Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire by Jonathan M. Katz

Review by George Yatchisin

Forget about the butterfly effect, it seems the last 130 years of U.S. foreign involvement should be called the Butler Effect. By that I refer to the now mostly forgotten—despite his distinctive name—Smedley Butler, who upon his death in 1940 was the most decorated Marine in our country’s history. Those medals were awarded thanks to his work helping create a century of empire—his first action was in Cuba, and of all places at Guantánamo, during the Spanish-American War. From that point he ended up Zelig-like at the heart of every flashpoint of America’s global attentions—the Philippines, China for the Boxer Rebellion, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, France for World War I, and China again. (That leaves out his time as commanding general at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, and a brief run as Philadelphia Director of Public Safety, helping kickstart our still problematic militarization of police.)

Perhaps we don’t really know of Butler despite his exploits in our name because we like to sweep our national ugliness under the rug of history. As just one example, remember in 1980 Ronald Reagan partially ran for president against Carter for “giving away” the Panama Canal Zone that he claimed was a “sovereign United States territory just the same as Alaska.” Reagan and all those who voted for him could have profited from reading Jonathan Katz’s eye-opening Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. The book is a vivid history lesson, a corrective to national amnesia, and a somber warning that we can never feel secure our democracy is, let alone will remain, truly democratic.

It helps that Butler is an engrossing center for any book. Despite being nicknamed “the Fighting Quaker”—he came from a Main Line, Pennsylvania family—and despite harrowing tales of slaughter of civilians in Vera Cruz, Mexico and of Cacos revolutionaries in Haiti, Butler eventually had a huge change of heart. (Of course, despite might be widely inappropriate word choice here.) In the last years of his life he took to the lecture circuit, publishing a pamphlet titled War Is a Racket, and in the socialist magazine Common Sense, alongside pieces by Upton Sinclair and John Dos Passos, wrote (as Katz quotes):

I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force—the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from a second lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period I spent most of time being ahigh-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.

Katz, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere, vividly captures this arc. Butler began as a recruit so eager he lied about his age to get into the Spanish-American War only to become, as Katz put it, “an imperfect [person] trying to speak truth to power from within, or just after, leaving the U.S. military.” Fortunately for the biography, Butler was a prolific letter writer, and since he achieved fame early in his military exploits, people kept all his correspondence. The book is replete with Butler’s casual, paternalistic racism—as opposed to so many of his military colleagues from the south who informed their global imperialism with a virulent racism tied to their beliefs in slavery—but also offers his sense that trying to get to know the “natives” was a better way to help control them. In many ways he was one of the originators for cointelpro, decades before the U.S. decided to spy on its own citizens, particularly if they were African American.

Beyond painstakingly capturing Butler’s exploits and their contexts—the book is a crash course in the Roosevelts (FDR and Butler had quite a history), Woodrow Wilson, and the even-then revolving door of financiers who would become ambassadors or advisors to power—Katz continually strums the historical strings that connect what we had done worldwide to today’s geopolitics. As part of the books structure, he wisely opted to visit all the places Butler’s military work took him, too, and the scars are vivid if not often still bleeding wounds.

Take the end of the Canal Zone chapter, when he brings up the Panama Papers release, and how “some of the illicit funds were converted into real estate, in the form of the white-hued glass-and-steel towers shimmering before us.” Turns out the tallest of those skyscrapers, with a history as a site of cocaine smuggling and human trafficking, had once been home to a Brazilian money launderer with ties to the Russian mob. Well, that building is now Trump Tower Panama.

The book’s final chapters with Butler back in the States are perhaps the most shocking, as they concern the 1932 Bonus Army and the 1934 Business Plot. Perhaps I’m flattering myself as being well-read in the history of the U.S. that no doubt someone like Texas governor Greg Abbott would refuse to have taught in his state, but I have to admit my knowledge of both events is sadly scant.

Both events reflect badly on the U.S.—the Bonus Army was a clear sign we don’t value our military after making them perform honorable/horrific deeds, the Business Plot was proof the rich are perfectly happy with a fascistic government if it means they keep raking in the dough. To Butler’s credit, he supported the veterans protesting for their due during the darkest days of the Depression, even inspirationally speaking to them mere days before Gen. Douglas MacArthur—yep, him—with help from Gen. George Patton—yep—drove out the bonus camps by force.

As for the Business Plot, that is still somewhat shrouded in mystery—one of my few issues with Katz is that he could have given this attempted coup more play. According to Butler, as he was asked to help lead the military part of the revolt, businessmen led by the J.P. Morgan banking firm planned to remove FDR from the White House. A House of Representatives committee—does this sound familiar at all?—looked into the story, but eventually the investigation was dropped. How close we came to a U.S. putsch isn’t completely clear, but that Smedley Butler wanted no part of this treachery was.

Katz first came to Smedley Butler’s story as he lived in Haiti for years, receiving the James Foley/Medill Meal for Courage in Journalism for his reporting from that unfortunate country. At one point in this book Katz writes, “One of the most painful ironies of the U.S. occupation was that while the Americans were crushing Vodou in Haiti, they were repackaging it as entertainment back home.” He goes on to examine the history of the zombie as a cultural token, only to powerfully conclude: “Zombie literature, as it has evolved over the decades, is replete with examples of ‘intelligent zombies’—the undead still capable of creativity and individuality, even as they unquestioningly obey their drive to kill and consume. Maybe [sci-fi writer Richard] Matheson has it right: It was contagious. In stealing the zombie from Haiti, we became the zombies ourselves.”