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How a fascist coup almost overthrew the government


War is a Racket


by Ken Mondschein



Smedley Darlington Butler knew war. A spare, gaunt man, he stares hollow-eyed into the camera in old photos, as if he were still seeing in his mind's eye the faces of boys whom he led to fight and die in China, the Philippines, Latin America, Haiti, and wherever else foreign policy and business interests led the United States to speak softly and carry a big stick. Nor were his battles solely fought on foreign soil: In the 1920s, Butler led a Prohibition-era campaign against Philadelphia's speakeasies that resembled our latter-day modern "war on drugs." A Marine since the age of sixteen, he had won two Congressional Medals of Honor and one Marine Corps Brevet medal for conspicuous gallantry and leadership under fire.

Odd, then, that in his later years this man, known as one of the most-decorated warriors ever to serve in the American military, should turn so against war.

In the spring and summer of 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, twenty thousand impoverished World War I veterans descended upon Washington, D.C., begging the government to honor the cash bonuses that had been promised them. The so-called "Bonus Army" erected a "Hooverville" across the Potomac River, where they slept under lean-tos made of newspaper, tin, bits of cardboard, or whatever they could scrounge. Then-retired general Butler, whose Quaker roots gave him a strong sense of social justice, addressed the "troops," expressing his support for their cause. Others in the military, however, were not as sympathetic: Under the command of President Herbert Hoover, General Douglas Macarthur, assisted by then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, used tanks and tear gas to flatten the Hooverville and rout the Bonus Army. Three died, including an eleven-week-old-baby; thousands more were injured by the gas.

The treatment that Butler saw meted out to the homeless veterans of World War I by the U.S. government was no different than that he had seen dealt out to countless others of the poor and powerless. In 1935, he remarked on his illustrious military career: "I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested." He had, in short, been the muscle for the American government's mafia-style foreign policy.

Of course, Haitians and Mexicans don't vote in the United States, and the Bonus Army incident did little to endear President Hoover to the masses. He was booted out in the 1932 election, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was replaced him. The new President immediately began making reforms, including a whole-scale restructuring of the nation's economic infrastructure and vast concessions to labor—changes that hardly endeared him to Big Business. In 1934, Smedley Butler told a Congressional committee that several Wall Street brokers, represented by one Gerald C. MacGuire, had approached him, seeking his leadership for another group of veterans to march on Washington—this time, an armed force that would make it clear to Roosevelt that it was either Wall Street's way or the highway. America had seen its own attempt at a Fascist coup.

Why, then, is this incident in U.S. history not better known? Why don't children learn in school about the plot to seize the United States government? The answer is obvious to anyone familiar with how the American political system and press work. Those Butler accused treated the affair as a joke, a "cocktail party" suggestion that the uneducated, backwoods rube of a Marine had taken seriously. The press was quick to turn on the general, as well: Time magazine called his accusations a "plot without plotters," and the New York Times, after initially reporting the events on the first page on November 21, 1934, buried them in the middle of the newspaper on the 22nd—leading off the story with a denial by MacGuire.

Nonetheless, the battle lines were drawn. Butler had spent his life being an attack dog for business, but in his later years, he turned around and bit his masters in the ass. For him, Fascist strong-arm tactics and capitalist strong-arm tactics were one and the same. Writing of World War I, he said, "It has been estimated by statisticians and economists and researchers that the war cost your Uncle Sam $52,000,000,000. Of this sum, $39,000,000,000 was expended in the actual war period. This expenditure yielded $16,000,000,000 in profits. That is how the 21,000 billionaires and millionaires got that way. This $16,000,000,000. . . . went to a very few." It was abundantly clear that the men he had led had died for no other reason than to line the pockets of those who would never have to fight themselves.

The parallels between Butler's life and times and our own are obvious: Recession, entanglement in foreign affairs, and business interests who have realized that it is cheaper to buy Washington than to storm it. For example, Halliburton, Vice President Cheney's former company, has won billions in uncontested contracts in Iraq. The slaves in the war factories owned by those who cozied up to the Nazi elite at least knew they were slaves and there was no hope for them. We, on the other hand, are kept enmeshed in the system by a series of false promises, encouraged to dream big as an opiate to mask our true condition.

The time has obviously come for Smedley Butler to have his moment in the sun. Adam Parfrey of Feral House, whose name is no doubt at the top of John Ashcroft's "enemies" list, has bravely reprinted Butler's War is a Racket, as well as his essays "Common-Sense Neutrality" and "An Amendment for Peace," in which the general argues for a non-interventionist foreign policy. Also included in the book are shocking photographs from The Horror of It, a photographic essay on the ravages of World War I.

Butler's attack on the military-industrial complex does more than expose war for the racket it is: It also gives the antiwar movement unmatched credibility. The general's suggestions for reform are nothing a modern dissident wouldn't agree with: Nationalizing the arms industry that puts the profit in carnage, not allowing Congress to declare war without conducting a national plebiscite of those who would be asked to fight and die, and passing a Constitutional amendment that limits U.S. military forces to home defense only. Though some of his suggestions are dated (we now have an all-volunteer military, and the President now regularly sends in troops without a Congressional vote, which, incidentally, was a power of Roman emperors), others are as applicable to a post-9/11 world as they were to a post-World War I world.

Click here to buy War is a Racket from the Feral House Web site. And, while you're there, drop by the message boards and give them a shout-out.



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Posted September 28, 2003 3:16 AM






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