Reviewed by Roger Marheine
Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire, by Jonathan Katz. (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2021. 412 pages.)
As a companion to this review, MLT readers are encouraged to read Greg Godels’ ZZ’s Blog, “Imperialism, the Enemy of Peace” (February 14, 2022)
In Gangsters of Capitalism, Jonathan Katz explores Marine General Smedley Darlington Butler’s imperialist expeditions that spanned three decades. Beginning with the Spanish American War (1898), Butler established himself as the “marine’s marine.” He is the only U.S. Marine to be granted the Medal of Honor, twice. By meticulously retracing Butler’s military career, Katz sought “to chase Butler’s shadow to the ends of the earth” (343). That imperialist shadow darkened the lives of populations in Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, and China. Katz thus traces “gangster capitalism’s” imperialist aggressions through Butler’s career. He pulls no punches in emphasizing that Butler’s exploits included the slaughter of innocents in his unabashed loyalty to U.S. imperialism.
However, late in life, Butler, most strikingly, experienced a critical change of mind, leading to his denouncing of war and its capitalist profiteers. He published War is a Racket (1935). Its opening lines read: “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only [racket] international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” Katz examines Butler, that rare military officer who evolved to critique the insidious cruelties of empire, even as his personal career benefited greatly from imperial devastations. Butler’s political reversal has been praised in anti-war and anti-imperialist circles though he is not widely addressed by mainstream historians. (1)
Katz’s text divides into chapters with the names of countries and cities as titles—locations in which Butler led Marine assaults. Each chapter follows a three-fold pattern.
First, he traces imperialist motivations. He documents a litany of U.S. monopolists’ economic pursuits, along with the orchestration of political complicity, the development of racial rationalizations, and the villainizing of international populations.
Second, Katz follows the specifics of Butler’s military career. Butler’s Marines tended to fulfill two military functions: often they acted similarly to today’s Special Operations, Navy Seals etc. by leading clandestine assaults on civilian populations; they also conducted larger Search and Destroy missions often under considerable hardship—Butler was wounded a number of times.
Finally, Katz’s most original material documents his personal journey to return to battle grounds, sites of massacres, and historic monuments that champion heroic resistance figures who fought against imperialist encroachment. Clearly, Katz seeks to recover a history lost to most Americans, and to encourage our solidarity with those populations who rose up against the imperialist onslaughts.
Katz’s work shows rigorous research, and it contains a plethora of facts and reflections. Clearly, this is his labor of love. Regarding imperialism and its relation to capitalism, however, Katz is no Leninist. His text does claim imperialism and capitalism as comorbidities. Ultimately, however, while he condemns imperialism, he leaves it to his reader to call for an end to capitalism itself. (2)
In each chapter, Katz establishes the U.S. contextual banking, industrial, mining, and agricultural interests in a particular country and the political machinations that led to military assaults. He quotes Butler, who encouraged his audience (1935), “…in these times…[to] look for the oil deposits when you are trying to get at the bottom of deep international intrigue’” (qtd in Katz 201).
Notably, Butler’s military campaigns in Veracruz, Mexico, stymied the Mexican Revolution led by Emilio Zapata and Poncho Villa. Known as the “Tampico Incident,” the U.S. imperialist goal was to establish control of petroleum for Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and to oust the British Pearson’s Mexican Eagle (Katz 192).
In the Spanish-American War chapters, Katz traces inter imperialist rivalries, and flagrant manipulations to encourage both Cuban and Filipino rebels to side with the U.S. as an ally in its liberation from Spain. In each case, betrayal and murder of rebel leaders by U.S. military operatives laid the groundwork for U.S. imperial dominance in Latin America, and opened the door to exploitation of China. Utilizing paternalistic rhetoric akin to what later would be called “humanitarian intervention,” the press, complicit politicians, religious institutions all boarded the war wagon. Local populations had to be “saved” from evil occupiers or local despots—a rhetorical pattern witnessed in later wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, etc. (3)
However, unlike today, the word “imperialism” carried much credibility and was championed by intensified nationalist rhetoric and blatant racism. Indeed, “Manifest Destiny” articulated 19th century imperialism, and in practice meant ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and their incarceration on reservations. Katz clarifies that historical genocide against Native Americans, “Jim Crow” laws, and the Plessey v. Ferguson ruling, all contributed to an easy acceptance of imperialist invasions abroad. Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West” shows, with their “recreation” of bloody conflicts, celebrated military victories, and the “taming” of the West dovetailed seamlessly with American invasions abroad. Imperialism, Katz notes, was an American entitlement.
In mid-career, Butler did write a scathing criticism of Woodrow Wilson, who had run on an anti-war platform, but by 1917 brought the U.S. into World War I. What had changed? Butler sneered, “Money.” He cited the specifics. The allies were losing, and they owed “American bankers, American munitions makers, American manufacturers, American speculators, American exporters five or six billion dollars.”
Smedley Butler: Man on the Imperialist Mission
Katz contends that young Butler’s military aspirations were rooted in three broad overlapping assumptions.
First, his father a U.S. Congressman, Butler was nurtured on a naïve nationalism and the notion of “service.” Despite being from a Quaker family and thus nominally pacifist, Butler exhibited a youthful patriotic attraction to national military duty.
Second, and even more importantly, Butler endorsed wholeheartedly the new imperialist ideologies championed by Teddy Roosevelt, and orchestrated by the burgeoning monopoly class. Until the Depression Era 1930s, Butler equated patriotism with imperial expansion.
Third, Katz makes an intriguing argument tracing the emergence of a “cult of manhood,” largely spearheaded by Teddy Roosevelt who urged men to embrace the “doctrine of the strenuous life.” It proved to be not all that different from similar arousals in Germany just a few decades later. Butler succumbed to these patriarchal persuasions that meshed well with U.S. aggression abroad. Katz writes: “Butler’s desire to prove his manhood burned so hot that it blinded him to the moment when a war he’d joined to free peoples from imperialism became a war to subdue a colony” (Katz 51). (4)
Katz traces specific military assaults, led by Butler personally, which often entailed genocidal atrocities, casually rationalized by racism. Butler tended toward paternalistic racism and an unquestioning expression of white supremacy to in effect to save the local populations from themselves. Katz quotes Butler’s comment to a Senate committee on Haiti: “’We (Marines) were all imbued with the fact that we were the trustees of a huge estate that belonged to minors….[that] the Haitians were our wards and that we were endeavoring to make for them a rich and productive property, to be turned over to them at such time as our government saw fit.’” Butler’s arrogant ideological position fell roughly in line with Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.” Kipling, the zealous advocate for British imperialism, wrote the poem as homage to the U.S. invasion of the Philippines—in which Butler played a role, albeit a secondary one.
Katz insists however, that casual racism meshed all too easily with the most brutish forms: “Patronizing sympathy and racial animus can be close cousins, living side by side in one trained to view the people around them solely as objects for pity, utility, or scorn” (Katz 138). Overt hostile racism provided cover for the invasions of the Philippines and Haiti in particular. Thus, white American soldiers referred to Filipino resistance fighters and black U.S. soldiers by the “n-word” which led to much dissension among the ranks of black soldiers. (5)
Butler’s intuitive grasp of dividing and thus conquering a resistant population would eventually be codified in The Small Wars Manuel (1940). Katz draws a direct line linking Butler’s military insights and modern Counterinsurgency Doctrine (COIN) tactics. COIN in theory meant the winning of hearts and minds of local populations to turn against their own resistance forces who oppose imperialist invasions (Katz 210-211).
A list of Butler’s military campaigns reveals the bloody trail of U.S. imperialism itself.
After victories in the opium wars and squelching of the Boxer Rebellion, Butler’s “can do” expertise spearheaded assaults in major Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. Butler cooperated with Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-Communist Guomindang, and stood idly by as Chiang’s troops murdered thousands during the Shanghai uprising of 1927.
Resistance Figures and Historical Implications
Finally, most chapters document Katz’s own physical journeys, covering 5000 miles to trace Butler’s excursions (his shadow). Katz visits various sites of massacres, battles, and resistance efforts by heroic locals to promote historical memory and to ascertain modern implications. This is Katz’s most original material as he draws compelling historical inferences and links multiple resistance activists.
Thus, the Chinese “Boxers” (of the Boxer Rebellion) called themselves “Militia United in Righteousness,” and as ferocious fighters, provided inspiration for communist rebellions a few decades later (Katz 81). Haitian guerrillas known as “Cacos,” fought both plantation owners and Butler’s army; Katz clarifies their resistance linked back to the great Haitian slave uprising a century earlier. Dominican insurgents, known as “gavilleros,” often fought along side Haitian Cacos and recognized no border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic; artificial borders were established by imperialists (Katz 227). Katz shares that John Brown, the American insurgent abolitionist, while waiting to be hanged after the defeat at Harpers Ferry, in 1859, read a biography of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture (Katz 208). Katz argues that in 1950s Nicaragua, Augusto Sandino’s memory was revived by Carlos Fonseca who helped found the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and lead the Sandinista revolution of 1978. (4)
In 1898, Cuban blacks made up a huge portion of the anti-Spanish resistance, and almost half of the officer corps were black. Katz argues the U.S. army could not have defeated the Spanish alone. Cuban fighters turned the tide and could have defeated the Spanish by themselves (Katz 29). Filipino insurgents rose up in the town of Balangiga to defeat a sizeable U.S army contingent that had enslaved the local population (Katz 93). Heroic resistors inspire those that follow and carry the great tradition.
Butler’s change of mind
Genocidal killers, CIA assassins, and ruthless bankers rarely see the error of their ways and transform themselves. It is difficult to grasp how someone could spend decades committing genocide for empire, but ultimately come to an epiphany. Butler had worked diligently as a Marine officer, a volunteer for plunder and slaughter.
What brought a change of heart and mind? Katz claims the Great Depression, the treatment of Veterans, and an attempt at a fascist coup against FDR’s government transformed Butler. The Depression laid bare capitalism’s contradictions, and thousands of U.S. military veterans suffered homelessness and unemployment; however, capitalism remained. Butler’s allegiance to veterans provoked in him a sympathetic response to their plight and a shift in his view of the military itself. The destruction of a veterans’ encampment (called the Bonus Expeditionary Force) near the nation’s Capitol, led by General Douglas MacArthur, with the aid of Dwight Eisenhower and in alliance with cavalry leader George Patton, shocked Butler. Katz writes that Butler now saw “that America’s wars were started by capitalists at the expense of the soldiers sent to fight them” (316). Katz notes that MacArthur defended his brutal assault by claiming he had prevented a Communist revolution. (7)
Ultimately in 1934, Butler, to his amazement, would be recruited to lead a fascist coup against FDR, orchestrated by American elites who favored Hitler and Mussolini. Katz documents what came to be called the Business Plot machinations of J.P. Morgan, General Motors CEO Alfred Sloan, chemical company CEO Irennee de Pont and other leading industrialists. Their organization, the America Liberty League, sought to establish “a Fascist Government…to save the nation from the Communists…” (Katz 321). Katz links the 1934 Business Plot briefly to the January, 2021, attack on the Capitol (8)
Katz’s text: an indictment of imperialism, and indirectly an indictment of capitalism.
Katz places Butler in the tradition of Mark Twain’s Anti-Imperialist League. Butler is thus a precursor to Dwight Eisenhower, who famously warned of the “Military Industrial Complex.” Like Eisenhower, Butler would run for office (US Senate) as a Republican. Still, he did vote Socialist in the 1936 presidential election and was a committed anti-fascist.
Today, Butler’s ideology would be more in line with Andrew Bacevich and others who have premised defense without empire, an ideology rooted in a nostalgic regard for American exceptionalism. That is, American values are somehow unique and greater than those of other countries. It’s merely a kinder and gentler form of nationalism (usually called “democracy”). Ideologically, this is the flip side of Trump’s Make America Great Again. The liberal tendency is to separate capitalism from imperialism and thus construct a false narrative.
Katz personally may be pulling his punches in not asserting the need to end capitalism, and thus an end to imperialism. He does assert a class basis for racism, but only by implication does his text direct us to a revolutionary conclusion. He does not call for communism or even socialism. Still, his enormous research with compelling facts reveals the horrors of U.S. imperialism, all in the quest for profit. It is a text worthy of our attention, one that we can utilize in our struggle against imperialism and capitalism itself.
- One notable exception, is the excellent text by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States. Gallery Books, 2013. Stone and Kuznick emphasize Butler’s outsized role in numerous imperialist interventions from Cuba to China. The standard biography of Butler is Hans Schmidt’s Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History. of Kentucky Pr., 1998. Finally, the Veterans For Peace chapter in Boston, MA calls itself the Smedley Butler Brigade.
- See Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). In addition to the traditional colonial assaults to acquire raw materials and profit from cheap labor, Lenin demonstrated that monopoly capitalism had changed the game entirely. His analysis of the development of monopolies, the merging of banking and industrial capital to form finance capital, and the export of capital to the farthest lands meant a division of the earth by a few mega powers that eventually led to World War I. Leninists understand that imperialist war is not a misguided action based on flawed thinking, nor perpetrated by a few bad political actors. In fact, imperialist war is a fundamental feature of monopoly capitalism.
- The term “humanitarian intervention” entails the military intrusion of one country upon another for the purposes of safeguarding a population suffering human rights abuses, genocide, etc. Regarding Kosovo, in the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton made the term famous as articulated in the Clinton Doctrine. It argued the U.S. would forcefully intervene to prevent human rights abuses when it could do so without suffering substantial casualties and without the authority of the UN Security Council. Obviously, such a position provides a wide range of opportunities for imperialism to invade almost anywhere! Its specious logic is evident. Implicitly, however, the concept remains a major rationale for U.S. invasions until the present day.
- While far more sophisticated technologically, today’s military recruitment propaganda from extensive war video games to endless commercials glamorizing military exploits promotes the same ideology of patriarchal, indeed toxic masculinity. Aside from perhaps the Catholic Church, the U.S. military remains the single most regressively patriarchal mass institution in the U.S.
- See Willard B. Gatewood. “Smoked Yankees” and the Struggle for Empire: Letters from Negro Soldiers, 1898-1902. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Pr., 1971. Gatewood documents the fact that some black American soldiers defected and joined the ranks of the Filipino resistance.
- Katz clarifies that Sandino, who was killed by the U.S. backed Anastasio Somoza, was in fact a member of Nicaragua’s Liberal Party, and not a leftist. Thus, the modern Sandinistas, inspired by their namesake, actually were much more radical, politically (Katz 141).
- According to Katz, CPUSA leadership had considered turning the veterans’ group toward revolution. The 1934 encampment would have occurred about seventeen years after the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, had called on Russian soldiers to “turn the guns around,” and help overthrow the czar. However, the Bonus Expeditionary Force suffered fascist sympathizers in its leadership which superseded any CPUSA influence.
- While superficially similar to the January 2021 neo-fascist assault on the U.S. Capitol, a critical difference is that in 1934, the major wing of monopoly capitalism conceived of the coup that ultimately failed to materialize.
-Roger Marheine taught English at Pasadena City College and is now retired. His interests include war culture and resistance literature.