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Carry a Big Racket

A true American hero

“I spent 33 years…being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism…I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate a racket in three cities…”

Who is this dastardly criminal confessing sins that his corporate patrons would have preferred stayed hidden? Let’s finish up the quote:

“…The Marines operated on three continents.”

The Marines, often led into far-flung ventures in the name of big business by Major General Smedley Darlington Butler. Never heard of him? Two-time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, decorated veteran of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines – what do we call it? Occupation? Insurrection? Incursion? That little military operation that left perhaps 200,000 Filipinos dead and introduced the world to American imperialism – the Boxer Rebellion, World War I…well, the list continues. An officer called “a natural born warrior” and a soldier’s commander, because he would never ask his troops to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. The Smedley Butler who was a great American hero and is mostly unknown today.

The general asked to lead a plot against FDR.

The incident, like the man, doesn’t get much play in history books. I had come across him 30 years ago, doing research on Fascist groups in American during the 1930s, and was reminded of him as I recently read a Gore Vidal essay from the ‘90s. As hard as it may be to believe, monied elements in the United States were considering recruiting a 500,000-man army of military veterans to help with their plot to “ease” Roosevelt out of office. FDR, of course, was a crazy liberal, a socialist even, and the bankers and corporate giants feared what he might do to the country as the Great Depression went on.

All that was left of one Bonus Army camp after the real Army moved in

The corporate forces knew Butler was respected among the former troops. Retired as of 1931, he spoke up the next year when the Bonus Army of World War I vets marched on Washington, demanding money they were owed. Butler, unlike the military brass, supported them. He also began to speak out about his time as a “racketeer,” and he inveighed against U.S. military actions that weren’t necessary to defend the country or the Bill of Rights from direct assault. Oh, and he campaigned for Roosevelt, too, in 1932. Somehow, the big-business brains missed signs that maybe Butler really wasn’t there guy.

Still, he was popular and morally unimpeachable, so in the summer of 1933, they approached him. The contact man, Gerald MacGuire, assured Butler they had the money, millions of it (some from the heir of the Singer Sewing Company). They wanted to introduce a new position in government, “secretary of general welfare,” who would of course reflect corporate views. FDR would be pushed aside, perhaps even pressured to retire. For a time, Butler played along as if he were interested, then went  public, exposing the plot against the president.

Was MacGuire a fraud or conman, some have wondered? Even Butler had his doubts at first. But then MacGuire told him about a new organization about to be launched, the American Liberty League. Its sole purpose: derail the New Deal. Its backers included wealthy industrialists, and one of MacGuire’s bosses would become its treasurer. When Butler saw MacGuire’s words become reality – the League was launched in 1934 – he took the plans for usurping constitutional rule at face value.

Both Butler and MacGuire appeared before the poetically named Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities. Butler spoke in detail about his meetings with MacGuire, who denied the general’s charges. The committee, though, only called the general to testify after he gave details of the plot to a Philadelphia reporter – and even though it had heard about the plot from other sources. So if Butler doesn’t go public, the Special Committee would have hushed it up. In the end, the committee gave some credence to Butler’s charges, but did not take any action. Butler lambasted them for not naming the “the big shots” he had claimed were involved in or knew about the plot (including Governor Al Smith and General Douglas MacArthur).

A few years ago, the BBC did a radio story on Butler and the plot and quoted U.S. journalist John Buchanan, who said no one was ever investigated for a simple reason: FDR and the plotters made a deal. Corporate America would mostly back off from attacking the New Deal, and the feds would not question anyone allegedly tied to the plot. I have not found anything to corroborate this, and some of the articles about the whole episode have a whiff on conspiracy theory. But Butler had nothing to gain by making his claim, and Time reported, while mostly denigrating Butler and the story, that the head of the VFW claimed he had also been approached to lead a 500,000-man “blackshirt” force.

So, if not for Butler, was there a real threat to the Constitution and democracy? I don’t know. But certainly corporations – if not the Republic – have done all right for themselves even without a putsch. For all the talk of our “socialist” president in some circles (umm, not full circles; I’d say they’re missing a few arcs, if you know what I mean), American politics is still pretty much a big racket. Big Business doesn’t need an army to have government leaders bestow huge military contracts, bailouts, corporate welfare. It’s all much smoother now. I doubt Butler would be any less pissed. We shouldn’t be either.

Postscript: Researching this, I came across some interesting historical nuggets. Like the American Legion was originally created by business interests tied to the House of Morgan to “offset  radicalism.” This was, of course after the Russian Revolution and at dawn of the Red Scare. At times, the Legionnaires took part in strike breaking, with some clubbing striking workers.

And this: Yet again, lest we forget, the cozy relations between American corporations and Nazi Germany – sometimes even after  we entered the war. And the role a certain political family played in that quest for profits. The BBC report cited above notes how, during the 1930s, the Hamburg America steamship line gave free passage to American journalists wanting to visit Nazi Germany and write glowing articles about the 1,000-year Reich. The U.S. manager of the line at the time: Prescott Bush, granddaddy of our last president. Of course, the connections between the Nazis and the Bush/Walker clan have been well documented.

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