- Historic Sites
Ollie And Old Gimlet Eye
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
But peacetime duty bored him. It was “more stupid than a Quaker meeting,” he said; he quarreled noisily with “swivel-chair admirals” and the overeducated products of the academies who seemed to him to win more favorable treatment than scarred-up veterans like himself. In 1924 he took an extended leave to become director of public safety in Philadelphia, pledging to uphold prohibition and end street crime. He offered a promotion to the first officer who killed a robber, closed up 973 speakeasies in his first forty-eight hours on the job, and designed for himself a splendid militarystyle uniform with a blue cape lined with crimson. Fighting crime, he said, was “just like war.” Major crimes fell 40 percent during his two-year tenure; robberies at gunpoint fell 70 percent. Once, according to The New York Times, he spotted a notorious gunman on the street and shouted for him to stop: ” They tell me you’re a bad actor. Well, see this?’ his hand pointed to a service stripe he wears. ‘I got this for killing your kind. Now get out of this town quick. Hear? Get out, and don’t come back, or I’ll get you myself.’ ”
Eventually the mayor and his aides got nervous about what they had unleashed upon their city, and when Butler tried to padlock the posh Ritz-Carlton—after raiding a debutante party and excoriating the wealthy, tuxedoed young men his officers found there for “feeding young girls wine and punch....Jazzing them up a bit, they call it”—Butler was forced to resign. Finally, Philadelphians hadn’t wanted their police militarized.
He returned to the Marines, but in 1931, passed over for commandant and angry for having taken part in what he had now come to see as a series of cynical overseas adventures, he left the Corps for good. “I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service,” he would write. “And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism....Like all members of the military profession I never had an original thought until I left the service.”
Once out of uniform, Butler wrote a best-selling book called War Is a Racket and gave twelve hundred speeches.
Once out of uniform, Butler more than made up for lost time, proving as implacable in urging peace as he had been in waging war. He was a lifelong warrior, the author explains, “always the patriot and battling marine”; it was just that his targets had changed. Now he attacked the brass in magazines, wrote a best-selling book, War Is a Racket, the last words of which were TO HELL WITH WAR! and stumped the country—twelve hundred speeches in seven hundred towns and cities, by his own count, before he was halfway through—inveighing against crime, big business, and the bosses. Lowell Thomas, his official biographer, called him “a stick of human dynamite...[a] Major General who would as leave spit in your eye as look at you.” When he spoke over the radio, he got excited and could not stop himself from swearing like a Marine.
His fellow officers no longer knew what to make of him, but he was a great favorite of the Bonus Marchers: “You hear folks call you fellows tramps,” he told them, “but they didn’t call you that in '17 and ’18....You have as much right to lobby here as the United States Steel Corporation.”
In 1934, he alleged, a gaggle of Wall Street financiers had come to him with a plot to lead a march of five hundred thousand Fascists on Washington and put himself in power; if Butler refused the honor, they planned to turn to the Army Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur, or so Butler charged. “If you get the five hundred thousand soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism,” he said he told the conspirators, “I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have a real war right at home.” (A congressional investigation confirmed most, if not all, of Butler’s bizarre story.)
But if Fascism appalled him, Huey Long-style Populism did not. In his posthumously published My First Days in the White House, the Kingfish promised to name Butler his Secretary of War. When Long was assassinated, Butler said privately, “I lost most of my interest in the present political picture.”
But Butler remained fervid about anti-interventionism, drawing big crowds at first, and allying himself without embarrassment with isolationists as different from one another as Earl Browder and Hamilton Fish. Roger Baldwin thought him the “most colorfully outspoken opponent of war, armies, fascism and reaction I’d ever met.”
As war spread across Europe and Asia, Butler’s following fell away, his shrill oldsoldier’s warnings sounded increasingly hollow and irrelevant. He collapsed while campaigning against his one-time admirer, FDR, and died at fifty-nine on June 21, 1940—one day before the French were forced to surrender to Hitler at Compiègne.
In the end, the sheer complexity of things caught up with him, just as it apparently has with Colonel North.