Streams

The Marine Corps General Who Called War 'A Racket'

Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 12:00 PM

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.

Smedley Butler Pamphlet

A pamphlet for one of the many public talks given by General Smedley Butler in the 1930s (Andy Lanset Collection)

General Smedley Butler from the magazine The New Masses in 1935. (Andy Lanset Collection)

Photo from The New Masses magazine, 1935. (Andy Lanset Collection)

Andy Lanset Collection
VFW pennant previously owned by Smedley D. Butler.
Andy Lanset Collection
VFW pennant previously owned by Smedley D. Butler.
Andy Lanset Collection
VFW pennant previously owned by Smedley D. Butler.

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Mission Statement: The New York Public Radio Archives supports the mission and goals of WNYC and WQXR by honoring the broadcast heritage of the radio stations and preserving their organizational and programming legacy for future generations of public radio listeners. The Archives will collect, organize, document, showcase and make available for production all original work generated by and produced in association with WNYC and WQXR Radio.

The NYPR Archives serves the stations staff and producers by providing them with digital copies of our broadcast material spanning WNYC and WQXR's respective 90 and 77 year histories.  We also catalog, preserve and digitize, provide reference services, store, and acquire WNYC and WQXR broadcast material (originals and copies) missing from the collection. This repatriation effort has been aided by dozens of former WNYC and WQXR staff as well as a number of key institutions. Additionally, our collecting over the last ten years goes beyond sound and includes photos, publicity materials, program guides, microphones, coffee mugs, buttons and other ephemera. We've left no stone unturned in our pursuit of these artifacts. The History Notes is a showcase for many of these non-broadcast items in our collection. 

In fact, if you’ve got that vintage WNYC or WQXR knick-knack, gee-gaw, or maybe a photo of someone in front of our mic, an old program guide or vintage piece of remote equipment and would like to donate it to us, or provide a copy of the item to us, write to Andy Lanset at alanset@nypublicradio.org.   

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