The Marine Corps General Who Called War 'A Racket'

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.

VFW pennant previously owned by Smedley D. Butler.
VFW pennant previously owned by Smedley D. Butler. ( Andy Lanset Collection )
VFW pennant previously owned by Smedley D. Butler.
VFW pennant previously owned by Smedley D. Butler. ( Andy Lanset Collection )
VFW pennant previously owned by Smedley D. Butler.
VFW pennant previously owned by Smedley D. Butler. ( Andy Lanset Collection )
General Smedley Butler at Marine Air Show just prior to his scheduled retirement on October 1, 1931.
General Smedley Butler at Marine Air Show just prior to his scheduled retirement on October 1, 1931. ( Acme News Photo/A. Lanset Collection )
Smedley Butler a.k.a. General Duckboard for his initiative at Camp Pontanezin in France during WWI.
Smedley Butler a.k.a. General Duckboard for his initiative at Camp Pontanezin in France during WWI. ( Andy Lanset Collection )
General Smedley Butler and Al Smith.
General Smedley Butler and Al Smith. ( Bain Collection/Library of Congress )
Brig. General Smedley Butler, June 19, 1922.
Brig. General Smedley Butler, June 19, 1922. ( National Photo Company/Library of Congress )
General Butler and General Lejeune, December 28, 1925.
General Butler and General Lejeune, December 28, 1925. ( National Photo Company/Library of Congress )
Maj. Gen. Smedley D. Butler gives a few off-the-record answers to Senator Homer T. Bone, (right) member of thr of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, April 8, 1938.
Maj. Gen. Smedley D. Butler gives a few off-the-record answers to Senator Homer T. Bone, (right) member of thr of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, April 8, 1938. ( Library of Congress )
Major Smedley D. Butler in 1910.
Major Smedley D. Butler in 1910. ( Bain News Service/Library of Congress )
Major Smedley D. Butler in 1910
Major Smedley D. Butler in 1910 ( Bain News Service/Library of Congress )
A pamphlet for one of the many public talks given by General Smedley Butler in the 1930s.
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.
Photo from The New Masses magazine, 1935. ( Andy Lanset Collection )
Maj. General Smedley D. Butler with marine mascots, Quantico, Virginia, 1931. Butler first introduced English bulldogs as Marine mascots in the 1920s.
Maj. General Smedley D. Butler with marine mascots, Quantico, Virginia, 1931. Butler first introduced English bulldogs as Marine mascots in the 1920s. ( Andy Lanset Collection )
 General Butler speaking during his visit to the camp of the Bonus Army veterans in Washington, D.C. on July 19th 1932.
General Butler speaking during his visit to the camp of the Bonus Army veterans in Washington, D.C. on July 19th 1932. ( Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images )
Retired General Smedley Butler giving a speech in the late 1930s.
Retired General Smedley Butler giving a speech in the late 1930s. ( A. Lanset collection. )
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