Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Fighting Quaker

In 1935, a popular book began:
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?
The author was Smedley Butler, the most highly decorated man in America, who had retired after 33 years in the service as the highest ranking Marine. He received the Medal of Honor twice and the Marine Corps Brevet Medal all for separate actions in the nine wars he fought from 1898 to 1931.

But I caution readers. Major General Butler also told of a Business Plot in 1933 to assassinate FDR and place Butler as a fascist president. Butler had been a strong supporter of FDR and a strong critic of capitalism, raising questions about why businesses would want him as president. Besides, he had publicly been reprimanded in 1931 for telling an unflattering story about Mussolini. After a congressional investigation, the New York Times dismissed Butler's Business Plot as a "gigantic hoax."

Born into a pacifist and politically connected family on July 30, 1881, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Butler quit the prestigious Haverford School enlist in the Marine Corps during the Spanish–American War. He also lied about his age to receive a commission as a second lieutenant. Nevertheless, the school issued him a diploma at graduation time saying he had earned enough credits to qualify.

He arrived in Cuba after its capture by American forces. After a few months as part of the occupation force, the Marines shipped him to the other side of the world, where he saw action in the Philippine-American War. In his first battle, he led 300 Marines in October 1899. He lost one man, saw 10 others wounded, and had 50 men incapacitated by the heat. Filipino rebels they could take, but not the weather. In the aftermath, he had a large Eagle, Globe, and Anchor tattoo made, which started at his throat and extended to his navel.

The next year, the Marines dispatched him to China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion, distinguishing himself in the Battle of Tientsin on July 13, 1900. His commanding officer recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but at the time, commissioned officers were ineligible for the award. When the Marine Brevet Medal was created in 1921, he received one for his heroics 20 years earlier.

However, he suffered a nervous breakdown while in the Philippines in 1909 and left the Marines to manage a coal mine in West Virginia.

But he returned to active duty shortly thereafter. He began to sour on war during the Banana Wars, when the United States sent its military to protect U.S. commercial interests in Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Haiti. Nevertheless, he fought bravely, receiving Medals of Honor for his heroics in Mexico and Haiti, the military having lifted its ban on commissioned officers receiving the award.

World War I found him without a combat command. Despite his bravery and intelligence, his commanders considered him unreliable. But the Marines made him a brigadier general and shipped him to France to take over the hellhole that was the debarkation point for the U.S. military in Brest. Secretary of War Newton Baker was well aware of the situation. Using duckboards from a wharf to give soldiers something to stand on beside the mud inside the tents, Butler turned the situation around. The Marine received the Army Distinguished Service Medal from General Pershing. It read: "Brigadier General Butler commanded with ability and energy Pontanezen Camp at Brest during the time in which it has developed into the largest embarkation camp in the world. Confronted with problems of extraordinary magnitude in supervising the reception, entertainment and departure of the large numbers of officers and soldiers passing through this camp, he has solved all with conspicuous success, performing services of the highest character for the American Expeditionary Forces."

He also received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal and he likely would have received the Air Force one too if we had one. (OK, there were some aeroplanes chasing the Red Baron by then.)

In 1924, President Coolidge granted General Butler a leave of absence so he could take over as public safety director of Philadelphia. He put the police in Marine-style uniforms, established military checkpoints, and caused a lot of controversy. In 1925, Philadelphia Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick fired him, telling the press: "I had the guts to bring General Butler to Philadelphia and I have the guts to fire him." Butler later said, "cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I was ever in."

Returning to the Marines, he thought he should get the promotion to commandant when Major General Wendell C. Neville died July 8, 1930. But again the unreliability factor and his time in Philadelphia hurt him. When he spoke unkindly of Mussolini, then an ally, he lost any chance he had for the position, and retired on October 1, 1931. No man had more medals than he did when he retired.

He ran for the Senate in 1932 as a Republican and lost. He spoke of the Business Plot and lost. But in his book, he pointed out the limitations of war. World War I was supposed to be the war that ended all war and made the world safe for democracy. He wrote:
Well, eighteen years after, the world has less of democracy than it had then. Besides, what business is it of ours whether Russia or Germany or England or France or Italy or Austria live under democracies or monarchies? Whether they are Fascists or Communists? Our problem is to preserve our own democracy.
And very little, if anything, has been accomplished to assure us that the World War was really the war to end all wars.
Yes, we have had disarmament conferences and limitations of arms conferences. They don't mean a thing. One has just failed; the results of another have been nullified. We send our professional soldiers and our sailors and our politicians and our diplomats to these conferences. And what happens?
The professional soldiers and sailors don't want to disarm. No admiral wants to be without a ship. No general wants to be without a command. Both mean men without jobs. They are not for disarmament. They cannot be for limitations of arms. And at all these conferences, lurking in the background but all-powerful, just the same, are the sinister agents of those who profit by war. They see to it that these conferences do not disarm or seriously limit armaments.
The chief aim of any power at any of these conferences has not been to achieve disarmament to prevent war but rather to get more armament for itself and less for any potential foe.
There is only one way to disarm with any semblance of practicability. That is for all nations to get together and scrap every ship, every gun, every rifle, every tank, every war plane. Even this, if it were possible, would not be enough.
The next war, according to experts, will be fought not with battleships, not by artillery, not with rifles and not with machine guns. It will be fought with deadly chemicals and gases.
Secretly each nation is studying and perfecting newer and ghastlier means of annihilating its foes wholesale. Yes, ships will continue to be built, for the shipbuilders must make their profits. And guns still will be manufactured and powder and rifles will be made, for the munitions makers must make their huge profits. And the soldiers, of course, must wear uniforms, for the manufacturer must make their war profits too.
But victory or defeat will be determined by the skill and ingenuity of our scientists.
He was prescient about the way World War II would be won but not about its aftermath. Europe and Japan became democratic, and after a long Cold War, the Soviet empire died.

A brilliant man and Marine, General Butler served the nation well in war, but not so much in peace. But how many men serve well in even one of the two?

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. "No man had more medals than he did when he retired."
    Do you have a listing of his decorations?

    1. Medal of Honor (twice), Marine Corps Brevet Medal, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Army Distinguished Service Medal, Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal with 3 service stars, Spanish Campaign Medal, China Relief Expedition Medal, Philippine Campaign Medal, Nicaraguan Campaign Medal, Haitian Campaign Medal, Dominican Campaign Medal, Mexican Service Medal, World War I Victory Medal with Maltese cross, Yangtze Service Medal, National Order of Honour and Merit (Haiti), and Order of the Black Star.

    2. Someone else may have earned more awards, but he was the highest decorated at the time of he retired.

  2. Great warrior, but a political & economic idiot. Proof that excellence in one field does not spill over into others.

    Definitely a "break glass in case of war" fellow.

  3. Some of what he said reminded me of Ike.