their hate
campaign of propaganda to defeat the reelection of Roosevelt in
1936. The Scripps-Howard press and its United Press wire service, an
exception to the rabidly anti-Roosevelt newspaper chains, rushed to
the President's defense.
Following through on Butler's expose, their papers carried a story
headlined: "Liberty League Controlled by Owners of $37,000,000,000."
Directors of the League were identified as also being directors of
U.S. Steel, General Motors, Standard Oil, Chase National Bank,
Goodyear Tire, and Mutual Life Insurance Company. Liberal senators
joined the attack.
On January 23 Senator Schwellenbach denounced "J. Pierpont Morgan
and John J. Raskob and Pierre du Pont and all the rest of these
rascals and crooks who control the American Liberty League." Senator
Robert M. La Follette, Jr., pointed out that the League's biggest
contributors were the Du Ponts, A. P. Sloan, the Pews, E. T. Weir,
Sewell Avery, and John J. Raskob, and declared, "It is not an
organization that can be expected to defend the liberty of the
masses of the American people. It speaks for the vested interests."
The attacks on the League, plus Roosevelt's reelection in 1936 over
its desperate and expensive opposition, destroyed the organization
as an effective force of reaction in America. It was disbanded soon
afterward with a brief announcement to the press that the purposes
for which the League had been formed had been served, and that it
was therefore no longer necessary. But affiliates financed by the
League, like the Sentinels of the Republic, the Crusaders, and other
pro-Fascist and far-right organizations, continued their agitation.
Butler continued to stump the country through 1936 warning against
involvement in the coming war he foresaw. He was gratified on
February 29 when Congress passed the Second Neutrality Act, amending
the original act to prohibit either loans or credits to belligerent
He was disturbed, however, when the Spanish civil war broke out in
July. The Neutrality Act imposed a boycott of aid to the Loyalist
Government, while it was apparent that Mussolini and Hitler were
supplying both money and military assistance to Franco. But by this
time Butler was so passionately opposed to the loss of another
American soldier on foreign soil, he felt only strict neutrality
could prevent it.
He shocked a meeting of the American League Against War and Fascism,
which was trying to raise funds for the Loyalists, by asking them,
"What the hell is it our business what's going on in Spain? Use
common sense or you'll have our boys getting their guts blown out
over there. Americans en masse never did a wrong thing. Mind your
own business. Have faith in your own country." He considered the
argument that Hitler and Mussolini had to be "stopped now before
it's too late" the kind of sophistry that had plunged America into
World War I with frightening warnings about the Kaiser.
In September he endorsed the candidacy of Representative Vito
Marcantonio, of the left-wing American Labor party, for his antiwar,
anti-Fascist stand. Butler's detractors assailed this endorsement as
"proof' that he was some kind of Red, ignoring the fact that two
weeks earlier Roosevelt had accepted the invitation of the A.L.P. to
become its candidate, as well as the candidate of the Democratic
The growing isolationist movement in America now resulted in more
prominence being given to Butler's antiwar speeches in the press. On
September 17 when he delivered a slashing attack on war makers
before the V.F.W. in Denver, it was carried in part on the wires of
the Associated Press:
WAR IS CALLED `HELL'
AND `BUSINESS RACKET'
Gen. Butler and Senator Bone
Warn Veterans of Foreign
Wars of the Future
Men who fought America's foreign wars cheered violently today as a
major general and a Senator called warfare "a business racket."
Major Gen. Smedley D. Butler, retired, used blunt language as he
told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that "war is hell." . . . "But
what in the hell are we going to do about it? I've got something for
you to do about it. I'm going to tell you in simple language so all
of you can understand. Let the world know that hereafter no American
soldier is going to leave the shores of this country! . . . Soldiers
never leave the country except to protect the moneyed interests."
One enthusiastic veteran who applauded him afterward wrote to
President Roosevelt urging Butler's appointment as Secretary of War
to replace retiring George H. Dern:
This man is the most popular Military figure with the Vets as a
class. Pershing hasn't one tenth of one percent his color and
personality. He's a Quaker, and a helluva good one, i.e., not the
Hoover type. . . . If you asked him to fill Dern's place, the army
and the Republicans would holler but the common people would
understand, and so would the rank and file of the veterans. Of
course, the slap at Liberty Leaguer Dupont would cost their family's
votes. P.S. You won't get many anyhow!
The Du Ponts supplied more grist for Butler's antiwar mill in
September, when the Senate Munitions Investigating Committee
revealed that the munitions industry, led by the Du Ponts, had
sabotaged a League of Nations disarmament conference held at Geneva.
"After the whole conference was over and the munitions people of the
world had made the treaty a satisfactory one to themselves,"
reported Chairman Gerald Nye, "we find that Colonel Simons [of the
Du Ponts] is reporting that even the State Department realized, in
effect, who controlled the Nation:
On October 19 Butler used his popularity with the dry forces, who
remembered him affectionately from the Volstead Act days in
Philadelphia, to appeal to the Women's Christian Temperance Union to
join the peace movement. Six days later the mood of the nation grew
more apprehensive, however, as Hitler and Mussolini signed the
Rome-Berlin Axis pact and the following month were joined by Japan,
which signed an Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany.
Roosevelt's landslide reelection strengthened his hand against the
isolationists, and there were signs that the White House intended to
take a tougher stand against the Axis powers. Butler grew
increasingly worried that the President might be starting the nation
down the road to war.
Speaking at an Armistice Day dinner for veterans, Butler announced
firmly that he, with a record of thirty-three years of military
service, would never again shoulder arms except in defense of
America's own shores.
Attacking congressional attempts to put loopholes in the Neutrality
Act, Butler warned in a subsequent speech that once the United
States was lured into shipping supplies to a belligerent,
Americans would soon hear the old cry-"the American flag insulted,
American property destroyed . . . same old thing over again, just as
it was in the World War." America, he said, best served itself and
the world by staying at peace:
Help them to bind up the wounds when the distressed world has fought
itself to exhaustion and has overthrown its false and selfish
leaders. I am firmly convinced that every government which hurls its
loyal but dumb masses into this coming war will be overthrown, win
or lose. I am also firmly convinced that another universal war will
make man into a savage, ready to take by force what he wants, law or
His tone grew acrid and resentful when Roosevelt won congressional
consent to amending the Neutrality Act in May, 1937, authorizing the
sale to belligerents of some commodities on a cash-and-carry basis.
Since a national poll showed that 73 percent of Americans favored
some kind of popular referendum before the United States could
declare war, Butler felt that the President was ignoring the will of
the people and seeking to tie their fate to that of England and
On July 12 he warned a thousand veterans at Paterson, New Jersey,
that unless the nation's veterans banded together to demand peace,
America would be at war again in a short time. He urged them to
demand that U.S. armed forces be kept within their own borders and
that the use of the American flag be restricted to government-owned
Speaking to a Writers' Union meeting in Philadelphia, he described
how the United States might be dragged into the next European war. A
European ship would stop a U.S. ship carrying munitions to a
potential enemy. The American captain would radio William Randolph
Hearst that the flag had been insulted. Orators would begin
demanding that Americans avenge the insult. Ministers would discover
that they were "transmitters from God" and encourage a holy crusade.
Arms manufacturers would bring pressure to bear on Washington. And
we would go to war.
A July speech he made to the Institute of Public Affairs at the
University of Virginia in Charlottesville was broadcast:
Wars do not occur. They are made by men. . . . There will never be a
congressional investigation into the steps taken or the methods
adopted which saves us from a war.... Lying propaganda is almost
certainly necessary to bring nations to the pitch where men kill and
women give their men and boys to be killed. . . .
The object of war is to get something for nothing. . . . When we
have announced what we intend to defend, let us put our national
flag over it and forbid the flying of our flag over anything else;
then we will avoid insults to our flag, the most popular cause for
our wars.... We Americans who love and protect our flag should
certainly have a voice in where it is flown.
With Japanese troops sweeping through China and seizing the coastal
cities, Butler addressed the V.F.W. convention in September urging
that all American forces be withdrawn from China. Three months later
Japanese airmen sank the U.S. gunboat Panay in Chinese waters. A
poll showed that 53 percent of Americans agreed with Butler's demand
for withdrawal of all United States forces. But instead Washington
demanded indemnity from Tokyo.
Butler was convinced that a continued American presence in Asia
could only lead to eventual war with an aggressive Japan bent on
becoming the dominant power in the Orient. He saw confirmation of
his belief that war was a business racket when Washington continued
to permit American corporations to sell scrap iron and oil to Tokyo
for its war machine. He also knew that there were over two billion
dollars in American investments in Germany, which was being goaded
by British diplomacy into attacking the Soviet Union.
If these facts seemed to him more immediately menacing than the
steadily escalating aggression of the Axis powers, he was not alone
among liberal and left-wing Americans in this myopia. In January,
1938, John Chamberlain, Alfred M. Bingham, Dwight MacDonald,
Bertrand Wolfe, and Sidney Hook were among those who opposed any
strong action against Japan, or any of the other Axis powers,
arguing, "We believe that the first result of another War to Make
the World Safe for Democracy will be the establishment of virtual
fascism in this country."
By now the country was almost evenly divided between isolationists
and those who advocated anti-Fascist alliances. In late January
Roosevelt asked Congress for appropriations to build up the Army and
Navy for "national defense."
Interviewed on February 28, 1938, on a national radio program,
Butler had strong doubts about F.D.R.'s plans:
Now is the time to keep our heads better than we ever kept them
before. . . . We ought to agree on a definition of the word
"national." If it means defense by our Army and Navy of every dollar
and American person anywhere they may happen to be on the surface of
the earth, then, just as sure as I'm standing here, we'll be
fighting a foreign war.
He was asked how long he estimated it would take to train a man to
fight. "Well," he replied, "if you want to send him three thousand
miles away to fight, at least six months' training will be needed.
If he was defending his home, it would take about an hour."
On April 9 Butler was called to testify before the Senate Committee
on Naval Affairs on a billion-dollar naval construction bill. Urging
defeat of the bill, he called it unnecessary for the real defense of
the United States. In the event of war, he told the committee, he
favored abandoning Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Virgin Islands, and
Puerto Rico. The Canal, he asserted, could be destroyed by "a
handful of bombs." He also insisted that all mercantile ships
operated for profit should fly commercial flags, not the American
He explained that since his retirement he had visited twelve hundred
cities and towns and "talked to all 'kinds of people in all parts of
the country." He said, "I have a feeling that this bill does not
represent a consensus of opinion among naval officers. I have a
feeling that it is a grand bluff. Furthermore, I believe that the
American people will turn against this bill before any of the keels
provided are laid. I cannot prove it, but I believe it is proposed
for the purpose of doing somebody else's business."
He bad used up fifteen years of his life, he growled, "going about
the world guarding Standard Oil tins" and had participated in twelve
expeditions outside the United States which he considered missions
largely in the interest of Wall Street. "The whole thing is a
racket," he added, "and the American people are going to catch up
The committee chairman asked if he considered the existing Navy
adequate to defend the continental United States. He did, he
replied, and hoped that Congress would fix a defense line beyond
which the Navy would not be allowed to operate.
"Suppose Japan tried to invade the United States?"
Her forces would be so weak by the time they reached the Pacific
Coast, Butler replied, that "we could knock her over with a
feather." He recommended a force of twenty-thousand-ton battleships
that would hug the coasts and, with the aid of submarines, aircraft,
and coastal defenses, would be able to stand off any hostile forces
that came within striking distance.
"I am a friend of the Navy," he declared, "and I have an anchor
tattooed on my chest, but if we go to building up the Navy as
proposed in the bill, and loading down the people with the cost of
it, the people will turn on the Navy as they did in the eighties,
and not a ship will be able to leave port, for there just won't be a
dollar appropriated for the Navy."
He was joined in opposing the Navy construction bill by eighteen
peace organizations, including the American Friends Service
Committee, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, the
National Council of Jewish Women, the Conference on World Peace of
the Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Council for the
Prevention of War, the Church Peace Union, and the National Student
Federation. But Congress turned a deaf ear, and in May it passed the
Naval Construction Act, authorizing a billion-dollar expansion
Butler's raging hatred of war led him into the same errors of
judgment that ensnared the isolationists of America. Like them, he
approved of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's efforts to buy
"peace in our time" at Munich. Confident that the Nazis could not
get through the French Maginot line, he also believed that every
Frenchman would fight fiercely to protect his own plot of land
against any invasion.
The Stalin-Hitler nonaggression pact of August 23, 1939, fol-lowed
by the invasion of Poland, made it clear that the world was
tottering on the verge of another great war. On August 31 Butler
joined Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., in appeals to keep America
out of it, at a V.F.W. convention in Boston.
"There are only two things for which Americans should be permitted
to fight," Butler shouted over the whistles and cheers of veterans.
"Defense of home and the Bill of Rights. Not a single drop of
American blood should ever again be spilled on foreign soil. Let's
build up a national defense so tight that even a rat couldn't crawl
Three days later Great Britain and France declared war on Germany.
On the same day the British passenger liner Athenia was torpedoed
and sunk without warning off the Hebrides, drowning thirty American
passengers. That night, in a fireside radio chat to the American
people, Roosevelt declared, "This nation will remain a neutral
nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in
thought as well."
In November Congress passed a new neutrality act that legalized the
sale of munitions to belligerent nations on a cash-and-carry basis.
The news filled Butler with dismay.
"This country," he protested, "did not have one solitary blessed
thing to do with the making of this mess over there, and there is no
possible sane and logical reason why we should feel any impulse to
take a hand in it."
A spiteful rumor that Butler had become a spokesman for Father
Coughlin's Christian Front led some Jewish groups to threaten
cancellation of speeches he was scheduled to make to them in
"I couldn't believe there was a word of truth in this," wrote
Mildred Smith, executive secretary of the Open Forum Speakers
Bureau, "but I dared not say an official `no' without direct word
from you on this matter."
He wired back indignantly, "Have never spoken for the Christian
Front. I am a Quaker and am preaching tolerance and am not connected
nor will I have anything to do with any movement or organization
advocating intolerance or the entrance of this country into any
His hatred for war did not cause any diminution in his hatred for
fascism, but he refused to sanction one to fight the other except in
absolute self-defense. Once he was visited by a female cousin who
had married a German and brimmed over with praise for the Nazis.
Butler's face grew taut as she babbled on, but he said nothing until
it was time to say good-bye.
Unable to contain himself any longer, he rasped at the door,
"Nellie, if Hitler comes over here, thee can be sure I will be on
the beach at Atlantic City to kick the everlasting hell out of him!"
His taste in books increasingly reflected both his antiwar and his
anti-Fascist convictions. In his library during his last years were
Sawdust Caesar, by George Seldes, The Road to War, by Walter Millis,
and Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo. Europe Under the Terror,
by John L. Spivak, was inscribed to him as "one of the best fighters
against Fascism in the country, with the respect and admiration of
In 1939 he wrote an antiwar piece for a book edited by Paul Comly
French, Common Sense Neutrality-Mobilizing for Peace. Sharing the
covers with him were such contributors as Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles
A. Beard, Dr. Harry Elmer Barnes, Senator William Borah, Norman
Thomas, Sumner Welles, Herbert Hoover, Senator Robert La Follette,
Jr., John L. Lewis, and Elliot Roosevelt.
But as the Nazis swept through Belgium and the Netherlands on May
10, 1940, bypassing the Maginot line and imperiling France, millions
of Americans grew alarmed. A Committee to Defend America by Aiding
the Allies was organized by William Allen White to rout the
In a mood of black despair Butler delivered his last antiwar speech
on May 24 at Temple University. Hating Hitler and Nazism, he
nevertheless could not shake off the dread specter of one or two
million dead American youths strewn over Europe's battlefields. He
decried fears of a German invasion of the United States as alarmist,
playing into the hands of war profiteers.
From the comfortable vantage of hindsight, it is easy to fault
Smedley Butler as having been woefully shortsighted in his stubborn
view that the best interests of Americans were served by persisting
in a policy of neutrality. But thirty years in uniform, seeing
active service in every war and campaign since the Spanish-American
War, had convinced him that war was nothing but a cruel and bloody
swindle of the people.
His suspicions were not eased by observing industrialists and
bankers entering trade cartels with America's potential enemies,
Germany, Italy, and Japan, while U.S. arms manufacturers made huge
profits selling munitions to both sides and pressed Congress to
spend new billions on "defense" to keep up with the "arms race" they
themselves had promoted.
In his disillusionment he saw little difference between World War I
and World War II. Ever since he had been a starry-eyed Marine
recruit of sixteen, American administrations had persistently cried
wolf in order to use him and the youths under him in order to
protect and augment foreign investments wrapped in the flag. It was
now impossible for him to believe that the shouts of wolf he heard
once more any more genuine than all those he had heard at regular
intervals since 1898.
Worn out by his strenuous speaking tours, discouraged as he saw the
United States slipping step by step into another bloodbath, be fell
ill with exhaustion. His doctor ordered him to enter the Naval
Hospital in Philadelphia for a rest and examination.
"As soon as I get out," he promised Ethel Bitter, "I am going to
take thee to Europe for the vacation I've never managed to find time
for. Thee deserves it for thy patience!"
During his four weeks in the hospital, however, lie lost weight
rapidly and guessed that his ailment was more serious than the
doctors were letting him know.
On June 10 Italy declared war on Britain and France. Roosevelt
promptly called for "full speed ahead" in the promotion of national
defense and for the extension of material aid to "opponents of'
force." The next day Congress voted another $3.2 billion in military
On June 14 Butler's gloom plunged to new depths when Germany invaded
France unopposed. Four days later Admiral Harold R. Stark, Chief of
Naval Operations, asked Congress for a two-ocean navy in a
$4-billion expansion program.
During a visit by his son Smedley, Jr., Butler reflected glumly on
the futility of his long fight to keep his country from getting
involved in another war. "I think," he said ruefully, "that I should
have stayed with my own kind." He meant Quakers and Marines, rather
On June 21, 1940, hours before France was scheduled to surrender
officially to Adolf Hitler, Smedley Darlington Butler died in the
hospital of an abdominal ailment suspected to be cancer.
Although the paths of President Roosevelt and Smedley Butler had
diverged sharply over the questions of war and peace, the President
sent a wire to Ethel Butler: "I grieve to hear of Smedley's passing.
I shall always remember the old days in Haiti. My heart goes out to
you and the family in this great sorrow."
Among others who sent condolences were former Secretary of the Navy
Josephus Daniels, then ambassador to Mexico, and Major General
Thomas Holcomb, commandant of the Marine Corps. A simple funeral
service was held at the Butler home in Newtown Square, followed by
burial in West Chester, with attendance limited to close friends and
immediate members of the family. Ethel Butler knew that elaborate
formal ceremonies would be a violation of the principles of her
husband, who had always detested phony pomp and circumstance.
The general who could have had all the wealth and power he wanted as
dictator of the United States died leaving an estate that totaled
two thousand dollars.
The New York Times now hailed him as "one of the most glamorous and
gallant men who ever wore the uniform of the United States Marine
Corps.... a brave man and an able leader of troops.... He laughed at
danger, and he set an example to his men that helped them to carry
out the traditions of the Marine Corps." Calling him also "often a
storm center," the Times added, "It was when he ventured into public
affairs that his impetuosity led him into trouble."
In an editorial obituary on June 23 the New York Herald Tribune had
no cautious reservations:
It is as a great "leatherneck" that Gen. Smedley D. Butler will be
remembered. He was an admirable officer, as tough in his speech as
in the fiber of his body and soul. He came of Quaker ancestry, but
no Quaker more dearly loved to be belligerent. . . . Because he was
utterly unafraid, brave and unselfish, he earned the
characterization of being the ideal American soldier, and, to use
the words of an official citation of the Navy Department, of being
"one of the most brilliant officers in the United States."
Thirty years later Tom Dick Butler told me wistfully, "Dad's
experiences were an important part of our lives. He was always
`where it was at.' We miss him tremendously."
When the war that Smedley Butler had dreaded and sought to prevent
came to his country out of the clouds over Pearl Harbor, eighteen
months after his death, an American destroyer was named the U.S.S.
Butler in his honor. Converted to a high-speed minesweeper, it saw
distinguished service during the war.
That would not have seemed inappropriate to the fighting hero who
hated war as a racket, yet who had once declared, "I am a
peace-loving Quaker, but when war breaks out every damn man in my
family goes." Both his sons entered the service, Smedley, Jr. in the
Marines, Tom Dick in the Navy.
A hell-for-leather Marine officer who drove himself as hard as his
men, he had won their enthusiastic admiration and loyalty. He, in
turn, had been passionately and stubbornly devoted to them, in
service and out of it. Former Marine Commandant David M. Shoup, who
served under Butler in China, told me that he and all the men in the
command had respected Butler as "one helluva fine soldier."
During World War II Butler's old newspaper friend, E. Z. Dimitman,
interviewed Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific as a war correspondent.
Noting a resemblance between MacArthur's commander of the 32d
Division, General Robert L. Eichelberger, and Old Gimlet Eye,
Dimitman mentioned it to MacArthur and suggested that Eichelberger
might prove another Butler.
"Never in a million years," MacArthur replied emphatically. "There's
only one Butler. He was one of the really great generals in American
Although Butler may have been the first high-ranking Marine Corps
general to challenge establishment policies, he was not the last.
Significantly, as early as January, 1966, another distinguished
Marine general, former Commandant David M. Shoup, went before the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee to warn the American people that
President Lyndon B. Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam was a
It might also be noted that before the explosion of the Pentagon
Papers, two Marine Corps colonels wrote books denouncing the
intervention in Vietnam as genocide against a people caught up in a
civil war, in support of a corrupt Saigon dictatorship.
Perhaps the elite fighting team of the United States produces
high-ranking dissenters like Butler, Shoup, and the two colonels
because many men who choose careers as Marine Corps officers tend to
be strongly motivated by patriotism and idealism. When there is an
American military intervention overseas, it is usually the Marines
who spearhead it, do the fighting, get an accurate picture of the
real situation, and observe who is being politically supported or
suppressed, and why.
All too often these officers have been disillusioned by the use of
the Marines to suppress social change in small countries, on behalf
of dictators, an elite military and business class, and American
commercial interests. This realization outrages their idealism. They
resent the expenditure of the lives of Marines under them for sordid
motives in power games of dollar diplomacy and international
Hence the most intelligent and high-principled Marine staff officers
may become the bitterest critics of American administrations that
misuse the Corps. The war records, motivation, and integrity of such
generals as Butler and Shoup make it impossible to dismiss their
testimony expressing dismay at the way United States expeditionary
forces have been deployed in the name of national defense.
Although Butler had considered himself basically a pacifist who
hated war, he had placed duty to his country above all other
considerations and had spent thirty-three years of his life carrying
out orders to defend it. His gradual disillusionment with those
orders, and the men who gave them, had led him to speak out
abrasively against the use of the military on behalf of American
No matter whose corns he trod on, or the cost to his career, he had
habitually said and did what he thought right. His bluntness had
made him unpopular with some Presidents, Secretaries of State and
Navy, and the highest-ranking generals and admirals in Washington,
who considered him a military firebrand as irrepressible as Generals
Billy Mitchell and George S. Patton. But it was just this quality in
Butler that had given him the courage and integrity to face public
ridicule to expose, in the name of service to his country, what John
L. Spivak called "one of the most fantastic plots in American
"What was behind the plot was shrouded in a silence which has not
been broken to this day," Spivak wrote. "Even a generation later,
those who are still alive and know all the facts have kept their
silence so well that the conspiracy is not even a footnote in
American histories. It would be regrettable if historians neglected
this episode and future generations of Americans never heard of it."
In 1964 Speaker of the House John W. McCormack referred to the plot
in his speech before the Democratic convention in Atlantic City,
when he warned against right-wing extremists in the Barry Goldwater
camp. But he did not give any details, and only a knowledgeable
handful of Americans understood the full implications of what he was
The conspiracy unquestionably inspired the novel Seven Days in May,
made into a successful film, which portrayed a Fascist plot by
high-placed American conspirators to capture the White House and
establish a military dictatorship under the pretext of saving the
nation from communism. Few of the millions of Americans who read the
novel or saw the film suspected that it had a solid basis in fact.
It would seem time that school textbooks in America were revised to
acknowledge our debt to the almost forgotten hero who thwarted the
conspiracy to end democratic government in America.
If we remember Major General Smedley Darlington Butler for nothing
else, we owe him an eternal debt of gratitude for spurning the
chance to become dictator of the United States-and for making damned
sure no one else did either.
*The hearings were probably held in New York rather than in
Washington because the committee at the same time was investigating
Communist infiltration in the fur unions of that city.
*He included his son-in-law, John Wehle.