Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Major General Smedley Butler

Maybe you've never heard of Smedley Butler. He was born in 1881, and died in 1940. He served 34 years in the U.S. Marines, retired as a Major General, and is one of 19 Americans awarded the Medal of Honor twice.

By some reckonings, he may be one of the biggest heroes in the history of the United States.
When FDR won the presidency in 1932, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, he quickly started the ball rolling on his New Deal. Many Wall Street titans thus came to view him as a traitor to his own class. They dreamed up a plan to get rid of him.
They chose the highly-decorated Butler as their point man. Their idea was to have Butler lead a huge veterans' march on Washington, and subsequently pressure FDR to install Butler as the "Secretary of General Affairs." Eventually, as the plan went, FDR would hand over the power to run the country entirely to Butler. In essence, the United States would be run by a Wall Street-installed dictator.
It's easy to understand why the Wall Street titans chose Smedley Butler. As a seasoned combat veteran, he'd served the economic interests of the rich and powerful before: He'd admitted to rigging elections in Nicaragua, and led military forces in other parts of Latin America to keep countries on a path favorable to U.S. economic interests.
What they didn't know was that by the time they approached Smedley, he'd come to believe what could best be related by a quote oft-attributed to him: "War is a racket." (Later, in a speech, he said, "I spent 33 years being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers.")
Agents of Wall Street approached Smedley with the offer of an $18,000 bribe, but he spilled the beans to Congress. He gave testimony behind closed doors, and a House committee confirmed the bribe offer. At about that time, the commander of the VFW, James Van Zandt, stated that "agents of Wall Street" had also approached him about taking part in putting a U.S. dictatorship in place.
The House committee's investigation went nowhere. The transcript of the interview with Smedley Butler was printed with the names of the accused Wall Street titans deleted.
General Butler went on to give talks against the futility of war, but he didn't get much press coverage for his efforts.
I tend to believe that General Butler's name should be as familiar to us as that of Paul Revere or George Washington, but I'd wager that few of us ever happened upon his name in a history textbook.

"The problem with history is, the folks who were there ain't talking. And the ones who weren't there, you can't shut 'em up." Tom Waits


quid said...

Cool history lesson, Hal, and on a topic I wasn't familiar with. I must confess, I was thrown by his name. Wasn't Smedley one of the Dudley Do-Right villains? I digress.


Bob said...

Learned something here, Hal. If I ever heard of this guy, I have long forgotten.

Can't say as I've ever known anyone named Smedley.

Roland said...

Cool history lesson!