Smedley Butler

Smedley Darlington Butler (July 30, 1881 – June 21, 1940), nicknamed "The Fighting Quaker" and "Old Gimlet Eye", was a Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps and, at the time of his death, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history.

During his 34 years of Marine Corps service, Butler was awarded numerous medals for heroism including the Marine Corps Brevet Medal (the highest Marine medal at its time for officers), and subsequently the Medal of Honor twice. Notably, he is one of only 19 people to be twice awarded the Medal of Honor, and one of only three to be awarded a Marine Corps Brevet Medal and a Medal of Honor, and the only person to be awarded a Marine Corps Brevet Medal and a Medal of Honor for two different actions.

In addition to his military career, Smedley Butler was noted for his outspoken anti-interventionist views, and his book War is a Racket. His book was one of the first works describing the workings of the military-industrial complex and after retiring from service, he became a popular speaker at meetings organized by veterans, pacifists and church groups in the 1930s.

In 1934, he informed the United States Congress that a group of wealthy industrialists had plotted a military coup known as the Business Plot to overthrow the government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Early life and family

Butler was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the oldest in a family of three sons. His parents were Thomas Stalker Butler and Maud (Darlington) Butler, both members of distinguished Quaker families. His father was a lawyer, judge, and, for 31 years, a Congressman. During his time in Congress, Thomas S. Butler was chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee during the Harding and Coolidge administrations.

Butler was educated at the West Chester Friends Graded High School and later at The Haverford School, a secondary school for sons of upper-class Quaker families near Philadelphia, but he dropped out to join the Marines, 38 days before his 17th birthday.

Butler married Ethel Conway Peters of Philadelphia in Bay Head, New Jersey on June 30, 1905. They had a daughter, Ethel Peters, and two sons, Smedley Darlington Jr. and Thomas Richard. He was then posted to garrison duty in the Philippines. Even in garrison, he managed to distinguish himself, launching a resupply mission across the stormy waters of Subic Bay after his isolated outpost ran out of rations. He was eventually diagnosed with "nervous breakdown" in 1908 and he was given 9 months sick leave. He returned home and spent a successful time in the West Virginia coal mining business. Despite an offer of permanent employment from the owners, he returned to the Corps.

Military career

Despite his father's desire that he remain in school, Smedley Butler dropped out when the United States declared war against Spain in 1898. Due to his young age (he was only 16 years old) Butler lied about how old he was in order to secure a commission in the Marines as a second lieutenant.

After three weeks of basic training, Second Lieutenant Butler was sent to Guantanamo, Cuba, in July 1898, although he saw no action there because the bay was already secured.

The Boxer Rebellion

Butler was twice wounded during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion: once in Tientsin and once in San Tan Pating. During the Battle of Tientsin on July 13, 1900, Butler climbed out of a trench to retrieve a wounded officer for medical attention, whereupon he was shot in the thigh. Another Marine helped the wounded Butler to safety but was himself shot; Butler continued to assist the first man to the rear. Four enlisted men received the Medal of Honor for their actions in the battle. Butler's Commanding Officer, Major Littleton W. T. Waller personally commended his actions in his report and recommended "for such reward as you may deem proper the following officers: Lieutenant Smedly D. Butler, for the admirable control of his men in all the fights of the week, for saving a wounded man at the risk of his own life, and under a very severe fire." Although officers were not eligible to receive the Medal of Honor at the time, Butler received a promotion to captain by brevet, in recognition of his bravery in the incident. Butler received his promotion while in the hospital recovering, two weeks before his nineteenth birthday. He would later become one of only 20 Marines to be awarded the U.S.M.C. Brevet Medal when the decoration was created in 1921.In addition to wounds he received in Tientsin, Butler was also shot in the chest at San Tan Pating, purportedly clipping a chunk of Central America out of a large Eagle, Globe, and Anchor tattoo on his torso.


In 1903, Butler fought to protect the U.S. Consulate in Honduras from rebels. An incident during that expedition allegedly earned him the first of several colorful nicknames, "Old Gimlet Eye", attributed to the feverish, bloodshot eyes which enhanced his habitually penetrating and bellicose stare.


From 1909 to 1912, he served in Nicaragua enforcing American policy and while there once led his battalion to the relief of the rebel besieged city of Granada, Nicaragua with a 104-degree fever. In December 1909, he commanded the 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment on the Isthmus of Panama but on August 11, 1912 was temporarily detached to command an expeditionary battalion organized for service in Nicaragua, it was in this capacity he participated in the bombardment, assault and capture of Coyotepe from October 12, 1912 to October 31, 1912. He remained on duty in Nicaragua until November 1912, when he rejoined the Marines of 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment at Camp Elliott, Panama.

First Medal of Honor, Veracruz, Mexico (1914)

Between the Spanish-American War and the American entry into the first World War in 1917, Butler achieved the distinction, shared with only one other Marine (Dan Daly) since that time, of being twice awarded the Medal of Honor for separate incidents of outstanding gallantry in action.

The first award was for his activities in the U.S. occupation of Veracruz, Mexico in 1914. But the large number of Medals of Honor awarded during that campaign—one for the Army, nine for Marines and 46 to Navy personnel—diminished the medal's prestige. During World War I, Butler, then a major, attempted to return his Medal of Honor, explaining that he had done nothing to deserve it. It was returned with orders that not only would he keep it, but that he would wear it as well.


For distinguished conduct in battle, engagement of Vera Cruz, April 22, 1914. Maj. Butler was eminent and conspicuous in command of his battalion. He exhibited courage and skill in leading his men through the action of the 22d and in the final occupation of the city.

Second Medal of Honor, Haiti (1915)

The Marines tried to secure Haiti against the "Cacos" rebels in 1915. On October 24, 1915, a patrol of forty-four mounted Marines led by Butler was ambushed by some 400 Cacos. The Marines maintained their perimeter throughout the night, and early the next morning they charged the much larger enemy force from three directions. The startled Haitians fled. Sergeant Major Dan Daly received a Medal of Honor for his gallantry in the battle.

By mid-November 1915, most of the Cacos had been dispersed from the Haitian region. The remainder took refuge at Fort Rivière, an old French-built stronghold deep within the country. Fort Rivière sat atop Montagne Noire, the front reachable by a steep, rocky slope. The other three sides fell away so steeply that an approach from those directions was impossible. Some Marine officers argued that it should be assaulted by a regiment supported by artillery, but Butler convinced his colonel to allow him to attack with just four companies of 24 men each, plus two machine gun detachments. Butler and his men took the rebel stronghold on November 17, 1915, in which he received his second Medal of Honor, for which he also received the Haitian Medal of Honor. Major Butler recalled that his troops "hunted the Cacos like pigs." His exploits impressed Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, who awarded the medal for an engagement in which 200 Cacos were killed and no prisoners taken, while one Marine was struck by a rock and lost two teeth.

Later, as the initial organizer and commanding officer of the Haitian Gendarmerie, the native police force, Butler established a record as a capable administrator. Under his supervision, order was largely restored, and many vital public works projects were successfully completed.


As Commanding Officer of detachments from the 5th, 13th, 23d Companies and the marine and sailor detachment from the U.S.S. Connecticut, Maj. Butler led the attack on Fort Riviere, Haiti, November 17, 1915. Following a concentrated drive, several different detachments of marines gradually closed in on the old French bastion fort in an effort to cut off all avenues of retreat for the Caco bandits. Reaching the fort on the southern side where there was a small opening in the wall, Maj. Butler gave the signal to attack and marines from the 15th Company poured through the breach, engaged the Cacos in hand-to-hand combat, took the bastion and crushed the Caco resistance. Throughout this perilous action, Maj. Butler was conspicuous for his bravery and forceful leadership.

World War I

During World War I, Butler, much to his disappointment, was not assigned to a combat command on the Western Front. While his superiors considered him brave and brilliant, they also described him as "unreliable." He was, however, promoted to the rank of brigadier general at the age of 37 and placed in command of Camp Pontanezen at Brest, France. In October 1918, a debarkation depot near Brest funneled troops of the American Expeditionary Force to the battlefields. The camp was plagued by horribly unsanitary, overcrowded and disorganized conditions. U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker sent novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart to report on the camp. She later described how Butler began by solving the mud problem: "[T]he ground under the tents was nothing but mud, [so] he had raided the wharf at Brest of the duckboards no longer needed for the trenches, carted the first one himself up that four-mile hill to the camp, and thus provided something in the way of protection for the men to sleep on." General John J. Pershing authorized a duckboard shoulder patch for the units. This won Butler another nickname, "Old Duckboard." For his services, Butler earned not only the Distinguished Service Medal of both the Army and the Navy but also the French Order of the Black Star.

Following the war, Butler became Commanding General of the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia, and served in this capacity until January 1924, when he was granted leave of absence to accept the post of Director of Public Safety of the City of Philadelphia. While there he transformed the wartime training camp at Quantico, Virginia into a permanent Marine post.

Director of Public Safety

On official leave of absence from the Marine Corps from January 1924 to December 1925, Butler briefly became the Director of Public Safety in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Due to the influence of Butler's father, the congressman, the newly elected mayor of Philadelphia, W. Freeland Kendrick, asked Butler to leave the Marines to become Director of Public Safety, the official in charge of running the police and fire departments. Philadelphia's municipal government was notoriously corrupt. Butler refused at first, but when Kendrick asked President Calvin Coolidge to intervene, and Coolidge contacted Butler to say that he could take the necessary leave from the Corps, Butler agreed.

Within days, Butler ordered raids on more than 900 speakeasies. Butler also went after bootleggers, prostitutes, gamblers and corrupt police officers. Butler was more zealous than politic in his duties; in addition to going after gangsters and the working-class joints, Butler raided the social elites' favorite speakeasies, the Ritz-Carlton and the Union League. A week later, Kendrick fired Butler. Butler later said "cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I was ever in."

China and stateside service

From 1927 to 1929, Butler was commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force in China. He cleverly parlayed among various nationalist generals and warlords in order to protect American lives and property, and ultimately won the public acclaim of contending Chinese leaders.

When Butler returned to the United States, in 1929, he was promoted. At 48, he became the Marine Corps' youngest major general. He directed the Quantico camp's growth until it became the "showplace" of the Corps. Butler also won national attention by taking thousands of his men on long field marches, many of which he led from the front, to Gettysburg and other Civil War battle sites, where they conducted large-scale re-enactments before crowds of often distinguished spectators.

In 1931, Butler publicly recounted gossip about Benito Mussolini in which the dictator allegedly struck a child with his automobile in a hit-and-run accident. The Italian government protested, and President Hoover, who strongly disliked Butler, forced Secretary of the Navy Adams to court-martial Butler. Butler became the first general officer to be placed under arrest since the Civil War. Butler apologized (to Adams) and the court martial was canceled with only a reprimand.

Military retirement and later years

When Major General Wendell C. Neville died in July 1930, many expected Butler to succeed him as Commandant of the Marine Corps. Butler, however, had criticized too many things too often, and the recent death of his father, the congressman, had removed some of his protection from the hostility of his civilian superiors. Butler failed to receive the appointment, although he was then the senior major general on the active list. The position went instead to Major General Ben H. Fuller. At his own request, Butler retired from active duty on October 1, 1931.

Claims of the Business Plot

In 1934, Butler came forward and reported to the U.S. Congress that a group of wealthy pro-Fascist industrialists had been plotting to overthrow the government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a military coup. Even though the House Un-American Activities Committee corroborated most of the specifics of his testimony, no further action was taken.

Speaking and writing career

Butler took up a lucrative career on the lecture circuit. He also was part of a commission established by Oregon Governor Julius L. Meier that helped form the Oregon State Police. In 1932, he ran for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary in Pennsylvania, allied with Gifford Pinchot, but was defeated by Senator James J. Davis.

Butler was known for his outspoken lectures against war profiteering and what he viewed as nascent fascism in the United States. During the 1930s, he gave many such speeches to pacifist groups. Between 1935 and 1937, he served as a spokesman for the American League Against War and Fascism (which some considered communist-dominated).

In his 1935 book, War Is a Racket, Butler presented an exposé and trenchant condemnation of the profit motive behind warfare. His views on the subject are well summarized in the following passage from a 1935 issue of "the non-Marxist, socialist" magazine, Common Sense – one of Butler's most widely quoted statements:

"I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. 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. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."


Smedley Butler died at Naval Hospital, Philadelphia, June 21, 1940. His doctor had described his illness as an incurable condition of the upper gastro-intestinal tract, probably cancer. He was buried at Oaklands Cemetery in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Legacy and honors

See also



  • Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC. Who's Who in Marine Corps History. History Division, United States Marine Corps. Retrieved on 2007-10-13..
  • Butler. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy. Retrieved on 2007-10-14..
  • Butler, Smedley D. (1935; reprint, 2003). War Is a Racket. Los Angeles: Feral House. ISBN 0-922915-86-5.
  • Frazier, Wade The Business of War. (2002). .
  • McFall, J. Arthur (2003). "After 33 years of Marine service, Smedley Butler became an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy". Military History 19 (6): 16.
  • Schmidt, Hans (1987). Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813116198.
  • Valaik, J. David (2000). "Smedley D. Butler". American National Biography Online
  • Venzon, Anne Cipriano (1992). General Smedley Darlington Butler: The Letters of a Leatherneck, 1898-1931. Praeger Publishers. ISBN 0-275-94141-8.
  • "Smedley D. Butler". Dictionary of American Biography, Supplements 1-2: To 1940

Further reading

  • USMC: A Complete History. Beaux Arts Edition, Printed in China: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc..
  • Archer, Jules (2007). The Plot to Seize the Whitehouse: The Shocking True Story of the Conspiracy to Overthrow FDR. Skyhorse Publishing. ISBN 978-1-6023-9036-2.
  • Thomas, Lowell (1933). Old Gimlet Eye: The adventures of Smedley D. Butler. Farrar & Rinehart. ASIN: B00085MY0Q. "While still interesting, it is neither scholarly nor unbiased." – American National Biography Online
  • Clyde H. Metcalf (1939). A Hist. of the U. S. Marine Corps.
  • Clyde H. Metcalf (1944). Marine Corps Reader.
  • (1949). Marine Corps Gazette
  • (1950). Marine Corps Gazette
  • ".". The New York Times. .
  • ".". New York Herald Tribune. .
  • ".". New York Herald Tribune. .

External links

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