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Banana Wars: Major General Smedley Butler

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Banana Wars: Major General Smedley Butler

Major General Smedley Butler, USMC

Photograph Courtesy of the US Marine Corps

Smedley Butler - Early Life:

Smedley Butler was born in West Chester, PA on July 30, 1881, to Thomas and Maud Butler. Raised in the area, Butler initially attended West Chester Friends Graded High School before moving on to the prestigious Haverford School. While enrolled at Haverford, Butler's father was elected to the US House of Representatives. Serving in Washington for thirty-one years, Thomas Butler would later provide political cover for his son's military career. A gifted athlete and a good student, the younger Butler elected to leave Haverford in mid-1898 to take part in the Spanish-American War.

Smedley Butler - Joining the Marines:

Though his father wished him to remain in school, Butler was able to obtain a direct commission as a second lieutenant in the US Marine Corps. Ordered to the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC for training, he then joined the Marine Battalion, North Atlantic Squadron and took part in operations around Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. With the withdrawal of the Marines from the area later in the year, Butler served aboard USS New York until being discharged on February 16, 1899. His separation from the Corps proved short as he was able to secure a first lieutenant's commission in April.

Smedley Butler - In the Far East:

Ordered to Manila, Philippines, Butler took part in the Philippine-American War. Bored by garrison life, he welcomed the opportunity to experience combat later that year. Leading a force against the Insurrecto-held town of Noveleta in October, he succeeded in driving off the enemy and securing the area. In the wake of this action, Butler was tattooed with a large "Eagle, Globe, and Anchor" which covered his entire chest. Befriending Major Littleton Waller, Butler was selected to join him as part of a Marine company on Guam. En route, Waller's force was detoured to China to aid in putting down the Boxer Rebellion.

Arriving in China, Butler took part in the Battle of Tientsin on July 13, 1900. In the fighting, he was hit in the leg while trying to rescue another officer. Despite his wound, Butler assisted the officer to the hospital. For his performance at Tientsin, Butler received a brevet promotion to captain. Returning to action, he was grazed in the chest during fighting near San Tan Pating. Returning the United States in 1901, Butler spent two years serving ashore and aboard various vessels. In 1903, while stationed in Puerto Rico, he was ordered to aid in protecting American interests during a revolt in Honduras.

Smedley Butler - The Banana Wars:

Moving along the Honduran coast, Butler's party rescued the American consul in Trujillo. Suffering from a tropical fever during the campaign, Butler received the nickname "Old Gimlet Eye" due to his constantly bloodshot eyes. Returning home, he married Ethel Peters on June 30, 1905. Ordered backed to the Philippines, Butler saw garrison duty around Subic Bay. In 1908, now a major, he was diagnosed with having a "nervous breakdown" (possibly post-traumatic stress disorder) and was sent back to the United States for nine months to recover.

During this period Butler tried his hand at coal mining but found it not to his liking. Returning to the Marines, he received command of 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment on the Isthmus of Panama in 1909. He remained in the area until being ordered to Nicaragua in August 1912. Commanding a battalion, he took part in the bombardment, assault, and capture of Coyotepe in October. In January 1914, Butler was directed to join Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher off the coast of Mexico to monitor military activities during the Mexican Revolution. In March, Butler, posing as a railroad executive, landed in Mexico and scouted the interior.

As the situation continued to worsen, American forces landed at Veracruz on April 21. Leading the Marine contingent, Butler directed their operations through two days of fighting before the city was secured. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The following year, Butler led a force from USS Connecticut ashore on Haiti after a revolution threw the country into chaos. Winning several engagements with the Haitian rebels, Butler won a second Medal of Honor for his capture of Fort Rivière. In doing so, he became one of only two Marines to win the medal twice, the other being Dan Daly.

Smedley Butler - World War I:

With the US entry into World War I in April 1917, Butler, now a lieutenant colonel, began lobbying for a command in France. This failed to materialize as some of his key superiors deemed him "unreliable" despite his stellar record. On July 1, 1918, Butler received a promotion to colonel and command of the 13th Marine Regiment in France. Though he worked to train the unit, they did not see combat operations. Promoted to brigadier general in early October, he was directed to oversee Camp Pontanezen at Brest. A key debarkation point for American troops, Butler distinguished himself by improving conditions in the camp.

Smedley Butler - Postwar:

For his work in France, Butler received the Distinguished Service Medal from both the US Army and US Navy. Arriving home in 1919, he took command of Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia and over the next five years worked to make what had been a wartime training camp into a permanent base. In 1924, at the request of President Calvin Coolidge and Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick, Butler took a leave from the Marines to serve as Director of Public Safety for Philadelphia. Assuming oversight of the city's police and fire departments, he tirelessly worked to end corruption and enforce Prohibition.

Though effective, Butler's military-style methods, impolitic comments, and aggressive approach began to wear thin with the public and his popularity began to drop. Though his leave was extended for a second year, he frequently clashed with Mayor Kendrick and elected to resign and return to the Marines Corps in late 1925. After briefly commanding the Marine Corps Base at San Diego, CA, he embarked for China in 1927. Over the next two years, Butler commanded the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Working to protect American interests, he successfully dealt with rival Chinese warlords and leaders.

Returning to Quantico in 1929, Butler was promoted to major general. Resuming his task of making the base the showplace of the Marines, he worked to increase the public's awareness of the corps by taking his men on long marches and re-enacting Civil War battles such as Gettysburg. On July 8, 1930, the Commandant of the Marines Corps, Major General Wendell C. Neville, died. Though tradition called for the senior general to temporarily fill the post, Butler was not appointed. Though considered for the permanent position of commandant and supported by notables such as Lieutenant General John Lejeune, Butler's controversial track record along with ill-timed public comments regarding Italian dictator Benito Mussolini saw Major General Ben Fuller receive the post instead.

Smedley Butler - Retirement

Rather than continue in the Marine Corps, Butler filed for retirement and left the service on October 1, 1931. A popular lecturer while with the Marines, Butler began speaking to various groups fulltime. In March 1932, he announced that he would run for the US Senate from Pennsylvania. An advocate of Prohibition, he was defeated in the 1932 Republican primary. Later that year, he publically supported the Bonus Army protesters who sought early payment of the service certificates issued by the World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924. Continuing to lecture, he increasingly focused his speeches against war profiteering and American military intervention abroad.

The themes of these lectures formed the basis for his 1935 work War Is a Racket which outlined the connections between war and business. Butler continued to speak on these topics and his views of fascism in the US through the 1930s. In June 1940, Butler entered the Philadelphia Naval Hospital after being ill for several weeks. On June 20, Butler died of cancer and was buried at Oaklands Cemetery in West Chester, PA.

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