The imperialist villian-turned-hero who may have saved America from its first fascist coup

 Smedley Butler and Marines in Veracruz, 1914.
Smedley Butler (far right) and Marines in Veracruz, 1914. From Jonathan Katz’s new book, “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire.”
(Public Domain/Marine Corps History Department)
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Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire

By Jonathan Katz
St. Martin’s: 432 pages, $30

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Smedley Butler was an American hero of the early 20th century, a symbol of the country’s growing power as a Marine for more than three decades who received 16 medals, including two Medals of Honor and one Marine Corps Brevet Medal.

Smedley Butler was also a symbol of America’s racist, imperialist and hyper-capitalist policies. Not only did he serve in Cuba, the Philippines, China, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic but he also personally implemented horrific tactics to exploit those lands and their people, including the essential re-enslavement of Haitians.

And finally, Smedley Butler was an American hero again, testifying before Congress to stop “the Business Plot,” an alleged attempt by ultra-wealthy Americans to halt Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and install a fascist government in its place. He then risked a court-martial by repeatedly attacking the manipulation of American power by its plutocrats. By the end of his life in 1940, a year before U.S. entry into another world war, Buter was as well known for his “War Is a Racket” speech and writings as he was for his military career.


Despite leading such a dynamic and dramatic life, he is largely forgotten today. Jonathan Katz aims to resurrect him in his new book, “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire.”

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Katz’s previous book, drawing on his reporting as a correspondent for the Associated Press, was “The Big Truck That Went By,” about the decisions by outside countries that undermined Haiti’s recovery after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. For his new work, Katz not only pored over archives and studied history of the military actions Butler took part in but he also retraced his footsteps, visiting all those countries to see how the legacy of imperialism shaped them and how their citizens perceive America today.

Katz spoke recently by video about Butler, the power of individuals to change history and the good and bad of “who we are.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Smedley Butler on a horse.
Smedley Butler in China, one of the many countries in which he advanced U.S. imperialism, in1900. From “Gangsters of Capitalism.”
(Public Domain/Marine Corps History Department)

Why was Smedley Butler your vehicle for examining the impact of America’s economic and military imperialism?

I first encountered [him] in Haiti when researching my first book. In Haiti, he was horrible, as part of the massacre at Fort Rivière and essentially re-imposing slavery there. I plugged “Smedley Butler” into Google and saw all these things about the Business Plot and “War Is a Racket” and I wondered, “How did this person who created this horrendous trauma then become a critic of war and imperialism?”


I hoped that answering that question would answer the larger question of who we are as a country. Butler is this incredible real-life proxy: He joins the Marines to fight against [Spanish] imperialism in Cuba, then goes around the world exploiting and killing. But he eventually realizes, “What have I been doing?” and starts questioning himself.

Events in the book seem highly relevant today — from the plot against Roosevelt to Douglas MacArthur seeking to use troops to attack protesting veterans.

There are a significant number of people today in America who want some sort of fascism, who want to exclude people from the body politic. They believe that maybe there really isn’t a right to vote. For them, it’s 1934 all over again. That includes people in Congress like [Missouri Republican Sen.] Josh Hawley who are seeing their opening. Like back then, we’re at a really dangerous time for our democracy.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur's handiwork: the Bonus Marchers' encampment in flames in front of the U.S. Capitol, July 28, 1932.
The aftermath of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s crackdown on marching veterans in front of the U.S. Capitol, July 28, 1932. From “Gangsters of Capitalism.”
(Public Domain/National Archives and Records Administration)

Visiting those countries Butler invaded, why were you just as interested in their perceptions of the U.S. as in how our policies had shaped them?

These histories have been erased and forgotten in America, but they are very current in all these places. I knew memories of the occupation in Haiti [are] still very much alive, but it was true everywhere. I wanted to learn the ways in which these things are passed down and to learn things not captured in American sources. History here gets erased intentionally. I needed to go to these places to access those silenced histories.


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If Butler had not been born, wouldn’t much of this still have happened?

Our choices as individuals matter up to a certain point, and the structures of our society and history matter a lot as well. Maybe some of his choices just boil down to “Let’s take that hill instead of that hill,” but if he hadn’t decided to re-enslave Haitians, would that have happened? Possibly not. And if he doesn’t blow the whistle on this fascist coup against FDR in 1934, does it or something like this happen? He plays such a singular role. He’s everywhere and making choices that have a huge sweeping effect.

What can I as an individual do to stop climate change? Not a lot. But what about individuals working as a collective? And what could people at ExxonMobil have done in the 1980s? Probably a lot. It’s what Butler wrestled with when he said he was a racketeer for capitalism: “What if I had thought about what I was doing and fought back? Could I have made a difference?” Maybe, maybe not. But you don’t know unless you try.

Jonathan Katz's new book
Jonathan Katz is the author of “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire.”
(Jamelle Bouie/St. Martin’s Press)

You quote someone in Haiti who is shocked that Americans don’t know what we did there. Imagine how they’d feel if they realized it’s not just ignorance but apathy.

There’s this assumption that if Americans only knew what was happening, they’d be against it. But Trump represents a strain that finds out what’s happening and wants more of it. Beyond the apathy, there’s cognitive dissonance: We are the birthplace of freedom and the greatest country in the world, so it sounds like we did something terrible, but “that’s not who we are,” so let’s just move on.


That’s why I wrote this book. Maybe you read one book about what we did in the Philippines and say, “That’s awful.” Or one about Panama or Haiti or Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, China or Mexico. But by laying them all out together, I tell a story different then the story most Americans grew up hearing. Teddy Roosevelt said about one invasion that it was “wholly exceptional.” But they’re not. And the Vietnam and Iraq wars were not exceptional. This is who we are.

At the same time, we are a country that values deeply the idea of democracy and that all men are created equal. Think about the Selma to Montgomery march [in Alabama in 1965], people risking their lives to make those ideals a reality for everyone. Smedley Butler had those ideals as a 16-year-old and at the end of his life, when he said, “I’m going to throw my career away and get court-martialed to protect some idea of democracy.” That is who we are too. Both parts are who we are, so it’s about what choices do we make now.

Klay, a veteran and author of the National Book Award-winning story collection “Redeployment,” follows up with the rich, complex novel “Missionaries.”

Sept. 30, 2020