Smedley D. Butler was the most celebrated warfighter of his time — the recipient of two Medals of Honor, who served in nearly every major overseas conflict from 1898 until the eve of World War II. But as award-winning journalist Jonathan M. Katz details in his new book, “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire” (St. Martin’s Press, 2022), after his retirement from the Marine Corps in 1931, Butler became a warrior against war. He decried his storied record, warned about the rise of fascism in America, and said he had been a “racketeer for capitalism.”
In this exclusive excerpt from the book, Katz writes about one of the events that helped foster Butler’s more radical turn: the Bonus March of 1932.
Over the spring of 1932, veterans from every corner of the country began making their way to Washington, D.C. Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, they set up encampments across Washington. By July, there were some forty-five thousand veteran protesters, wives, and children living in shacks in the shadow of the Capitol dome.
The cause that drew them was known as the “bonus.” Veterans’ benefits had been minimal in the last World War. Many had come home from Europe to find their savings drained and jobs gone. In 1924, Congress had finally passed a bonus bill over President Coolidge’s veto, mandating that most who served during the mobilization would get $1 of back pay for each day of home service and $1.25 for each day abroad. But there was a catch: if the sum was more than $50, it would only be paid to the veteran’s survivors after they died or in 1945, whichever came first.
When the Great Depression hit, many veterans realized their green-bordered bonus certificates was their only asset that still held any value. In 1931, an Army veteran named Joseph T. Angelo walked four days from his home in New Jersey to Washington to demand the bonus be paid immediately. In response, Congress passed a bill allowing veterans to cash in part of their IOUs as loans. But President Hoover vetoed it, warning it would set a dangerous precedent by breaking “the barriers of self-reliance and self-support in our people.” The protesters’ goal in 1932 was to change his mind and force Congress’s hands.
Many Washingtonians were sympathetic to the BEF. A D.C. police captain named Sidney Marks, sent to evict the largest encampment — on the mudflats across the Anacostia River — instead told the protesters they had his support. The marchers renamed the site Camp Marks in his honor.
But the federal and military establishments were not as pleased. They denounced the occupiers as Communists and radicals. Most alarming to some, veterans of all skin colors were living in the bonus camps side by side at a time when the District of Columbia and military were strictly segregated by race.
On July 16, the Senate adjourned without taking the latest bonus bill up, effectively killing the measure. Senators left just before midnight, fleeing through the underground tunnels beneath the Capitol to avoid confronting marchers. Hoover headed to his Shenandoah summer retreat.
As dejected marchers began to take federal agents’ offers for train tickets home, the organizer of the BEF, Walter W. Waters, sent an urgent invitation to the one senior military man who had taken a public position in support of the veterans — the one officer whom he knew the veterans would listen to.
Smedley Butler arrived at Camp Marks on July 19, accompanied by his son Smedley Junior, on summer break from MIT. They strolled around the shanty town, greeting men Butler had last seen shuffling through his mudhole camp in France. Word spread, and soon thousands converged around a wooden stage to hear what Old Gimlet Eye had to say.
Smedley took off his sport coat, rolled up his sleeves, and tucked his polka dot tie between two shirt buttons so it wouldn’t flop around. A line of sun-worn U.S. flags waved behind him. Waters introduced Butler as “a real soldier, a real man, a real gentleman, and a real comrade” — noting, in case anyone had forgotten, the two Medals of Honor.
Butler looked over the crowd, now totaling about sixteen thousand stalwarts. He told the marchers what an honor it was to be among fellow soldiers; how it made him “so damn mad” to hear people calling them tramps. “By God, they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and ‘18!” he said to applause. “I mean just what I say. I don’t want anything,” he assured, his tie now loose and arms flying wildly through the air. “Nobody can kick me anymore. I’ll say what I please.”
His thinning hair was now thoroughly mussed, his throat hoarse, but his lungs were filled with anger — at how the veterans were being treated, at the state of the country, at the ruins of his own career. “This is the greatest demonstration of Americanism we have ever had! Pure Americanism. Willing to take this beating as you’ve taken it, stand right steady. You keep every law! And why in the hell shouldn’t you? Who in the hell has done all the bleeding for this country, and for this law, and this Constitution anyhow, but you fellas?” The veterans roared back in reply.
“But don’t — don’t! — take a step backward,” he warned. “Remember that as soon as you haul down your camp flag here and clear out — every one of you clears out — this evaporates in thin air. And all this struggle will have been no good.”
Unable to bear the thought of leaving, Smedley and Smedley Junior stayed the night at Camp Marks, trading war stories with the protesters late into the night. The next morning, they shared a breakfast of potatoes, black coffee, and hard bread with them before departing.
Inspired by Butler, thousands of marchers stayed. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. Army chief of staff, instructed his adjutants to draw up plans to evict the veterans by force. MacArthur also secretly began moving combat vehicles, machine guns, and tanks to Fort Myer, just outside Washington.
On July 28, nine days after Butler’s speech, policemen fatally shot two marchers in an attempt to evict the BEF from an abandoned building next to the Capitol. MacArthur ordered his aide — forty-one-year-old Maj. Dwight Eisenhower — to put on his uniform and join him in the streets to oversee the final maneuver in person.
Around 4:30 p.m., a reporter spotted four hundred Army infantrymen fixing bayonets and putting on gas masks. Army grenades exploded on the National Mall, releasing gas laced with Adamsite — a chemical weapon that can cause vomiting, asphyxiation, and, under certain circumstances, death. Cavalry, led in the saddle by George Patton, charged into a crowd of spectators. Tear gas and smoke from hundreds of burning shacks blotted out the view of the Capitol dome.
At 9:00 p.m., MacArthur announced that Camp Marks was to be destroyed. Gen. George Van Horn Moseley rushed a message from Hoover ordering the chief of staff not to cross the Anacostia River. MacArthur ignored the president. He positioned tanks on the bridge to cut off the camp from the city, then ordered the camp burned to the ground. Scores were injured. A twelve-week-old baby whose impoverished parents had brought him to Camp Marks choked on Adamsite and died soon after.
At a press conference, MacArthur asserted that he had prevented a Communist revolution. “I think as a military maneuver, if you can call a thing of this kind a military maneuver, that it was unique. I have been in many riots, but I think this is the first riot I ever was in or ever saw in which there was no real bloodshed.” MacArthur was likely thinking of his experiences in the Philippines and Mexico, though he could have been talking about the military’s experience suppressing uprisings and dissent around the world.
Those who watched it could not believe that scenes they associated with the imperial periphery had taken place in the nation’s capital. A reporter who witnessed the violence commented: “God, that I should see such things in the United States.”
The “Battle of Washington,” as MacArthur’s assault on the Bonus March became known, was a clarifying moment. For Butler, it hardened a growing conviction that the key fault line in America was class: Wall Street and those who carried out its wishes against the “little guy.” That fall, he tried out a version of the idea he’d been mulling since Nicaragua: that America’s wars were started by capitalists at the expense of the soldiers sent to fight them. “When the war is over,” Butler told a crowd in New York, “the soldier comes back, is given a march up Fifth Avenue, and as soon as he is disbanded at the end of the march the capitalists say, ‘To hell with him’ and start all over again.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt read about the burning of Camp Marks in his bedroom at the governor’s mansion in Albany. He could not believe Hoover had turned the army loose on U.S. citizens, nor how far MacArthur had gone. It was a wonder, Roosevelt told his friend and adviser Rexford Tugwell, that there hadn’t been “more resentment, more radicalism, when people were treated that way.” FDR was in a unique position to do something about it. Four weeks before MacArthur’s assault, he had accepted the Democratic nomination for president, promising “a new deal for the American people.” Butler crossed party lines to campaign for him, calling himself a “Hoover-for-Ex-President Republican.” Roosevelt won in a landslide that November.
The Roosevelt who moved into the White House in March 1933 was still the ex-Navy official who had helped plan the invasion of Veracruz, supervise the brutal occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and oversee the colonial district around his “Uncle Ted’s vast public work” in Panama. Yet Roosevelt was horrified by the approval with which his empire-building peers greeted MacArthur’s assault on American citizens — veterans who had just been asking for their government’s help in a crisis. The president told Tugwell that he sensed in the United States “an impulse among a good many ‘strong’ men, men used to having their way, mostly industrialists who directed affairs without being questioned, a feeling that democracy had run its course and that the totalitarians had grasped the necessities of the time. People wanted strong leadership; they were sick of uncertainty, anxious for security, and willing to trade liberty for it.”
Millions of Americans were turning to demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who used his nationally syndicated radio show to defend Hitler and spread conspiracy theories of a worldwide “Judeo-Bolshevik” plot. The “Nazi-minded among American leaders,” as Roosevelt called them, were more fond of the dictatorial MacArthur. His greater “charm, tradition, and majestic appearance” put a high-class and distinctively American shine on the naked repression he unleashed against the Bonus Marchers.
Indeed, the divide between outright fascism and the American elite was paper thin at the depths of the Depression. U.S. corporations not only remained in Germany after Hitler became chancellor in early 1933, but courted Nazi approval. There was money in it: Coca-Cola, General Motors, and IBM all saw their German profits surge in the wake of the Nazi ascent. The most influential of all U.S. businessmen, Henry Ford, had long since entered into a mutual admiration society with the soon-to-be führer. Hitler heaped praise on Ford’s antisemitic writings, and had told a U.S. reporter a decade earlier: “We look on Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing Fascisti movement in America.”
Germany and the United States were in many ways sister empires, who had risen at roughly the same time to challenge the older powers of Europe. Now Germany, defeated and humiliated, was turning its imperialism inward in the form of fascism.
The question for all Americans was if they would do the same. MacArthur’s answer in the burning of the bonus camps seemed to be a resounding yes.
Roosevelt chose otherwise. He resolved to show “that democracy in the United States — limited and flawed though it remained — was better kept than abandoned, in the hope of strengthening and extending it,” as the historian Eric Rauchway has written. He would do so by remaking the relationship between government, business, and the people through New Deal programs, including massive spending on public works, social insurance, and support for labor unions. FDR did so knowing that, if he failed, he could be ushered from office — and, more dangerously, that a fascist turn could happen in the United States. All that was missing, as the president told Tugwell, was a leader: “the familiar symbolic figure — the man on horseback — to give it realism.”
From “Gangsters of Capitalism” by Jonathan M. Katz. Copyright © 2022 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Jonathan Myerson Katz, author of “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire,” received the James Foley/Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for reporting from Haiti. His first book, “The Big Truck That Went By,” was shortlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction and won the Overseas Press Club’s Cornelius Ryan Award, the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, and the WOLA/Duke Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America. His work appears in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere. Katz has received fellowships from New America and the Logan Nonfiction Program. He lives with his wife and daughter in Charlottesville, VA. His newsletter can be found at theracket.news. Follow him on Twitter at @KatzOnEarth.
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