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Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America By David Talbot (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Monday March 07, 2011 - 10:01:00 AM
Butler Reviewing Troops
Shanghai in 1927
Shanghai in 1927
Ethel and Smedley
Ethel and Smedley

‘Pulp History’ Reveals a Corporate Plot to Overthrow American Democracy

It was more than 25 years ago, while researching a story in a dark alcove of UC Berkeley’s little-visited newspaper library, that I chanced upon some transcripts from the first hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). What I discovered was shocking beyond belief. The records revealed an organized conspiracy to overthrow the US government but it was not one hatched by a secretive Moscow-directed Communist cell. HUAC’s initial alarm was focused on a plot bankrolled by the owners of major US corporations — including Goodyear, US Steel, JP Morgan, Heinz, and Maxwell House. 

Up to that point, I had associated HUAC with the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s and the Bay Area anti-HUAC demonstrations that pitted congressional fear-mongers against the righteous wrath of Berkeley’s indomitable Bill Mandel. It was Mandel who introduced his refusal to cooperate by addressing the Congressmen as: “Honorable beaters of children.” (Just outside the hearing room, protesters were being beaten in the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda while high-powered water hoses sent others flying down the hard marble staircase. See the documentaries: “Operation Abolition” and “Berkeley in the Sixties.”) 

To my amazement, the transcripts of those first hearings revealed how, in its original inception, HUAC was convened, not to hunt down “Com-symps,” but to investigate a fascist plot to topple President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a patrician Democrat derided by the country’s financial Upper Crust as “a traitor to his class.” 

My heart was in my throat as I read about the plan for a corporate-backed military coup planned for 1933. How could we not have heard of this? Why was there no mention of this in our schoolroom history books? Why was it that, in the official transcripts of the McCormak-Dickstein HUAC hearings, the names of the corporate conspirators had been blacked out? 

I asked a colleague at Mother Jones magazine about this remarkable page that had apparently been torn from of our national history and shredded. “I’ve only seen one reference to this,” he replied. “It was in a 1987 book by Ralph Nader called The Big Boys.” (Another book that dates from the same year is Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History by Hans Schmidt.) 

In the nearly eight decades since the plot was hatched (and a quarter-century since the publication of Nader’s tome), only two books have dared to tackle this dark chapter in our country’s long-festering secret war between its citizenry and the superrich. In 2007, Jules Archer published his exposé, The Plot to Seize the White House: The Shocking True Story of the Conspiracy to Overthrow FDR (Skyhorse Publishing) and now, a plucky team of Bay Area writers and artists, is mainstreaming this long-suppressed story in a stunner of a book that combines the visual panache of graphic novel with the visceral punch of a nonfiction bombshell. 

Devil Dog, the first book in David Talbot’s “Pulp History” series from Simon & Schuster, celebrates the life of Smedley Darlington Butler, a unique American hero who single-handedly prevented the overthrow of representative government in the USA. A combination of historical narrative interspaced with copious sidebars and a “found history” grab bag of archival photos and mid-20th-Century memorabilia, Devil Dog also springs to life as an illustrated comic, courtesy of a slew of vivid pages rendered by local treasure Spain Rodriguez. 

“Devil Dog” was one of many colorful nicknames bestowed on Smedley Butler. While best known as the author of the extended essay “War Is a Racket,” Butler rightly deserves to be known as “The Man Who Saved America.” He was a war hero many times over and, in his day, the most decorated Marine in US history. His feats of soldiery were so notable — and the loyalty that he inspired among the enlisted ranks was so heartfelt — that the would-be coup plotters believed Butler was the only man who could raise a popular army to topple FDR in a military coup. 

These men did not know Smedley. 

Smedley Butler Exposes Fascist Coup Plot in HUAC Testimony 

From “The Corporation” (2:53 minutes) 


A Red-blooded Blueblood:  

Smedley Butler’s Amazing Life 

Butler was raised a Quaker in a wealthy Philadelphia family. His father, Congressman Thomas Butler, presided over the Naval Affairs Committee in Washington. Despite his blueblood heritage and political connections, Smedley enlisted to join the Marines to fight the Spaniards in Cuba — at the age of 16. 

By August 1900, 18-year-old Marine Lieutenant Butler was leading a squad of 45 enlistees through Hubei Province to lay siege to the Chinese capital of Peking — as part of a coalition of 16,000 men from eight Western nations. Butler defined just how tough a Marine could be. He lead the march despite having been shot through the leg and, while storming the walls outside the Forbidden City, Butler was knocked to the ground from a bullet to the chest. To the amazement of his fellow soldiers, he struggled back to his feet, saved by a metal button on his shirt that had deflected the bullet. With an aching chest and coughing blood, Butler picked up his weapons and plunged back into the assault. In the course of his 33-year military career, Butler came under fire 121 times. 

In Spain Rodriguez’ full-page illustration of Butler’s brush with death, a fellow soldier tells Butler: “We thought they got you in the heart.” In the next panel, Butler pulls open his bloodied shirt to show his chest, which is covered by a huge tattoo of the Marine Corps emblem — an eagle and anchor backing a globe of the Western Hemisphere. Pointing at the bloodstained tattoo, Butler cracks: “No, not in the heart. Just a piece of South America.” 

Devil Dogrecaps Butler’s astonishing run of military exploits — Cuba, China, Haiti, France, Nicaragua and the Philippines — with machinegun-bursts of purple prose: “The Chinese capital looked like Dante’s Inferno.” “Chinese girls threw themselves down wells rather than fall into the hands of the foreign devils.” “Butler and his comrades sang raucous songs, smashed Buddha statues and drank themselves into oblivion.” 

Butler Pauses Briefly for Marriage  

At the age of 23, Captain Butler had survived three wars and had been singled out by President Theodore Roosevelt as the example of “the ideal American soldier.” But not even the “Devil Dog” was immune to Cupid’s ammunition. To his amazement, Butler fell suddenly and totally in love with Ethel Peters, a fellow Philadelphia blueblood. In lurid Pulp History prose, Talbot writes how Butler would take Ethel and their children, Snooks and Smedley Jr., “to the sun-scorched outposts of he American Empire. She would kiss him farewell time after time, never knowing whether she would ever feel his lips again.” 

During the Taft Administration, Butler commanded the marines overseeing the construction of the Panama Canal. In a cheeky personal note, he recalled a visit from President Taft, at 300-pounds, the heaviest man ever to sit in the Oval Office. “The President held my two babies, Snooks and Smedley, on his lap — what there was of it,” Butler wrote. 

Butler Busts a Revolution in Nicaragua 

By August 1912, Butler was in Nicaragua “riding shotgun” on a locomotive filled with armed marines intent on breaking through a rebel blockade that threatened the US-backed regime. Braving bullets, bombs and broken rails, Butler plowed ahead. 

Rodriquez commemorates a classic “Butler moment” with a full-page illustration that shows an unarmed Butler standing on the tracks facing rebel leader who has a gun aimed at Butler’s chest. “If the train moves,” the rebel announces, “I shoot.” In response, Butler snatches the pistol from the rebel’s hand. “Then, for a theatrical flourish,” Talbot writes, “the marine emptied the cartridges onto the ground. There was a stunned silence. And, suddenly, hundreds of men — Nicaraguans and Americans — all burst into wild laughter.” 

Ordered to Haiti, Butler Winds up Running the Country 

In 1915, Butler was deployed to Haiti where a popular rebellion against the corrupt and murderous President Sam had erupted into “a carnival of gore.” After an angry mob stormed the palace and literally tore the US puppet to pieces, the Marines were entrusted with the chore of destroying a force of armed insurgents headed by a charismatic rebel named Caco. Butler found these “hunt and kill” missions (the forerunners of modern counterinsurgency warfare) distasteful but he soon won his second Medal of Honor for a succession of “suicide missions” that involved storming two rebel-held forts with small bands of 27 and 300 Marines. 

Haiti’s new, reform-minded government was in the midst of writing a new constitution that would have reduced the control of US-owned companies and banks. Butler was dispatched to intervene. He persuaded the new US puppet, President Dartiguenave, to disband the National Assembly. “The house of Haiti’s people, the final remnant of the nation’s democracy, was about to disappear,” Talbot writes. “Grumbling and fuming, Haiti’s legislators were then herded into the street by the gendarmes, who bolted the doors behind them.” 

In the European War, Butler Shines as a Can-do Administrator 

Serving as the de facto ruler of Haiti was a role that did not sit well on Butler’s shoulders. “He was no potentate, he was a fighting man.” With the storm clouds of World War I gathering over Europe, Butler lobbied Washington to send him to serve in the front lines of a “real war.” 

Politicians who refer to it as the “Great War,” did not witless the conflict through the eyes of the participants. In Butler’s case, the horror began even before the soldiers reached foreign shores. Butler was one of 4,000 soldiers aboard the USS Henderson when Spanish influenza swept the ship in mid-Atlantic. More than 1,200 (including Butler) were stricken and 100 died. 

To his dismay, Butler was not sent into combat. Instead, he was put in charge of Camp Pontanezen, a hellhole of a military encampment that Talbot paints as “a vast sprawl of khaki-colored tents, which seemed to be sinking in a sea of ooze.” The camp, built to accommodate 1,500, now held 65,000. More than 12,000 were feverish with influenza and hundreds were dying on a daily basis. 

Butler went to work, transforming the camp from a “national scandal” into something closer to a “big hotel” — with dry paths, clean rooms, warmth, hearty food and even an ice-cream factory. But Butler was unprepared for a problem he could not have anticipated. The specter of shell-shocked soldiers returning from the front tore at Butler’s soul. “They had been swept into the jaws of an industrial killing machine…. [and] mangled in breath-taking ways — shorn-off noses and chins, melted faces. But the ones whose wounds were inside seemed even more deeply broken.” In a two-page illustration titled “Belleau Wood,” Spain Rodriguez captures the utter horror of “modern,” mechanized warfare. 

Butler Tackles the Gangs of Philadelphia 

After the war, Butler returned to the US and a new position as commander of the Marine base at Quantico. In 1924, however, Butler took a break from his military duties at the behest of W. Freeland Kendrick, the new Mayor of Philadelphia. Kendrick wanted an incorruptible ally to rid the city of the crime and corruption spawned by the Bootleg Era. He got his man. One of Butler’s first acts as the city’s new Director of Public Safety was to shut down 973 saloons. But when Butler attempted to apply the same law to wealthy scofflaws in their hotels and private clubs (and drew unwanted attention to the bankers who were profiting from laundering bootleg profits), Kendrick suddenly got cold feet. Butler refused the mayor’s invitation to resign and Kendrick was forced to side with the gangsters and “bootleg kings.” He fired the war hero. 

By 1931, Butler was back in uniform and back at Quantico. At the age of 50, Butler was the country’s most highly decorated soldier and the Pentagon’s youngest major general. It was the year Butler would also make history of a darker kind — as the first officer since the Civil War to be arrested and stripped of his command “by the direct personal order of the president of the United States,” Herbert Hoover. 

Butler’s crime: he had made “unwarranted utterances” regarding Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. During a private speech, Butler had passed on a report that Mussolini had shrugged off his responsibility for the hit-and-run death of an Italian child with the callous comment: “Never look back.” 

The pillorying of Major General Butler may seem incomprehensible today but, back in the 1930s, Italy’s Mussolini and Germany’s Adolph Hitler were highly (and publicly) admired by America’s unapologetically right-wing corporate class. A page in Devil Dog is adorned with a reproduction of the October 18, 1935 issue of Time, with a flattering photo of Mussolini on the cover. Talbot quotes Henry Luce (the force behind both Time and Fortune) as looking forward to the day when “the moral force of Fascism may be the inspiration for the next general march of mankind.” 

It turns out there was a personal reason for the enmity between Butler and President Herbert Hover that stemmed from a shocking wartime encounter. The details of this story are another example of the many jaw-dropping examples of hidden history illuminated by Talbot’s Pulp History torchlight. In the end, Mussolini’s hit-and-run incident was confirmed and Butler was exonerated and reinstated, with full apologies. 

The Bonus Army and ‘America’s Mussolini’ 

It is around page 116 that Devil Dog begins to resonate with disturbing echoes of our own times. Millions of Americans had lost their jobs and homes because of the Depression. Around the country, families have been forced into squatter’s camps dubbed “Hoovervilles.” In July 1932, Washington became home to a protest encampment organized by the “Bonus Army,” a community of veterans demanding payment for wages lost during their years of service in the so-called Great War. 

Faced with the spectacle of “a ragged force, more than 15,000 strong — weather-beaten men and women in tattered clothes crowded between tents and shacks, and scrawny kids playing in the mud holes left over from the summer rain,” Hoover rejected a proposed “Bonus Bill,” arguing that Federal aid would not be a “stimulus” to the economy since the veterans would only “waste” any payments. 

Butler had resigned from military service in 1931 so that he would be free to speak out about the abuse of veterans and criticize wealthy “war racketeers” like industrialist Pierre DuPont. Butler delivered a speech, “War Is A Racket,” that remains perhaps the most truthful and savage exposé of the military-corporate complex on record — a stunning 30-page denunciation of the role of big business in fomenting war and controlling foreign and domestic policy. It deserves to share space in US history books alongside Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. [See the “War Is A Racket” sidebar.] 

War is a Racket by Smedley Butler 

A Reenactment of Smedley Butler’s Speech before the National VFW Convention performed by Graham Frye 


The Routing of the Bonus Army: America’s Tahrir Square 

Butler agreed to address the Bonus Army. He rallied the vast crowd, insisting that they should stand firm until they won passage of a Bonus Bill. “You have as much right to lobby here as the US Steel Corporation!” he thundered. But it all ended in a nightmarish assault of clubs, bullets and tear-gas when government troops under the command of Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur charged across the Anacostia River and scattered the protest camp, toppling its tents and setting fire to the rubble. It was a scene reminiscent of the recent assaults in Bahrain and Egypt. MacArthur justified the attack by claiming the hapless veterans in Washington’s “Tahrir Square” were Communist “revolutionaries” who planned to take over the government and hang the politicians. 

The shocking assault on America’s veterans turned the political tide against Hoover and toward the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt clearly recognized the danger posed by MacArthur’s form of politicized militarism. “There’s a potential Mussolini for you,” FDR frowned. “Right here at home.” 

Butlerswitched parties and began campaigning for Roosevelt. He explained that he could not abide a government that “used gas and bayonets on unarmed human beings.” 

The Fascist Plot to Seize the White House 

When Roosevelt won the election, the super-rich escalated their efforts to promote their anti-worker interests by pouring their vast wealth into the creation of front groups and public propaganda campaigns. One of their greatest achievements was the creation of the American Legion. As Talbot explains: “Founded by conservative millionaires, the Legion was used by employers to break strikes and advance a reactionary agenda.” 

One of the major plotters was Colonel Grayson Mallet-Prevost Murphy, a Wall Street banker and director of the J. P. Morgan-owned Guaranty Trust. The plotters also included top officials from Bethlehem Steel and Goodyear Tire and Rubber. 

These business leaders were outspoken admirers of Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini — Europe’s paramount practitioners of state fascism. Hitler was such an admirer of US automaker Henry Ford’s self-published anti-Semitic tract, “The Eternal Jew,” that he honored Ford with the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle. Other admirers of Germany’s “anti-communist” regime included top officials at General Motors, General Electric, Standard Oil, Texaco, ITT, IBM and International Harvester. (ITT even had the chutzpah to bill US taxpayers $27 million for the damage wrought by US bombers that targeted its factories inside Nazi Germany.) 

One prominent member of the conspiracy to overthrow FDR was Senator Prescott Bush (father and grandfather of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush). As the London Guardian reported on September 25, 2004: “newly discovered files in the US National Archives [reveal] that a firm of which Prescott Bush was a director was involved with the financial architects of Nazism. 

“His business dealings, which continued until his company's assets were seized in 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act, has led more than 60 years later to a civil action for damages being brought in Germany against the Bush family by two former slave laborers at Auschwitz. The evidence has also prompted one former US Nazi war crimes prosecutor to argue that the late senator's action should have been grounds for prosecution for giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” 

The means of FDR’s overthrow were far from subtle: The corporate conspirators planned a military coup that would remove Roosevelt from the Oval Office and install a business-friendly replacement. The idea was to enlist Butler to raise and command an army of US veterans to march on Washington with weapons supplied by Remington Arms, a company controlled by DuPont. After the take-over, “Secretary of General Affairs” Smedley Butler would run the government — with the close assistance of a shadow cabinet of Wall Street operators. 

Talbot managed to find the following quote from one of the plotters, Wall Street bond salesman Gerald MacGuire: “The American people will swallow that. We have got the newspapers. We will start a campaign that the president’s health is failing… and the dumb American people will fall for it in a second.” 

ButlerSpills the Beans to HUAC 

Butler played along with the plotters, hoping to determine whether they were serious and, in the meantime, gathering detailed information on their financing and networks. Finally, in November 1934, Butler sat down before the House Un-American Activities Committee and, under oath, spelled out the plot in painstaking detail. He began by stating: “I have one interest in all of this, and that is to try to do my best to see that a democracy is maintained in this country.” 

But the HUAC investigators failed to follow up on Butler’s charges. They balked at issuing subpoenas to compel the alleged plotters to testify. This left the business leaders free to claim that the plot was “a fantasy” concocted by Butler. The former war hero was left to “twist in the wind.” 

In his new book, War Is a Crime, David Swanson reports that the investigation stalled because Roosevelt offered the plotters a deal: In exchange for a promise to waive arrest and prosecution, the conspirators would agree to no longer stand in the way of FDR’s New Deal reforms. 

Butlerhad put his life and reputation on the line and felt betrayed — by the committee, by the press, by the Roosevelt Administration. Under fierce attack by the corporate-controlled press, Butler returned fire by mounting an unprecedented counter-attack. He became the fiery voice of America’s first radio talk show. Butler inked a deal with a local station to host a series of 15-minute radio broadcasts. The commentaries were soon picked up by CBS and broadcast nationally to a growing audience of avid listeners. 

Butlerwas not only a thorn in the side of the military-industrial complex, he was also a passionate visionary who proposed alternatives to the peculiar form of capitalism whose profits are wedded to war. As the liner notes on the 1935 edition of “War Is a Racket” put it: “He does more than expose and denounce the racket of war. He outlines a program for the control of wars in the future — a simple, hardheaded program, based on his own experience, his knowledge, and his patriotism. Here is a man who knows, writing of things he knows about.” 

After collapsing from exhaustion in the middle of strenuous speaking tour, Butler died on June 21, 1940 at the age of 58. His obituaries focused on his military exploits and largely avoided mention of the Big Business plot to destroy the country’s representative government. As a final insult, Talbot reports, the Hearst newspaper chain turned Butler into a pro-American, war-loving cartoon character in a strip called “Heroes of Democracy.” The strip never mentioned how Butler stood up to Wall Street’s plot against democracy. 

The legacy of Butler’s amazing life has been effectively whitewashed from American history but Pulp History’s Devil Dog has handed readers the tools they need to amend mainstream history’s whitewashed wall with a vigorous graffiti makeover. Butler’s struggle against the moneyed classes and corporate fascism is a struggle that we are facing today. The power of private corporations, of wealthy oil barons like the Koch brothers, of manufactured “gasroots” groups like the Tea Party, is growing stronger by the day. We may not have Smedley Darlington Butler with us any more but, thanks to David Talbot’s crackling opus, we still have old Devil Dog’s words and passion to stir us. 

Postscript:Insiders at the Talbot Players office in San Francisco confirm that a film based on the life of Smedley “Devil Dog” Butler is “under discussion.” 

‘War Is a Racket’: Rep. Ron Paul Picks up Butler’s Banner /