Smedley Darlington Butler was born in West Chester, PA on July 30, 1881. Over his Quaker parents’ objections, at the age of 16, he left home and enlisted as a Marine. He has commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1898, just 38 days short of his 17th birthday. Thus began a career that lasted 33 years and saw him become one of only two Marines ever to hold double awards from the Navy and the Medal of Honor.
His story is long and full of courage.
In 1929 he was (at age 48) the youngest Marine ever to have been promoted as a Major General. However, as a result of a remark made by him which was not flattering about the Italian dictator Mussolini and political maneuvering by civilians unused to Butler’s direct method of action, he failed to be selected for the position of Commandant Marine Corps. By October 1931 Butler had retired from the Corps. He ran for Congress as a Republican in 1932 (when Republicans were more pacifistic). He died at age 59 in Philadelphia in 1940.
Butler was passionate about the military and, after his retirement, became an author and lecturer on the subject. His book, War is a Racket, laid out what many saw as an isolationist plan for the United States military. He wanted to set physical boundaries for the military and limit its activity to at most 500 miles off the coasts. Butler also saw the great gap in wages among military personnel gravely unfair. He thought that the man in the trenches should be getting paid the same as the officers and officials in the armed forces. His public persona as an isolationist was enhanced by his involvement with the League Against War and Fascism and the Third U.S. Congress Against War and Fascism. Though not well liked among his colleagues in the government who agreed with the policies Butler spoke out against, he was well respected because of his unwavering convictions. The pacifist movement gained ground because of people like Smedley Butler and Gandhi.
In War is a Racket, Butler wrote, “In the World War [I] 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….How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle?…. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? …Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds…For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out.”
War is a Racket grew out of a series of speeches Butler gave to whatever group wanted to hear his views. Though he faced criticism, Butler was steadfast in his beliefs about war, U.S. imperialism, and a growing Pro-Fascist movement. He spoke frankly and honestly about his experiences and opinions, and was very popular with the American public.
In 1934, Butler went before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to expose a conspiracy against the American government. He had been recruited by a group of wealthy Pro-Fascists who had hoped to use him in a coup against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had been approached by Gerald C. MacGuire and Bob Doyle in 1933. MacGuire, a bond salesman, and Doyle were members of the American Legion, an organization meant to support veteran rights and opportunities. The conspirators included investment banker and future Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush (father of George H.W. Bush, who became President in 1988).
Astonished by MacGuire’s plans, Butler knew he would need someone to corroborate his story if he was going to stop the intended coup. Having previously worked as the police captain of Philadelphia, Butler reached out to Philadelphia Record writer Paul Comly French, who agreed to meet with MacGuire as well. During this meeting, MacGuire told French that he believed a fascist state was the only answer for America, and that Smedley was the “ideal leader” because he “could organize one million men overnight.”
Armed with French’s mutual testimony, Butler appeared before the McCormack-Dickstein congressional committee, also known as the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, to reveal what he knew about the plot to seize the presidency. The committee at first discounted a large part of Butler’s testimony (even writing in their initial report that they saw no reason to subpoena men like John W. Davis, a former presidential hopeful, or Thomas W. Lamont, a partner with J.P. Morgan & Company).
However, with the testimony of French, and the erratic testimony of MacGuire, the committee began to further investigate the plot. The final reports of the committee sang a different tune, finding that all of Butler’s claims could be corroborated as factual. However, they also stressed that the plot was far from being enacted, and it was not clear if the plans would have ever truly come to fruition. (The McCormack-Dickstein Committee “delet[ed] extensive excerpts relating to Wall Street financiers including Guaranty Trust director Grayson Murphy, J.P. Morgan, the Du Pont interests, Remington Arms, and others allegedly involved in the plot attempt. Even today, a full transcript of the hearings cannot be traced.” This was written in 1975.)
Quickly becoming known as the “White House Coup” and “Wall Street Putsch,” many major news sources derided Butler’s claims, as the committee’s final report was not made available publicly. Those implicated, ranging from the DuPont family to Prescott Bush, the grandfather of future President George W. Bush and father of future President George H.W. Bush, laughed off Butler’s claims. Evidence of the validity of Butler’s testimony was not released until the 21st century, when the committee’s papers were published in the Public Domain. No one was ever prosecuted in connection to the plot.
If you have never heard about the 1933 coup plan, it is worth reading about. If you feel dubious about the honesty of people in the American government and the wealthy class that control it, the 1933 coup attempt shows that plans to dismantle American democracy are not new. If you wonder about George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, then consider that Prescott Bush was involved in the plans that Smedley Butler disclosed to the Congress. Consider, too, that the Congress eradicated much of the proof against the Wall Street titans. Congress can be bought today as it was bought then.