In our issue of July 17, 2020, W.D. Ehrhart wrote about the the extraordinary early career of Smedley D. Butler.
by W.D. Ehrhart
Butler was not without his warts and blemishes. He loved the adrenalin rush of combat, the sheer challenge and excitement of it. As a young lieutenant, he complained in letters to his congressman father that the policies he was enforcing in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti were corrupt and immoral, benefitting only the white wealthy ruling class in America, yet he continued his career in the Corps for nearly three more decades. He began to speak out only after he’d gotten too old and too far up the hierarchy to be allowed to engage in actual combat.
But once he began to speak out, he would not be silenced. Even while still in the Corps, he publicly criticized Benito Mussolini, calling fascist Italy a “mad-dog nation,” and causing an international diplomatic scandal for which Herbert Hoover would have had him court-martialed but for the public outcry in support of Butler.
Later, in 1932, he vocally supported the Great War Bonus Marchers who had fought for their country as young men, but were now, at the height of the Great Depression, unable to support themselves or their families. They had come to Washington to ask that their wartime service bonus, due to be paid in 1945, be paid to them now when they desperately needed it. Visiting their encampment on Anacostia Flats, Butler spoke to the men and their families from the roof of a car, telling them that they had as much right to lobby Congress as any corporation did, and calling their gathering “the greatest display of Americanism in history.”
The next day, when Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, aided by Major George Patton and Major Dwight Eisenhower, ordered an attack against the men who MacArthur himself had commanded in France fifteen years earlier, forcibly driving them and their families out of their encampment with tanks, machine guns, tear gas, and cavalry, Butler was outraged. Already no fan of the arrogant and imperial MacArthur, Butler subsequently declared himself a “Hoover-for-Ex-President-Republican.”
Perhaps most amazing of all, Butler was approached by wealthy Republican financiers and industrialists interested in persuading Butler to lead what would have amounted to a coup d’etat against Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, using veterans from the conservative American Legion as a front for the interests of Big Business. It would have been the end of American democracy and the beginning of American fascism.
These men chose Butler because they knew that Butler commanded the loyalty and love of ordinary soldiers and veterans. He had put men before mission all his life, and the rank-and-file knew it, and revered him for it. But these rich un-American Americans utterly misunderstood who Butler was and what he believed in. Instead of joining the conspiracy, Butler informed Congress of the plot, putting an end to it.
Butler, by this time, had become deeply isolationist, insisting that “there are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes, and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.” We’ll never know how Butler would have responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor since Butler died in 1940. We do know that he didn’t think we should have military bases outside the continental U.S. in the first place, and that included Hawaii; but it’s hard to imagine Butler not responding angrily and without hesitation to what FDR called this “dastardly attack” on American lives.
It’s not hard to imagine how Butler would feel about the situation in our country today, however, some 80 years after his death. In a speech to the Philadelphia Contemporary Club in January 1931, Butler argued that “mad-dog nations” could not be trusted to honor disarmament agreements, so I doubt that he would be pleased by the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that has been honored by five former U.S. presidents. Nor would he likely be pleased by the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear arms treaty with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
It’s not hard to imagine that Butler would be outraged by a president who orders members of the U.S. military to forcibly deny American citizens their 1st Amendment constitutional right to exercise free speech and petition their government for redress of grievances so that he can have a photo opportunity while holding up a book with whose contents he is apparently unfamiliar.
It’s not hard to imagine how Butler would feel about a president who enriches himself and his family in violation of the Constitutional prohibition against emoluments while spending one out of every five days of his presidency on a golf course at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of $136,000,000 so far.
It’s not hard to imagine what Butler, who served in the 1930s as a spokesperson for the American League Against War and Fascism, would have to say about a man who insults and denigrates our democratic allies in NATO while cozying up to the likes of Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, and Kim Jong Un.
It’s not hard to imagine what Butler, who was hired by the mayor of Philadelphia to shut down the prohibition speakeasies, then fired by the same mayor for raiding the Bellevue Stratford Hotel and other hangouts of the rich and well-connected, would have to say about an attorney general who serves as the political lackey of the sitting president and actively thwarts the course of justice.
And it is not hard to imagine what two-time Medal of Honor winner and Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler would think of Cadet Donald Bone Spur, who avoided military service with a highly suspect medical deferment while stating that he “always felt that I was in the military” because he had once attended a military boarding school, adding later, “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart.”
As Thomas Paine once wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” I would only add, “and women’s, too.” We could use a true American hero or two right about now. Maybe each of us could try to be a bit more like Smedley Butler.
W. D. Ehrhart served in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1966-69, including service in Vietnam, achieving the rank of sergeant, and receiving the Purple Heart Medal, Navy Combat Action Ribbon, and a 1st Marine Division Commanding General’s Commendation. He is author of Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (McFarland, 1983) and Thank You for Your Service: Collected Poems (McFarland, 2019).