Saturday, February 12, 2005

War is a Racket - for the Rich

The famous quote “War is a Racket” came from a prominent Marine from the past, Smedley Butler. He was a two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner known for his integrity. I’ll return to the quote, and his explanation of exactly what he meant by it, because he could as easily have been talking about the Iraq war. But in case you didn’t know, Butler is also famous for stopping a Fascist takeover of the White House!

In 1934, Butler went to his friends in the press and Congress with a remarkable tale. He claimed that bond trader Gerald MacGuire approached him in the summer of 1933, as a representative of a group of wealthy businessmen, and asked him to speak publicly on behalf of the gold standard so that soldiers would not be paid in “rubber money or paper money.” When Butler refused, MacGuire offered him a cash bribe, which Butler also refused. MacGuire then told him what they really wanted was for him to lead a 500,000 man army to DC to protect President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from other coup plotters, and to install a “Secretary of General Welfare” to “take all the worries and details off his [FDR’s] shoulders.”

Butler responded, “…my one hobby is, maintaining a democracy. If you get these 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you, and we will have a real war right at home.”

Butler testified about the plot to Congress, but Congress showed very little interest in getting to the bottom of the affair - probably because the conspirators included both conservatives and at least one prominent Democrat. And the media, predictably, as it has and always will, protected the elite. Clayton Cramer, in an article for History Today, outlined the media’s pathetic response to this series of events:

The news media gave an inappropriately small amount of attention to the report. Time magazine ridiculed Butler's claims. The week following Butler's testimony, Time described it as a "Plot Without Plotters," simply because the alleged plotters claimed innocence. But Time admitted that Veterans of Foreign Wars commander James Van Zandt confirmed that he, too, had been approached to lead such a march on Washington.

The leftist magazine New Masses carried an article by John Spivak that included wild claims of "Jewish financiers working with fascist groups." Spivak's article spun an elaborate web involving the American Jewish Congress, the Warburg family, "which originally financed Hitler," the Hearst newspaper chain, the Morgan banking firm, the du Ponts, a truly impressive list of prominent American Jewish businessmen, and Nazi spies! Spivak's article raised some disturbing and legitimate questions about why much of Butler's testimony was left out of the final committee report. But these important concerns were seriously undermined by Spivak's paranoid ravings. The left-of-center magazines Nation and New Republic were unconcerned about it, since in their view "fascism originated in pseudoradical mass movements," and therefore could not come from a wealthy cabal.

Newspaper descriptions of the final report are also astonishing for how lightly most treated it. A New York Times article about subversion and foreign agitators started on the front page, but gave only two paragraphs to the coup plot inside the paper. "It also alleged that definite proof has been found that the much publicized Fascist march on Washington... was actually contemplated." It was not a major story.

The San Francisco Chronicle took the story more seriously. The only headline with a larger type size that day concerned the recent fatal crash of the airship Macon. The Chronicle carried an Associated Press story headlined, "Justice Aids Probe Butler Fascist Story." The first five paragraphs were devoted to Butler's allegations. The Chronicle quoted the Committee report that it "was able to verify all the pertinent statements by General Butler, with the exception of the direct statement suggesting creation of the organization."

A third newspaper sampled showed an even more astonishing lack of interest than the New York Times: the Sacramento Bee used a substantially different Associated Press wire story that emphasized propaganda efforts by foreign agents. Another AP wire story, at the bottom of page five, described Butler's allegations, taking the Committee's report at face value. This wire story includes the comforting knowledge that the committee found "no evidence to show a connection between this effort" and any foreign government.

An apparently serious effort to overthrow the government, perhaps with the support of some of America's wealthiest men, largely substantiated by a Congressional committee, was mostly ignored. Why? Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, wrote a book in 1939 about the concentration of American journalism. He claimed that, "In 1934, 82 per cent of all dailies had a complete monopoly in their communities." Newspaper chains, in Ickes' view, "control a dangerously large share of the national daily circulation and in many cities have no competition."

Ickes' book was largely devoted to proving that the major newspapers of the United States were intentionally distorting the news, and in some cases, directly lying. Ickes argued that newspaper editors did so in the interests of both their advertisers and in defense of the capitalist class. Ickes mentioned the Liberty League as one of the "propaganda outfits" who were allied with the major newspapers. Indeed,the New York Times, one of the papers that had downplayed the Committee's report, had editorialized in favor of the Liberty League's formation.

Did newspapers and magazines onsciously play down the plot, because it represented an embarrassment to people of influence? Or did editors simply give it low visibility because they regarded it as an absurd story?

In any case, this plot essentially disappeared from history. Certainly I never heard about it until I began writing for Probe magazine.

Whether as a result or a precursor to this incident, Butler gave an amazing speech, excerpted below, detailing just what he meant by saying war is a racket:
War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.

I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.
There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" to point out enemies, its "muscle men" to destroy enemies, its "brain men" to plan war preparations, and a "Big Boss" Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.

It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. 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. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

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.
It’s eerie, isn’t it? Change a few dates and countries and he could just as easily be talking about Halliburton, the many companies that are direct and indirect descendants of Standard Oil, and the Iraq war.

The cause of unjust wars is always the same. Greed. Wealth. Power. The excuse for war is always the same too. Religion. Patriotism. Freedom. The cost of war is always born by those who least benefit from it. The soldiers. The taxpayers. The innocent.

I agree with Butler on his two justifications for war, but I will expand a little on the second reason he gave: 1) in self defense (we are under attack), and 2) to protect the rights of human beings - not just in America, but wherever any beings are being killed en masse. I think peacekeeping troops should be empowered to truly defend peace, and not to have to stand by while genocide transpires in front of them, as it did in Rwanda. Beyond that, we have no moral reason for being at war in any other country.

I started to write about something else tonight - the comments of Ward Churchill re the victims of 9/11 being “little Eichmanns.” I would urge those infuriated by those remarks to 1) read the full text of his article “Some People Push Back”, from which the quote is taken dramatically out of context, and 2) to note that he includes himself in that category (i.e., he’s a “little Eichmann” too) as well. A lot of furor has also been raised as to whether his research on Indian genocide is legitimate, as well as statements on his resume. To me, that’s between him and his college - I’m more interested in what he meant by this comment, and whether there is any truth in it.

After much thought, I've concluded that I agree with the sentiment expressed, if not the way it was expressed. I believe we Americans are all, to some degree, complicit in the mass murders done by our country. I’d add, however, that our complicity occurs on various levels. There are the “fully witting” - the Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s and likely (although I’m not sure the term applies here) President George Bush. Then there are the very helpful and partially witting - the CEOs of major corporations who see more green than red, i.e., who focus more on money than on the blood cost of the profit. There are the unwitting - those who have not bothered or are not capable of educating themselves in world affairs, and the misled - those who believe the right-wing propaganda they hear. That leaves the educated but unconcerned, a category which troubles me greatly, and the educated and concerned, the category in which I’d place myself.

I fight in the ways I know, by writing, by speaking up when I hear any defense of this immoral war, by marching, by whatever means available. But in the moments when I’m fully honest with myself, a rare and difficult feat, I realize that if I were truly completely committed to ending the war, that I should perhaps quit my job, move to another country, or even take up arms to stop America. So count me as partially guilty because I have not and do not intend to do any of the above. Count me as partially not guilty though too because I do believe the best way to change something is from within, and not without. I feel my efforts do have some positive and permanent effect, however small. And I find myself wondering, what would Smedley Butler have done?

Where do you fall? Do you feel any guilt at all? Is it not your problem? I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this matter.


Blogger Other Lisa said...

Great post. I'd heard of Butler and that quote before (though I don't remember where) and wonder if this plot was at all an inspiration for the film 7 DAYS IN MAY. Certainly this is another piece of American history that's pretty much fallen down the memory hole.

I think any thinking American who is at all benefiting from being an American must have some degree of guilt or perhaps a sense of obligation - forget the war, consider how we live when compared to most of the rest of humanity. Unfortunately too many Americans turn this around, tell themselves they are favored by God and that takes care of that piece of cognitive dissonance.

On the other hand there is a certain point beyond which guilt is not productive and is an exercise in masochistic chest-beating. I'm not quite sure where that line is, nor am I clear on what we as Americans are morally obligated to do, other than work for a more moral regime than the one currently occupying the White House.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

It was indeed noted as the inspiration to Seven Days In May, an excellent film that made a huge impact on President Kennedy, in fact.

The tactic of saying they were trying to "prevent" a coup and to "protect" Roosevelt by the coup plotters is an eerie antecedent to our efforts to "put down" a fake Communist coup in Indonesia in the name of "protecting" Sukarno. But in reality, the coup brought the bloodletting dictator Suharto to power. History repeats itself in the most horrific of ways when we don't learn it right the first time. Thanks for the comment!

9:07 AM  
Blogger Jim French said...

Dear Lisa:

While doing research on an entirely unrelated project, I happened across the original HUAC report concerning the investigation of the Smedley Butler coup report as well as a news article from the period.

I don't think I can attach a file to this comment, but if you would like to have the HUAC materials, e me at and I will send it along.

As a former officer of Marines (!), I can tell you that General Butler remains a revered figure in the Marine Corps. Recruits and Officer Candidates are first told of him at boot camp/OCS respectively and War Is A Racket was required reading of all 2d Lieutenants during my days at The Basic School. Also, during the run up to Gulf War I, War Is A Racket became required reading (re-reading) for all officers by the direct order of then Commandant Al Gray.

With all this on my mind, I might suggest you find an old special forces hand who took the Civil Affairs Officer Course at the JFK Special Warfare Center in, say 1984, and they may tell you that the concept of rigged electronic voting machines was under discussion there way back then. The discussion was not how to rig them but to beware of the rigging when conducting civil affairs ops.
1984. Long time coming. Is it here to stay?
I send my best wishes,
Jim French

6:34 AM  
Blogger scott said...

"Ickes' book was largely devoted to proving that the major newspapers of the United States were intentionally distorting the news, and in some cases, directly lying. Ickes argued that newspaper editors did so in the interests of both their advertisers and in defense of the capitalist class."

Exactly what happened in the FOX BGH Suit.

4:37 PM  
Blogger scott said...

Yes I do feel guilt. I often wondered how the passive people living in Germany and Italy at the times, could just stand by, not doing anything, continue with their jobs, etc.

I now know that this country is the same as their's, if not worse, because we have learned from their mistakes and mask our true intentions with so much effort.

I am no different then the people living in those times, and will do my best with writing, and film, to speak out and change our country back to the thing I was taught it to be.

The most peculiar of all the ways I feel, tends to come from coming out of the American education system, learning about all these important decisions, like Roe v.Wade, Free Speech, Seperation of Church and State, etc..., And finding all these milestones of American Greatness being stripped away and reversed right before my eyes. Why was I taught these things?

Oh yeah, so that I can fight for what is right. and I will.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Bohemian said...

WAR is such a positive experience...
I'm positive that guns do not kill People
I'm positive People with guns kill People
I'm positive People have to many guns
I'm positive Politicians give People guns
I'm positive there are to many Politicians
I'm positive People are not very smart
I'm positive their bombs are not either
I'm positive the Politicians start WAR
I'm positive Rich Kids wont go to WAR
I'm positive only Poor Kids go to WAR
I'm positive many will Children die in WAR
I'm positive their Mothers will cry
I'm positive the Fathers will cry
I'm positive these Children are Soldiers
I'm positive Soldiers will have Children
I'm positive these Soldiers will then cry
I'm positive that GOD will cry too
I'm positive the Soldiers could stop WAR
I'm positive the Soldiers wont stop WAR
I'm positive Soldiers march blindly to WAR
I'm positive WAR breeds many orphans
I'm positive WAR is never an orphan
I'm positive there is no GOD of WAR
I'm positive GOD does not wage WAR
I'm positive GOD is not on our side
I'm positive GOD is not on their side
I'm positive GOD would never pick a side
I'm positive GOD doesn't profit from WAR
I'm positive that Men do profit from WAR
I'm positive that the Truth died
I'm positive that the Lie lived
I'm positive History will echo that Lie
I'm positive History will repeat itself
I'm positive History will tell another Lie
I'm positive WAR is not Hell
I'm positive WAR is worse than Hell
I'm positive WAR goes to Hell for R&R
I'm positive WAR is just the lack of Peace
I'm positive WAR is such a positive experience
I'm positive you will want to attend one soon!

ring around a missile
pocket full of thistle
ash's... ash's...
we all fall dead

7:27 PM  

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