Friday, February 1, 2013

"War is a Racket" by Smedley Butler

The other day I picked up a copy of Steinbeck's "Cannery Row" and gave it a read. I kind of feel like my cultural literacy is lacking somewhat because I haven't read all the greats of American literature, especially Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Twain. Often I feel the same way about the classics of military history. You know, there are books out there that have been talked about for decades, but I never got around to reading them. Like Robert Leckie's "Helmet for my Pillow" or Cornelius Ryan's "The Longest Day." (No, just watching the movie doesn't count.) So I decided to start working some of these books into my reading pile. It's really pretty easy to acquire a large selection, between the library, Amazon, and used book sales. The other day I found a copy of Pappy Boyington's "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" at my library's used book sale and picked it up for only fifty cents! But before I could even begin reading it, something (I don't remember what now) reminded me of this quote:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.” 
- Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC 
Smedley D. Butler
I first heard that quote in a Military History class at Cal State Fresno (a requirement for the ROTC program) in 1983. The professor read that quote to the class and he immediately had my attention. Thirty years later it popped in my mind again and I had to go to the library and check out General Butler's book and read it... again. That's a classic: a book that speaks to you so loudly you are compelled to read it again decades later.

Smedley Darlington Butler served in the United States Marine Corps for 34 years. He was awarded the Marine Corps Brevet Medal (one of only twenty to receive it) and two Medals of Honor. At the time of his death, he was the most highly decorated Marine in U.S. history. He served and fought in the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion in China, the "Banana Wars" in Central America and the Caribbean that included service in Haiti and Nicaragua. He was part of the occupation of Veracruz, Mexico in 1914, and served in France during WWI. In the later part of the 1920s, Butler commanded the Marine Expeditionary Force in China. I suppose that you can draw the conclusion that Smedley Butler knew about war.

Butler was an outspoken man. Because of his progressive views about big business capitalism, defense, and military spending in the early days of the Great Depression, he ran afoul of the Hoover administration. Butler was threatened with court martial for public statements criticizing the new fascist dictator in Italy, Benito Mussolini (in the early 1930s some folks in this country admired fascism as an effective methodology for dealing with the worldwide economic depression). Although he was obviously the best choice for Commandant of the Marine Corps, he was passed over for the job. Major General Butler quietly retired from the Marine Corps in 1931.

After his military service, Smedley Butler became an outspoken isolationist during the 1930s. He gained notoriety after being called to testify before a Congressional Committee investigating charges that there had been a fascist plot to overthrow President Roosevelt. Butler claimed that a group of businessmen had approached him about leading the insurrection army. (This is the subject of Jules Archer's book "The Plot to Seize the White House." I find the concept believable, but I admit I have not read the book.) During this period, some of Butler's speeches were combined into a short - 66 page - book that became an antiwar classic.

"War is a Racket" by Smedley Butler was first published in 1935. In the book, Butler lays out an argument that America's wars of the twentieth century were all fought for the profit of corporations, culminating with his listing of facts and figures on the profits made by industry as a result of supplying Allied armies (and in some cases alleging that we sold equipment to the enemy) during WWI. In his view, Butler saw the same situation occurring with the world gearing up for WWII. He advocated strictly using our military for defensive purposes only. His plan to ensure it included a constitutional amendment that forbade ground troops from every leaving the continental United States.

Smedley Butler did not live to see the mood of the country turn from isolationism in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. He passed away on June 24, 1940. But his book became an antiwar classic, and also a military history classic. Because, despite the fact that in my opinion his message rings as true today as it did when he wrote it, "War is a Racket" also lets us see a viewpoint held by a large segment of the American population during the Depression years and the build up to the Second World War. A view that is often downplayed in historical texts of today. And in case you're wondering, reading this antiwar book did not make me question my decision to become an Army officer. It actually had the opposite affect. If anything, hearing both sides of any argument is a good thing. 

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