Smedley Butler joined the Marines in 1898 at the age of 16, in time to participate in the war in Cuba. (That was when the U.S. obtained its base at Guantanamo Bay.) From Cuba he was sent to the Philippines to help suppress the independence movement there.
In 1900 Butler was part of the multinational force sent by the Great Powers into China during the Boxer Rebellion. He was wounded twice, but recovered well enough to participate in the sacking of Beijing.
From there Butler's story is a history of the U.S. Marines in the first three decades of the 20th century. After China he was in Honduras, then Panama, then the Philippines again. In 1912 he helped rig elections to form a U.S.-friendly government in Nicaragua. In 1914 he entered Mexico as a spy to draw up plans for U.S. military intervention in the Mexican Revolution. (Later that year U.S. Marines ans sailors did land in Mexico and seize Vera Cruz, but with little effect on the revolution.)
The following year Butler was in Haiti, where he helped set up a U.S.-friendly puppet government and forced the adoption of a new constitution that had been written by U.S. government officials. And so on. Butler was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor for heroism in combat.
Probably many of the Marines at Camp Butler and other Marine bases in Japan know these Smedley Butler stories. But I wonder how many know how he spent the last years of his life. After his retirement in 1931, at the rank of major general, Butler became a popular public speaker. And he began to think about what he had been doing. He decided that for most of his career he had been a "racketeer for capitalism."
In in 1935 he wrote, "I helped make Mexico . . . safe for American oil interest in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys . . . 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. I helped make Honduras 'right' for American fruit companies in 1903. In China, in 1927, I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested."
"Looking back on it," he continued, "I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents."
Butler did not become a pacifist, but he argued that the U.S.; military should be used for defense only, and should be withdrawn from all foreign countries.
When the Marine Corps gave his name to a base in Okinawa, what that ignorance or was it an intentional insult?
Maverick Marine: General Smedley Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History by Hans Schmidt (The University Press of Kentucky, 1987); War is a Racket" by Smedley D Butler (Round Table Press,1935).
C. Douglas Lummis, a political scientist and a former US Marine stationed on Okinawa, is the author of Radical Democracy and other books in Japanese and English. A Japan Focus associate, he formerly taught at Tsuda College.
Here is Butler's speech re-created by an actor.