In 1934 a shadowy figure approached a highly decorated retired Marine Corps Major General with a startling proposal. The officer was offered the opportunity to lead a force of thousands of Veterans largely recruited from the ranks of the American Legion on a march on Washington intended to depose President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the “Man on the White Horse” the General would be installed as a figurehead dictator taking orders from a cabal of wealthy bankers and industrialists. The plan was frankly modeled on Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascists and Adolph Hitler’s use of disgruntled veterans as shock troops for a coup d’etat. Boy, did they pick the wrong guy!
Smedley Darlington Butler was born July 30, 1881, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His parents were descended from local Quaker families. His father Thomas was a lawyer, a judge and was later served for 31 years as a Congressman who became Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee during the Harding and Coolidge administrations.
His son attended a local Friends school and then the prestigious prep school Haverford School where he was an outstanding athlete and scholar. Against his father’s wished the boy dropped out in his senior year to enlist in the Marine Corps for the Spanish American War. The school later awarded him diploma anyway.Smedley Butler as a Marine Second Lieutenant in 1898.
Butler lied about his age to receive a direct commission as a Marine second lieutenant. In the short war he served briefly a Guantánamo Bay after its capture by American forces and then spent four months as a Fleet Marine on the armored cruiser USS New York. He mustered out of the service in February 1899 but re-enlisted in April with a promotion to first lieutenant.
That was just in time to be sent to Manila for the Philippine Rebellion. In October 1899, he saw his first combat action when he led 300 Marines to take the town of Noveleta from Filipino troops of the newly declared Philippine Republic. After this victory he showed his devotion to the Corps by getting a very large Eagle, Globe & Anchor tattoo that started at his throat and extended to his waist.
In 1900 as an officer in a company slated to be posted to Guam he instead was sent to China aboard the USS Solace to help put down the Boxer Rebellion. He took part in the Battle of Tientsin on July 13, 1900, and in the subsequent Gaselee Expedition, during which he saw the mutilated remains of Japanese soldiers. When he saw another Marine officer fall wounded, he climbed out of a trench to rescue him and was shot in the thigh. Despite his leg wound, Butler assisted the wounded officer to the rear. Although he was ineligible for the Medal of Honor which was then reserved for enlisted personnel only he was cited for bravery by his commanding officer and received a brevet commission as Captain.
Butler spent much of his subsequent career which saw a steady advancement in rank in the so-called Banana Wars of Central America and the Caribbean. In 1903 he served in Honduras supposedly to defend the U.S. Consulate but in fact to defend the government held by large landowners and allies of American fruit companies against Bonillista rebels. Despite writing home that he was leading an expedition by boat to “to land and shoot everybody and everything that was breaking the peace,” he found that the mere presence of his troops caused the rebels to melt away only to return and take control of the town of Trujillo when he withdrew.
After returning home and marrying Butler was assigned garrison duty in the Philippines in 1908. He always chaffed at the boredom of such assignments and was stressed by his separation from his family. Despite a brief adventure of bringing supplies and rations to an isolated outpost in danger of starvation during a typhoon, he suffered a nervous breakdown and he received nine months sick leave, which he spent at home but returned to active duty at the first opportunity.
From 1909 to 1912 Butler served in Nicaragua enforcing U.S. policy. With a 104-degree fever he led his battalion to the relief of a rebel-besieged city, Granada. In December 1909 he commanded the 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment on the Isthmus of Panama. On August 11, 1912, he was temporarily detached to command an expeditionary battalion for the Battle of Masaya on September 19, 1912, and the bombardment, assault and capture of Coyotepe Hill, Nicaragua, in October 1912.
Butler and his family were living in Panama in January 1914 when he was ordered to report as an officer of a battleship squadron massing off the coast of Mexico, near Veracruz, to monitor a revolutionary movement. He was sent on in mufti on a spy mission to Mexico City under the identity of a Mr. Johnson, a minor official of the Inter-Oceanic Railway. He searched for weapons caches of Mexican Army, determined the size of units and states of readiness, updated maps and verified the railroad lines for use in a planned US invasion. The invasion was scrapped by the Tampico Affair when a detachment of sailors ashore to buy gasoline was captured by forces of Gen. Victoriano Huerta.Butler (far right) with other Marines in Veracruz, Mexico, 1914. Left to right: Sgt. Maj. John H. Quick, Maj. Gen Wendell Cushing Neville, Lt. Geberak John Archer Lejune,. and a very nonchalant Major Butler.
When President Woodrow Wilson discovered that an arms shipment was about to arrive in Mexico, he sent a contingent of Marines and sailors to Veracruz to intercept it on April 21, 1914. For his actions on April 22, Butler was awarded his first Medal of Honor
After the occupation of Veracruz, an unusually high number of the Medals were awarded—one member of the Army, nine Marines and 46 naval personnel. Many felt that large number of awards diminished its prestige. During World War I Butler attempted to return his medal, explaining he had done nothing to deserve it. The medal was returned to him with orders to wear it as well.
In 1915 Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was killed by a mob. In response, the USS Connecticut was dispatched to Haiti with Butler in command of the Marines contingent on board. On October 24, 1915, an estimated 400 Cacos—peasant rebels—ambushed Butler’s patrol of 44 mounted Marines when they approached Fort Dipitie. Surrounded by Cacos, the Marines maintained their perimeter throughout the night. The next morning they charged the larger enemy force by breaking out in three directions. In early November Butler and a force of 700 Marines and sailors returned to the mountains to clear the area. At their temporary headquarters base at Le Trou they fought off an attack by about 100 Cacos. After the Americans took several other forts and ramparts during the following days, only Fort Rivière, an old French-built stronghold atop Montagne Noire, was left.
For an assault operation Butler was given three companies of Marines and some sailors from the USS Connecticut, about 100 men. They encircled the fort and gradually closed in on it. Butler reached the fort from the southern side and found a small opening in the wall. The Marines entered through the opening and engaged the Cacos in hand-to-hand combat. Butler and the Marines took the rebel stronghold on November 17, an action for which he received his second Medal of Honor, as well as the Haitian Medal of Honor. Once the Medal was approved and presented in 1917, Butler achieved the distinction of being only one of two Marines to receive the Medal of Honor twice for separate actions.A Marine officer inspects Butler's Gendarmerie d'Haiti which ran roughshod over the people for more than 14 years in the service of U.S, interests and a compliant dictator, notorious for both brutality and corruption.
He was detailed to establish and command the new collaborationist unit, the Gendarmerie d’Haïti, paramilitary police force that continued to shore up the U.S. supported Hattian dictatorship through 1926.
Much to his disappointment Butler was not assigned to a combat command on the Western Front in World War I despite repeated appeals and the endorsement of many if not most of the officers he had served with. But he already had made enemies of some of his Marine superiors for his outspoken views and supposed “unreliability” i.e., a habit of challenging what he felt were wrong-headed orders. Instead he was promoted to brigadier general and posted to command Camp Pontanezen at Brest, France, a debarkation depot that funneled troops of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). the battlefields. He found sanitary and living conditions in the camp were abominable. Tents were pitched on oozing mud and sanitation was neglected. He raided the wharf at Brest for duckboards no longer needed for the trenches and “carted the first one himself up that four-mile hill to the camp, and thus provided something in the way of protection for the men to sleep on.” Gen. John J. Pershing authorized a duckboard shoulder patch for the units. For his exemplary service he was awarded both the Army Distinguished and Navy Service Distinguished Service Medals and the French Order of the Black Star. He also won the undying affection of the thousands of Doughboys and Lethernecks that passed through the camp.
Following the war, he became commanding general of the Marine barracks at Quantico, Virginia transforming the wartime training camp into a permanent post and the showcase of the Corps.
In 1924 Butler received a unique new post. At the request of newly elected Philadelphia Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick for the loan of a general officer to take command of the notoriously corrupt city police department, President Calvin Coolidge selected Butler at the urging of his powerful Congressman father. Coolidge authorized Butler to take the necessary leave from the Corps to serve as Philadelphia’s Director of Public Safety in charge Police and Fire Departments from January 1924 until December 1925. He began his new job by assembling all 4,000 of the city police into the Metropolitan Opera House in shifts to introduce himself and inform them that things would change while he was in charge. Since he had not been given authority to fire corrupt police officers, he switched entire units from one part of the city to another to undermine local protection rackets and profiteering. A reformed drinker turned ardent Prohibitionist Butler organized raids on more than 900 speakeasies, ordering them padlocked and, in many cases, destroyed. More zealous than he was political, he ordered crackdowns on the social elite’s favorite hangouts, such as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and the Union League Club, as well as working class watering holes. In addition to raiding the speakeasies, he also attempted to eliminate other illegal activities including bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling.Butler as Philadelphia Public Safety Commissioner and Mayor W. Freedland Kendrick. After a fast start their relationship soured when Butler went after the haunts of the rich and powerful as well as the speakeasies and dives of the city's working class.
He established policies and guidelines of administration and developed a new police uniform that resembled that of the Marine Corps. Other changes included military-style checkpoints, bandit-chasing squads armed with sawed-off shotguns and armored police cars. The press praised the significant reduction in crime but also reflected the public’s growing negative opinion of their authoritarian Public Safety Director. Many felt that he was being too aggressive in his tactics and resented the reductions in their civil rights, such as the stopping of citizens at the city checkpoints. Butler also frequently swore in his radio addresses.
The Mayor was preparing to allow Buttler’s appointment lapse at the end of the year and the officer himself was requesting new duty with the Corps. But when the public became aware of the imminent departure 4,000 supporters assembled at the Academy of Music and negotiated a truce between him and the mayor to keep him in Philadelphia for a while longer, and the President authorized a one-year extension.
Butler devoted much of his second year to executing arrest warrants, cracking down on crooked police and enforcing prohibition. On January 1, 1926, his leave from the Marine Corps ended and the President declined a request for a second extension. Butler received orders to report to San Diego and prepared his family and his belongings for the new assignment. In light of his pending departure, he began to defy the mayor and other key city officials. On the eve of his departure, he wrote an article in the press stating his intention to stay and “finish the job”. The mayor demanded his immediate resignation. After almost two years in office, Butler resigned under pressure. He later wrote that “cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I was ever in.”Brigadier General Butler arrives to inspect the Marine Barracks at Shanghai, China, 1927.
Butler was posted to a command at the important San Diego Marine base in 1927 and moved his family there. Barely a year later he was sent to an old stomping ground as commander of a Marine Expeditionary Force—the China Marines—in Tientsin, China during the chaotic period of War Lord conflicts in Sun Yat Sen’s unstable republic which threatened American interests and the lives of merchants, missionaries, and diplomats. In fact, Butler avoided direct intervention and conflict when he could and developed relationships with various hostile faction leaders who were eager to avoid a repeat of an international intervention like that of the Boxer Rebellion. He served with distinction for two years and returned home to be made the youngest major general in the Corps at age 48.
But the death of his Congressman father shortly before hand removed an important protection from senior officers who mistrusted him. With not much to do at home he became alarmed at the rise of fascism in Italy and bluntly repeated rumors that Benito Mussolini allegedly struck and killed a child with his speeding automobile in a hit-and-run accident. The Italian government protested and President Herbert Hoover, who strongly disliked Butler, forced Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams III to court martial him. Butler became the first general officer to be placed under arrest since the Civil War. He apologized to Secretary Adams and the court-martial was canceled with only a reprimand.
That should have been a signal that his chances of further advancement or an important command were over. But as senior General in the Corps, with his long combat record, and the endorsement of many of his peers in the officer corps, Butler hoped to be appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps when Maj. Gen. Wendell C. Neville died July 8, 1930. In the end the position went to Maj. Gen. Bee Fuller, who had more years of commissioned service than Butler and was considered less controversial. Disappointed and bitter Butler requested retirement and left active duty on October 1, 1931.Butler on the stump in the Depression. He donated speaking fees to feed the homeless in Philadelphia.
Butler took up a busy schedule of public lectures and appearances at conferences often expressing unorthodox opinions and sprinkling his addresses with colorful tales and salty language. He became critical of the interventionist foreign policy that had so often sent him into combat in weak nations, warned of the rise of Fascism, and joined in the growing call for an early payment of a promised Bonus to World War I vets. He donated much of his speaking income to hunger relief in Depression wracked Philadelphia.
Butler announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary in Pennsylvania in March 1932 as an ally of progressive Republican Governor Gifford Pinchot and a Dry proponent of Prohibition. He was a vocal critic of his nemesis Herbert Hoover for his inaction in meeting the rising crisis of the Great Depression. He was defeated in the April primary election with only 37.5% of the vote to incumbent Sen. James J. Davis’ 60%.Butler gave a typically fiery speech to the Bonus Army camp on July 19,1933.
After the Senate campaign Butler and his wife and son visited the Bonus Marcher camp just outside Washington on July 19, 1932. They stayed overnight in the camp and he told them that they were fine soldiers and they had a right to lobby Congress just as much as any corporation. He warned them of any violence that might endanger wide-spread sympathy but essentially endorsed the March. Less than a week later on July 28 troops under the command of Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur and cavalryman Colonel George Patton attacked the marchers on the streets of Washington with tanks, mounted troops, and tear gas. Then they raided the encampment on the Anacostia flats. Several veterans and some of their wives and children were killed, and many badly injured. In response Butler declared himself a “Hoover-for-Ex-President-Republican.”
After the November election Butler set off on another speaking tour with James E. Van Zandt to recruit members for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). He described their effort as ‘trying to educate the soldiers out of the sucker class.” In his speeches he denounced the Economy Act of 1933, called on veterans to organize politically to win their benefits, and condemned the Roosevelt administration for its ties to big business. In his speech You Got to Get Mad which was printed in the VFW magazine Foreign Service. He said, “I believe in...taking Wall St. by the throat and shaking it up.” He believed the rival veteran group the American Legion was controlled by banking interests. On December 8, 1933, he said: “I have never known one leader of the American Legion who had never sold them out—and I mean it.”
So, Butler was an astonishing choice to be asked to front a Fascist Coup most of whose boots-on-the-ground would be recruited from the Legion. MacArthur, the storied commander of the Rainbow Division in World War I, was better known and perhaps more amenable to the allure of authoritarianism. It’s not known if he was ever approached, but if so turned down the opportunity but declined to report the attempt. Or perhaps the capitalist cabal behind the plot thought that the attack on the Bonus Marchers had made him too unpopular among veterans to gain wide-spread support.The image of a military hero on a white horse who claims power dates back to Medieval times in both Western and Islamic culture but was epitomized by this famous painting of David of Napoleon.
Perhaps they cynically believed that Butler would seize the opportunity for glory or that his personal grievances at having his career cut short by the government would make him ready for revenge. They certainly hoped his popularity with many veterans would attract more support to the putsch and cloud the identity of the super-rich backers. They badly miscalculated. Not only did Butler turn down the offer, but he also went to Congress to expose what became known as the Business Plot.
In November 1934 Butler told a special House Committee headed by Representatives John W. McCormack of Massachusetts and Samuel Dickstein of New York that Gerald P. MacGuire, a bond salesman with Grayson M–P Murphy & Co told him that a group of businessmen, backed a private army of 500,000 ex-soldiers and mercenaries, and he had been asked to lead it. The nation’s most powerful bank J.P Morgan & Co was said to be a major backer. Those implicated publicly dismissed the allegations as fantasy and that was echoed by much of the press which could either not believe such a tale or were controlled by interests connected to the plot.
In its report to the House, the committee stated that, while:
“…no evidence was presented... to show a connection... with any fascist activity of any European country... [t]here was no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution...” and that “your committee was able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler, with the exception of the direct statement about the creation of the organization. This, however, was corroborated in the correspondence of MacGuire with his principal, Robert Sterling Clark...”
Subsequently the Committee received further confirmation of Butler’s testimony and in their final report stated:
In the last few weeks of the committee’s official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country... There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.
Even the once skeptical New York Times was finally convinced. But despite everything no official action or prosecution was ever undertaken, undoubtedly due to the power of the plotters and the targeted Roosevelt administration’s desire to let sleeping dogs lie as it pressed on with the progressive programs of the New Deal.
As for Butler, he wasn’t yet finished. He was a from 1935 to 1937 a spokesman for the American League Against War and Fascism. In 1935, he wrote his famous exposé War Is a Racket, a condemnation of the profit motive behind warfare. His views on the subject were summarized in the November 1935 issue of the socialist magazine Common Sense:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and 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 benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
Butler supported Socialist Party Presidential candidate Norman Thomas in the 1936 election and continued to speak out as Fascism and Nazism rose in Europe.
On June 21, 1940, Butler died at Naval Hospital, Philadelphia of gastro-intestinal cancer at the age of just 58. Toward the end of his life he harbored the unlikely hope that he might be recalled to active service if and when the USA entered the World War against Fascism.
Obviously the plot that Butler explored did not ever get put into action. But similar shadowy business interests, especially billionaire Ayn Rand followers—think the Koch Brothers and others—have been quietly funding the rise of the militant ultra-right for years—overtly letting their Super Pacs back Donald Trump and compliant Republicans in state legislatures, governors’ mansions, and Congress. But there is mounting suspicion and some evidence that their money has also poured into astro-turf organizations, White supremacist organizations, and perhaps even armed militias. Recent discoveries that key leaders received payments in Bit Coins shortly before the Siege of the Capitol in Washington last year lends credence to the suspicion.
It is likely that the cabalist tendencies exposed by Butler never really went away. They helped fan the flames of the Post-World War II Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism and were behind the paranoid conspiracy theories peddled by the John Birch Society in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
There is certainly no reason to believe that they will melt away just because their first clumsy coup attempt failed. They will be around, and dangerous for a long time to come.