The Anti-War Marine

Smedley Darlington ButlerSmedley Darlington Butler. (Photo: Temple University Libraries)

It is both truism and cliché that “no one hates war more than the soldiers who fight.” Many historians have demonstrated that political causes are often quickly discarded among the mud, bullets, and blood of war. Even commanders that have led great armies on important crusades have often stated their desire for peace over war. Ulysses S. Grant campaigned for the presidency in 1868 on the slogan “Let Us Have Peace.” Another warrior-president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, once requested that a statue depict him in civilian clothes instead of his Army uniform because he wanted to be remembered as a man of peace, not war. However, few military veterans have tried to distance themselves from war as drastically as Major General Smedley Darlington Butler.

Born near Philadelphia in 1881, Butler left school at age sixteen to join the United States Marine Corps during the Spanish-American War. Over the next thirty-three years, he fought in nearly every conflict in which the United States was engaged, including the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the so-called “Banana Wars,” the Mexican Revolution, and World War I. He is one of just nineteen Americans to receive the Medal of Honor for valor in action twice. He retired in 1933 as a major general, then the highest rank authorized for Marines. Smedley Butler, however, did not go gently into that good night.

More than three decades of leading Marines and watching them bleed and die for questionable causes made Butler a vocal anti-war critic. He began giving speeches decrying war profiteering soon after his retirement, but moved far to the left politically after an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate from his native Pennsylvania in 1932. That same year, he went to Washington, D.C. to express his support for the World War I veterans known as the Bonus Army. He told them they had as much right as any corporation to demand action from the U.S. Congress.

Butler continued to agitate, saying in one speech that he believed in “taking Wall Street by the throat and shaking it up.” His master stroke, however, came in 1935, when he published the book War is a Racket. In it, he called war “possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious” scam of all. He suggested three steps to curb the appeal of war to politicians and financiers: making war unprofitable; allowing the soldiers who will fight to vote on whether or not the war is worth fighting; and limiting militaries to self-defense capabilities only.

When addressing the real cost of war, Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it.” Who would know and understand the true “butcher’s bill” better than one who had fought and bled for the United States for over three decades? Smedley Butler had seen more war than anyone.

Needless to say, the United States government did not heed Butler’s advice, and he faced intense criticism from American political and media figures for his controversial views. He died of what was likely stomach cancer on June 21, 1940. He was only 58 years old.

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.
-Gen. Smedley D. Butler

Smedley Darlington Butler had a long and, despite his own view, honorable career as a U.S. Marine. He demonstrated unfathomable courage under fire many times. Perhaps his greatest act of courage, though, was simply to tell the truth as he saw it after he took off his nation’s uniform.

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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  1. It shocks me that I had never heard of this fellow, even though I know a decent amount about the backlash against the military after WWI. Seems like he’s an interesting character whose story would, among other things, teach well in a classroom. Thanks for sharing this– and him– with us.

  2. As you’re certainly aware, Butler was also instrumental in blowing the whistle on the “Business Plot” to oust FDR at the outset of Roosevelt’s first term. Although many historians have written this episode off as early conspiracy theory, John W. McCormack, who chaired the Committee that became HUAC, believed Butler’s testimony. And Butler’s testimony went far beyond what the Committee published. For a side-by-side comparison showing what was redacted:

    1. Dan: Thanks for mentioning this. I’m aware of the Business Plot, which intended to depose FDR and make Smedley Butler a dictator of sorts. Instead, Butler exposed the plot. I only left this out of the article in the interest of brevity. Thanks for the comment and the link! -Todd Arrington (I’m one of those cursed people who has always gone by my middle name, but I prefer to use my first name when I write because I think it sounds so much better. Most people outgrow their identity crises in their 20s, but not me!)

  3. Butler also visited and toured the Bonus Army encampment during their time there in 1932, and gave an inspiring speech in support of their efforts. Impressive guy all the way around, and thanks for this great post on him.


      1. Heather: Thanks for your kind words and encouragement. There hasn’t been much written on Butler. The only academic work of which I’m aware is Hans Schmidt, “Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History” (University Press of Kentucky, 1987). I agree that an updated biography of Butler is long overdue. Thanks again! -Todd Arrington

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