Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

The Progressive Imperialism of Smedley Butler

By Thaddeus Russell, Reason

Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire, by Jonathan M. Katz, Macmillan, 432 pages, $29.99

The legend of Smedley Butler has sustained the American antiwar movement for nearly a century.

A Marine commander who committed unspeakable atrocities in Washington’s “small wars” between the Spanish-American War and the Second World War, Butler in the last decade of his life turned against the empire he had fought, killed, and enslaved countless people to build. During the depression of the 1930s, he renounced all that he had done, famously declaring that “war is a racket” for the economic interests of the ruling elite.

Butler led combat units in the military occupations of the Philippines, China, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The politicians who sent him to those places, most notably Woodrow Wilson, claimed that the missions were to preserve stability among restless natives and to make the world more democratic, more free, and more like America. But after retiring from the service, Butler saw it differently. “I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business,” he said toward the end of his life, “for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

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