November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
As I write, the earnest image of Marine lieutenant colonel Oliver North has faded from our television screens, but a volume of his complete testimony in the Iran-contra hearings still tops the nonfiction paperback best-seller list, a video cassette of the highlights of his appearances has materialized on the shelf of my local rental store, two hundred thousand copies of an Oliver North coloring book have been shipped, and there is talk of an autobiography, even a mini-series.
Half a century ago another Marine was admired for many of the same qualities North seems to exemplify: plain speaking, aggression, impatience with channels. His name was Smedley Darlington Butler, and his politics became very different from North’s, but he, too, eventually found that the untrammeled zeal of the sort that lets Marines take a hill and bring back their dead under fire is often out of sync with civilian life.
Butler is the subject of a new biography by Hans Schmidt, Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History; it is a sturdy, scholarly study, nowhere near as lively or colorful as its subject but instructive nonetheless.
Born a Quaker in 1881, the son of a Pennsylvania congressman, Butler volunteered for Cuba at sixteen, faced his first hostile fire in the Philippines—where, before setting a thatched village on fire, his battalion paused to sing a chorus of “America”—was shot in the chest during the Boxer Rebellion, landed with the Marines in Honduras, Santo Domingo, Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, and France, and eventually was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor.
Thin and wire-tough, with a raptor’s nose and a glare so fierce his men called him “Old Gimlet Eye,” Butler led not one but three expeditions to Nicaragua between 1910 and 1912. His Marines helped overthrow the Liberal anti-American regime of José Santos Zelaya (which had dared execute two Yankee mercenaries caught fighting alongside rebels), intervened again to shore up Zelaya’s conservative successors, and helped establish the Guardia Nacional, the armed constabulary that much later pushed Anastasio Somoza into power. Butler was proud to call himself “the main ‘guy’ ” in these “Punic Wars.” Years after he had moved on, Nicaraguan mothers kept small children quiet by saying, “Hush, Major Butler will get you.”
He had little affection for the foreign civilians who came under his control. The poor Haitians whose destinies he directed after helping to seize their island were “savage monkeys” to him. “Those who wore shoes,” Butler said, “I considered a joke.” When he shared a room with Sudre Dartiguenave, the pliant politician he had personally picked to be Haiti’s president, Butler occupied the bed, and the head of the Haitian government slept on the floor.
Butler’s bravery was never questioned. In Haiti he led a Marine company against Fort Rivière, the final, hilltop redoubt of the cacos—“or bad niggers as we would call them at home,” who had chosen to resist. Butler, one private, and a sergeant named Ross L. lams together scrambled up the slope, bullets pecking into the ground around them, and reached the foot of the wall, to find that the only way in was a storm drain, through which the defenders kept up a steady fire. “I had never experienced a keener desire to be some place else,” Butler remembered. “My misery and an unconscious, helpless, pleading must have been written all over my face. Iams took one look at me and then said, ‘Oh, hell, I’m going through.’ ”
Sergeant lams shouldered his way into the drain with Butler and the private right behind him. The startled defenders somehow missed all three, and before they could reload, the Marines were among them. Fifty-one were shot dead: twenty-nine inside the fortress, the rest as they jumped from the parapet and tried to flee into the jungle. Total Marine injuries: two teeth knocked out by a hurled rock. No prisoners were taken; no Haitian survived.
“We were all imbued with the fact,” Butler wrote of the countries that he was ordered to “pacify,” “that we were trustees of a huge estate that belonged to minors.” And he was entirely realistic about how far the American public could be counted on to support imperial ventures: “As long as we occupy these countries [he was writing of Nicaragua] without great uproar and particularly without the loss of our own men, little attention is paid to our movements....We may even kill a lot of natives of such countries without much comment...but, as soon as our losses begin to grow there is a big ‘hubbub,’...and the Corps comes in for unfavorable criticism.”
Theodore Roosevelt thought him “the finest fighting man in the armed forces,” and when TR’s young cousin Franklin toured the island as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he eagerly agreed, recommending Butler for his second Congressional Medal of Honor.
As commandant of Quantico after World War I, Butler liked restaging Civil War battles to keep his men in the headlines: at Gettysburg in 1922, five thousand men replayed Pickett’s Charge while President Warren Harding and other dignitaries enjoyed the spectacle—and a full case of illegal bourbon—from the shade of a sixteen-room temporary mansion Butler had ordered built for them of wood and canvas.
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 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.