Childhood & Early Life
Smedley Butler was born to Thomas and Maud Butler in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His father was a lawyer, a judge and a Congressman.
He completed six weeks of training in Washington D.C. and was then assigned to ‘Guantanamo Bay’ in Cuba in 1898, as part of a Marine Battalion. But he did not engage in combat as the area had already been captured by the time he reached there.
Next, he was posted aboard the cruiser USS New York for four months after which he was discharged. But, just two months later, he secured a First Lieutenant’ commission to the Marine Corps.
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Butler was sent to Manila, Philippines where the Philippine-American war was going on. He was initially assigned only to garrison duty, but got an opportunity to get involved in combat in 1899, when he led 300 marines and successfully captured the town Noveleta from the Filipino ‘Insurrecto’ rebels.
In 1900, he was sent to Tientsin, China to fight against the ‘Boxer Rebellion’. He displayed considerable bravery in the battles there and was promoted to the rank of Captain for his efforts.
He returned to the US in 1901 and for the next two years was involved in a succession of interventions by the US in Central America and the Caribbean. These interventions were motivated by commercial and political reasons, and are termed ‘The Banana Wars’.
In 1903, he was sent to Honduras to protect the US Consulate in the wake of a revolt. He rescued a consul in the town of Trujillo, in the midst of an ongoing battle between the rebels and the government forces.
After another stint of Garrison Duty and an attempt at coal-mining, he was sent to Central America where he had a battalion under his command. In 1912, he led his battalion to capture the Coyotepe hill in Nicarcagua.
In 1914, he was deployed at a battleship off the coast of Mexico near Veracruz to keep tabs on the Mexican Revolution. To plan for future military activities, he entered Mexico City pretending to be a Railroad officer and inspected the city to gain valuable knowledge for their invasion. However, the invasion plans were cancelled after the ‘Tampico Affair’.
In 1914, a contingent of Marines and Sailors was sent to Veracruz to intercept an arms shipment. Butler led his forces admirably and they soon supressed the Mexican forces with minimum losses.
In 1915, the Haitian President ‘Vilbrun Guillaume Sam’ was assassinated by the locals, plunging the country into anarchy. Butler led a force into Haiti and won several battles against the rebels, including the capture of Fort Riviere where he displayed exemplary leadership and bravery.
In 1918, during the World War I, he was promoted to ‘Brigadier General’ and was handed command of ‘Camp Pontanezen’ in France. He vastly improved sanitary conditions in the over-crowded camp, which served as an important debarkation point for the US.
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In 1924, on mayor of Philadelphia W. Freeland Kendrick’s request, he took leave from the Marines and was appointed the ‘Director of Public Safety’ in Philadelphia.
He began a relentless campaign in Philadelphia to root out corruption from the city’s municipal board. He used a direct, military-style and aggressive approach to combat corruption. However, his extreme-but-effective methods were not popular with the public and eventually he was forced to resign in 1926.
In 1927, he led a Marine Force in China for two years, during which he worked for US interests and cleverly dealt with various Chinese warlords and leaders.
After his return to the U.S. in 1929, he was promoted to ‘Major General’. To increase public consciousness about the Marines, he organized long marches and re-enactments of battles like ‘Gettysburg’ in front of distinguished audiences.
He retired from military services in 1931 and began lecturing full-time at events and conferences. He travelled in the western United States and gave 60 speeches in all.
He ran for the US Senate from Pennsylvania and teamed up with Gifford Pinchot. However, they were defeated by James J. Davis in 1932. The same year, he supported the ‘Bonus Army’ protesters, who wanted immediate payment of the service certificates, which were approved eight years before, according to the ‘World War Adjusted Compensation Act’.
1933 onwards, he continued to lecture extensively. His lectures were based on the profit motives behind warfare and the selfish motives behind America’s foreign military interventions. He also authored a book on these issues, titled ‘War Is a Racket’.
In 1934, he alleged that a political conspiracy was planned by a group of businessmen to overthrow President Roosevelt and form a Fascist dictatorship. Upon further investigations, some of Butler’s allegations were confirmed.
In 1900, Butler was assigned to Tientsin, China to supress the ‘Boxer Rebellion’. During the battle, as he got out of his trench to assist a wounded officer, he was himself shot in the thigh, but still managed to get the officer to safety. He was again wounded during the ‘Gaselee Expedition’ as a bullet grazed his chest. He was promoted to the rank of Captain for his bravery in these battles.
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In 1914, he commanded a batch of Marines to seize an Arms Shipment in Varcruz, Mexico. The Marines were endangered by street fighting and sniper fire, but Butler countered these threats by conducting a door-to-door search, which resulted in the Marines’ victory with few casualties.
During the capture of Fort Riviere in Haiti in 1915, he entered the fort himself along with two other men through a drain in the wall, all the while dodging bullets. But he managed to reach inside the fort and as a result, the battle was won in just twenty minutes, without losing a single soldier.
Personal Life & Legacy
Butler married Ethel Conway Peters in New Jersey in 1905, and had three children, a daughter, Ethel Peters Butler, and two sons, Smedley Darlington, Jr. and Thomas Richard.
He suffered from a bout of nervous breakdown in 1908 and received nine months of sick leave. During this time, he managed a coal mine in West Virginia.
In 1940, he was diagnosed with ‘a incurable condition of the upper gastro-intestinal tract’. His family was with him till his death in the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia. His funeral was attended by many distinguished people, including politicians and Marines. He was buried near West Chester, Pennsylvania.