The American Life of Smedley D. Butler

“No.  Seriously.  I won’t lose.”

~Smedley Butler Playing a Game of Bullshit

smedley butler

We recently wrote an article that focused on the Medal of Honor—mainly, how the military’s highest honor, now given only to acts of almost impossible levels of valor, was sort of tossed around pretty willy-nilly in the years after the Civil War and before World War I.  In that discussion, we briefly mentioned a U.S. Marine named Smedley Butler, who straight up tried to turn down his first Medal of Honor (yes, he was later awarded a second one) because he didn’t think he deserved it.  We then came to realize that Smedley Butler, a badass with a kind of funny first name, isn’t really well known to the casual American—hell, we had only sort of stumbled across his career by accident.

And that’s some bullshit, because Smedley Butler died as the most highly decorated Marine in U.S. history, and served 34 years where he managed to collect medals, tropical diseases, and tactics for tricking the enemy like it was his job.  Well, it sort of was his job, he was a marine, but you get the picture.

So allow us to spend three thousand words or so gushing about Smedley Butler, The Fighting Quaker.

butler and his dogs

Ha ha, holy shit, this picture.

Smedley Butler was born on July 30th, 1881, in West Chester Pennsylvania, the oldest of three sons to Quaker parents.  He came from a fairly successful family—his father was a judge and lawyer before serving as a Congressman for 31 years, including a stint as the chair of the House Naval Affairs Committee, and his mother’s father was a Republican Congressman from 1887-1891.  He went to The Haverford School, a selective prep school stocked with the upper-class of Philadelphia, where he was the captain of the baseball team and quarterback of his football team.  He dropped out of High School (though still received a diploma) 38 days before his 17th birthday due to the start of the Spanish-American War, at which point he lied about his age in order to join the Marine Corps as a Marine second lieutenant.

The rest of his life was pretty much dedicated to kicking ass and taking names in the name of America (and, like, Manifest Destiny, this was not exactly a period of our military history that made us look very good in retrospect).  He would go on to win the Medal of Honor twice, as well as the Marine Corps Brevet Medal (of which only 23 were given out, though admittedly retroactively) and received a total of 16 medals, five of which were for heroism.  He basically was one of our first super-soldiers.

smedley butler medals

“Oh, sorry, I couldn’t hear you, on account of all these medals.”

Butler began training as a 16-year-old Marine before being sent off to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba shortly after its invasion and capture.  By far, the arrival of Butler was the most noteworthy thing to occur in this bay throughout its entire history, both before and since, unless we’ve forgotten about something more recent.  We’re pretty sure we’re right on that.  Anyway, his company wasn’t on Cuba for long—he arrived in July of 1898 and left the following February.  While he was planning on receiving a discharge, he ended up getting an offer for a commission as a first lieutenant for the Marines, which he accepted.  Half a year later, he was sent off to his next engagement, the Philippine-American War.

Smedley Butler started his service in the Philippine-American War (which was a historically pointless contest that resulted in the deaths of numerous civilians, so, you know, not one of our finer moments) on garrison duty in Manila.  He was pretty bored, without any battles to fight, so he started drinking, because this is America and that’s the best way Americans can handle boredom.  That October, he got to see combat when he led 300 Marines against a group of Filipino rebels.  His first sergeant was wounded almost instantly, and he took over and led his Marines in pursuit of the enemy.  They eventually took the town, with one Marine killed and ten wounded, though another 50 “were incapacitated by the humid tropical heat” because this was still during a time where weather and disease was more of a pain in the ass than the soldiers you fought.


Pictured above: the 73rd Filipino Airborne Division

Butler was put back on garrison duty, where he handled the boredom this time by tattooing the official emblem of the Marines onto his chest.  When we say he got a tattoo on his chest, we mean he got a tattoo on his chest, it stretched from his throat down to his waist.  That’s less of a tattoo and more of a way to list your race as “Eagle, Globe, and Anchor” when you fill out the census.  Here he befriended Littleton Waller, a career marine who ended his career as a Major General who had just been given command of a company in Guam.  He was allowed to pick five officers, and being told he couldn’t select Smedley Butler five times, had to settle to just have him be one of them.  They didn’t end up making it to Guam, as the Boxer Rebellion broke out, and they had to go there to kill them some anti-imperialists who thought they were immune to bullets.

The Boxer Rebellion wasn’t as, well, shady compared to many other campaigns Butler partook in. Instead of Americans going into some underdeveloped nation and making sure they did what we said, he was helping an eight nation alliance of countries stop a rebellion that was actively killing civilians due to their complaint of, well, other countries going into underdeveloped nations and making sure they did what they said.  Either way, Smedley took part in the Battle of Tientsin on July 13, 1900, and the following Gaselee Expedition, which were not insignificant conflicts—the battle pitted 6,900 allied troops against some 13,000 Chinese Soldiers and Boxers (they were called boxers because they practiced martial arts, and no, we’re not making that up), while the ensuing expedition (a march to Beijing) had 55,000 troops against possibly 100,000 Chinese (though it was more “occasional battles during a steady moving march” than it was any actual battle).

It was while in China that Butler suffered his first injury—during battle he saw a fellow Marine officer fall wounded, at which point he was shot in the thigh once he got out of the trench to rescue him.  Another Marine came out to help the two of them to safely (he too was shot) while Butler assisted in getting the officer to the rear.  As at the time, officers weren’t eligible to receive the Medal of Honor, so he received a promotion to captain by brevet (meaning in name only, it didn’t affect his position or his salary)—this is the action that he would later get the Marine Corps Brevet Metal which was given retroactively to officers that received promotions by brevet for valor in battle.

He received his promotion while recovering in the hospital, just two weeks before his nineteenth birthday.

young soldier

Artist’s rendition of Smedley Butler during the Boxer Rebellion.

Once he felt fit to return to duty, Butler was sent out for The Banana Wars, which are about as stupid as they sound.  They took place in Central America and the Caribbean to help the United Fruit Company continue to profit off the production of bananas, tobacco, sugar cane and other products.  If that sounds shady as fuck, it was, and Butler believed so to.  Oh, yeah, we’ll get to that later, but Butler became a huge opponent of imperialism, which we can get behind (we at AFFotD don’t want America to rule the world, we just want the rest of the world to start doing stuff the way we do it, because we do most things better). Anyway, the Banana Wars occurred over a fairly large swath of American history—it basically covers everything from the Spanish-American War to our intervention in Mexico in 1914 (which Butler took part in).  As stupid as the Banana Wars were (Butler would go on to refer to himself as a “racketeer for capitalism” with engagements in these countries largely in mind) they were responsible for his time in Nicaragua, which easily represents our favorite story for the badassness of Smedley Butler.

Now, before Nicaragua, he went to deal with the Honduras revolt, where he was sent in with some Marines to basically to assist the American consulate.  Battle stopped when he showed up (probably to whispers of “oh shit, it’s Smedley Butler”), he rescued the consul, and when he left battle resumed.  He did come down with an unnamed tropical ailment (probably malaria) which gave him a constant raging fever and bloodshot eyes, leading to his second awesome nickname—Old Gimlet Eye.  Come on, just listen to that name, try it on for size.  Old Gimlet Eye.  Nice, right?

Anyway, he took a break in 1905 to marry his wife, Ethel Conway Peters, in New Jersey.  Littleton W. T. Waller (his commanding officer in China) was the best man.  He was stationed in garrison again in the Philippines, where not much happened except for him coming down with what was at the time described “a nervous breakdown” and he and his family were given a nine month sick leave which he spent managing a coal mine in West Virginia (we’ve seen one admittedly biased article say that the “nervous breakdown” was the military’s response to him taking a dangerous ocean trip to resupply his forces, who were in an isolated outpost and who the Navy had somewhat overlooked when it came to supplies, but who knows.)

black treasure

Alan Moore’s representation of Smedley’s supply mission

Butler’s first action back to duty occurred in Nicaragua from 1909 to 1912, where Nicaragua had the audacity to dare to consider making a canal that would rival the Panama canal.  They would eventually promise that if they ever made a canal, they would only let the US use it, and never made the canal, because we basically bullied them into not reviving their economy.  Because, again, we were kind of dickish at the time.  But anyway.  In 1912, the president, Adolfo Diaz, was about to be toppled by revolt, so Butler was sent in with a marine battalion.  He had 354 men, and a 104-degree fever, and managed to trick the Nicaraguan rebels in just about every way possible.  When they found themselves challenged by troops, he’d toss sandbags in the air and yell, “Dynamite!” (possibly followed by a softer “ha ha, holy shit, that worked?”) as well as sticking tent poles into their field guns to make them look like 14-inch artillery cannons, and packing his troops into a tight semicircular line so that the rebels couldn’t see how many troops he had, and were forced to assume he had a whole army.  Motherfucker was crafty, we’re trying to say.

When a delegation for the rebels arrived to entreaty Butler, he sat on a makeshift throne (and who said theatrics are dead?) and threatened to crush them with his superior numbers so convincingly that the leader of the rebels surrendered and asked for American assistance to get out of the country.


Artists Rendition of Butler in Honduras (listen we’re going to make a lot of these “artists rendition” jokes so you might as well get used to them)

In 1914, Butler partook in the invasion of Veracruz, Mexico, in a move that was largely due to Woodrow Wilson trying to show our southern neighbors how big his dick was.  Before that, however, he infiltrated the city to send back intelligence data for the later invasion (see Loki, above).  This spy mission (yes it was a spy mission) (yes, we know, that’s so cool, right?) saw him taking on the identity of a railroad official named “Mr. Johnson” (okay, yeah, for a guy named Smedley, this dude had a hard time coming up with a non-generic sounding fake name).  They went throughout the city, claiming to search for a lost railroad employee that never existed, and used that pretext to get access to various areas of the city.  Why did the residents of this important Mexican port gave so much of a shit about one missing railroad worker?  Fuck if we know.  Either way, from this Butler was able to determine the size and readiness of the Mexican army troops there, as well as the location of their weapons.  He also updated maps and confirmed railroad lines, all of which was used for a future invasion that eventually took place after the Tampico Affair (we described it in our AFFotD on Medal of Honors, and it’s really stupid, so just know it happened for stupid reasons).

Butler got a Medal of Honor for leading troops during the invasion, which he actively attempted to give back, saying he didn’t really earn it.  The military gave the medal back to Butler and basically told him to, “Just, like, put it on, okayJeez.”

The following year, in 1915, the president of Haiti was killed, and Butler was sent in to quell the rebellion.  He received a second Medal of Honor there, this time for a battle against a rebel stronghold on November 17, 1915, where he brought in 100 Marines who killed all 51 Haitians in the fort with no casualties (well, one guy lost two teeth when he got struck with a rock, which almost distressingly has us wondering if they didn’t just kill 51 dudes who only had rocks as weapons at their disposal).

missing tooth

“You shoulda seen them, Captain, they were everywhere, just chucking rocks. And all we had were these state-of-the-art rifles!”

This is the part of the story where things get interrupted by booming music and spinning newspapers saying, like, “WAR!” and “Huns Sink Lusitania!” and “Watch Our Lads Go Bravely Off To Europe!”  However you want to do that segue, during World War I, Butler wanted nothing more than command on the Western Front.  It was decided that he was too “unreliable” despite his bravery and brilliance, so he was instead promoted to the rank of brigadier general at the young age of 37 and placed in command of Camp Pontanezen in France, which helped get troops of the American Expeditionary Force to various battlefields.

When Butler got to the camp, it was dirty, crowded, and disorganized, which was an actual issue because in a war environment these describe a living situation that’s less “Oh, man, your roommate is such a slob” and more of a “Oh God now we all have dysentery no we’re all going to die oh God medicine sucks in 1918” situation.  There weren’t any floors, so Butler marched four miles to the wharf of Brest, the town the fort was located, where he’d pick up discarded duckboards (a platform made of wooden slats that help form a dry passageway over muddy ground) and brought them back.  This gave him the nickname “Old Duckboard” which is not nearly as cool as Old Gimlet Eye or The Fighting Quaker.  Anyway, he ran the fort so efficiently that he was given the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star because France was cute at the time in thinking that we gave that much of a shit about their silly awards.

order of the black star

“Aww, thanks France, that’s nice.  No, no, we’ll totally wear it.  No, just not right now.  But seriously, we love it.  It’s very pretty.”

After the war, he became the Commanding General of the Marine Barracks at Quantico, where he helped change it from a wartime training camp into a permanent Marine post.  During this time, he randomly found and dug up Stonewall Jackson’s arm, which, wait, okay, we should probably give you more details about that before moving on.  When Stonewall Jackson was killed by his own men being kind of idiots, he had his left arm amputated before succumbing to his injury (which were largely inflicted by his shitty doctors.  He basically got screwed over kind of bad in this whole deal.)  During a training exercise in Western Virginia, a farmer told him that Jackson’s arm was buried in the area, at which point Smedley said, “Bullshit.”  He saw the small marker saying that Stonewall Jackson’s arm was buried there, dug up the box to find that, indeed, Stonewall Jackson’s arm was there, and reburied it in a metal box with a new plaque.  So that’s a thing, a thing that actually happened.

Butler took a leave from the marines in 1924 at the urging of the W. Freeland Kendrick, the newly elected mayor of Philadelphia, who wanted Butler to take over as the city’s Director of Public Safety to run Philadelphia’s notoriously corrupt police and fire departments.  Butler initially refused until Calvin Coolidge, the goddamn president, intervened and authorized Butler to take temporary leave from the Marines.  He served in the post for just under two years, establishing a reputation as being tough on crime (yay) and for cracking down on speakeasys to enforce prohibition (boo).  He did help bring crime down, but also was pretty intense about it, trying to run the police like a military unit and straight up chastising cops for not having killed any criminals during their career.   He would stop citizens at checkpoints, and would address citizens on the radio using some, oh, let’s say colorful action.  He almost was kicked out after a year before a group of supporters rallied behind him and he was granted a year extension.

what are you doing smedley

He promptly celebrated by doing whatever the fuck he’s doing here.

His last year at the post focused on enforcing prohibition (boo) and cracking down on crooked cops (yay).  His leave ended on January 1st, 1926, and the President declined to give him a second extension, and he was ordered to receive his new assignment.  Now, admittedly, Butler didn’t really listen at first, having an article printed in the newspaper saying he intended to stay in Philadelphia to “finish the job,” which pissed off the mayor pretty badly.  Eventually, with pressure to leave and, you know, an actual order from the Marines, he reluctantly resigned, saying “cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I was ever in” which, damn Philadelphia, ya burnt.

Anyway, his next assignment overseas took him to China from 1927 to 1929 as a commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force, after which he returned to the States to be promoted to major general.  At 48, that made him the youngest major general in all of the Marines.  He had quite a reputation by this time, though he butted heads with Herbert Hoover, a fellow Quaker who would go on to develop had a long lasting feud with Butler.  In 1931, this came to a head when Butler had a bit of a faux pas by recounting some gossip going around saying that Benito Mussolini had killed a kid during a hit-and-run in his car.  The Italian government got pissed, and Hoover used this as an excuse to get Butler court-martialed.  He was the first general officer to be arrested since the Civil War, though the court-martial was cancelled once he apologized to the Secretary of the Navy.


That’s right, Herbert Hoover disliked Butler so much he took Benito Fucking Mussolini’s side over his.

Smedley Butler resigned from the Marines in 1931 after he failed to win the nomination for senior major general of the Corps, with Ben H. Fuller, who was viewed as less “unreliable” which we take to mean “hot headed and awesome”, securing the position.  Upon retiring, he became a proponent of pacifism, speaking out against war profiteering, U.S. military adventurism, and what he referred to as sort of fascist aspects of American foreign policy.  He eventually would write an exposé in 1935 called War is a Racket, where he referred to himself as a “gangster for Capitalism” pointing out that most of his service only benefited large corporations and did little for the American people, finally saying, “Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints.  The best he could do was operate his racket in three districts.  I operated on three continents.”

He was also loudly outspoken against fascism, which historically was the right side to be on, though certain American heroes weren’t able to get that one as right as Butler did.  His disdain for fascism and dictatorships proved to be somewhat ironic, considering what happened to him in 1934 when he was approached by a man named Gerald P. MacGuire and Bill Doyle in what came to be known as the Business Plot.  While it was initially mocked by the media as some wild fiction made up by Old Gimlet Eye, it was eventually discovered that it, at the very least, was not a hoax, though there still is debate at how far along things had progressed.  Basically, these two men claimed to be speaking for a group of business leaders who wished to overthrow FDR.  They claimed to have (or to have the ability to acquire) a private army of 500,000 in Washington D.C. and they wanted Butler to lead the soldiers into the White House and establish a fascist dictatorship in a motherfucking coup.  Butler responded with a polite “fuck you” and reported the matter to a special committee of the House of Representatives.


“Are you fucking serious?  Do you even know who I am?”

It’s unlikely that the coup would have actually materialized, but the point remains that at one point there were people who wanted Smedley Butler to rule over this country with an iron fist, which is both kind of amazing and just a little bit scary.  After this excitement, he retired, going for occasional lectures to protest America’s foreign policies and military use before he died suddenly in 1940 of what is now believed to have been cancer.  He was just 58, and didn’t get to live to see World War II happen, which you totally know he would have rejoined the Marines for just to kick some fascist Nazi ass.

Smedley Butler ended up leaving a lasting legacy—he’s still a legend among Marines, the Boston chapter of the Veterans for Peace is named the “Smedley D. Butler Brigade” but mainly he’ll always be known as an unbridled badass who marched to his own drum, and sometimes used said drum to trick rebellions into folding.

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