Discovering Smedley Butler

Posted on January 19, 2022

by Jonathan M. Katz

I first came across the name Smedley Butler in Haiti, shortly after I’d moved there to be the correspondent for the Associated Press in 2007. He was in a painting of three Marines in old-fashioned khaki uniforms, storming a stone fort. Two other square-jawed Marine stood in the foreground, a Haitian rebel lying dead at their feet. Behind them, crouched and firing a pistol, was Smedley.

Smedley Darlington Butler in China, 1900.
Credit: Public Domain, Marine Corps History Department

The painting commemorated a war I’d never heard of: the 1915 U.S. invasion of Haiti. It was an illustration for an article about the “Banana Wars,” a series of interventions and police actions in which the United States established dominance over Central America and the Caribbean. I’d majored in American Studies and U.S. history in college, and considered myself pretty well-read on foreign policy, but all of this was new to me. I had no idea my home country had not only invaded the one I’d just moved to, but occupied it for nineteen years. I looked once more at the Marine with the pistol. Funny name, I thought, and closed the computer.

Two years later, I was sitting on the same bed in the same house when an earthquake tore through the city, tearing apart my house along with hundreds of thousands of others. When I sat down to write my first book about the disaster, I reached back into history to understand how conditions had gotten so deadly, and to better understand the failed international response. This led me back to the U.S. occupation. No force, I learned, had done so much to centralize Haiti’s people in its capital. At the same time, U.S. occupation forces had methodically stripped the country of its wealth and sovereignty, literally stealing half the gold from its central bank.

There, at every stage, was the Marine with the strange name. Butler had played a key role in the invasion, then crushing the insurgency it inspired. Then he stayed on, setting up the client army that would endeavor to rule Haiti in the Americans’ stead. Looking deeper, I learned that Haiti was not Butler’s first invasion, nor his last. He had joined the Marines as a teenager to fight the Spanish in Cuba. In his first posting, he helped establish the new U.S. naval station at Guantánamo Bay. From there he and his compatriots slashed their way across the Philippines, carved the path for the Panama Canal, crushed rebels in Honduras and Nicaragua, and blasted open the door to oil riches in Mexico and China.

Butler retired in 1931 as one of the most decorated warfighters in U.S. history, a major general with two Medals of Honor, international renown, and calls to run for president. But in his last decade of life, he turned into a warrior against war and imperialism, calling out the military and admitting that he had been a “racketeer for capitalism.” He even exposed a 1934 fascist plot to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt.

Unable to get Butler’s story out of my head, I decided to make it my next book—to tell the story of America’s rise to global power through the extraordinary life of a forgotten figure.

Butler and the Marines in Shanghai, 1927.
Credit:  Public Domain, Marine Corps History Department

But I also knew that would not be enough. I had become familiar with the works of the great Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who wrote that “any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences”—of stories excluded from certain archives, and people and events sometimes purposefully forgotten. So for much of the last seven years, I traveled the world, talking to scholars and rebel fighters, viewing pageants, exploring private archives, and touring museums. I was even cast as an extra in a Filipino movie about that country’s American War.

Early in that journey, I visited my old stomping grounds in Haiti. At the former gravesite of Charlemagne Péralte, a Haitian resistance fighter killed by the Marines in 1919, I encountered a group of young Haitian men. When one of them asked me what I was doing I told him: that I was researching the era when people like Smedley Butler and Charlemagne Péralte had lived, so that Americans would learn about our shared past.

He looked at me like I’d been drinking Haitian moonshine.

“Americans don’t know about the occupation?” he asked.

I shook my head.

His friends started laughing.

“I don’t believe that!” he said. “I don’t believe Americans don’t know about this. How is that possible?”

The answer to that question—and, I hope, a partial cure—can be found in Gangsters of Capitalism.

Photo Credit: Jamelle Bouie

Jonathan Myerson Katz received the James Foley/Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for reporting from Haiti. His first book, The Big Truck That Went By, was shortlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction and won the Overseas Press Club’s Cornelius Ryan Award, the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, and the WOLA/Duke Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America. His work appears in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere. Katz was a New America national fellow in the Future of War program and received a fellowship from the Logan Nonfiction Program. He lives with his wife and daughter in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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