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Smedley Butler, America’s Wars, and the Threat to Democracy

Recently, several troubling stories have appeared on the front page of The Times. One was about the release of video from America’s last, pointless drone strike in Afghanistan before the American troops withdrew — a strike which killed only civilians, seven of whom were children. The article was co-written by Azmat Khan, an investigative journalist who has revealed “a pattern of impunity” in America’s air wars and the deaths of thousands of foreign noncombatants. Other stories concerned the demise of the voting rights bill in the Senate and Donald Trump’s attempt to stonewall the Jan. 6 committee — each a further reminder of the rising threat to U.S. democracy posed by an increasingly authoritarian right.

These stories might seem unrelated. But the faltering of our democracy is directly connected to the impunity with which we wage wars. Not for the first time, the violence, unaccountability and dehumanization the United States has long employed overseas is being brought home as a strategy for securing political power.

One of the first Americans to recognize this pattern was Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler. After joining the Marines as an idealistic teenager to, in his words, “help free little Cuba” from the Spanish Empire in 1898, he rode a wave of largely forgotten conflicts that presaged our modern “forever wars”: the U.S. colonization of the Philippines, the Boxer Rebellion in China, and the invasions and occupations of many Latin American countries, including Nicaragua and Haiti. It was near the end of his life, however, that he realized the last casualty of such wars could be American democracy itself.

Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

General Butler and his fellow Marines were deployed in much the same way drones are today — a tool for presidents to quietly kill and meddle in other countries without having to commit large contingents of ground forces. And kill they did. During the brutal U.S. occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934, then-Major Butler helped to pioneer the creation of local client forces, who — like their latter-day successors in Afghanistan and Iraq — often depended on U.S. air power.


A description of a Marine-led attack on a Haitian village circa 1919 could be ripped from Ms. Khan’s reporting, except the attack involved a biplane instead of a drone:

“It descends, spins, its motor screaming. It drops bombs and goes straight back up. It turns around again, aims at another group and resumes its hellish noise. This maneuver is repeated several times. The cows moo, panic-stricken, the women scream, the men empty the plaza with their machetes and guns … We then advance toward the camp, finish off the wounded and count the corpses.”

General Butler eventually became disillusioned by the horrors he participated in, and his realization that the greatest beneficiaries of them were the banks and corporate interests who always seemed to follow his Marines ashore. But it was only after returning to the United States and retiring in 1931 that he began to understand how imperial impunity abroad breeds authoritarianism at home.

His first wake-up call came in 1932, when thousands of World War I veterans and their families converged on Washington to demand long-promised payments they needed to weather the Depression. Instead of sending help, President Herbert Hoover sent the Army under the command of Mr. Butler’s fellow general, Douglas MacArthur. The soldiers fired chemical weapons at the veterans and their families and burned their makeshift shacks to the ground. A baby choked on the gas and died shortly after. It was as if a scene from Haiti or the Philippines had come to the shadow of the Capitol.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Just over two years later, General Butler blew the whistle on a homegrown fascist coup scheme known as the “Business Plot.” In November 1934, he told a congressional subcommittee that a representative of a prominent Wall Street brokerage house — headed by a former military intelligence officer — tried to recruit him to overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt and end his “socialistic” New Deal. The plan called for General Butler to lead an armed mob of veterans up Pennsylvania Avenue, who would intimidate Mr. Roosevelt into resigning or delegating his powers to a cabinet secretary the plotters would choose. This embryonic putsch — modeled on Benito Mussolini’s 1922 “March on Rome” and a then-recent anti-parliamentary riot of far-right and fascist groups in France — could have gone the way of Jan. 6, 2021, or worse, had the general not spoken out in time.

Though many, including The Times, initially laughed off his allegations, he had reason to take the threat seriously: He had made a career subverting governments, including democracies, around the world on behalf of some of the same bankers and industrialists whom he had been told were prepared to back the coup. “I have one interest in all of this,” he told the subcommittee, “and that is to try to do my best to see that a democracy is maintained in this country.”

The threat, however real it was, soon passed. Roosevelt persisted with his New Deal, showing Americans that liberal democracy, flawed as it was, could still meet their needs. The totalizing conflict against the fascist powers in World War II disabused many American elites of any previous affection they had felt for fascism as an alternative to democracy or class politics.

But the generation that remembers those days is vanishing. We are now on the other side of two decades of slow burning, distant wars that are a throwback to the imperial conflicts of General Butler’s era. Meanwhile, crises we face can feel as destabilizing as the Great Depression — from the pandemic to climate catastrophe to daily economic struggles. Liberalism is again being discredited in the eyes of millions of Americans. Republican legislators demean democracy and openly tout the prospect of a “national divorce.” As the scholar Kathleen Belew has noted, “The aftermath of warfare is the most consistent predictor of vigilante violence in the U.S.”

Once you learn to see the world as General Butler did, the similarities become obvious. You see the resemblances between the U.S. military’s refusal to hold anyone responsible for the killing of Afghan children in August, and the roaring standing ovation that greeted the vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse. You see that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and even an active-duty Marine were charged in connection with the siege of the Capitol. You see how the political assumption that has seemingly led the Biden administration to stall on its goal to close the Guantánamo prison camp also leads the QAnoners who stormed the Capitol to fantasize about imprisoning and executing their political enemies in that same gulag.

Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

General Butler’s life, flawed as it was, points to another way. He ultimately repudiated his military service, claiming he had been a “high-class muscle man for Big Business” and a “racketeer for capitalism.” He spent the last years of his life campaigning against imperialism, decrying collusion between capital and the military, and trying to stop the coming world war.

We can go further: demanding accountability for those who ordered and carried out injustices in our name, and making reparations to our victims. Legislators can recommit to democracy by strengthening voting rights and improving representation, and restoring the faith of the people in democratic government by anticipating and meeting their material needs. Others can follow General Butler’s example by exposing and denouncing authoritarianism wherever it lurks, including by stopping the ongoing Trumpist plot to steal the next election.

If we can’t do these things out of empathy, we can do them out of self-interest — out of an understanding that all our futures are connected, including with those we have harmed overseas. Ms. Khan wrote that a goal of her investigation was to make “the American public more informed about the consequences of our wars.” As Smedley Butler tried to warn us, one of the consequences is that those wars always come home.

Jonathan M. Katz (@KatzOnEarth) is the author of the newly released “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire.” He also writes The Racket newsletter and podcast at

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