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The insane life of Marine legend Smedley Butler

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Smedley Butler

Smedley Butler was a complicated man but an exemplary Marine and an officer who truly led men and certainly has a place in the Marine Corps hall of fame. He also spoke against war and the government’s involvement in two books, Gangster for Capitalism and War is a Racket. He might be one of the most interesting men ever to live. Let’s explore some of the more interesting aspects of his life. 

Likely rated a third Medal of Honor

Smedley Butler is one of the few men to ever earn two Medals of Honor, but he likely rated a third. In Tienstin, China, he witnessed another Marine wounded, and he charged out of the trench to rescue him. Butler was shot, as was a third Marine who attempted to assist them. Despite being shot, he escorted the wounded Marine for many miles, some say as many as 15, to get him to treatment. 

Brevet Medal

Four of Smedley’s men received the MOH, but at the time, officers were not eligible for the award. Instead, he was given a brevet promotion to captain at the age of 19. He was later eligible for the Brevet Medal and is one of only 20 officers ever to receive such an award. 

Smedley would later earn two Medals of Honor. His first was in Veracruz and his second was in Haiti. He is one of three Marines to earn a MOH and a Brevet Medal and the only Marine to earn the Brevet Medal and two Medals of Honor. 

Related: Faustin Wirkus – The US Marine who became a king

He held two patents 

Smedley was both a warrior and a thinker, enough so that he was granted two patents. The first one was for an Infantry Fire Control Scale that was patented in 1918. His invention was essentially a range finder using a variety of scales to determine range in relation to the line of sight. 

According to the Intercept, his second patent was a stable means to carry machine guns by donkey or mule.

He was a spy 

In January 1914, Smedley Butler was ordered from his home in Panama to a Battleship Group off the coast of Mexico since a revolution was occurring in the country, and the American military needed to keep an eye on it. Butler and Navy Lieutenant Fletcher went ashore and Fletcher proposed they go deeper into the county to develop a detailed invasion plan should it be needed. 

However, Butler would not go as a Marine but as a spy. With approval from Washinton, he took the train to Mexico City posing as a railroad official by the name of Mr. Johnson.

U.S. Marines onboard the USS South Carolina at Veracruz, 1914. (Creative Commons)

His cover was that he was searching for a lost railroad employee as he scoured the city. He gathered various pieces of intelligence on the Mexican Army including the weapons it used, its unit sizes, and their states of readiness. He also updated maps and verified railroad lines.

He even appears in a book written by Edith O’Shaughnessy, a wife to a diplomat in Mexico, who described him as “eager, intrepid, dynamic, efficient, unshaven!” 

Related: The uncertain origins of the military hand salute

He cleared Philadelphia of corruption

In 1924, the mayor of Philadelphia contacted President Calvin Coolidge, asking for a military general to clear corruption out of the municipal government. Butler was granted leave from the Corps to assume the title of director of public safety in Philadelphia. He couldn’t fire corrupt officers, so he began switching entire units from one part of the city to another. This undermined and prevented protection rackets and corruption. 

Philadelphia’s city hall in 1936. (Creative Commons)

Within his first two days on the job, Smedley Butler raided 900 speakeasies and locked them down or destroyed them. He was not one to pick and choose what areas he targeted and he shut down the Ritz Carlton and Union League, which catered to the social elite. He also gave the police uniforms and created armored car units carrying sawn-off shotguns to chase bandits. 

His tactics were military and at times heavy-handed, for example, set up checkpoints and stopped citizens without cause. This created some issues, but he had enough support from the city to remain for a second year.

At the end of the second year, he resigned after being pressured by the city’s major. He was later quoted as saying, “cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I was ever in.”

The first general officer to be arrested since the Civil War

In 1931 Smedley Butler, who was then a major general, was giving a speech to the Philadelphia Contemporary Club and shared an anecdote told to him by Cornelius Vanderbilt IV who, when he was in Italy, rode with Mussolini in his car and interviewed him. The car was driving at high speed when it hit and killed a child. Mussolini kept driving and said, “What is one life in the affairs of a state?”

Benito Mussolini
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. (Creative Commons)

Butler’s relating of the story caused a political uproar in both Rome and Washington with the secretary of state apologizing to Mussolini, who denied the story, and Butler getting arrested. President Hoover ordered a court martial for Butler, however, public opinion was on Butler’s side. A cabinet officer told Hoover he could “see no profit in putting the Admirals up against a dashing Marine with a unique flair for publicity.”

Butler’s lawyer, another China Marine veteran, and Butler went to war with the State Department. Very quickly, the government agreed to drop charges and offer various deals. The two rejected all of them and eventually proposed their own which was that Butler would be reprimanded, but he would write his own reprimand. The State Department agreed but asked for a formal apology to Mussolini. While it seems that Butler agreed he never got around to that apology. 

Related: Letters to Loretta: Life in German POW camp Stalag 17B

Exposing the Business Plot 

The most famous action of Butler was exposing the Business Plot which was a supposed conspiracy by a group of American industry titans to overthrow the government and install a fascist dictatorship in the 1930s.

Butler was contacted by a man named Gerald MacGuire, a bonds salesman, about leading an army of half a million former soldiers. Smedley reported the information to the authorities and an investigation ensued. Although no evidence of a plot was found, the Business Plot remained a long-lasting conspiracy theory. 

A complicated man 

Smedley Butler was a complicated and fascinating man. He did some truly great things but also some self-admitted terrible things. I’m sure he remained conflicted about his life of service and the deeds done. He is a part of American history that certainly shouldn’t be forgotten.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2023.

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Travis Pike

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.