Early 20th Century American Intervention in Latin America Shapes a Marine’s View: U.S. Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler!


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. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. . . . Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents.1


In 1935, Former U.S. Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler made the above quote in Common Sense magazine. The quote was given in one form or another in various publications. However it was given, it represented Smedley Butler’s view as to what he had been doing in the Marine Corps during his career. To understand the general’s statement, one has to look the history of the United States and the Latin American States as they interacted during this period. The General’s personal life and his history as a marine in Latin American and other significant places will have to be examined.

Smedley Darlington Butler was born on July 30, 1881. He was born into a Quaker family, which had a long history in America. This included involvement in the political and military history of the United States.2 Butler was active in sports in school; but he was indifferent to studies. Before graduation, Butler left school to join the marines to fight in the Spanish-American War. He was inspired to do this through his father Congressman Thomas S. Butler. His father saw that it was a moral duty for the United States to go to war with Spain. Butler was also influenced from the sensational news and stories about the war. He was never to return to finishing any formal schooling. And he developed a total disdain toward intellectualism throughout his career as a marine.

Butler saw no action in the Spanish-American War. However he did meet up with important old- timers of the Marine Corps. These included the commander at Guantanamo Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, Major Henry Clay Cochrane and Captain Mancil C. Goodrell. These were all veterans not only of the Civil War but also of numerous gunboat diplomatic interventions around the globe before the Spanish-American War. These old-timers were totally dedicated professionals who impressed upon Butler the twin standards of physical courage and command presence. Both qualities Butler would integrate in his life and behavior to serve him so well in later Latin American interventions. Butler also learned how the political connections to his Congressional father could serve his career so well – especially since his father was a senior member of the House Naval Affairs Committee.3

With the Advent of the Filipino Guerilla War after the Spanish-American War and a changing world view on colonial acquisitions and over-seas interventions on the part of the United States, Butler’s career in the expanding Marines was insured. He obtain a commission as an officer in the Marine Corps. In the Filipino campaign, Butler not only distinguished himself with bravery; but he also associated himself with Major Littleton W. T. Waller. This would later prove to be an unfortunate association, as Waller was later to be denied rank and position advancement due to Waller’s participation in atrocities in the Philippines. Butler also participated in the relief of Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. He observed and was highly impressed with the bravery of many senior officers under fire in this operation. He was also noted for his own bravery in this operation. Butler was to use his political connections with his father during this operation to have a career ending disability waived by the Marine Corps. Butler participated personally in the looting of Peking. He would later justify this action by denoting that the value of his loot was less than that of others.4 He also used the excuse that in the excitement of the time better men than himself would be needed to resist the temptation.5 Butler also continued his habit of heavy drinking in China.

These where the experiences that made up the man and marine who would lead some of the most notable US interventions in Latin America during the early 21st century. The two most significant to Butler would be in Nicaragua and Haiti with Veracruz in Mexico and Honduras being lesser but no less instructive interventions.

History of the Interventions

In 1893, the liberal Jose Santos Zelaya took over the leadership of Nicaragua. He was a typical liberal dictator of the period in Central America. In addition, Zelaya involved himself in the affairs of other Central American Countries such as Honduras. The United States took issue with Zelaya as he conducted interventionist wars in Honduras. The United States was worried that American property and personnel might be harmed when Zelaya attacked cities in Honduras that was controlled by opponents of Zelaya. This lead to constant US Naval patrols of all the Central American coasts so as to intimidate those Latin American strong men such as Zelaya from being too rigorous in the conduct of their wars.6

In Nicaragua itself, the issue of a Trans-isthmus canal lost out to Panama. The Americans in Nicaragua viewed their interests there as being further diminished by Zelaya favoring concessionaires as the Bluefield’s Steamship Company – which Zelaya apparently owned. So even though Zelaya had encouraged coffee and other crops for Plantation growing, he was in fact denying the Americans the type of control of transportation routes and of the economic life of Nicaragua that Americans had come to expect in Latin America. The incoming Taft administration expected to control the Latin American countries through economic measures rather than purely military matters. So Zelaya was increasingly in the way of US views on controlling the country!7

In the Bluefields Province of Nicaragua, there existed ripe conditions for revolt against the Liberal Government of Zelaya. The area was isolated from the populated Pacific coast. The American Consul Thomas Moffit, the Governor of Bluefields Province Juan J. Estrada, a disaffected American investment community and Conservatives of the region all joined in revolt against the Zelaya regime. The revolt was largely financed by the Los Angeles Mining Company.

The American Government, already dismayed by Zelaya, demonized him among the world community. Zelaya aggravated his position by executing two Americans who were apparently employed by the Conservative opposition in sabotage against the Zelaya government.8 Even though Mexico came forth to offer mediation in the conflict, American officials, such as Secretary of State Knox and President Taft, rebuffed Mexico’s offer. Through bluster and Military threat, Zelaya resigned in December 1909 in favor of a less controversial leader. A new Liberal Government was elected by the Zelayistic Congress.

The new President Jose Madriz retook the military offensive against the Conservative Rebel Estrada. By May 1910, the Conservatives were routed back into Bluefields. Even though Bluefields was under US warship patrol, the American Consul at Bluefields asked for renewed American troop presence at Bluefields. Again US Armed Forces Intervened. While supposedly neutral, a biased US Military Force, brought about a stalemate in the military situation. This worked against the Liberal Government’s long supply line and ultimately its creditability to the power brokers of the area. Thus the Conservatives won the day when frustrated Liberal Military Forces evaporated when the American Military Forces favored Conservative Military gains.

The United States than took to organizing loans to a newly installed Conservative Government under Estrada. Liens were placed on the transportation system of the country to guarantee the loans. The effect of this was to give the ownership of the transportation system to Private American Business ownership. The US Government took control of the countries custom house and in effect created a client state obedient to continued US control.9

This caused a division among the Conservatives. Some of which joined the defeated Liberals for a revolt against the American installed and controlled government. The country was awash with anti-American sentiment. In mid-1912, Secretary of State Know visited the capitol city Managua and was greeted by large anti-American demonstrations. Know conferred with the than President of Nicaragua Diaz. As a result, Knox asked for and got a renewed American military presence in Nicaragua. In due course, the country was pacified again.

Butler’s Learning Experiences

As mentioned before, Nicaragua was a major learning experience for Smedley Butler. However Butler was first involved in the state Zelaya took such interest in – Honduras. Butler was sent to Honduras in 1903. He was sent to Honduras to keep American lives, interests and property safe from a rebellion. In a letter to his mother in March 20th 1903, Butler makes some telling remarks about the situation he found there:

Last Sunday morning we came east from Porto a Cortez to this place arriving at 1.30 P.M. I went ashore in the afternoon with some of the fellows and came back at six o’clock. The town is in the hands of the rebels and it is not a very valuable possession, I should think. It is built on the beach, of frame one story houses and has a population of about 4,000. There are about 80 white people, but a pretty poor lot, most of them having left their country for their country’s own good, I imagine. The army of insurgents is very similar to that of the government and even more ridiculous. We left next morning for Truxillo [Trujillo], a town of about the same size, 53 miles further to the eastward, arriving there about noon.

The town was entirely in the hands of the insurrectionists but the fort was still held by the "Regulars.?" And a pitch [sic] battle was in progress. . . . The conflict raged (?) all that night, the next day and until eleven o’clock of the night following, at which hour the government contingents rushed out, in such a hurry that they forgot to take the treasury , and made for the tall timber. It is certainly most amusing. The Rebels were in a church 150 yards from the little fort and they and the representatives of sound government potted merrily away at each other for two days with a total of 7 killed and 4 wounded. . . . The row is all over the election of the new President, a nigger by the name of Bonilla. Bonilla received 34000 votes as against 15000 for his opponent, the latter is the son-in-law of the former President, Cierra [sic], who has declared him elected and is enforcing his declaration, very ineffectually it seems, by force of arms. The peculiar thing about the election is, and neither side can explain it, that there are only 33000 voters in the whole country. Beats Ashbridge to a pulp doesn’t it. . . .

We stayed at Truxillo until yesterday morning when we returned to this hole. The rebels here are becoming rather restless. They are out of food and money and have threatened to procure the same from the Americans so we will probably stay here until the row is over. Our company is to go ashore if anything happens so I am anxiously waiting for a nigger to throw a stone. . . .10

Thus becomes the dominant themes Butler begins to see in the United States interventions in Latin America. Butler is ready, willing and eager for any military force he may have to employ. And he seems to think that such is a glorious enterprise! He carries the typical racist and patronizing attitudes towards people of Latin America and of other races that most people of the dominant race in The United States carry. He sees whites living in Latin America from other countries, such as the United States, as of dubious and questionable character. Finally he sees the governments of Latin America as well as any opposing rebel forces as being corrupt and of a totally unsavory nature.

There was no action to speak of in Honduras. But Butler learned how physical presence and swagger could be used to intimidate and bluff his way into solving problems the he found in Latin America in relatively peaceful means. In reflection to his actions in Latin America, Butler would later come to change and soften his attitude towards the Latin American people and the situation they found themselves in. Whether this was a maturing view and attitude on Butler’s part or a self-serving politically correct adjustment of his attitude, much of the niggardly and patronizing attitude, if not his bravado, was to be revised later on. For instance, here Butler dictated to Lowell Thomas the scene he found at Trujillo:

Since no American interests were threatened in Ceiba, we moved eastward along the coast to Trujillo.

Apparently we had arrived none too soon. As we dropped anchor, we could hear the sharp cracking of rifles. A message was brought to the squadron that our consular agent, a Honduran, was in great danger. A boat load of Marines was at once sent ashore to rescue him.

When we breezed up the street, we discovered that the government forces were in the town hall on one side of the plaza and the revolutionaries were in the church on the other side. Between them, right in the line of fire, stood the American Consulate.

Upon our approach, the shooting stopped. It was a sort of armistice. Both sides came out to look at us. But we didn’t linger on to pass the time of day. We marched right on to the consulate, over which the American flag was grandly waving. . . .

The government leader at Trujillo was a real soldier. He was determined to stick it out, no matter what happened.

Several of us went to see him at his headquarters in a dingy little house near the plaza. The room itself was enough to take the heart out of anybody. The plaster was falling off the walls, the ceiling was sagging down. Wounded men, with rags tied around their heads and arms, were lying, groaning on the dirty mud floor.

The commander was sitting at a bare table, his face lighted dimly by two smoky lanterns. He was a native Honduran, a clean cut fellow, with flashing teeth. . . .

Generally, when a military leader is in a tight place, he has some hope rescue. This man knew only too well that he didn’t have a chance in a thousand. The other towns along the coast had fallen. His too would pass into the hands of the insurrectos. I had the greatest admiration for this obscure commander who stoutly refused to change his hatband.11

Butler’s next operation was a series of three personal interventions into Nicaragua. The first just consisted of a reconnoitering of the countryside in Nicaragua while the navy demonstrated off Bluefields. In letters to his parents, Butler denounced the Dictator Zelaya in these terms:

Zelaya, according to the very best authority here, took over the helm of state of this Republic(?) 350,000 people, including animals and grave stones, 16 years ago. During his Presidency of 16 years, term under Constitution being 2, he managed to save, out of a salary of $2500.00 a year, $22,000,000.00, this of course only being accomplished by the strictest of economy. Of course this fortune is not all convertible into cash although he managed to get out with most of it. . . .12

Thus again we see to the extent which Butler increasingly detested the established governments of Latin America. The extent and truth of Butler’s view is hard to determine. Again Butler’s baptism to the ways of Latin America may have biased the degree of honesty with which he was able to view and report on the conditions he found in Latin America! Butler also wrote to his wife on his view of the way the government of the Liberals conducted business:

The other day the Administration wished to get the measure through Congress, so the Prime Minister went on the floor and made a speech the substance of which is as follows. The Government wanted, not so much to pass the bill, as to find out how many members were in sympathy with it, the Government. That every member who voted against the measure would be at once drafted into the Army and sent to the front as a Private soldier, but of course he hoped every one would vote according to the dictates of his own conscience etc etc. It is needless to say the "Ayes" had it and the bill was passed. . . .13

Butler also expressed his increasing disdain towards Americans involved in investment and business operations in Latin America. He felt that they used intrigue and manipulated the Governments of the United States and those of Latin America to their advantage! He wrote to his parents of his views on this:

What makes me mad is that the whole revolution is inspired and financed by Americans who have wild cat investments down here. And want to make them good by putting in a Government which will declare a monopoly in their favor. The whole business is rotten to the core and I am ashamed to think that a Republican Administration is, if anything, assisting the revolution. . . .(Oh Piffle!) I am not at all surprised that a man of Knox’s mental and moral fabric, would be bluffed into this row by the lying reports of our Consul here in Managua.

…The whole game these degenerate Americans down here is to force the United States to intervene and by so doing make their investments good. . . .

Another point which gives us all fits of unholy anger is the attitude of the so-called war correspondents representing our newspapers down here. For instance: The reporters of the Herald and Chicago Tribune came down here with this d—d fake lying American, who by the way claims to be a cousin of that Cannon whose shooting caused this row and also claims the same name, to protect him, thereby being able to send a bogus story of "rescue under hazardous conditions" to their papers. These two reporters are aboard here to-night and admit frankly that they are not cabling the truth, simply sending stuff that will be readable and cause more trouble. The whole d—d business is sickening and a terrible blow to warlike spirits such as we all possessed when we came. . . .14

When the new Liberal Leader Madriz undertook military offensive actions against the Conservative Rebels, Butler was ordered in to protect American lives and property at Bluefields. The American Government allowed the Conservative Leader in Bluefield’s to collect duties on goods even though the Liberal Government held the custom house on the ridge overlooking Bluefields. The Liberal Government being the legitimate Government of Nicaragua should have been able to collect duties. Indeed while engaged in Bluefields, Butler had this to say, in a letter to his father, about Americans in Bluefields and his part in the Big Stick Diplomacy:

. . . This is not, by any means, my first experience wielding the "Big Stick" in shady diplomacy(?), but it is the most sickening. Senator Stone, quoted in the Philadelphia Press Sunday June 26th, puts the case of these American citizens (?) very well but much too mildly. These renegade swine from the slums of our race are all engaging in enterprises, which, if successful, will pay them 50 to 100% dividends, but are not willing to take a gamblers risk, in other words they have taken a 100 to 1 shot on a horse race and for fear of losing have called in the Police to hold all the other horses, thereby assuring the victory of their 3 legged animal. . . . This government here really consists of an American Consul, two U.S. Gunboats and 200 American Marines.

. . . The whole attitude of our State Department is beyond me, but of course I am simply a hired policeman and am not supposed to understand affairs of state. I can see, with my untrained eyes, however, that were we not living in this town the revolution would be over in a few minutes. . . .15

In his letters to his parents and to his wife, Butler stressed the neutrality he was following in regards to any position taken towards the positions the Conservatives and opposing Liberal forces held in regard to Bluefields. However in later writings he admits that he allowed the Conservative forces to fire out of the city of Bluefields into Liberal positions and at the same time disallowed the Liberal forces from firing inside the town of Bluefields least they hit American personnel or property. Butler in fact replied to the Liberal forces, when they complained about the inability to fire on Bluefields or to enter the city armed:

There is no danger of the defenders killing American citizens, because they will be shooting outwards, but your soldiers will be firing towards us.16

Interestingly enough Butler described many of these Americans in Bluefields as "tramps" and "beach-combers" who were totally worthless to America in Nicaragua. Indeed many of these were deported!17

Besides behavior in a very biased manner in regards to the political and military forces fighting in Nicaragua, Butler also retained the services of several of these worthless Americans. As the Liberal forces surrounding Bluefields fell back to lines that could be supplied easier, Butler followed the Conservative forces as they followed the retreating Liberal forces. Butler than placed these worthless Americans in the Conservative lines. He than told the liberals he would take action if they fired into the Conservative forces. This would tend to injure Americans. Yet he allowed the Conservative forces to fire on the Liberal forces. The intimidated Liberal forces were demoralized by this and evaporated as a fighting force! This allowed the conservative forces to march on the Capitol and to establish a Conservative Government in the country.

However soon, the attempt of American officials and speculators to obtain control of Nicaragua, brought about the disintegration of the Conservative forces. Many joined the defeated Liberals in revolt against the Conservative Government. This caused Butler to be called back to Nicaragua a third time. He commanded a small force of Marines and used intimidation and bluff rather than force to re-open closed transportation lines in the country. This, of course, would allow the remaining Conservative in the Government to win the war. Still Butler showed that the training he received from the old-guard Marines of the United States and from what he experiences he had to date would pay off. Butler presented the figure of a fearless soldier with much bearing to intimidate and buff his way into opening the railroad lines of Nicaragua. However, soon all pretenses of neutrality and of non-lethal force to solve the problem was ended by orders from higher up in the United States Command Structure! Butler felt particularly betrayed by this turn of events. He had assured the Rebels that the United States was indeed a neutral participant in the ongoing civil war!18 Later Butler was asked to arrest all rebels and their leaders and turn them over to the Government of Nicaragua. Butler had promised the rebels amnesty and felt betrayed again.

Butler’s last days in Nicaragua, in his official duties, was spent being replace as Commander in Granada. The Conservative Government complained bitterly about Butler’s official position. It seemed that Butler was regarded as too honest by the Conservative Government. They felt that he would try and return their spoils of war to the people it had been taken from. Butler also observed how the new Conservative Government would conduct elections in Nicaragua! Butler also observed that the presence of Americans was sure to get the man the Americans favored elected! He said:

The opposition candidates were declared bandits when it became necessary to elect our man to office. Our candidates always win. In one election nobody liked the fellow; . . . the district was canvassed, and 400 were found who would vote for the proper candidate. Notice of the opening of the polls was given five minutes beforehand, the 400 voters were assembled in a line and when they had voted, in about two hours, the polls were closed.19

Even so, Butler was not beyond totally ignoring such issues in later works. When Lowell Thomas wrote his book Old Gimlet Eye with Butler’s giving Thomas his oral version of what happened, Butler often just gave the romantic and glorious aspects of his involvement in such incidents. Whether this was done with Butler viewing that perhaps a book on just the glorious aspects of his exploits should be written or if it was something Butler and Thomas mutually agreed upon is not known!

However, much of this total obsession with the romanticism and glory of American Interventions was to serve Butler well during the seizure of the port of Veracruz by the Americans in 1913. President Wilson of the United States wanted to replace the present Government of Mexico with another leader who Wilson could than say was more legitimate and representative of the Mexican people. Butler’s main assignment in this Veracruz affair was to go ashore at Veracruz before the occupation for a cloak and dagger operation of intelligence gathering. From March 1st to March 7th, Butler worked with the Superintendent of the railroad between Veracruz and Mexico. Butler traveled from Veracruz to Mexico City under cover and observed troop strengths, fortifications and locations of each in Veracruz, along the route and inside Mexico City itself. The purpose of this mission was to help plan for a proposed push by American troops to seize Mexico City itself! Butler himself apparently traveled with many identities, which he bragged about later on! One of his false identities was to pose as a railroad employee looking for a Mexican National who had been impressed into the Mexican Army.20 He also apparently posed as a secret service agent at one time and a writer of travel books at another time.21 Whatever the case, Butler was able to gain access to all the Mexican military fortifications he wanted and made a full report on it.

Regardless of the thrill and glory Butler felt and gained over this spy mission, Butler remained highly critical of the motives and reasoning behind this entire operation. For example he had these words on the nature of the reasoning behind the operation and Wilson’s justification for the occupation of Veracruz in a letter to his father:

It would not be seemly, nor safe for that matter, for me to give thee in writing, through a post office operated by his followers, my opinion of the excuses our President urged upon Congress for his action here. I was an ear and eye witness to the first and only report made by Minnesota’s mail orderly relative to his supposed arrest in Vera Cruz, he wounded dignity and the boat business in Tampico is not much better. I was glad thee voted against approving the President’s move am proud of thee for doing so . . .22

A good indication of Butler’s disdain for the nature and conduct of the Vera Cruz operation was his attempt to refuse a Congressional Medal of Honor he was awarded in the operation.

He felt that he had done nothing heroic to be awarded the award. Indeed without any needed bravery on his part, he may have felt that the award was politically tainted.23

In July of 1915, Haiti returned to the worst of its very violent ways as a state. French Marines were landed in the Capitol to protect French lives and interests. The United States at the time also had a hidden agenda of stopping any and all potential German influence in Haiti. This German influence was suspected to take the form of German financing the Caco armies in the interior and any potential presidential hopefuls who would use these armies for any planned revolt. The United States was also concerned about the declining finances of Haiti and of the political problems such could cause. The United States viewed any other foreign involvement or intervention in the area as a problem – especially for the warring European powers.

Indeed, American interests in Haiti had multiplied since 1910. The US had gotten the right to run financial control over Haiti. By 1914, the American Roger L, Farnham had achieved the status of being the vice-president of the National City Band of New York, the National Bank of Haiti, President of the National Railway of Haiti and the Principal advisor on Haitian affairs to US President Woodrow Wilson.24 The principal view of the problem the US had in Haiti, by such as Farnham, was that Haiti, in spite of its violence, disorder and declining fortunes had indeed been paying its foreign debt in order to avoid any such American intervention. Also, Haiti’s Constitution denied the right of foreigners the ultimate right to own property in Haiti. This was an ultimate impediment to US financial investments in Haiti.

So the time was ripe for a US military intervention in Haiti. And indeed there is evidence that the US had attempted to instigate a crisis in Haiti by use financial chicanery in its financial control in Haiti.25 The US could use the disorder such caused to justify an intervention. However, events unfolded to give the United States a reason for immediate military intervention. Haitian mobs had, following a bloody reign of terror by the Haitian President on Haitian opposition figures, entered the French Legation in Port-au-Prince and had removed the Haitian President who had hidden there. They proceeded to hack their president apart. Although no one else was harmed in the French Legation incident, the violation of diplomatically protected property was indeed a violation of the standards of the time. The European community complained to American forces and demanded protection. And the US did bring up the old historical racial fears of a renewed Haitian killing of Europeans in justifying an intervention. And the US did indeed militarily intervene in an occupation that was to last for nineteen years.

Since this type of Military intervention was Butler’s forte he came in as part of the fighting and occupying force. Militarily, Butler was mainly assigned to subduing the Caco rebels of the rugged hills of the north. These were Haitian peasants who were part time fighters for whoever wanted to dislodge the present government in the Capitol. Their motives seemed to be to keep an unending line of temporary governments in Haiti. This would not only feed and fund them; but would keep any governmental influence off them.26 Butler’s energy and heroism soon brought about the defeat of the Cacos. The fact that he hired most of them to make up the new National Police Force of Haiti helped.

With the military operations in hand, Butler took over control of running the Government of Haiti. In one of his letters to a collogue, Butler refers to the Haitian Gendarmerie, the national police force he set up and controlled, as having shut down the Haitian National Legislature.27 However later writings show that Butler had joined with than Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt to maneuver German influence and investments out of Haiti and set up an American investment company! Butler got the President of Haiti, Dartiguenave, to sign a decree to dissolve the National Assembly of Haiti and Butler marched on the Assembly along with his Gendarmerie to enforce the decree upon the Assembly. The result of all this was that foreign (American) ownership of private property in Haiti come about – the Assembly had refused to ratify any such provisions in any bill. Thus the way was open for American investments in Haiti – although the one Roosevelt and Butler conspired on never came about! Amazingly enough, Butler was later to deny any personal involvement in this sordid affair.28

Butler also used his power in Haiti to re-institutionalize the system of mandatory peasant labor in Haiti – the Corvee. Such was much feared and loathed in Haiti as it was looked upon as a reinstitution of slavery.29 While Butler did not abuse any of his powers in the use of the Corvee, unlike later Marine Officers, Butler did have a patronizing attitude towards other races and cultures – as was the custom of the time. Butler described in detail how he allowed such as Voodooism in the conduct of running the Corvee to run the operation more efficiently. Apparently the view was happy natives make good natives.30

In 1917 such colonial operations ended for Butler as his request to be transferred to Europe to participate in World War I was approved. Butler than went on to various administrative posts in the United States Marine Corps. Butler was only again to command in the field in China from 1927 to 1929. In this operation such as Butler saw to it that American troops carried out a relatively bloodless operation in China – unlike British and Japanese troops. In many cases, US troops under his command also saw to it that Japanese expansion plans in Japan were checked – but only in local areas. Butler looked upon this American involvement as different from the way others had been carried out by the US. In a letter to Lejune during this China period, Butler pointed out how the nature of American interventionism was shaping up in his view:

As long as we occupy these countries without great uproar and particularly, without the loss of our own men, little attention is paid to our movements by the [American] public at large. We may even kill a lot of natives of such countries without much comment . . . but, as soon as our losses begin to grow there is a big ‘hubbub,’ as you no doubt know, and the Corps comes in for unfavorable criticism.31

After this China expedition, Butler was stymied in any rank or assignment advancement in the Corps. His involvement and close attachment with General Waller was used by his political opponents as one justification for such for Butler to be denied important positions in the Marine Corps. General Waller as a Major in the Philippines in 1901 had carried out General "Jake" Smith’s order to convert Samar Province in the Philippines into a "howling wilderness."32 Butler was very outspoken and was not a graduate of the increasingly elite Corp of Annapolis graduates in the Marine Corps. The death of Butler’s influential congressional father in 1928 ended any political leverage for Butler from that area. His old friend General Lejeune retied and General Neville died in 1930. So, Butler was increasingly politically isolated in a very politically orientated service.

In 1929, Butler gave a speech in Pittsburgh concerning the fact that the US had used its influence in Nicaragua to elect the President of Nicaragua in the election in that country in 1912. He was reprimanded by the secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams for this speech. Butler replied to the Secretary of the Navy in a very defiant and unrepentant manner. He personally told the Secretary of the Navy:

This is the first time in my service of thirty-two years that I’ve ever been hauled on the carpet and treated like an unruly school boy. I haven’t always approved of the actions of the administration, but I’ve always faithfully carried out my instructions. If I’m not behaving well it is because I’m not accustomed to reprimands, and you can’t expect me to turn my cheek meekly for official slaps.33

Indeed the scope and extend of Butler’s speeches against US involvement in Latin America and the Marine Corp’s reactions to his speeches escalated during this time. In Jan. 1931, Butler gave a speech denouncing "Mad-dog Nations" such as Italy’s Benito Mussolini.34 As a result of this speech, Butler was put under house arrest at Quantico. He also received an official reprimand for the speech. Butler soon announced his resignation from the Marine Corps – although his inability to obtain the position of Commandant of the Marine Corps had apparently decided Butler’s mind on this action some time back! Butler gave his reasoning behind his resignation in an article in "Liberty" magazine. It was entitled "To Hell with the Admirals! Why I retired at Fifty." In it Butler told of his resentment over not being able to be Commandant of the Marine Corps.35 It would appear that this degree of bitterness, over his failure to become Commandant of the Marine Corps, surely was, to some degree, a factor in the comments he made after he was out of the Marine Corps. However, given the various anti-Involvement speeches he gave before his retirement, it surely can not be looked at as the major underlying factor!

Once out of the Marines, one can say that Butler was somewhat restrained as he ran for Senator in the Republican primary on Pennsylvania. He allied himself with Governor Clifford Pinchot. However in the atmosphere of the time which was very conservative, Butler’s support for items such as the veterans bonus was a decided negative to Governor Pinchot’s faction in the Republican Party! Pinchot jettisoned Butler’s candidacy before the election to achieve support election of Pinchot’s faction and avoid further embarrassment over Butler.36 All in all, this allowed Butler to come out swinging with his views with no self-imposed restraint. He increasingly advocated left-wing views on society and the military. He made his money through the lecture circuit. All but the most admiring of his former acquaintances in the military dropped any relationships with Butler. Butler gave his last speech on May 22, 1940 decrying war, advocating isolationism and denying any threats to the US from outside forces. He than enter a hospital and died on June 21, 1940.

America – The New Imperial Repvblic

Just after the Spanish-American War, James C. Fernald wrote a book entitled The Imperial Repvblic. In it, he outlined a plan the United States should follow in dealing with the new situation it found itself in the world – A major superpower. He outline the need and duty of the United States to acquire colonial possessions and state dependencies. He viewed the United States as based on a fundamentally different nature than the European Superpower States than had come before the United States achieved this power and those that existed in the contemporary sense. The United States was the Democracy in the world to him that dealt fairly but sternly with other countries. Fernald, to be sure, was basically interested in securing the financial interests of the United States. Fernald undertook to write out in detail how the US should conduct itself now in a much changed world and changed United States. For instance he said:

The hardest thing we shall have to do is to restrain with an iron hand the worst elements of our own population from touching the people we have undertaken to protect. For this there must be a strong government in control of our colonies. The colonial administration must be strong enough to govern the colonies well, at the same time that it is held responsible for their being well governed. We must say to the vicious elements of our population: ‘If the people of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago see fit to be governed by such as you, it is not the province of the general Government to intervene; but the new lands the general Government holds in trust and under its absolute control; and those lands you shall not plunder and debauch.’37

As a kicker to the Smedley D. Butler story, Fernald added:

The whole purpose of our occupation, civil or military, must be everywhere just what we have proclaimed it to be in Cuba—to enable the people ‘to establish and maintain a stable government of their own at the earliest possible moment.’38

Steeped in the tradition and allure of British colonies, Fernald finally says:

As, under the fostering care of the United States, the people gain in education and in the habitudes of free institutions, we might make them more and more independent, until at length we should retain only the bond of protection, with its corollary of so much control as to prevent any act of the islanders involving us in war or discredit with any foreign nation.

Under such a system, it is not clear why we may not have as wide a chain of dependencies as Great Britain, leading them steadily up to republican independence, and increasing the area of freedom all over the earth.39

Butler as a Marine, was involved in all aspects of the views Fernald had on how the United States should treat such as dependencies of the United States. Butler saw how, contrary to the ideal, the worst US citizens were able to go to Latin American states and reap huge profits in an exploitation of the people there. An exploitation that left the Latin American’s worse off as a whole – a total contradiction of Fernald’s views. Butler saw how these same US citizens invited trouble in Latin American countries. Trouble that would bring in US troops such as Butler. Butler saw how these same citizens benefited financially from the intervention of US troops. And after the intervention was over, the dependant country was often less free and had a government that was ultimately less stable. Butler also observed how the politicians’ back home conspired to see to it that these American Citizens in Latin American would be encouraged in their exploitation of the people there. And would be protected and supported in their ‘plunder and debauch’ of Latin American Countries.

In the sphere of international relations between countries or groups of people, there exists the concept of the ‘Thucydides’ system of international relationships!’ This can best be summed up as to what the Athenians had to say to the people of Melos – an ally of Sparta:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which not be believed . . . since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must . . .And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made, we found it existing before us and shall leave it to exist ever after us.40


The ‘Thucydides system of international relationships’ stands as a strong dichotomy to the view of how Fernald believe the United States should act as a Superpower with dependencies! Lester D. Langley in his book Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean 1898-1934 summed up his views as seeing that the United States had indeed conducted itself on the model that Fernald put out. Langley saw the United States not acting out mainly for financial reasons, as Butler had stated so often in his speech, but to put order into disorder and to follow a policy that allowed for the respect of law and of the respect for private property. Langley sees no tyrants or fascists in such as Waller, or any of the others involved in these operations. Instead, he sees plain American boys reluctant to use forces but faced with a social system in Latin America that was ruled from the top in what he calls a "centralist" system so alien to people steeped in Democracy.41 And indeed Langley points out the errors that Butler himself was so guilty of (being a failed ruler) :

Yet their labors, despite some grudgingly acknowledged accomplishments in health, education, and communication, have been harshly judged. They failed not as conquerors—even in the Sandino chase they accommodated well to the demands of bush warfare—but as rulers of conquered places. Striving to teach by example, they found it necessary to denigrate the cultural values of those whom they had come to save. Determined to implant a sense of community in the tropics, they mistakenly assumed that community values could be inculcated with sanitary measures or vocational educational or a reformed military where soldiers from humble social origins learned to identify with "nation" instead of prominent politicians or families. Their presence, even when it meant a peaceful society and material advancement, stripped Caribbean peoples of their dignity and constituted then, that the occupied were so ‘ungrateful’ for what Americans considered years of benign tutelage. But, then, Americans do not have in their epigrammatic repertory that Old Spanish proverb that Mexicans long ago adopted: ‘The wine is bitter, but it’s our wine."42

Much of what Langley said here, Butler would no doubt agree with! However Butler never saw his own so obvious faults when he was a dependency leader. However, more to the point, Butler did view that the Banking and Financial interest of the United States was the major reason for his interventions in Latin American – as has been documented in so many of his letters home. This was an early perception. One that ran counter to Fernald’s view that the worst elements of our society must be kept from the dependencies. More like the Thucydides’ system, Butler saw the power of the United States being used by the Financial interests to corrupt and influence Politicians and Intellectuals like Langley to support and justify their actions to achieve economic control of Latin America!

Sanctity of Property

Butler’s constant refrain in his works is how the US Marine Corps was called in to protect property. Such Authors as Langley emphasizes a justification for interventions in Latin America as obtains respect for the ‘sanctity of property.’ They stress time and time again that without the proper respect for private property, there can be no economic development for if a person can not own the fruits of his work he will not produce. Of course, this right more often had to do with granting the rights of Americans the right to obtain ownership of property in Latin America. In the case of Nicaragua, a government was overthrown, not because it was it was a debtor nation or one that totally disallowed foreign investments; but because it was attempting to acquire loans from countries other than the United States. And this Became Butler’s major point. Indeed the Financial institutions of the United States used the US Military not to protect its property but to acquire its property in Latin America and keep it after it was won!

With this, the US and its Private Financial interests could mutually benefit each other! This is a concept best illustrated by Kurt Birch in his book "Property" and the Making of the International System. Burch describes the old join-stock companies on their role in State Economics:

The history of joint-stock companies is inseparable form the rise of commerce and modern government. . . . The Crown solicited, promoted and often created large companies in order to address chronic destitution. Commercial and financial leaders saw the benefits of a stable institutional arrangement and pried property rights advantages from the Crown. These were almost always exclusive, monopolistic rights stipulated by royal grants or charters. . . .

Since the medieval era, commodities and specie had dominated economic relations, therefore little money circulated. Consequently, extracting and storing bullion were important Crown activities that influenced the conduct of foreign policy and the health of production and trade. This is the material basis for mercantile practices. Yet, as noted, lack of funds and crushing debts had crippled English rulers—indeed European rulers grew generally—since the late medieval ages and earlier. However, by the 1500’s, and especially by the Thirty Years’ War, dynastic and religious controversies engulfed most European Leaders. To defend themselves and exercise influence over others, rulers became more concerned with extracting resources from their citizens and territories. Joint-stock companies proved remarkably effective. From William’s reign until about 1720, joint-stock companies helped the Crown accumulate capital. . . .

Merchants recognized that privileges dispensed by the Crown could valuably help collect the employ their capital. The Crown, however, enticed or pressed merchants and joint-stock companies to perform tasks that the Crown wanted done but could not perform itself. Thus, the Crown extended property rights and other advantages to the companies to give corporate directors incentives to act on behalf of the ruler’s interests. The Crown granted monopolies, patents, charters, and other benefits, including exclusive licenses to trade or restrict trade, copyrights, privileges in manufacturing, and immunities or reduction on tax or customs duties. In short, the Crown extended property rights on the condition that the joint-stock company abide by legal, contractual obligations to perform duties or services. In each instance, however, the Crown sought to extend sufficient property rights advantages to make investment risk acceptable. By relying on the long-standing legal principle that rulers cannot derogate from contracts, the create, monarchs make themselves attractive partners. Said differently, the Crown had to address the opportunity costs of alternative ventures the joint-stock company might undertake.43

Indeed in Nicaragua in 1909-1912 and in Haiti from 1915-1917, Butler was directly involved in this Corporation-State type cooperation in securing property and influence for the United States in these countries. The old customs develop by Monarch Rulers to obtain and increase power through State-Joint-Stock theories were the dominant forces in America’s interventions in Latin America. Birch goes further to say of this:

Also, actors constituted from the landed confines of traditional politics a seemingly natural economic world of fluid commerce. ‘The intellectual scaffolding of Modernity was thus a set of provisional and speculative half-truths.’ As contemporary individuals now conceive the world in these terms—seemingly concrete but far from absolute—they displace republican virtue and right reason for other social values. Notably, these include the rational pursuit of self-interest through statecraft and market exchange. In toppling one form of domination, others emerge.

Indeed, deeply implicated in these practices, as with all rule-based phenomena, are exploitation and domination. Imperial rapine, colonial impoverishment, capitalist underdevelopment, domestic coercion, and the daily miseries of cheating and theft each testify to omnipresent modern exploitation. Actors justify and effect such behavior through systems of rules that simultaneously privilege and dispossess as they also constitute conditions and regulate behavior. Domination is not unique to modern life, but liberal-modern domination is one version of a wider condition. So constructed, IPE is also is also a political practice involving property rights and specific forms of exploitation. For example, consider the deep normative and rule-based implications of an apparently objective observation by Robert Gilpin:

Like any Western predatory nation the NICs [newly industrializing countries] have not hesitated to pursue politics that damage the economies of other Third World Countries.44

All this of course is nothing more than a very high degree of Intellectual thinking of rules and procedures to institutionalize in a societal [World] structure that will allow people to conduct their daily lives. Of course Butler’s experience in the Marine Corps was to teach him just the opposite. He viewed this intellectualism as a cause of a lot of the problems in the world. He detested those who by means of reading and studying achieved artificial views and concepts of the world. For Butler found that in reality such ideas exploit and disenfranchise, economically and politically, those Butler had, through military means, brought under the dominion and control of the US and their appointed leader for that country.


General Smedley Darlington Butler experienced in the Marine Corps all the glory and empowerment of a soldier serving his country. He always remained proud of that. He was steeped in American values. These values were sorely tested when, as a Marine, he secured territory and people who were later, in his view, wrongly used. Butler was a product of his time. This included a patronizing attitude towards the people of Latin America. He apparently was not above participating in the very acts he came to detest. And here I would say in a way this participation went above just obeying orders! Still he was a quick learn and a man who viewed serve to his country and the need to have a personal honor code as the highest calling for a person to accomplish. All these factors and contradictions in Butlers life, with no doubt a lot of flourish on his part, lead to the development of an outspoken man who would make such disparaging remarks about how he was used in the Service by Politicians, Intellectuals and the Financial institutions of America.

But one may not be able to leave off here! Butler was indeed popular as a person to a large number of people in the country! Still he disparaged many aspects of the way the country was run. Perhaps he got away with this due to the depression. However, Butler instinctively had a large problem. Kurt Burch points out the very sinew of this problem:

Both Sir John Davies and Sir Henry Spelman understood that the English common law arose out of conflicts with other systems of law (Roman and feudal, for example) and that it often took shape in courts (Pocock, 1987:260, 263, 266). For example, Davis was sent to Ireland to bring its laws into accord with English custom. His Irish Reports of 1612, comparing English common law with Irish brehon law, make clear he knew his enterprise was to purposefully destroy Irish customs and convert them into common law (Pocock, 1987:266), Pawlisch (1985) calls the effort "legal imperialism." Nevertheless Davies persistently defined common law as the ‘common custom of the realm,’ the common uses among the people.45

Butler’s large problem was, that if the common law of a country is also essentially its basic customs also, than Butler would have to be very careful about what he had to say. Otherwise, the people would feel themselves threatened as their core values [customs] would be challenged. Indeed Butler had already agitated the political and military establishments in America. The fact that he was so decorated and spoke for the common man, make him a popular speaker in the service organizations at the time. His isolationists but pro-patriotic speeches again made him popular with many. Butler was popular with many but isolated from the power makers due to his speeches. So again he had to watch himself.

One way to be an acceptable social critic, of course, is to be a person who is good with language and is able to tell a good story and is able to effectively use satire in a humorous way. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was a person who made a living out of writing satire and giving witty speeches – much like Butler did after he left the Marine Corps. They talked, on the whole, about the same things. For instance, Mark Twain also commented on American war follies! Here is an example of his satirical writings on Us military action in the Philippines in 1906:

A tribe of Moros, dark-skinned savages, had fortified themselves in the bowl of an extinct crater no many miles from Jolo; and as they were hostiles, and bitter against us because we have been trying for eight years to take their liberties away form them, their presence in that position was a menace. . . .46

Contrast these things with the great statistics which have arrived from that Moro crater! There, with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded—counting that nose and elbow. The enemy numbered six hundred—including women and children—and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States….47

We have the curious spectacle of hospital men going around trying to relieve the wounded savages—for what reason? The savages were all massacred. The plain intention was to massacre them all and leave none alive. Then where was the use in furnishing mere temporary relief to a person who was presently to be exterminated? The dispatches call this a ‘battle.’ In what way was this a battle? It had no resemblance to a battle. In a battle there are always as many as five wounded men to one killed outright. When this so-called battle was over, there were certainly not fewer than two hundred wounded savages lying on the field. What became of them? Since not one savage was left alive!48

Butler was no Samuel Clemens of course. Butler did not have the literary skill of a Mark Twain. Butler was also quite serious about his isolationist views, his anti-imperialist views, his feeling of outrage over social injustice and his anti-war views. He gave speech after speech. Still many of his sayings are remarkably like Samuel Clemens in view, satire and humor. For instance in the book Words on War: Military Quotations From Ancient Times to the Preset we have, besides his Al Capone reference:

The trouble with America is that the dollar gets restless when it earns only 6 percent over here. It goes overseas to get 100 percent. The flag follows the money—and the soldiers follow the flag.49

Pacifists? Hell, I’m a pacifist, but I always have a club behind my back.50

Let the officers and directors of our armament factories, our gun builders and munitions makers and shipbuilders all be conscripted—to get $30 a month, the same wage paid to the lads in the trenches. . . . Give capital thirty days to think it over and you will learn by that time that there will be no war. That will stop the racket—that and nothing else.51

If we had not had a war with a nation that was already licked and looking for an excuse to quit, we would have had hell licked out of us.52

General Smedley Darlinton Butler had a lot to say about the way foreign policy was carried out in the United States. As a Marine, experienced in the facts of the cases he spoke about, he could speak on those cases and generalize about the other cases. Butler was headstrong all his life and spoke his opinion. If that was to deny him from becoming Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, so be it. He could speak more openly because of it. If Butler’s views irritated the power structure of American politics, which denied him political office, so be it. Butler felt strongly about what he said and had the experience to speak of it. His accomplishments in the US Marine Corps allowed him to speak of it and get away with it. The times were ripe for his views! Finally he had the necessary humor in his views to allow him to speak as he did. For many paid attention for all of the above reasons!

End Notes

  1. Hans Schmidt. Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History. The University Press of Kentucky, 1987. P. 231.
  2. Ibid, 6, 7.
  3. Ibid 8.
  4. Ibid 24.
  5. Lowell Thomas. Old Gimlet Eye: Adventures of Smedley D. Butler. New York: Farrar & Rinehart Incorporated, 1981. P. 76.
  6. Lester D. Langley. The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean 1898-1934. Chicago: The Dorsey Press, 1988. P. 57.
  7. Schmidt, 40.
  8. Langley, 60.
  9. Schmidt, 42.

10 Anne Cipriano Venzon, Editor. General Smedley Darlington Butler: The Letters of a Leatherneck,

    1. New York: Praegger, 1992. P. 40,41.

11 Thomas, 111-113.

12 Venzon, 65.

13 Ibid, 75

14 Ibid, 75-78.

15 Ibid, 87-88.

  1. Schmitd, 41.
  2. Ibid, 41.
  3. Ibid, 51.
  4. Ibid, 56
  5. Ibid, 65.
  6. Thomas, 173,175.
  7. Venzon, 146-147.
  8. Schmidt, 72.
  9. Ibid, 82.
  10. Ibid, 82

26 Venzon, 150.

27 Ibid, 194.

  1. Schmidt. 88-91.
  2. Langley, 160.
  3. Thomas, 239.
  4. Schmidt, 200.
  5. Leon Wolff. Little Brown Brother: How the United States Purchased and Pacified the Philippine Island at the Century’s Turn. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961. P. 357.
  6. Thomas, 300.
  7. Schmidt, 208.
  8. Ibid, 212-213.
  9. Ibid, 216-217.
  10. James C. Fernald. The Imperial Repvblic. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1899. P. 172.
  11. Ibid, 176.
  12. Ibid, 189.
  13. James A. Barry. The Sword of Justice: Ethics and Coercion in International Politics. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publications, 1998. P. 4.
  14. Langley, 222,223.
  15. Ibid, 223
  16. Kurt Burch. "Property" and the Making of the International System. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 1998. P. 118,119.
  17. Ibid, 157,158.
  18. Ibid, 82,83.
  19. Janet Smith, Editor. Mark Twain on the damned human race. New York: Hill and Wang, 1962. P. 112.
  20. Ibid, 114.
  21. Ibid, 119-120.
  22. Jay M. Shafritz. Words on War: Military Quotations From Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc, 1990. P. 135.
  23. Ibid, 42.
  24. Ibid, 453.
  25. Ibid, 372.


  1. Barry, James A.. The Sword of Justice: Ethics and Coercion in International Politics. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publications, 1998.
  2. Burch, Kurt. "Property" and the Making of the International System. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 1998.
  3. Fernald, James C.. The Imperial Repvblic. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1899.
  4. Langley, Lester D.. The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean 1898-1934. Chicago: The Dorsey Press, 1988.
  5. Schmidt, Hans. Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History. The University Press of Kentucky, 1987.
  6. Shafritz, Jay M.. Words on War: Military Quotations From Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc, 1990.
  7. Smith, Janet, Editor. Mark Twain on the damned human race. New York: Hill and Wang, 1962.
  8. Thomas, Lowell. Old Gimlet Eye: Adventures of Smedley D. Butler. New York: Farrar & Rinehart Incorporated, 1981.
  9. Venzon, Anne Cipriano, Editor. General Smedley Darlington Butler: The Letters of a Leatherneck, 1898-1931. New York: Praegger Publications, 1992.
  10. Wolff, Leon. Little Brown Brother: How the United States Purchased and Pacified the Philippine Island at the Century’s Turn. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961.