A Blip

A few years ago, I read a book about the big terrorist bombing in New York. You know, the one in 1920. And it got me interested in the turmoil of the time – a time when, largely due to the depression, Americans were realizing that capitalism wasn’t quite their friend after all. So I wound up reading about the bonus army and how they were suppressed with cavalry and tanks commanded by heroes.

A tough old buzzard

A tough old buzzard

In one of the accounts I read, I came across the name Smedley Butler. I’d already heard of Smedly Butler because I’d read his pamphlet “War Is A Racket” and registered him as “another old soldier who opened his eyes after a lifetime of killing people.”*  So I bought a biography of Butler and inserted it into the queue. Reading it, I felt like I had fallen through the bottom of one world and woken up in another. I grew up during the time when the US was interfering with politics in Central America – supporting the contras in their attempt at “regime change” in Niceragua, invading Grenada, Panama, etc. Of course it seemed obvious that the US has been doing that sort of thing for a long time, but the depth and scope of it blew me out of my chair. Butler was in the thick of it, along with  John Lejeune were “founders of the modern Marine Corps” – i.e: the transition from the marines being soldiers attached to a naval vessel, into a political arm used to repress and overthrow governments worldwide.

Butler seems to have been a remarkably self-actualized person. He did what he did and he didn’t appear to care very much about anything beyond doing it well. There are pictures of Butler, grinning, with other marines, “observing” while the president-puppet signed directives. Woodrow Wilson had sent the marine corps in to take over Haiti in 1934, and Butler did what the marines do best: killed a lot of people.

From “War is a Racket”

WAR is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

In the World War a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. 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 generations.

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 gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out.

He kicked their asses, they put up a plaque to him

He kicked their asses, they put up a plaque to him

When Butler left active duty** he continued to be involved in adventures. One of his post-military adventures was taking the job of chief of police for Philadelphia. The prohibition of alcohol was in full swing, and Philadelphia had gang and crime problems related to alcohol smuggling and illicit consumption. Several large speakeasies operated quite openly – including the Ritz Carlton. Butler’s response was to treat Philadelphia the way he treated Haiti and Cuba: they dropped a shock-and-awe style campaign of ruthlessly smashing speakeasies (and their owners) until the criminal population quieted down and went underground. It was a classical repression operation: boots and clubs, not hearts and minds. The people of Philadelphia – those that hadn’t had their teeth smashed in – i.e.: the wealthy and powerful, cheered Butler as “incorruptible.”

All of that is set-up for the “blip” I referred to in the title.

1933: The depression, labor’s war against capitalism, the bonus army, fascism in Germany looming on the horizon, prohibition and gangsterism – here’s where history gets murky. Here’s where Butler either goes off the rails, or continued to be a matter-of-fact truthful bastard, and something horribly wrong got swept under the rug: Butler claimed that wealthy bankers and capitalists approached him through an intermediary to lead a military coup and take over the US.

Incorruptible Butler went public with the story.

New York Daily Journal Nov 21, 1934

New York Daily Journal Nov 21, 1934

And, pretty much immediately, became Butler the crank, instead of Butler the incorruptible.

The story goes that Butler called J. Edgar Hoover, Hoover called Roosevelt, and then things get hazy. Basically, it sounds like the president and the FBI asked some discrete questions and decided that the answer didn’t make sense, so they fobbed it off on the newly-formed House Committee on Un-American Activities and decided to let them investigate. Butler testified that he had been approached by two men, operating through The American Legion, supposedly backed with large financial resources by Brown Brothers, Bush, Harriman, and Dupont (corporate), U.S. Steel, Montgomery Ward, Goodyear Tire. When listing “key shareholders of…” that means “the families that own the majority of those companies.” Basically, the capitalist overclass.

The whole thing was dismissed as a gigantic hoax.

It may well have been. What’s incredibly weird about the whole thing, to me, is that it’s dropped down the memory hole and someone hit the flush lever. The House Committee on Un-American Activities veered sharply away from the coup story and started investigating communists, instead. Butler had known that any investigation would have to take him at his word, and, apparently, that just wasn’t enough.

Curt Gentry’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover describes Hoover’s reaction to the whole thing – the FBI investigated and nobody knows what Hoover thought: did he believe Butler? Did he think a bit of fascism might be good for the country? Did he think it was a hoax? What I’ve always found to be utterly odd is Hoover’s apparent obsession with communists undermining the country, and jews (who invented communism, after all!) teaming up with labor and the civil rights movement. Clearly that was a bigger threat. Hoover, like all good cops, knew to kiss the hand that pet and slapped him.

I see all of this as part of a skein running through US history – the same people who were behind the American Legion were the same people who were adamantly opposed to Roosevelt’s “New Deal” the same people who supported white supremacy and derided it as the “jew deal” and they remain in the same spirit today – ready to “make america great again.” It’s the same consistent anti-union, pro-capital politics that prefers to use the boot and the fist, that militarizes the police, that favors “regime change.”

Regime change.

The nasty political thread that favors toppling governments abroad, as Smedley Butler did so ably, may have been planning on running their same playbook in the US. One more puppet president, with a grinning Smedley Butler standing over his shoulder while he signs decrees.

Butler on interventionism:

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

You should read all of “War is a Racket” – he calls out Mussolini and Hitler as likely to start a war, and quotes Il Duce’s writings in International Conciliation,” the publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.”

We don’t learn the history of a time until after all the bodies are buried and the truth can come out. By now, the truth about the coup/hoax ought to be beginning to surface. In the meantime, I believe Butler was telling the truth as he saw it. He may not have been incorruptible, but he was exactly the kind of heartless bastard that would let the chips lie where they fell, and damn the consequences.


There’s one other thing: Butler said that the conspirators wanted him to lead an army of 500,000. That’s always stuck in my mind because that’s about the size of a force that I think you’d need. Either the people backing the conspirators had actually done some thinking about the complexities of a coup (i.e.: they did not have Donald Rumsfeld working the problem) or that came from Butler.

The logistics of coming up with 500,000 men, though… That’s daunting. Unless the leader of your coup was a war hero and could pull away pieces of the military.

It’s kind of interesting how political scandals today are things like: “Hillary Clinton’s email server” or “Benghazi!” or “David Petraeus’ naughty txting with his girlfriend” that the FBI investigates so enthusiastically. Think what would have come up, today, in the emails of the alleged coup-plotters (all of which could be retrieved the same way that David Petraeus’ txts were) We see, again and again, that the powerful knew and concealed things that were inconvenient. You’d kind of expect “us, the people” to figure that out and turn the scrutiny on the wealthy and powerful, rather than letting them put us under a microscope.


Smedley Butler: War is a Racket

Wikipedia on The Business Plot

(Recommended) Hans Schmidt: Maverick Marine – Smedley Butler and the Contradictions Of American Military History

Howard Blum: American Lightning, Terror, Mystery, and The Birth of Hollywood (amazon)

About Haiti and the US Occupation and interference: “L’Occupation

Butler’s stint as chief of police in Philadelphia

Timeline of events relating to Butler and the coup

Google books Curt Gentry on J. Edgar Hoover and the coup.

(* Hackworth’s “About Face” being the quintessential example of that genre)

(** I am told one never “leaves the corps”)



  1. Jake Harban says

    The problem with waiting until all the bodies are buried is that it’s pretty tricky to arrest dead people.

  2. applehead says

    If the Business Plot was real (and given the opaqueness around the events and the subsequent rapid burying of the story, it most likely was), the world would’ve been a much better one if the traitors behind it had been sacked, since it had removed at least one particularly deleterious political dynasty from the stage.

  3. says

    Jake Harban@#1:
    I agree completely. That appears to be exactly why so many people adopt the strategy of obscuring their actions and waiting for their clock to run out.

    I suspect that the coup was not investigated because they would have then had to deal with the uncovered truth, and that would have resulted in open conflict. Dictators and despots resolve such matters quickly and effectively: a bunch of dead capitalists is no threat, whereas a bunch of living capitalists, is. Boom, buh-bye.

  4. says

    Interesting thought. It also might have resulted in a US that would have been far more interventionist about fascism in Europe. That would have had far more long-reaching consequences than simply removing a bad politician from the future.

  5. John Morales says


    […] the world would’ve been a much better one if the traitors behind it had been sacked, since it had removed at least one particularly deleterious political dynasty from the stage.

    I find speculative extrapolations based on a counterfactual less than convincing.

  6. says

    John Morales@#5:
    I agree. Our understanding of cause and effect is limited, so we cannot possibly say with any confidence what the outcome of even a small decision, taken 80 years ago, might be.

    For example, an equally plausible scenario is: suppressing the coup plotters causes a large number of wealthy industrialists to flee to Germany. During WWII Dupont personally offered tremendous support for the manhattan project (teflon was invented by Dupont to handle uranium hexaflouride gas, for one example) – what if Dupont, Goodyear, Ford, etc – had gone to Germany and brought industrial innovation that resulted in Germany getting the bomb?

  7. John Morales says


    PS I feel I should add that I do enjoy reading about the Secret History of the World — no snark here.

    Just want to make that clear.

    Thanks, Marcus.

    (Also, I feel I should note that your speculative example is much better than those I had in mind;my forte is picking out flaws, not proposing ideas :| )

  8. chigau (違う) says

    [meta]John Morales

    PS I feel I should add that I my forte is picking out flaws, not proposing ideas.

    Well, shit.
    Now you tell me!

  9. John Morales says

    [OT — and counting on Marcus’ tolerance for digression]

    chigau, you know I know: you’ve had my measure since you faced me down, back in the day, elseblog.

  10. chigau (違う) says

    John Morales
    It’s all good.
    There must be a cornfield … somewhere.
    I hope you are well.

  11. says

    John Morales@#8:
    PS I feel I should add that I do enjoy reading about the Secret History of the World — no snark here.

    Thank you. I’m glad you enjoy it. It’s a lot of stuff I haven’t exactly enjoyed learning. As I mentioned above, I feel sometimes like I’ve fallen through the bottom of reality and come to consciousness in a completely different world that looks the same. Once I began to realize that there are so many many lies, I wondered if it was all conspiracy and then realized that there’s too much incompetence for that: it must be human stupidity and fear of truth, seldom conspiracy. You know, like a jittery CIC operator on the USS Maddox who thought they saw a torpedo fired directly at the ship, causing a cascade of events that killed a million people. That operator wasn’t being sneaky, they just wanted to not have to say “I was wrong” – those three little words. But causality is more complicated than that. There are some stories around that incident that I need to write, come to think of it. It would feel good to get them off my chest.

  12. says

    Oh, and John Morales and chigau:

    One of the reasons I wanted to do a blog on FtB networks was to air some of these things I’ve been carrying around with me. I’m not trying to offer a complete philosophical world-view (actually, I am more inclined to destroy them when I see people trying them, because they’re generally pretty shoddy!) But I’ve been on pharyngula since the scienceblogs days and I knew the FtB commentariat has some mighty fine bullshit detectors and I wanted to hold my thinking up and see what kind of alarm bells rang. While it’s never fun to have someone poke a big smoking hole through your ideas, as John Morales has done a couple times, it’s valuable, and I appreciate it and respect you all for keeping me honest.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    Smedley Butler (no known relation, though we share family roots in Pennsylvania) was a very interesting person: a nerves-of-steel fighting-Marine Quaker.

    Your reference list curiously omits Jules Archer’s 1973 The Plot to Seize the White House, the purported full text of which can be read here.

  14. inquisitiveraven says

    Butler was in the thick of it, along with John Lejeune were “founders of the modern Marine Corps” – i.e: the transition from the marines being soldiers attached to a naval vessel, into a political arm used to repress and overthrow governments worldwide.

    That brought to mind Tom Lehrer’s observations on the subject:

    “They’ve got to be protected,
    All their rights respected,
    ‘Til somebody we like can be elected.”

  15. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#16:
    He did win the CMH twice. I forget exactly what the incidents were but I seem to recall the consisted of heavily armed men seeing and finding a ruckus with ill-trained locals and slaughtering them. I don’t consider the CMH to be a distinction worth talking about (like the Nobel Prize for war)

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 18: I don’t consider the CMH to be a distinction worth talking about …

    Morally, no. Militarily, yes.

    Butler was apparently nominated for a 3rd, but then somebody realized that they couldn’t give him that without putting another star on his shoulder – and if they did that, then by some obscure Marine protocol they’d eventually have to make him Commandant of the Whole Damn Corps, and that Simply Would Not Do.

    So he resigned, and thus became eligible for the Philly Police job.

  17. John Morales says

    Pierce, Marcus already (in the OP even: “Butler seems to have been a remarkably self-actualized person. He did what he did and he didn’t appear to care very much about anything beyond doing it well.”) conceded he was good at whatever he did, but he refers to character and attitude as evidenced by his actions — if not quite historical vindication of his claims.

    (Or: the distinction you make is not relevant to Marcus’ case — that medal is for excellence at war*)

    * But not for character and attitude, except as they are necessary for such competence at war.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    John Morales @ # 21: … the distinction you make is not relevant to Marcus’ case — that medal is for excellence at war

    Marcus and you and I in this case seem to be talking at three-dimensional cross purposes. All I wanted to do was fill in a detail showing that Butler excelled as a Marine. How one interprets that, in light of the evidence that he also excelled as a citizen by exposing and opposing the Wall Street coup attempt* and the growth of US imperialism at the sacrifice of his public reputation, I leave to the reader.

    *Did everybody notice the name Bush in that roster of criminality? Yep, same rotten little dynasty…

  19. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#22:
    Yeah, I knew that’s what you were doing. It’s OK, I understand.

    It’s a matter of my personal preferences that I try not to talk about battle honors because I have not worked out how I feel about them, yet.