In 1989, National Public Radio commissioned me to produce a Veterans Day documentary piece on General Smedley Butler, the consummate American soldier. Butler fought valiantly in every major U.S. military campaign from the Spanish American War through the China expeditionary force in the late 1920s including Mexico, Haiti, Nicaragua and World War I. After retiring from the service he referred to himself as "a racketeer for capitalism." He was a Quaker who won the Congressional Medal of Honor not once, but twice. He battled bootleggers in Philadelphia, got into trouble for bad-mouthing Mussolini and foiled a plot to seize the White House. He is simultaneously the historical darling of both the left and the right. Who was this guy?
I attempted to answer this question 23 years ago when I first produced the above documentary. I still marvel over Butler's story; rich in action, idealism, intrigue and 'all-Americanism.' Indeed, I've always wondered who will play this complex character when his exploits are finally condensed into a treatment and brought to life on the silver screen. Brad Pitt? Matt Damon? Perhaps, Robert Downey? I think I'll put my vote in for Sean Penn.
The inspiration for my research was the 1986 poster by Esther Parada. If you follow the link, you will see it is really quite simple, direct and powerful as it juxtaposes a quote from Butler writing critically about himself in Common Sense magazine in 1935 with General Douglas MacArthur singing Butler's praises later on. In the middle stands an image of the man himself, a skinny little guy who was known by many as 'the soldier's general.' So, on this day that marks the end of the 'Great War,' i.e., 'the war to end all wars,' let us pay tribute to a true American warrior who wanted nothing but peace by listening to this documentary and finding out who, indeed, Smedley Butler was.
Note: A version of the above documentary produced by Andy Lanset originally aired over WNYC as part of NPR's Weekend All Things Considered on Veterans Day, 1989 and again on Memorial Day, 1990 for the Soundprint documentary series. It have never aired as part of the series Hearing Voices. It is streaming here courtesy of NPR.
A pamphlet for one of the many public talks given by General Smedley Butler in the 1930s (Andy Lanset Collection)
Photo from The New Masses magazine, 1935. (Andy Lanset Collection)