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The Butler Boomerang: How American Imperialism Prevented American Fascism

This is the second installment of what is now a three-part series of Substack adaptations of the independent research projects I conducted in my first year of grad school. You can read the first installment here, which examined the damage done to institutional authority and integrity by the Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692-1693.

In this installment, we will be looking at the Business Plot of 1934—an alleged attempted fascist coup by a group of Wall Street power brokers—and how its derailment was, in part, thanks to the effects of American imperialism during the Banana Wars of the 1900s-1910s via the experiences of the famous (or infamous) Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, writer of the famed booklet, War is a Racket. It covers a lot of ground without spending too much time looking at Smedley Butler’s colorful background or, thanks to limitations on page count, any of the harrowing battles in which he took part, including the Battle of Fort Rivière of 1915. It also does not dwell significantly on the Business Plot itself, including the intrigues that took place during its attempted execution.

For this reason, I recommend reading Hans Schmidt’s Maverick Marine, and Sally Denton’s The Plots Against the President, to get the most complete picture of Butler’s career and of the Business Plot itself. If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of the Banana Wars themselves, I can’t recommend Ivan Musicant’s The Banana Wars enough. While I’d like to think I made my own unique contribution to the study of American imperialism by turning its typically one-note critical tone on its head, these are the real experts whose work deserves closer reading for those interested in the subject.

Thank you and please enjoy the essay. And leave your thoughts; would love to hear them.—AVS


“What is fascism but colonialism in the heart of a traditionally colonialist country?”—Frantz Fanon

It was almost too outlandish to be believed. A fascist coup d'état had been plotted by a group of extremely wealthy businessmen with Wall Street connections, in which one of the United States' most popular generals would lead hundreds of thousands of American Legion members to Washington D.C., where they would, supposedly, peacefully overthrow the recently-elected President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, the general that had been selected—the famous and outspoken Marine Corps veteran Smedley D. Butler—had grown a conscience and exposed the so-called “Business Plot” for the world to see, first to a trusted journalist and now, in testimony to the United States House of Representatives Special Committee on Un-American Activities, in November of 1934. The outlandishness was made most notable by the incredulous press reactions to the news. As Sally Denton explains, “The press campaign against Butler got off to a quick start, with Time magazine leading the way with a caricatured version of the plot called 'Plot Without Plotters,'” followed by more ridicule from the New York Times, which demanded, “'Who can we believe? […] Apparently anything, to judge by the number of people who lend a credulous ear to the story of General Butler's 500,000 Fascists in Buckram marching on Washington to seize the Government.'”1 The question of why Butler would make such an outlandish claim—whether it was a true claim or not, though later evidence largely suggested that it was—became and remained a question as the years and decades passed, despite it being “mostly marginalized or ridiculed by historians.”2 This might have resulted in many believing or dismissing Butler for having delusions—of grandeur, paranoia, grandiosity, or all of the above and more.

However, what animated Butler at this point in his life was not delusion, nor was it simple anti-fascist patriotism (though the latter was not in doubt by a long shot, especially by 1934). In fact, it was a direct result of events in which he had taken part during his time serving as a Marine Corps officer in Central America and the Caribbean during the so-called “Banana Wars” of the 1900s-1910s. By 1934, Butler had become disgusted with what he came to call the “racket” of America's overseas wars, which was a view he had nourished over the past several decades. This view had begun to form during the Banana Wars, thanks to Butler's growing realizations during his involvement that he was, in fact, not serving the interests of regular Americans or even his fellow soldiers, but in reality, the interests of big business and its American government midwives. Butler had become an anti-imperialist thanks to his experiences acting as the strong arm of American imperialism. This thus raises the question: how and to what extent did General Smedley Butler's experiences upholding American empire, particularly in Central America, contribute to his renunciation of fascism and exposure of the Business Plot in 1934? In short, Butler's rejection and outing of the fascist Business Plot was, as Connor Woodman terms it, the “imperial boomerang” resulting from Butler's disillusionment with American empire that had come from his taking part in the American imperial project, made most manifest in the early 20th century's Banana Wars.

To begin, we will first examine the concept of the imperial boomerang, as well as examples of it throughout the American imperial century, and how it has typically manifested in negative ways before looking at how the boomerang effect does not necessarily produce net negative results at home, if we keep the definition sufficiently widened. In order to understand how this might have been the case with Smedley Butler, we must then examine the so-called Banana Wars in greater detail, both as an extension of early 20th century progressivism and later, Wilsonianism, as well as overseas American business interests—this will largely be drawn from secondary sources, as well as contemporaneous news coverage. Following this, an examination of Smedley Butler's own role in the Banana Wars and how his experiences affected him both in the immediate and eventual term. This will largely be drawn from his correspondence and from his dictated memoirs. From there, we will define the contours of the Business Plot itself, as well as its plotters, the historical-economic context in which it was hatched, and finally, why Butler was selected for seeing it through, both despite and because of his frequent and loud anti-imperialist rhetoric. This will all be substantiated by secondary sources and contemporaneous news articles. Finally, all of the previous information will be synthesized to demonstrate the causal chain between Butler's imperial activities and his eventual exposure of the Business Plot, preventing the most notorious attempt at a fascist takeover in American history.

The concept of an “imperial boomerang” is a familiar one, especially when examining it in broader terms related to the broader and especially local effects of imperialism. The specific term, as described by Connor Woodman, is “the way in which empires use their colonies as laboratories for methods of counter-insurgency, social control and repression, methods which can then be brought back to the imperial metropolis and deployed against the marginalized, subjugated, and subaltern within.”3 This kind of comparative and consequentialist approach to studying the contours of American empire has occurred in many different forms and contexts before Woodman's 2020 appraisal, and helps broaden the concept sufficiently. In his in-depth examination of the United States' long-standing imperial relationship with the Philippines, Alfred W. McCoy observes that there are “some broad cautionary lessons about the domestic costs of these overseas operations,” in which “the U.S. military, thrust into these crucibles of counterinsurgency, developed innovative methods of social control that had a decidedly negative impact on civil liberties back home.”4

The imperial boomerang concept also takes on similar contours to the definition of “blowback” by Chalmers Johnson, who, adapting it from a declassified CIA report from 1953, defined it as “a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people.”5 Thus, the imperial boomerang might refer to police practices from colonial regimes—such as those found in the Philippines during the American occupation from 1898-1934 bearing resemblance to police practices in the United States in the 21st century—and blowback might refer to catastrophic events—like 9/11 resulting, allegedly in part, from covert American foreign policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As a concept, the imperial boomerang is clearly and typically seen in value-negative terms.

President Ronald Reagan meeting with members of the Mujahedeen. While disputable, there are many scholars who believe the material support provided to these groups during the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989 helped create the conditions that made 9/11 possible.

However, the imperial boomerang, if taken as a more value-neutral concept, can be valuable in understanding the behavior of historical actors within the imperial system, rather than just without. This has been most dramatically seen in recent years with the rise in whistleblowers found within the intelligence apparatuses of the United States, including Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner. Similarly, it can be seen in the actions of Smedley D. Butler, whose exposure of the Business Plot can certainly be seen as an expression of patriotism and loyalty. This suggests that the idea of the imperial boomerang can perhaps produce value-neutral and even positive impacts on certain policies at home, instead of merely negative ones that involve either maltreatment by police forces or the destruction and deaths of thousands of American citizens and collective trauma that lasts for a generation (not to mention gives pretext for long-running wars overseas). Problematic as this may be to suggest, it uniquely demonstrates the complex downstream effects of empire and opens the door to further study of the imperial boomerang effect at various points throughout history, perhaps shedding further light on the phenomenon of American empire.

It was already apparent that the imperial boomerang was at work in the United States' early involvement in Central America during the early 20th century, seen by the creation of the “Small Wars Manual” by the U.S. Marine Corps published in 1940. As explained by Thomas Griffith, “the manual details everything from how to conduct operations during small wars to what equipment the individual infantryman should pack,” generally “distill[ing] the lessons learned by U.S. Marines in the Caribbean into a series of generalizations applicable to a wide array of situations.”6 It was largely based on the experiences of, and tactics developed from, the combat operations in the Caribbean and Latin America in the first two decades of the 20th century, i.e., the “Banana Wars,” which will be discussed in greater detail momentarily. As Griffith notes, “The Small Wars Manual, published in 1940, analyzes the experiences of U.S. Marines, such as Lewis Puller, Smedley Butler, and Merritt Edson, during a series of interventions in the Caribbean called the 'Banana Wars'.”7

The continuity of the manual's tactics can be readily seen in that it focused on “constant patrolling, back and forth tradeoffs of the upper hand, guerrilla warfare, and denying the enemy.”8 However, what is most noteworthy about this manual is not the tactics found within, but the fact that it was being used into the 21st century. In fact, prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “Major General James Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, strongly urged his officers and senior-enlisted Marines to read [the manual].”9 Thanks to “the practices laid out in the manual remain[ing] relevant,” the tactics found within continued to be used and were eventually updated in 2006.10 This demonstrates that if anything, tactics developed as part of the Banana Wars of the early 20th century, had a lasting power that went beyond the personal experiences of the men who experienced them, further suggesting the power of the imperial boomerang itself.

To properly understand the effect of the Banana Wars on Major-General Smedley Butler's decision-making in the 1930s, we need to examine what the Banana Wars actually were. A term adapted from old U.S. Marine Corps jargon by historian Lester D. Langley, the Banana Wars were a series of United States “military interventions in the Caribbean [and Latin America] between 1900 and 1934.” These interventions included “the Cuban experience, in which political and military leaders sought to implant in the island what they […] considered as vital institutions for a successful republican experiment,” “efforts to influence political events in Central America and Mexico through civilian policies [that] ultimately became the responsibility of military arbiters,” and “the American experience [in] Hispaniola, [in which] the American military had virtually exclusive control over two desperate cultures locked on the same island.”11 Smedley D. Butler was, to one extent or another, present in all of these different phases of the Banana Wars.

Photograph depicting the raising of the American flag in Veracruz, Mexico in 1914.

The question of the core motive behind the United States' prosecution of the Banana Wars is multifaceted and arguably difficult to pin down with any exactness; the only consistent certainty, as articulated by Greg Grandin, is the effect that “Latin America has been caught in the crosswinds of empire, buffeted by the United States’ revolutionary ambition and battered by its counterrevolutionary cruelty.”12 This difficulty in pinning down single causes while also determining a consistent effect is especially thanks to the Banana Wars having occurred under multiple presidential administrations, eventually under those with different ideological concerns than those who began the Banana Wars project. As Ivan Musicant explains, the Theodore Roosevelt administration's motives lay largely in “cement[ing] America's newfound role as quadraspheric constable,” in which “the United States could militarily and unilaterally intervene in any regional state where the political, economic, or social conditions invited a European protective response in force.” There were commercial incentives as well, with Musicant noting that “the most controversial […] motivation for the Banana Wars was dollar diplomacy,” in which “economic stability [was fostered] through the infusion of American capital, often combined with high-handed diplomatic coercion, into the empire,” thus “transforming the Latin American and Caribbean nations into economic vassals of the United States.”13 This demonstrates that, like all forms of imperialism, American imperialism was a multi-faceted project in terms of its motivation. What would set it apart from the high-minded language of European imperialism that had come before was an American edge to the rhetoric as the Banana Wars continued in earnest.

The muscular, imperial approach to foreign policy by the Roosevelt administration would become increasingly normalized as time went on, though it had already begun in earnest under Roosevelt's predecessor, William McKinley, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, which saw the United States seize its first overseas colony in the Philippines. According to Alfred W. McCoy, this occupation would be justified by “colonial catchphrases such as 'benevolent assimilation,' 'imperialism of suasion,' or 'tutelary' democracy.”14 This kind of aggressive imperial policy justified with heightened political language would become a feature of the kind of progressivism embodied by Theodore Roosevelt and the administrations who came after him. Despite the Banana Wars beginning in earnest under the presidential auspices of Roosevelt and then William Howard Taft, this form of geopolitically aggressive American progressivism that informed their foreign policy would finally become crystallized in the foreign policy of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, and what would eventually come to be known as “Wilsonianism.”

Woodrow Wilson's persistent promises of neutrality during the First World War are well-enough known, and are frequently set at odds with much of his rhetoric and policy regarding foreign policy during the two terms he spent in office. The Wilsonian worldview regarding foreign relations is summed up by Lloyd E. Ambrosius as one driven by “the principles of (1) national self-determination, which affirmed both national sovereignty and democratic self-government; (2) Open Door economic globalization, which favored a competitive marketplace for trade and financial investments across national borders; (3) collective security, which found expression in the postwar League of Nations; and (4) progressive history, which undergirded the Wilsonian vision of a better future for the world.” More broadly, Wilson believed that “the United States […] should reshape the world in accordance with American ideals,” which no doubt necessitated interventions abroad. Much of this could be justified by a “belief in organic historical development for nations,” which was determined by “the hierarchy of race.”15 While these principles did not become clarified and put into writing until after the conclusion of the First World War, they existed well before America's involvement.

The early incarnation of Wilsonian principles is seen most plainly in the prosecution of the Banana Wars after Wilson took over the presidential post from William Howard Taft. Justification for American involvement in Latin American and Caribbean countries aligned with Wilson's views on the importance of “Pan-Americanism” that would create a “progressive order” that “avoid[ed] uncontrollable chaos.” As Ambrosius summarizes, “[Wilson] dispatched American troops to more countries [in Latin America and the Caribbean] than any of his predecessors in the White House,” largely in order “to protect American economic and commercial interests in the region,” as well as secure a strategic stronghold against the influence of the warring European powers.16 This involved protracted and aggressive use of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines had already been dispatched to various Caribbean and Latin American nations years earlier, including Cuba during the Spanish-American War and Nicaragua in 1912. During Wilson's tenure, Haiti was occupied in 1915 and the Dominican Republic was in 1916; apparently, “Wilson fumed” about the former, writing “in a memorandum to Secretary [William Jennings] Bryan,” that “'the U.S. cannot consent to stand by and permit revolutionary conditions to constantly exist.'”17 The attitude apparent in this memorandum does more to personify the Wilsonian worldview than even the Fourteen Points.

The occupation of Haiti in 1915.

However, the most trouble came from Mexico, in which the U.S. began politically and eventually militarily involving itself in 1913. After assuming office that year, one of the first things Wilson did was withhold diplomatic recognition from the recent president-by-coup-d'état, General Victoriano Huerta, based on the very same principles he had grumbled about two years later regarding the situation in Haiti. Wilson eventually dispatched the former governor of Minnesota John Lind as a diplomatic agent in order to prevent the devolution into “an inextricable tangle of violence and intrigue.”18 The irony of rejecting Huerta as Mexico's legitimate leader had placed Wilson and the United States in a contradictory situation, where the primary antagonists to Huerta's counterrevolutionary regime were the very kind of nationalist revolutionaries that Wilson despised; hence, Lind's diplomatic mission was one based upon the assumption that a faction more amenable to American influence could be secured. As Hans Schmidt explains, “It was a patently neocolonial and, under the circumstances, inoperable scheme that showed very little sensitivity to the dynamic forces of revolutionary nationalism in Mexico. Little wonder that Lind soon preferred military methods.” These military methods would be those that brought Smedley D. Butler into the Wilsonian era of the Banana Wars.

Because he had been serving overseas since 1898 in the Philippines at the age of 17, Smedley Butler had come of age, both literally and militarily, in parallel with American empire. He had served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, the Philippines during the Philippine-American War, and China during the Boxer Rebellion. In these conflicts, particularly during the Boxer Rebellion, there were accounts of things like looting, or as Jonathan Katz puts it, “the real pastime of imperial warfare.”19 Butler would be wounded during his time fighting the Boxers, shot through the leg, but he would also take part in the looting that took place after the victory and occupation of Beijing. As Hans Schmidt explains, “the ensuing occupation and plundering of [Beijing] was grotesque, excessive even for a colonial punitive campaign,” which, while including all sorts of troops from the Allied side of the Boxer Rebellion, also included American troops like Butler.20 This demonstrates that Butler was very much part of the imperial war machine from an early age, though he would eventually look back on his role in the looting with what Katz refers to as “belated shame.”21 While these events occurred half a world and over a decade away from the events of the Banana Wars themselves, they, and Butler's later reaction to them, are illustrative of how complete his conception of himself as a lackey for American imperial interests actually was. However, it would not begin to fully crystallize until over a decade later.

In Latin America, Butler would frequently be present for the most abject examples of American empire in the region, namely Panama in the Canal Zone while the massive Canal project was being completed. In 1909, he and his fellow Marines would be shipped to Nicaragua, where his “three successive missions […] greatly furthered his experience in colonial warfare and international politics.”22 Most of these operations involved containing revolutionary activity that was breaking out in various places in Nicaragua and ensuring that the Conservative government remained in power and that the Liberal government was crushed. This secured American strategic influence in the country as well as that of American commercial interests. Indeed, as Joseph O. Baylen notes, the invasion was broadly “motivated by the State Department's reaction to the machinations of the Nicaraguan despot [Jose Santos] Zelaya, and his hostility to American business on the Mosquito Coast.”23 This resulted in money being poured into the counterrevolutionary efforts; according to a Nicaraguan general named Juan J. Estrada, “contributed $1 million to the 1909 revolt” that brought down the Nicaraguan Liberals under Zelaya.24

Butler was aware of these developments at the time, and he was aware of American commercial interests in the region and he would later cite Nicaragua as one of the places that he “purif[ied] […] for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912.”25 Butler had already made his feelings known about the Marines' actions in Nicaragua just over half a decade earlier, when he made a speech in Pittsburgh that was, according to a New York Times report on December 14th, 1929, “[critical] of the policy of the United States in Nicaragua.”26 According to Hans Schmidt, this “anti-imperialist bombshell” included accusations of “how Marines had cynically rigged elections in Nicaragua in 1912.”27 At the time, “State Department officials [informally] characterized this alleged statement as 'loose talk,'” and no official comment was made, but this speech led to much controversy within the Herbert Hoover administration.28 Nevertheless, the State Department publicly treated Butler's comments with dismissiveness, with another report from the New York Times on May 8th, 1931, stating that “[it] would take no notice of General Butler's statements,” likely to avoid embarrassment.29 These events that took place years later suggest that Butler was making a post-hoc justification for a change in attitude regarding American empire, long after he had already served his imperial purpose, and safely retired. However, this was not the case.

Any warm feelings Smedley Butler might have had toward American empire would begin to change as the Nicaraguan campaign continued. In a letter written to his parents on March 1st, 1910, Butler would write that, “What makes me mad is that the whole revolution is inspired and financed by Americans who have wild cat investments down here and want to make them good by putting in a Government which will declare a monopoly in their favor.”30 These American financiers included Bellangers Inc., Samuel Weil and Co., Siempre Viva Mining Co., Bluefields Steamship Co., and, most famously, United Fruit, showing Butler had at least a passing awareness of American commercial interests in Nicaragua while he was stationed there. In his letter, he continued his harangue against the “degenerate Americans down here,” who aimed “to force the United States to intervene and by so doing make their investments good,” and who did not care about “the common people,” who were “the only sufferers, as is always the case.”31 This shows that his rage against the racket he came to see war itself to be was already being felt two and a half decades before he wrote his famous book.

The cracks would be further seen in his increasingly frustrated accounts after Mena's rebellion in Granada in 1912. Butler's frustrations were still rooted in the context of his duties as a military man—supposedly unable to do the job he was assigned to do—but he also demonstrated a systemic awareness at this time, suggesting that he was not simply keen to blindly follow orders. He had “personally guaranteed” the revolutionary leader Mena that the American forces would act as a neutral party when entering Granada, but “he was forced to renege,” grumbling to his wife in a letter that “'this goes back on all the things I have told the rebels and I am therefore to be made scapegoat after I have done all the hard work.'”32 However personally frustrated he might have been by this setback, this, along with his earlier complaint to his parents about the “wild cat investments” of American commercial interests, suggests a growing disillusionment with the imperial project he was helping prosecute at this stage of the Banana Wars. This disillusionment would only continue to intensify during Butler's time in Mexico.

In 1914, Butler and the Marines were withdrawn from Panama where they had been stationed for two years. Butler was not pleased with this change of scenery, and saw another professional disappointment when his commanding officer Littleton Waller was passed up for promotion by the Wilson administration. This was thanks largely to political reasons, but it was also due to Wilson's Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels' outrage at Waller's record in the Philippines, which included atrocities against the locals.33 This professional setback helped further sour Butler's attitude toward the American military hierarchy, but it also placed him in another position that would further sour him on American military presence overseas in general. As Hans Schmidt explains, Butler and his Marines were stationed off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico as a form of “gunboat diplomacy,” in response to the Tampico Affair, in which U.S. sailors had been arrested by the forces of General Victoriano Huerta and were refused release. “As in Panama, Honduras, and Nicaragua,” Schmidt writes, “a revolution was in progress which the United States wished to constrain and manipulate,” and “perversely, the extent of American investments ($1 billion) and prospects (oil) was much greater [than in those previous conflicts].”34 What followed was the Battle of Veracruz and an occupation by American forces, who included Butler and his Marines, that lasted seven months.

Butler, second from right, along with his commanding officer Littleton Waller, center. Waller was known by many newspapers as the “Butcher of Samar” for his actions during the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902.

However, Butler went through another formative experience in the month leading up to the battle and occupation of Veracruz in which he acted as a spy so he could “draw up a comprehensive invasion plan” for American forces, all while “posing as a railroad official [and] visiting the several federal garrisons in the city accompanied by the chief railroad detective.”35 After successfully returning without being caught, Butler drew up plans for an invasion that had “heavy reliance on the railroad [and] commando speed and daring dependent on conspiratorial support from resident American civilians—a colonial fifth column,” that would ultimately lead to the seizure of Mexico City and even the kidnapping of General Huerta.36 Ultimately, thanks to a split within President Wilson's cabinet, the ultimate goal was pared down to simply taking Veracruz, which led to the aforementioned occupation. This had been an abrupt change for Butler, since it occurred almost immediately after he returned from his spy mission, both throwing everything into chaos for him and his forces and further embittering him toward what he would eventually see as commercially-driven imperial whim. As he would later bitterly claim, “I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914,” showing how he would later perceive his time spent in Mexico.37 However, similarly to how things went in Nicaragua, it is clear that Butler's disillusionment with the whole enterprise was felt at the time of these events.

Despite the relatively minimal fighting that occurred in the taking of Veracruz, fifty-five Medals of Honor were distributed to various soldiers and officers, with nine of those going to officers being part of the Marine Corps, and Smedley Butler being one of the recipients. While several officers accepted and even sought after their medals, Butler was conspicuously opposed to his medal when he received word of it being awarded to him two years later while he was stationed in Haiti. He explained his thoughts in a letter to his mother, dated February 21st, 1916, in which he wrote that, “I, in even my most puffed up moments, cannot remember a single action, or in fact any collection of actions, of mine that in the slightest degree warranted such a decoration. I did my duty as best I could in Veracruz but there was absolutely nothing heroic in it. […] Several times in my life in the service I have performed acts that, even in my own conscience, seemed worthy of this reward, but not in Mexico. Now I feel very strongly on this subject and am requesting the Department to take back my medal.”38 Butler did indeed request in a letter to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to take back his medal, and requested it more than once, until Daniels ordered him outright to keep it, and the matter was closed.39 This attempt at rejecting the U.S. military's highest honor is significant in the development of Butler's anti-imperial attitude. Fighting had occurred in Veracruz, but Butler had seen no honor in it, just as he continued to see very little honor in most of what he was doing in the Banana Wars. As Jonathan Katz explains, “Just three months removed from [the violent operations in which Butler had taken part in Haiti after his time in Mexico], the house-to-house killing he had carried out in Mexico likely took on an even deeper level of obscenity.”40 Butler's time in Haiti would continue to reinforce this notion.

While serving in Haiti, Butler was involved in vicious combat against the Cacos, the resistance forces operating in the country, which resulted in thousands of Haitian casualties, as well as several of Butler's own men. Like in Nicaragua and Mexico, this was being done in service to the Wilsonian interests of the day—both strategic and commercial—with Butler later complaining that “I helped make Haiti […] a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.”41 This was thanks to his role in helping abolish the Haitian legislature that had been deemed to corrupt to continue existing under its present order, with Butler actually entering the Parliament to enforce the decree, at the gunpoint of the Gendarmerie forces under his command, that would allow for the establishment of foreign landownership—namely, that of American banks and corporations. The General Assembly was indeed dissolved, it stayed dissolved for over a decade, and it had been done at gunpoint, led by Smedley Butler, in one of the most flagrant acts of imperial thuggery.42 These events certainly colored his attitude later in life, as we've seen, but they colored his attitude at the time as well. This can be seen in another one of his letters home to his parents, such as the letter to his father on May 16th, 1917, in which he expressed regret that he would soon be leaving the Caribbean to fight overseas in the First World War. He had put in his application to fight in Europe, seeing it as part of his duty as a soldier, but he also saw little hope for Haiti, thanks to the elite classes that benefited directly from the new American involvement, writing that “I am completely at a loss to think of any scheme that will bring about the desired improvement in the physical condition of this country.”43 Soon after he sent that letter, he was in Europe, fighting with the French on the Western Front, the Banana Wars receding into memory, but never forgotten, at least by Butler.

It is reasonable to conclude that, in Smedley Butler's eyes, the Marines left Latin America and the Caribbean worse than how they had found them, despite all of the instability that had already existed in Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti thanks to their frequent revolutions and economic chaos. As we have seen, Butler was aware that despite the ostensible goal of bringing peace and stability to the region—to be fair, to the United States' back yard—that these Banana Wars had been fought to protect American commercial interests. While this certainly did not endear him to the goals of the United States, and while it certainly outraged him at times, he had yet to crystallize his feelings into actionable anti-imperialism. That would not occur for several years; after fighting concluded in Europe, after diplomatic postings in both Haiti and China, and after increasingly butting heads with the Marine Corps political establishment, Butler would finally come into his own as a true anti-imperialist thanks to becoming part of a noble tradition of American dissidents: that of blowing the whistle.

In exposing the Business Plot of 1934, Smedley Butler was among the first whistleblowers operating in the post-Espionage Act world. He had not exposed any element of government corruption or national security overreach, but he had indeed exposed a coordinated attempt at overthrowing the United States government by coup d'état. He also fit the generally agreed-upon profile of a whistleblower. As Hannah Gurman and Kaeten Mistry write, “Whistleblowers invariably begin their careers as believers in America’s global mission. They hold a broadly conservative and patriotic outlook,” with some “question[ing] the beliefs and apparatus of national security” and others “develop[ing] into advocates and activists.”44 Both of these features clearly applied to Butler in the late 1920s and especially the early 1930s. While Butler was honing his ideological commitments that would cement his place in history, the world in which he was developing was also changing.

In the early 1930s, populist nationalism and isolationism were on the rise in the United States, contributing to the already positive reception Italy's new fascist government was receiving with many Americans. As Sally Denton explains, “Italy, in the time of Mussolini, who had legendarily made the trains run on time, seemed a viable model for what America could and should become, and talk of dictatorship was rampant during the interregnum of despair [that was the Great Depression]. […] While communism was much feared in America, fascism was not only venerated but also avant-garde. Mussolini was wildly popular among the country's cultural elite, who believed that democracy, and its belief in the common man, had run its course.”45 It was against this backdrop that actual consideration for an overthrow of the existing order would be discussed and even formed. The idea of authoritarianism at home being the answer to society's ills was not just being driven by the news or elite academics or even politicians; it was even pushed by media moguls and Hollywood itself, with film directors as varied as Frank Capra and Cecile B. DeMille producing films like American Madness and This Day and Age, respectively, which depicted a society descending into chaos at the hands of faceless mobs.46 This was often paired with praise and support for the new President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose promised New Deal would allegedly help fix what was rotten in the system and making so many audience members rise up and cheer at the sight of frenzied mobs targeting the rich and privileged in these dour Hollywood pictures. This kind of reaction was common enough that it suggests the desire to have an authoritarian crackdown was very real among the more elite classes. However, thanks to Roosevelt's eventual popularity, very little convincing was necessary, but the strong, centralized power his presidency came to represent did not appeal to everyone who had seen something to admire in the European dictators of Italy and Germany.

The New Deal was not popular among everyone, particularly the more privileged class, like those who worked on Wall Street. While Roosevelt was liked well-enough, the United States was still in the grip of the Great Depression and the nigh-apocalyptic Dust Bowl, and accompanying that was “a climate of restless uncertainty, frenzied protest, conspiracies and intrigues, surreptitious probes, mutinous masses, and charismatic dictators.” Thus, “a plot to overthrow Roosevelt seemed plausible.”47 That plot would allegedly form among a very wealthy and powerful group of financiers, including Robert Sterling Clark of Singer Sewing Machine fortune, as well as J.P. Morgan affiliates Thomas W. Lamont and Grayson M.P. Murphy, and members of the du Pont, Colgate, and Pew families.

All of these figures were “long associated with avowed anti-labor and pro-Fascist policies” and were connected to one another through an organization known as the American Liberty League, which was an organization created to fight what it called “radicalism” and the “class hatred” that had been stoked by the new Roosevelt administration.48 The only solution to this existential threat in the shape of the New Deal, they reasoned, was to get Roosevelt out of the picture and replace him with someone who would be more liable to protect their interests, the same way they believed Mussolini and Hitler had protected their Italian and German counterparts' interests. This was why they dispatched a man named Gerald MacGuire—an employee of Grayson M.P. Murphy—to reach out to the one man they believed could deliver on this ambition: Smedley D. Butler.

Grayson M.P. Murphy, alleged member of the Business Plot, and MacGuire’s boss.

Butler was approached on July 1st, 1933 by MacGuire who began feeling the general out as a candidate for the scheme that had been concocted. MacGuire claimed that he represented the American Legion—namely, a large number of “rank and file Legionnaires who were dissatisfied with the higher-ups in the organization” and who wanted to see a change in the leadership, preferably Butler. While Butler had his own issues with the Legion's leadership (he too believed they should be ousted), he became suspicious when MacGuire began casting “aspersions against Roosevelt's treatment of veterans,” since Butler considered the President a friend that he had known since his days serving in the Caribbean and Central America, when Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Butler turned MacGuire down and continued to turn him down each time the man visited him, but always heard him out, increasingly smelling a rat. To confirm his suspicions about MacGuire's character at their third meeting, Butler essentially baited him by claiming that he did not believe there was any money at stake, to which MacGuire responded by producing a stack of thousand dollar bills.49

Butler, sensing treason, continued to string MacGuire and eventually Robert Sterling Clark along for several months, expressing interest in their overall scheme, which gradually became revealed as time went on. It was the spring of 1934 when MacGuire “excitedly related his findings to Butler” after returning from a pilgrimage to the fascist countries in Europe, as well as meeting with several fascist organizations and figures in countries like Holland and France. Apparently seeing Butler as completely trustworthy (despite Butler's continued caginess that he paired along with his feigned interest), MacGuire said that “it was time to 'get the soldiers together' [meaning the Legionnaires he believed would be loyal to Butler] for a peaceful military takeover of the Roosevelt presidency.” The soldiers, in this case, would be taken from the Bonus Army—that is, the World War I veterans demanding fair treatment from the government in the form of early service bonus certificates—and the American Legion's loyal members. The plan, according to MacGuire, would be for “The veterans' army, led by Butler, [to] march on Washington and induce Roosevelt to step aside because of bad health. Vice President [John Nance] Garner, in the line of succession, would refuse the office because he didn't want to be president, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull—next in line—would decline based on his age, or so the plotters' reasoning went.”50 It was thus clear to Butler that this was exactly as he suspected: a proposed fascist coup.

Despite his patriotism, militarism, and overall lack of respect for institutional authority, Butler had always hated fascism. He had once admitted that he thought the only true cure for corruption and societal decay was a fascist dictator like Mussolini, but as Hans Schmidt notes, “any infatuation with Mussolini was soon dispelled.”51 Butler very loudly made disparaging remarks about Il Duce in January of 1931 at a speech he gave at the Philadelphia Contemporary Club. According to Schmidt, “Butler related an anecdote about Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini while making the point that 'mad-dog nations' could not be trusted to honor disarmament agreements. Butler recounted a story told him by an unnamed friend who had been taken by Mussolini for a high-speed automobile ride through the Italian countryside, in the course of which the dictator ran down a child and did not bother even to slow down,” justifying the killing by claiming that it was merely one life.52 This speech created a diplomatic incident for Butler, and his feelings about fascism were thus widely known. This alone, but paired with Butler's sense of duty and patriotism, led him to report the plot in which MacGuire and Clark (and by extension, their powerful Wall Street allies) had attempted to involve him.

Combined with a general lack of concrete evidence, led the press to express its fundamental doubt at Butler's claims, even after MacGuire's testimony largely confirmed Butler's claims, at least regarding his own involvement. While there was indeed a paper trail that implicated Clark as well, all that could really be confirmed by the HUAC investigators was that “MacGuire had been the cashier for the plotters,” that he had indeed been to Europe on his fascist pilgrimage, and that there were organizations with hostile attitudes toward the Roosevelt administration.53 As reported by the New York Times on November 21st, 1934, “Mr. MacGuire's testimony showed that he had spent large sums of money on a trip to Europe to study the fascist movement in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, that he and Mr. Clark had handled large sums of money for various organizations, that he had been active in organizations mentioned by General Butler [i.e. the American Liberty League], and that he had acted as cashier for one organization.”54 Unsurprisingly, denials of any direct links to fascism made up the bulk of MacGuire' and Clark's testimonies, and this, paired with the lack of concrete evidence, made Butler's accusation fall somewhat flat in the press, eventually somewhat harming his reputation and leading some to believe that he had become and out and out crank.

Newspaper cited above (and used in original presentation I made to my cohort and professor).

There was also the matter of the seeming incoherence of what came to be known colloquially as the “Business Plot.” Why would fascist plotters approach Butler, an obvious anti-fascist in both conviction and, by the early 1930s, clearly in temperament? Butler provided the answer to this question in his testimony, claiming that the plotters had sought him out “because Butler's unrelenting anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist criticism would strike a chord with the angry half-million [military] veterans who would do anything Butler told them to do”; this was proposed to Butler “with an apparent lack of irony.”55 Somehow, the plotters had, so to speak, lost the plot on just what Butler meant when he “characteriz[ed] the U.S. military as 'a glorified bill-collecting agency' and sa[id] he 'wouldn't want to see a boy of mine march out with a Wall Street collar around his neck.”56 In truth, Butler had generally not been amenable to Wall Street, businessmen, or the rich for years. In a letter written to his parents on February 27th, 1927, on the eve of his diplomatic mission to China, he stated that, “I know that I am regarded by the rich as a 'red' but I am not, but do believe in fair play—something they do not.”57 In addition, when writing to his mother from China over a year later, he wrote that the “poor folk [of Tientsin] are far more deserving of our efforts than Americans who, as a race, are plain hypocrites.”58 As Hans Schmidt explains, however, this had been going on far longer; “since at least 1912,” in fact, “when he was outraged in Nicaragua by predatory client-government officials, the 'gang' [his words], being allowed to subvert his own 'honest' administration in Granada.”59 This demonstrates that, however unconsciously, Butler's distaste for corrupt business interests was directly connected to his distaste for the United States' presence in Latin America and the Caribbean during the Banana Wars, and that this, thus, offered a sort of prophylactic against the fascist plotting by those very business interests he so despised.


Smedley Butler's exposure of the Business Plot did not result in any arrests and he was widely mocked in the media for his claims. While his claims would eventually be vindicated by history, with some historians like Hans Schmidt calling the testimony and motives of figures like Gerald P. MacGuire into question, a relative consensus has formed that the Business Plot was indeed real. How successful that plot would have ultimately been is impossible to say, but that is far less relevant than the question of why a very real plot was stopped in the first place. It was stopped by a man who was directly involved in the Banana Wars of the early 20th century and who was disillusioned by those experiences sufficiently to see anything resembling gangsterism—a category into which he lumped both imperialism and fascism—as a threat to his country. Thus, when we ask how and to what extent General Smedley Butler's experiences upholding American empire contribute to his renunciation of fascism and exposure of the Business Plot in 1934, we can say with certainty that it was to a significant extent.

Butler had clearly been shaped by his experiences in the Banana Wars, since by then, he was already making negative comments about his time serving in Latin America and the Caribbean, as described previously. In this sense, one could argue that Butler being seen as the viable candidate to the pro-fascist Business Plotters was a form of the imperial boomerang at work, but that is insufficient on its own; it is precisely because of his disillusionment with American empire via his experiences in the Banana Wars that he felt compelled to blow the whistle on the plotters. They were representatives of the very thing he hated most about American empire—rapacious, expansionist commercial interests. If taken a value-neutral concept, the imperial boomerang is not only sufficient, but necessary, in explaining Smedley Butler's motivations for exposing the Business Plot and arguably stopping a fascist coup in the United States dead in its tracks. At the time, the accusations made by Butler appeared outlandish and even discrediting, despite being largely vindicated by history. However, that did not matter to Butler and it is hardly surprising that he did what he did, given the experiences he'd had in Latin American in the Caribbean during the Banana Wars. In Butler's own words:

“I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. […] During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”60



Primary Sources

Butler, Smedley D. General Smedley Darlington Butler: The Letters of a Leatherneck, 1898-1931. Edited by Ann Cipriano Venzon. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992.

Butler, Smedley D. War is a Racket. New York: Round Table Press, 1935.Butler, Smedley D. “Gen. Butler bares 'plot' by fascists.” 1935; Washington, D.C.: Universal Studios, 1935. %22_by_fascists.ogv.“Asks Gen. Butler to Explain Speech: Secretary Adams Calls for a Full Report on His References to Nicaraguan Policy.” The New York Times (New York), December 15th, 1929. accountid=10351&sourcetype=Historical%20Newspapers.“Inquiry Pressed in 'Fascist Plot': Purported Agent, on Stand, Again Denies Asking General Butler to Lead 'March.'” The New York Times (New York), November 22, 1934. accountid=10351&sourcetype=Historical%20Newspapers.“Stimson Closes Butler Incident: Secretary Accepts Denial by Haitian Minister of Reflection on General.” The New York Times (New York), May 8, 1931. accountid=10351&sourcetype=Historical%20Newspapers.

U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Investigation of Nazi and Other Propaganda. 74th Congress, 1st session, February 15th, 1935.

Secondary Sources

Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign Relations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Baylen, Joseph O. “American Intervention in Nicaragua, 1909-33: An Appraisal of Objectives and Results.” The Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 35, no. 2 (September 1954): 128-154.

Denton, Sally. The Plots Against the President: FDR, a Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right. London: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.

Grandin, Greg. Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.

Griffith, Thomas. “The Small Wars Manual: A Lasting Legacy in Today’s Counterinsurgency Warfare.” Historia 21 (2012): 54-62.

Gurman, Hannah and Mistry, Kaeten. “The Paradox of National Security Whistleblowing: Locating and Framing a History of the Phenomenon,” in Whistleblowing Nation: The History of National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy. Edited by Kaeten Mistry and Hannah Gurman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020: 9-45.

Katz, Jonathan M. Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2022.

Langley, Lester D. The Banana Wars: An Inner History of American Empire 1900-1934. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1983.

Marcilhacy, David. “1914, Between Two Oceans, Between Two Empires: A Turning Point for Latin America.” National Identities 24, no. 1 (2022): 21-37.

McCoy, Alfred W. Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

Musicant, Ivan. The Banana Wars: A History of United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the Invasion of Panama. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990.

Pandolfe, Frank C. “The Role of the United States in Nicaragua from 1912-1933.” The Fletcher Forum 9, No. 2 (Summer 1985): 401-429.

Schmidt, Hans. Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Stone, Grant Hamilton. “Smedley D. Butler, Anti-Democratic Dissidence, and the Recession of the American Right 1932-1936.” Master's thesis. University of Chicago, 2021.


1. Sally Denton, The Plots Against the President: FDR, a Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2012), 207.

2. Ibid., 211.

4. Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 8.

5. Chalmers Johnson, “Blowback,” The Nation (September 27, 2001). Accessed via

6. Thomas Griffith, “The Small Wars Manual: A Lasting Legacy in Today’s Counterinsurgency Warfare,” Historia 21 (2012), 55-56.

7. Ibid., 54.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., 55.

10. Ibid., 60.

11. Lester D. Langley, The Banana Wars: An Inner History of American Empire 1900-1934 (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1983), 6, 8.

12. Greg Grandin, Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), 11.

13. Ivan Musicant, The Banana Wars: A History of United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the Invasion of Panama (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 19900, 3.

14. McCoy, Policing America's Empire, 41.

15. Lloyd E. Ambosius, Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 2, 22, 28.

16. Ibid., 38.

17. Musicant, The Banana Wars, 161.

18. Hans Schmidt, Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987), 62.

19. Jonathan M. Katz, Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2022), 78.

20. Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 19.

21. Katz, Gangsters of Capitalism, 88.

22. Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 38.

23. Joseph O. Baylen, “American Intervention in Nicaragua, 1909-33: An Appraisal of Objectives and Results,” The Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 35, no. 2 (September 1954), 129.

24. Ibid., 39.

25. Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket (New York: Round Table Press, 1935), 16.

26. “Asks Gen. Butler to Explain Speech: Secretary Adams Calls for a Full Report on His References to Nicaraguan Policy,” The New York Times (New York: December 15th, 1929).

27. Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 204.

28. “Asks Gen. Butler to Explain Speech.”

29. “Stimson Closes Butler Incident: Secretary Accepts Denial by Haitian Minister of Reflection on General,” The New York Times (New York: May 8, 1931).

30. Smedley D. Butler, General Smedley Darlington Butler: The Letters of a Leatherneck, 1898-1931, ed. Ann Cipriano Venzon (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992), 75-76.

31. Ibid., 77.

32. Butler, letter to wife, September 23, 1912, found in Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 51.

33. Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 60-61.

34. Ibid., 61.

35. Ibid., 64-65.

36. Ibid., 66-68.

37. Butler, War is a Racket, 16.

38. Butler, The Letters of a Leatherneck, 163-164.

39. Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 72-73.

40. Katz, Gangsters of Capitalism, 231.

41. Butler, War is a Racket, 16.

42. Katz, Gangsters of Capitalism, 251-252.

43. Butler, Letters of a Leatherneck, 193.

44. Hannah Gurman & Kaeten Mistry, “The Paradox of National Security Whistleblowing: Locating and Framing a History of the Phenomenon,” in Whistleblowing Nation: The History of National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy. ed. Kaeten Mistry & Hannah Gurman (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020): 31.

45. Denton, The Plots Against the President, 53, 54.

46. Ibid., 140-150.

47. Ibid., 175.

48. Ibid., 189, 196-197.

49. Ibid., 186-189.

50. Ibid., 194-195.

51. Schmidt, 168.

52. Ibid., 208.

53. Denton, 206.

54. “Inquiry Pressed in 'Fascist Plot': Purported Agent, on Stand, Again Denies Asking General Butler to Lead 'March',” The New York Times (New York: November 22, 1934).

55. Denton, The Plots Against the President, 195.

56. Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 232.

57. Butler, Letters of a Leatherneck, 256.

58. Ibid., 294.

59. Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 232.

60. Butler, War is a Racket, 16.



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