The Plot to Seize the White House
By Jules Archer
Special Note: For many years, this landmark book from 1973 was out of print and only available from collectors for several hundred dollars a copy. Thankfully, a new edition came out in early 2007, which is available here. Spread the word to your friends and colleagues, and invite them to read our two-page summary of the war cover-up at this link.
can no longer be shocked by the discovery that information directly affecting
their personal freedom is withheld from news media to protect persons with
governmental influence. But it still comes as a shocking revelation that in
1933 there was an actual attempt to make a fascist puppet of President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now, more than forty years later, the public still
remains ignorant of the story behind "The Plot to Seize the White House."
The fact that the plot was a failure and our present
government is still a democracy, is directly attributable to Major GeneralSmedley Darlington Butler, one of the most remarkable generals in American
history. A veteran of 35 years in the Marine Corps and twice a recipient of the
Congressional Medal of Honor, Butler finally decided that "war is a
His reputation for patriotism, integrity, and dedication to
democracy, coupled with his proclivity to speak the truth as he saw it irrespective
of official policy, made him a seemingly perfect front for the men who hated
Roosevelt. They were people with a determination, if it were impossible to
replace the president, to manipulate him through the person of an American
Mussolini. Their short-sightedness prevented their realizing that Butler was
obviously the wrong choice for the job.
Jules Archer quotes testimony from the
McCormack-Dickstein House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings
(including testimony that was subsequently censored from public record) that
details how Butler was approached by representatives of the arch-conservative
American Liberty League; how they tried to persuade him to lead an army of
veterans in demonstration against Roosevelt's silver standard; how Butler quickly
concluded that the silver standard controversy
was being used as a subterfuge to lead American veterans against Washington
for truly sinister purposes; and how this hero, patriot, and Republican
democrat, upon uncovering the full dimensions of the conspiracy, determined to
go to Washington and blow it wide open.
John L. Spivak, a reporter assigned to cover the
committee hearings, calls the story "one of the most fantastic plots in
American history. ... What was behind the plot was shrouded in a silence
which has not been broken to this day. Even a generation later, those who are
still alive and know all the facts have kept their silence so well that the
conspiracy is not even a footnote in American histories. It would be
regrettable if historians neglected this episode and future generations of
Americans never learned of it."
Born in New York City, Jules Archer is a graduate of City
College of New York. During World War II he served four years in the Pacific
with the Army Air Corps and was also a freelance correspondent by order of General
MacArthur. He is the author of many books on political events and personalities,
including Mao Tse-tung, The Dictators, Hawks, Doves and the Eagle,
The Extremists, and Chou En-lai.
Hawthorn Books, Inc. Publishers 260 Madison Avenue New York,
New York 10016
The Plot to Seize the White House
HAWTHORN BOOKS, INC.
PUBLISHERS / New York
THE PLOT TO SEIZE THE WHITE
To reporters George Seldes and
John L. Spivak
for their courageous
dedication to the
truth, wherever it led
The Plot 1
The Indispensable Man 35
The Conspiracy Explodes 137
This is the true story of a remarkable American who,
during the early New Deal years, was sought by wealthy plotters in the United
States to lead a putsch to overthrow the government and establish an American
to retired Representative John W. McCormack, former Speaker of the House, if
the late Major General Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marine Corps had not been a
stubborn devotee of democracy, Americans today could conceivably be living
under an American Mussolini, Hitler, or Franco.
ironic aspect of the conspiracy General Butler unmasked is that few Americans
have ever heard about it, or even know anything about the general. As children all of us were taught about the
treason of Aaron Burr and Benedict Arnold, whose betrayals were safely
cobwebbed by the distant past. But
school texts that deal with the New Deal are uniquely silent about the powerful
Americans who plotted to seize the White House with a private army, hold
President Franklin D. Roosevelt prisoner, and get rid of him if he refused to
serve as their puppet in a dictatorship they planned to impose and control.
is strong evidence to suggest that the conspirators may have been too important
politically, socially, and economically to be brought to justice after their
scheme had been exposed before the McCormack-Dickstein Committee of the House
of Representatives. The largely anti-Roosevelt
press of the New Deal era scotched the story as expeditiously as possible by
outright suppression, distortion, and attempts to ridicule General Butler's
testimony as capricious fantasy.
Butler's whole life, however, was proof that he was a man of incorruptible
character, integrity, and patriotism, with a deserved reputation for bluntly
speaking the whole truth at all times, regardless of the consequences. He was named by Theodore Roosevelt "the
outstanding American soldier." The
official Marine Corps record calls him "one of the most colorful officers in
the Marine Corps' long history" and "one of the two Marines who received two
Medals of Honor for separate acts of outstanding heroism." He was decorated no fewer than twenty times.
Speaker McCormack told the author, "In peace or war he was one of the
outstanding Americans in our history. I
can't emphasize too strongly the very important part he played in exposing the
Fascist plot in the early 1930's backed by and planned by persons possessing
crucial events of the plot to seize the White House unfolded between July and
November, 1933, with hearings before the McCormack-Dickstein Committee begun in
New York City on November 20, 1934. On
November 26 the committee released a statement detailing the testimony it had
heard, and its preliminary findings. On
February 15, 1935, the committee submitted to the House of Representatives its
final report, verifying completely the testimony of General Butler.
book may help break some of the seals of silence that have kept Americans from
knowing the truth about that conspiracy.
As the first effort to tell the whole story of the plot in sequence and
full detail, it may serve as a fresh reminder of Wendell Phillips's warning
about the price of liberty.
American was ever more dedicated to eternal vigilance in preserving our freedom
under the Bill of Rights that the remarkable war hero, pacifist, and Republican
democrat-Smedley Darlington Butler.
I am deeply indebted first and foremost to the
immediate family of the late Major General Smedley D. Butler-daughter Mrs.
Ethel Peters Wehle and sons Smedley Butler, Jr. and Thomas Richard Butler-for
their generous cooperation; for use of the general's private and military
papers, scrapbooks, memorabilia, recordings, and photos; and for vivid personal
recollections of their father.
gratitude is also expressed to the following persons and institutions for their
contributions to my research:
Speaker of the House of Representatives John W. McCormack, who headed the
McCormack-Dickstein Committee and who answered all my questions about the
hearings he held during which General Butler testified about the conspiracy.
David M. Shoup, retired commandant of the United States Marine Corps, who
served under General Butler in China and who shared some of his reminiscences
Seldes, whose newsletter In Fact and books 1000 Americans and Facts
and Fascism gave me my first inklings of the conspiracy many years ago and
who generously helped me with my research efforts.
L. Spivak, former foreign correspondent for International News Service, who
rendered invaluable cooperation by answering all my questions and generously
permitting me to quote from his own fascinating reminiscences, A Man in His Time, in which he relates
how he was able to thwart efforts to suppress important names involved in the
Job Javits and Representative Hamilton Fish, Jr., who assisted me in obtaining
copies of the testimony at the conspiracy hearings of the McCormack-Dickstein
Dimitman, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and close
friend of General Butler's, who shared his reminiscences of the general.
Doyle, Philadelphia Daily News staff artist, who helped me locate old
friends of the general's.
Laventhol, Philadelphia newsman, confidant, and press secretary for the
general's Senate campaign, now retired, who explained some of the
behind-the-scenes political factors.
O'Neil, former city editor of the Philadelphia Record at the time of the
conspiracy, who helped put some of the pieces of the puzzle together.
J. Stewart, Acting Director, National Archives and Records Service, Franklin D.
Roosevelt Library, who guided me through the Roosevelt papers in locating
material pertaining to General Butler and helped me identify sources.
Schutz and Charlotte Wright, of the Mid-Hudson Library System, Poughkeepsie,
New York, who obtained for me rare and hard-to-get research on the conspiracy
from universities and public libraries all over the East Coast; James Brock,
Ethel Tornapore, and Jane McGarvey, of Adriance Library in Poughkeepsie; the
Starr Institute Library, Rhinebeck, New York; Neda M. Westlake, Curator, Rare
Book Collection, Charles Patterson Van Pelt Library, University of
Pennsylvania; and Mary Lou Alm, of the Pine Plains, New York, Library.
F. C. Caldwell, U.S. Marine Corps (retired), director of Marine Corps History,
Historical Division, who gave me valuable research leads and provided me with
helpful articles and public records from Marine Corps sources.
Officer D. R. Aggers, U.S. Marine Corps, Head, Administrative Section, Director
of Information, for providing certain Marine Corps photos of General Butler.
University of America, Washington, D.C., which permitted me to study a 1962
master's thesis in library science by Eunice M. Lyon, The Unpublished Papers
of Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, United States Marine Corps: a
Calendar, based on files turned over by the Butler family to
the Marine Corps.
B. Pitkin, editor, American Legion Magazine, who gave me statistical
information about past Legion commanders.
R. McCoy, historian, University of Kansas, for granting permission to quote
from his book, Coming of Age: The United States During the 1920's and 1930's.
Professor Dane Archer, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who
originally researched the conspiracy for me eight years ago in old newspaper
files at Yale University's Sterling Library.
wife, Eleanor E. Archer, who aided me in interviews with Speaker McCormack,
General Shoup, and General Butler's family as well as serving as adviser,
critic, indexer, and proofreader.
magazine, for permission to quote from its article, "Plot Without Plotters,"
December 3, 1934.
Berkowitz and Joan Nagy, whose brilliant editorial help aided me in sifting and
organizing the elements in this book to let what remained stand out like gold
dust in a prospecting pan.
Pine Plains, New
Perspiring on the raw-wood platform in the broiling
heat of a July day in Washington, Major General Smedley Darlington Butler,
retired, took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and opened his collar. His violent deep-set eyes surveyed ten
thousand faces upturned among the lean-tos, shanties, and tents on Anacostia Flats.
riffraff, drifters, and troublemakers-those were some of the descriptions being
applied to the Bonus Army. Many of the
ragged veterans who had marched on the Capital had been sleeping in doorways
and under bridges, part of the vast army of twelve million unemployed. Some were the same men who had fought under
Smedley Butler in the Spanish-American War, the Philippines campaign, the Boxer
Rebellion, the Caribbean interventions, the Chinese intervention of 1927-1928,
and World War I.
had come to Washington in 1932 at the urging of James Van Zandt, head of the
Veterans of Foreign Wars, to lend moral support to veterans at a crucial
moment. Congress had just voted down
the Patman Bonus Bill to pay veterans the two-billion-dollar bonus promised
them in bonus certificates payable in 1945.
Bonus Army Commander Walter W. Waters, a former army sergeant, and other
leaders feared that their discouraged followers would now give up and return
Waters introduced Smedley Butler to the huge crowd of veterans gathered along
the Anacostia River to hear him, he was greeted with an enthusiastic roar of
acclaim that echoed through Washington like thunder. They all knew Old Gimlet Eye, one of the most colorful generals
who had ever led troops
The Plot to Seize the White House
He was even more famous and popular among rank-and-file leathernecks,
doughboys, and bluejackets for the fierce battles he had fought against the
American military hierarchy on behalf of the enlisted men. He was also admired, respected, and trusted
because of his one-man fight to compel Americans to remember their tragic war
casualties hidden away in isolated veterans' hospitals.
Smedley Butler was a wiry bantam of a man, shoulders hunched forward as though braced against the
pull of a heavy knapsack, his hawk nose prominent in the leathery face of an
adventurer. Silhouetted against a
flaming sunset, he made a blazing speech of encouragement in the blunt language
that had kept him in hot water with the nation's highest-ranking admirals and
generals, not to mention Secretaries of State and Navy.
"If you don't hang together, you aren't worth a damn!" he cried
in the famous hoarse rasp that sent a thrill through every veteran who had
heard it before. He reminded them that
losing battles didn't mean losing a war.
"I ran for the Senate on a bonus ticket," he said, "and got the hell
beat out of me." But he didn't intend
to stop fighting for the bonus, and neither should they, he demanded, no matter
how stiff the opposition or the names they were called.
"They may be calling you tramps now," he roared, "but in 1917
they didn't call you bums! … You are the best-behaved group of men in this
country today. I consider it an honor
to be asked to speak to you. … Some folks say I am here after something. That's a lie. I don't want anything."
All he wanted, he told the cheering veterans, was to see that the
country they had served dealt with them justly. He concluded his exhortation by urging, "When you get home, go to
the polls in November and lick the hell out of those who are against you. You know who they are. … No go to it!"
Afterward he was mobbed by veterans eager to speak to him. Until 2:30 A.M. he sat sprawled on the
ground in front of his tent, listening sympathetically to tales of lost jobs,
families in distress, and troublesome old wounds. He slept three hours, then woke up to resume talks with the
Sharing a Bonus Army breakfast of potatoes, hard bread, and
The Plot 5
coffee, he learned that the
food was running out, and veterans were muttering about rioting against
Congress if it did. Before he left for
his home in Newtown Square, a small town outside of Philadelphia, he warned the
Bonus Marchers, "You're all right so long as you keep your sense of humor. If you slip over into lawlessness of any
kind, you will lose the sympathy of a hundred twenty million people in the
It was the government, however, that unleashed the
violence. Under orders from President
Herbert Hoover, General Douglas MacArthur led troops in driving the Bonus Army
out of Washington at bayonet point and burning down their shacktowns.
By August 1 rumors spreading from the last stronghold of the
veterans, an encampment at Johnstown, Virginia, indicated that the infuriated
Bonus Marchers were determined to organize a new nonpartisan political
organization of veterans and wanted General Butler to lead it. Reporters pressed him to comment.
"I have heard nothing about it at all, although I was in
Washington about two weeks ago to address the veterans," he replied with a
shrug. "I have neither seen nor heard
from Mr. Waters or any of the other leaders of the Bonus Expeditionary Force."
Meanwhile he phoned the governors of a number of states and won
their agreement to provide relief for those of their veterans who wanted to
return home. He phones Waters in
Washington to urge that the remnants of the Bonus Army break camp and start
back home under this plan, and he issued a blast at the Hoover Administration as
heartless for its treatment of the veterans and its failure to help them, their
wives, and their children return home without further humiliation.
That November lifelong Republican Smedley Butler took the stump
for Franklin D. Roosevelt and helped turn Herbert Hoover out of the White
The Plot to Seize the White House
On July 1, 1933, General
Butler's phone rang soon after he had had breakfast. Calling from Washington, an American Legion official he had met
once or twice told Butler that two veterans were on their way from Connecticut
to see him about an important matter and urged him to make time for him.
About five hours later, hearing a car pull up into his secluded
driveway at Newtown Square, Butler glanced out the porch window. His lips pursed speculatively as two
fastidiously dressed men got out of a chauffeur-driven Packard limousine.
At the door the visitors introduced themselves as Bill Doyle,
commander of the Massachusetts American Legion, and Gerald C. MacGuire, whom
Butler understood to have been a former commander of the Connecticut
Butler led the visitors into his study at the rear of the house,
and they took chairs opposite his desk.
MacGuire, who did most of the talking, was a fat, perspiring man with
rolls of jowls, a large mouth, fleshy nose, and bright blue eyes. He began a somewhat rambling conversation
during which he revealed that he, too, had been a Marine, with a war wound that
had left a silver plate in his head.
Doyle established his combat credentials by mentioning that he also had
a Purple Heart.
Butler's compassion for wounded veterans made him patient as
MacGuire encircled the subject of their visit in spirals that only gradually
narrowed until their apex pierced the point.
The point, it seemed, was that MacGuire and Doyle, speaking for a
coterie of influential Legionnaires, were intensely dissatisfied with the
current leadership of the American Legion.
Considering it indifferent to the needs of rank-and-file veterans, they
revealed that they hoped to dislodge the regime at a forthcoming Legion
convention to be held in Chicago. They
The Plot 7
Butler to join them and
stampede the convention with a speech designed to oust the "Royal Family"
controlling the organization.
Their dissatisfaction with the leadership of the American Legion
did not find Butler unsympathetic. He
had long been privately critical of the organization's close ties with big
business and its neglect of the real interests of the veterans it presumably
represented. These convictions were to
be made dramatically public before the year was out, but now he declined his
visitors' proposal on the grounds that he had no wish to get involved in Legion
politics and pointed out that, in any event, he had not been invited to take
part in the Legion convention.
MacGuire revealed that he was chairman of the "distinguished
guest committee" of the Legion, and was on the staff of National Commander
Louis Johnson, a former Secretary of Defense.
At MacGuire's suggestion Johnson had included Butler's name as one of
the distinguished guests to be invited to the Chicago convention. Johnson had then taken this list to the
White House, MacGuire said, and had shown it for approval to Louis Howe, Roosevelt's
secretary. Howe had crossed Butler's
name off the list, however, saying that the President was opposed to inviting
Butler. MacGuire did not know the
reason, but Bill Doyle assured Butler that they had devised a plan to have him
address the convention anyhow.
Butler remained silent.
He was used to oddball visitors who called with all kinds of weird
requests. Curiosity, and the leisure
afforded by retirement, often led him to hear them out in order to fathom their
He thought about his visitors' finely tailored suits and the chauffeur-driven
Packard an their claim to represent the "plain soldiers" of the Legion. The story about the rejection of his name on
the Legion convention guest list by the White House struck him as more than
peculiar, in view of the fact that the President had gratefully accepted his
campaign help in a "Republicans for Roosevelt" drive eight months earlier. Why should F.D.R. suddenly be so displeased
It crossed his mind that the purpose of the story, true or
false, might be intended to pique him against the Roosevelt Administration, for
some obscure reason. Keeping his
The Plot to Seize the White House
to himself, he heard out his visitors in the hope of
learning why they were so anxious to use him.
They explained that they had arranged for him to attend the
convention as a delegate from Hawaii, which would give him the right to
speak. When he still declined, they
asked whether he wasn't in sympathy with their desire to oust the "Royal Family." He was, he said, because the leadership had
simply been using the organization to feather their own nests, but he had
absolutely no intention of attending the convention without an invitation.
His disappointed visitors took their leave but asked permission
to return in a few weeks.
A month later Doyle and
MacGuire returned. Without waiting to
inquire whether Butler had changed his mind, MacGuire quickly informed him that
there had been a change of plans. The
general had been right to object to coming to the convention as just another
delegate, MacGuire acknowledged. It
would have been ineffective, and a waste of the general's immense prestige.
MacGuire outlined a new plan in which Butler would gather two or
three hundred Legionnaires and take them to Chicago on a special train. They would be scattered throughout the
audience at the convention, and when Butler made an appearance in the
spectators' gallery, they would leap to their feet applauding and cheering
wildly. The proceedings would be
stampeded with cries for a speech that would not die down until Butler was
asked to the platform.
Incredulous at the audacity with which this scheme was being
unfolded to him, Butler asked what kind of speech his visitors expected him to
make. MacGuire produced some folded
The Plot 9
typewritten pages from an
inside jacket pocket. They would leave
a speech with him to read. MacGuire
urged Butler to round up several hundred Legionnaires, meanwhile, to take to
Chicago with him.
Holding on to his fraying temper, Butler pointed out that none
of the Legionnaires he knew could afford the trip or stay in Chicago. MacGuire quickly assured him that all their
expenses would be paid. But Butler, who
was constantly being approached with all kinds of wild schemes and proposals,
was not prepared to take the plotters seriously until they could prove they had
financial backing. When he challenged
MacGuire on this point, the veteran slipped a bankbook out of his pocket. Without letting the name of the bank or the
account be seen, he flipped over the pages and showed Butler two recent
deposits-one for $42,000 and a second for $64,000-for "expenses."
That settled it. No
wounded soldiers Butler knew possessed $100,000 bank accounts. His instincts sharpened by two years'
experience, on loan from the Marines, as crime-busting Director of Public
Safety for Philadelphia, warned him that there was something decidedly unsavory
about the proposition.
He decided to blend skepticism, wariness, and interest in his
responses, to suggest that he might be induced to participate in the scheme if
he could be assured that it was foolproof.
He would profess himself interested, but unconvinced as long as he
suspected that there was more to be learned about the scheme. So far they had told him practically nothing
except what was barely necessary for the role they wanted him to play. He determined to get to the bottom of the
plot, while trying not to scare them off in the process.
After they had left, he read over the speech MacGuire had left
with him. It urged the American Legion
convention to adopt a resolution calling for the United States to return to the
gold standard, so that when veterans were paid the bonus promised to them, the
money they received would not be worthless paper. Butler was baffled. What
did a return to the gold standard have to do with the Legion? Why were MacGuire and Doyle being paid to
force this speech on the convention-and who was paying them?
The Plot to Seize the White House
Butler detected an odor of intrigue. Some kind of outlandish scheme, he was
convinced, was afoot. Knowing little
about the gold standard, why Roosevelt had taken the country off it or who
stood to gain by its restoration and why, he began thumbing through the
financial pages of newspapers and magazines-sections of the press he had never
had any occasion to read.
first important fact he learned was that the government no longer had to back
up every paper dollar with a dollar's worth of gold. This meant that the Roosevelt Administration could increase the
supply of paper money to keeps its pledge of making jobs for the unemployed,
and give loans to farmers and homeowners whose property was threatened by
foreclosure. Banks would then be paid
back in cheapened paper dollars for the gold-backed dollars they had lent.
financiers were horrified. They viewed
a currency not solidly backed by gold as inflationary, undermining both private
and business fortunes and leading to national bankruptcy. Roosevelt was damned as a socialist or
Communist out to destroy private enterprise by sapping the gold backing of
wealth in order to subsidize the poor.
began to understand that some wealthy Americans might be eager to use the
American Legion as an instrument to pressure the Roosevelt Administration into
restoring the gold standard. But who
was behind MacGuire?
short while after MacGuire's second visit, he returned to see Butler again,
this time alone. MacGuire asked how he
was coming along in rounding up veterans to take with him to the convention. Butler replied evasively that he had been
too busy to do anything about it. He
then made it clear that he could no further interest in the plan unless
MacGuire was willing to
The Plot 11
be candid and disclose the sources of the funds that
were behind it.
some hesitation MacGuire revealed that they had been provided by nine backers,
the biggest contributor putting up nine thousand dollars. Pressed to explain their motives, MacGuire
insisted that they were simply concerned about helping veterans get their bonus
and a square deal.
who could afford such contributions, Butler reflected ironically, were hardly
the type who favored a two-billion-dollar bonus for veterans.
he prodded MacGuire further, the fat veteran revealed that one of his chief
backers was a wealthy Legionnaire he worked for, Colonel Grayson M.-P. Murphy,
who operated a brokerage firm at 52 Broadway in New York City. Butler pointed out the contradiction between
MacGuire's claim that his group was concerned with the problems of the poor
rank-and-file veteran and the fact that his backers were all obviously wealthy
men. MacGuire simply shrugged and
frankly admitted that as far as he personally was concerned, he was primarily involved
in the transaction as a businessman and was being well taken care of for his
efforts. It would be equally profitable
for Butler, he hinted, if the general were disposed to cooperate.
pumped him about Colonel Murphy's connection with the plan. Murphy, MacGuire revealed, was one of the
founders of the Legion and had actually underwritten it with $125,000 in 1919
to pay for the organizational field work.
He had been motivated by a desire to see the soldiers "cared for."
Butler questioned Murphy's motive in wanting the gold-standard speech made at
the convention, MacGuire explained that he and the other backers simply wanted
to be sure that the veterans would be paid their bonus in sound gold-backed
currency, not in "rubber money."
showed Butler several checks for large amounts signed by Murphy and two other
men-Robert S. Clark and John
The Plot to Seize the White House
Clark's name rang a bell with Butler.
He had known a Second Lieutenant Robert S. Clark in China during the
Boxer Campaign who had been called "the millionaire lieutenant."
money, MacGuire said, would be used to open an expense account for Butler in
Chicago. He hoped that the general
would now get busy rounding up veterans to take to the convention.
remained noncommittal. He intended to
procrastinate as long as he could, continuing to pump MacGuire until had enough
information to make a complete report to the government. The President, he felt, ought to know what
schemes his rich opponents were up to overturn New Deal policies.
the visit, Butler brooded over the implication of MacGuire's revelation that
his employer, key founder and sponsor of the American Legion, was
involved. Tall, heavyset, Grayson
Mallot-Prevost Murphy* not only operated one of Wall Street's leading brokerage
houses but was also a director of Guaranty Trust, a Morgan bank, and had
extensive industrial and financial interests as a director of Anaconda Copper,
Goodyear Tire, and Bethlehem Steel. A
West Point graduate, Murphy was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World
War I with the rank of colonel.
Butler's bushy eyebrows rose when he also learned that the financier had
been decorated by Benito Mussolini, who had made him a Command of the Crown of
found out that he had been one of twenty American officers who had met in Paris
in February, 1919, reportedly on orders from the commanders of the A.E.F., to
counter revolutionary unrest in Europe following the end of World War I, by
forming a veterans' organization with the alleged purpose of looking after
veterans' welfare and uniting them to defend America at home as they had
had put up $125,000 to get the American Legion going, and it had been organized
in the spring with a caucus of about a thousand officers and men. The Legion had then solicited funds and
support from industrialists. Swift and
Company executives had written other firms, "We are all
* The Grayson Mallet-Prevost
Murphy referred to here and throughout the book died on October 19, 1937.
The Plot 13
Legion, the results it will obtain, and the ultimate
effect in helping to offset radicalism."
average veteran who joined the Legion in the 1920's had been unaware that
big-business men were backing it to use it as a strikebreaking agency. When workers struck against wage cuts,
Legion posts were informed that the strikers were Communists trying to create
national chaos so that the Reds could take over. Legionnaires were given baseball bats to break up strikes and civil
rights demonstrations. The American
Civil Liberties Union later reported, "Of the forces most active in attacking
civil rights, the American Legion led the field."
rank and file, however, had grown increasingly restless and impatient with the
"Royal Family" that ran the Legion, especially after the Depression had left so
many jobless. Veterans forced to sell
apples on street corners were angered by a Legion leadership that opposed the
bonus and government spending as inflationary.
That was why so many thousands had bypassed the Legion to join the Bonus
March on Washington.
up the facts, Butler was struck by a startling contradiction. MacGuire had claimed to speak for
rank-and-file discontent with the Legion's bosses and professed to want to oust
them, yet he was an agent for a top founder of the Legion who was obviously one
of the powers behind the throne.
MacGuire had revealed that the Legion still owed Murphy part of the
$125,000 foundation money he had provided and had tacitly acknowledged that
Murphy "makes the kings."
obviously had to be lying in his claim that he-or Murphy-wanted to topple the
present leadership. Why? Perhaps it was a ruse to channel and control
popular discontent in the Legion, hopefully with Butler's help, for the
purposes of the nine wealthy men behind MacGuire. Butler awaited MacGuire's next move with deep intersest.
The Plot to Seize the White House
In September Butler was asked to address a
convention of the Legion's 29th Division at Newark, New Jersey. On the Sunday morning he was in the city,
the phone rang in his hotel room. It
was MacGuire, who was in the lobby and asked to see him.
to Butler's room, MacGuire reminded the general that the time for the American
Legion Convention was rapidly approaching.
Was Butler finally ready to take a contingent of veterans to Chicago and
make the gold-standard speech?
displayed increasing skepticism about the whole plan. In a gruff voice he challenged MacGuire's proposal as a bluff
without any real money behind it. His visitor
whipped a fat wallet out of his hip pocket, extracted a mass of thousand-dollar
bills, and scattered them all over the bed.
The eighteen thousand dollars, he said smugly, would amply cover the
expenses of Butler and the veterans he led to Chicago.
gesture caught Butler by surprise; losing his temper, he accused MacGuire of
trying to give him thousand-dollar bills whose number had been recorded, so
that once he cashed them, the plotters would have proof of his complicity. MacGuire hastily assured him that he could
have smaller denominations.
his vexation Butler snapped at the bond salesman to take back the money
immediately, as he had no intention of getting involved in MacGuire's
scheme. But then, as he regained
control of his anger, he sought to make it appear that he was merely indignant
that he was forced to deal with an emissary.
He would negotiate, he told MacGuire firmly, only with principals.
some hesitation MacGuire agreed to have him contacted by Robert S. Clark, a
banker who had inherited a large fortune from a founder of the Singer Sewing
week later Clark phoned Butler at his home.
They arranged a meeting at the railroad station. Butler instantly
The Plot 15
Recognized the tall, gangling man, hair now
steel-gray, who stepped off the train as the lieutenant he had known
thirty-four years earlier.
drove him home for lunch, during which they exchanged memories of the Boxer
Campaign. Afterward they adjourned to
the spacious, glassed-in porch, and Clark got down to the business of his
visit. He was going to the American
Legion convention in a private car attached to the Pennsylvania Limited, he
told Butler. He planned to have the
train stop at Paoli to pick the general up, and they would continue on to
Chicago together. A suite of rooms had
already been reserved for Butler at the Palmer House.
would see to it, he told the general, that Butler was calling for a resolution
demanding restoration of the gold standard.
In discussing the speech, the millionaire was induced to reveal that the
author was none other than John W. Davis, the 1924 Democratic candidate for
President, and now chief attorney for J. P. Morgan and Company.
pointed out to Clark that the speech did not seem to have anything to do with
the soldiers' bonus, which was presumably the purpose of his trip to
Chicago. Shrugging, Clark blandly
repeated MacGuire's assurance that those supporting the speech simply wanted to
be sure that the bonus would be paid in gold-backed currency, not in worthless
decided to draw blood and observe Clark's reaction. Sharp eyes honed on his visitor's face, he suggested that the
speech had all the earmarks of big-business propaganda. The banker, taken aback, did not reply for a
moment. He seemed to be debating with
himself whether to deny the allegation or take Butler into his confidence. Then he astonished the general by a sudden
burst of candor.
had a personal fortune of thirty million dollars, he revealed, and he was
greatly worried about losing it to a Roosevelt inflation-runaway government
spending unbridled by the need to back each paper dollar with gold. He was willing to spend fully half his
fortune if it would save the other half.
He was confident that if Butler made the speech at Chicago, the Legion
would go on record as demanding a return to the gold standard.
The Plot to Seize the White House
That would be an important step toward organizing
the veterans of American to put pressure on Congress and the President for such
Butler asked him curiously, did he think the President would allow himself to
be pressured by such tactics? Clark
expressed confidence that Roosevelt would yield because he belonged, after all,
to the same social class that was solidly behind the gold standard. Once he had restored it, his fellow
patricians would rally around him and defend his position against criticism.
was shocked by Clark's blatant snobbery, but even more by the millionaire's
assumption that the wishes of economic royalists should-and would-prevail over
the democratic processes of government.
Once more his anger boiled over. In a voice that cracked with
indignation, he exploded that he wanted nothing to do with a scheme to exploit
veterans. Furthermore, he rasped, he
intended to see to it that the veterans of the country were not used to
undermine democracy but to defend it.
face turned crimson. Chagrined, he
reproached Butler for being stubborn and "different," hinting that such things
as the mortgage on Butler's house could be taken care of for him, and in a
fully legal fashion.
crude attempt to bribe him was too much for the dumbfounded general. Bellowing his indignation, he roared an
order at the millionaire to follow him into the living room. Clark meekly trailed him into a large hall
resplendent with flags, banners, decorations, plaques, scrolls, citations, and
other symbols of esteem that had been presented to the general during his long
career in the Marines. The hall was
flanked at both ends by huge canopies on tall poles-"Blessings Umbrellas"
awarded by unanimous vote of the people of Chinese cities only to their
with rage, Butler pointed out to Clark that most of the awards in the hall had
been given to him by poor people all over the world, and he vowed that he would
never betray their faith. Ordering
Clark to inspect them until he understood the enormity of his mistake, Butler
stormed off to his study, pacing back and forth in an effort to simmer down.
few minutes a chastened Clark joined him and meekly
The Plot 17
asked permission to make a phone call to MacGuire at
the Palmer House in Chicago. As Butler
listened stony-faced, Clark informed MacGuire that for "excellent" reasons the
general would not be coming to the convention.
MacGuire was reminded that had money enough to do the job alone and
could "send those telegrams." At the
completion of the call, Clark then apologized so contritely that his host,
mollified, forgave him.
lighten the strained atmosphere, then conversation now returned to the Boxer
days until it was time to drive Clark to the station to catch a six o'clock
train from Paoli.
felt ambivalent about having revealed his true feelings. On the one hand, it made him feel better to
get them off his chest; tact and restraint and subterfuge were alien to his
nature. On the other hand, it seemed
hardly likely that after his explosion the plotters could possibly believe they
could persuade or buy him. He would
have no further opportunity to ferret out their plans.
days later he carefully studied a newspaper account of the proceedings of the
American Legion convention I Chicago.
The story revealed that a huge flood of telegrams had poured into the
convention urging delegates to endorse a return to the gold standard. A resolution to this effect had been
proposed and carried.
felt mingled amusement and disgust.
To the general's surprise MacGuire stopped off to
see him, this time in a hired limousine, on the way back from the
convention. The man said nothing about
the contretemps with Clark, although Butler was certain he must have heard
about it, and his manner was as buoyant and friendly as ever. He boasted to Butler about having put over
the gold-standard resolution.
18 The Plot to Seize the White House
The general pointed out wryly that no action had
been taken at the convention to endorse the soldiers' bonus. MacGuire airily repeated his contention that
there was no point in that until the country had sound currency.
afterward MacGuire came to Newtown Square again and surprised the general with
the news that a dinner had been arranged by Boston veterans in his honor. He was promised transportation in a private
car, and, MacGuire beamed, Butler would be paid a thousand dollars to speak at
the dinner-in favor of the gold standard, of course.
was dumbfounded at MacGuire's incredible persistence. Surely the indefatigable bond salesman had realized by this time
that he was barking up the wrong tree!
But perhaps, the general speculated, MacGuire felt challenged to "make
the sale," in much the same manner that he undoubtedly sought to overcome the
sales resistance of reluctant prospects for his bonds. And apparently MacGuire was convinced that
only Smedley Butler had the prestige and popularity among veterans that his
coterie needed to put over the scheme.
by the new attempt to bribe him, Butler rasped that he had never been paid a
thousand dollars for any speech and had no intention of accepting such a sum to
let words be put in his mouth.
Chagrined but undiscouraged, MacGuire cheerfully promised to come up
with some other more acceptable plan to utilize the general's talents as a
October a former Marine running for office in Brooklyn, New York, begged Butler
to make some campaign speeches in his behalf.
Butler was hesitant because he was about to leave on a tour of the
country for Veterans of Foreign Wars, speaking for the bonus and for membership
in the V.F.W. as the best way to get it.
But loyalty to the men who had served under him took him first to
his astonishment he was met by MacGuire.
The bond salesman somehow knew where he was headed and asked to accompany
him. Butler consented, more and more
intrigued by the ubiquitous MacGuire who kept turning up everywhere he went
like a bad penny. He found himself even
growing perversely fond of MacGuire for his stubborn refusal to take No for
The Plot 19
In the Marines Butler had always had a soft spot for incorrigible
rascals who brightened up monotonous routine by their unpredictable
he was still curious to learn more about what the plotters in the gold scheme
were up to. MacGuire now revealed a new
plan to involve the general through his impending lecture tour for the
V.F.W. Wasn't he, MacGuire probed,
going to use the opportunity to speak out on public issues important to the
veterans? Butler wasn't sure whether
this was simply a shrewd guess or whether MacGuire somehow had eyes and ears
all over the country.
declared that he believed that democracy was in danger from growing
antidemocratic forces within the country and that he planned to appeal to the
nation's veterans to unite against this threat. At the same time he wanted to alert them to the risk of being
dragged into another war by the propaganda of organizations camouflaged with
looked thoughtful. Then he asserted
that the group he represented really had the identical objectives. He urged Butler to let him go along on the
tour. He would stay in the background,
enlisting veterans in "a great big superorganization to maintain our
Butler lost no time in squelching that idea. He admitted that he couldn't keep MacGuire
off any train he rode, but made it firmly clear that he would not be associated
with the plans of MacGuire and his rich friends in any way. He softened the reprimand by saying that he
did not want to hurt the feelings of a wounded veteran, but MacGuire would have
to understand that he could not be used to aid money schemes.
said peevishly that he couldn't understand why Butler refused to be a
businessman like himself. The general
expressed blunt suspicions of MacGuire's real reasons for wanting to trail in
the wake of this V.F.W. tour. MacGuire
protested that he had no intention of doing anything subversive.
he made the general a new offer. If
Butler would merely insert in each of his V.F.W. speeches a short reference to
the need for returning to the gold standard, in order to benefit veterans when
a bonus bill was passed, MacGuire and his backers
20 The Plot to Seize the White House
would pay him $750 per speech-three times what the
V.F.W. was paying him. Butler replied
emphatically that he would refuse to abuse the veterans' trust in him even if
the offer were for $100,000.
MacGuire took his departure abruptly.
Soon afterward Butler began his
swing around the country for the V.F.W. He was no longer bothered-for the
moment-by the persistent attentions of Jerry MacGuire, who left for Europe on
December 1, on a mission for his backers.
took his departure against the background of a steadily rising chorus of hatred
for "that cripple in the White House" by big-business leaders. It was
reflected in the anti-Roosevelt slant of both news and editorials in the
business-oriented press. In the eyes of America's industrialists and bankers,
the President, if not an actual secret Communist, was dedicated to destroying
the nation's capitalist economy by the New Deal, which they labeled
believed that unless F.D.R. were stopped, he would soon take America down the
same road that the Russians had traveled. They were horrified by his
recognition of the Soviet Union on November 16, 1933, seeing it as a
sinister omen. They were equally appalled by his speech six weeks later
promising that the United States would send no more armed forces to Latin America
to protect private investments.
business leaders envied their counterparts in Italy, who had financed
Mussolini's rise to power. Il Duce's efficiency in "making the trains run
on time" was highly lauded, along with the dictatorial control of labor unions
by his corporate state. Thomas Lamont, a J. P. Morgan partner, praised the
dictator for his methods of providing low-paying jobs, cutting the public debt,
and ending inflation.
all count ourselves liberal, I suppose," Lamont told the Foreign Policy
Association. "Are we liberal enough to be willing for the Italian people
to have the sort of government they apparently want?"
who had not known that MacGuire: had left for Europe, received a postcard from
him from the French Riviera, reporting only that he and his family were having
The Plot 21
time. Another card came from MacGuire in June, 1934, this
time from Berlin. Butler surmised that the bond salesman's long stay in Europe
had to be on business, paid for by his boss or all his backers. But what kind
of business? More shenanigans in connection with the gold standard?
his tour for the V.F.W., Butler observed more and more storm signals flying in
the United States as he traveled around the country. The nation was rapidly
becoming polarized between the forces of Left and Right. Demagogues with
apparently inexhaustible funds for propaganda and agitation led
"patriotic" crusades against Communists, Jews, and "Jewish
bankers," who were alleged to be behind the New Deal.
June Roosevelt further inflamed big business by a whole new series of New Deal
acts that crippled stock speculation, se up watchdog agencies over the
telephone, telegraph, and radio industries, stopped farm foreclosures,
prevented employers from hindering unionization and compelled them to accept
collective bargaining. As an epidemic of turbulent strikes broke out, the
orchestration of Roosevelt hatred in the nation's press rose to a fresh
Herbert Hoover the New Deal represented "class hatred . . . preached from
the White House," "despotism," and "universal
bankruptcy." Butler was intrigued by the July, 1934 issue of Fortune, the Luce magazine read by
America's leading industrialists and bankers, which devoted a whole edition t
glorifying Italian fascism.
produced by Laird S. Goldsborough, foreign editor for Time, who asked Fortune's wealthy readers "whether
Fascism is achieving in a few years or decades such a conquest of the spirit of
man as Christianity achieved only in ten centuries." He concluded,
"The good journalist must recognize in Fascism certain ancient virtues of
the race, whether or not they happen to h momentarily fashionable in his own
country. Among these are Discipline, Duty, Courage, Glory, Sacrifice."
summer of 1934 it was not difficult to detect the acrid smell of incipient
fascism in the corporate air. Smedley Butler large hawk nose was soon to detect
more than a mere whiff of it.
22 The Plot to Seize the White House
Resting at home after his
exhausting V.F.W. tour, which had included emotionally draining visits to the
casualties hidden away in eighteen veterans' hospitals, Butler received a phone
call from a familiar voice. Jerry MacGuire insisted that lie had to see the
general immediately because he had "something of the utmost
importance" to impart.
and his wife had planned to drive into Philadelphia that afternoon, so,
curiosity aroused, he agreed to meet MacGuire at the Bellevue Hotel. It was
August 22, 1934, three days after a German plebescite had approved vesting sole
executive power in Adolf Hitler as führer of Nazi Germany.
before three o'clock Butler entered the empty hotel lobby, where he found the
pudgy bond salesman waiting for him. MacGuire wrung his hand enthusiastically
as though they were long-lost comrades from Butler's old 4th Battalion in Panama.
Leading the way to the rear of the lobby, MacGuire took him into the hotel's
empty restaurant, which was not operating for the summer.
They took a table in a secluded
corner of the room, and MacGuire began describing how enjoyable his trip to
Europe had been. Butler patiently waited for him to get down to business. He
wondered, not without sympathy, whether it was the silver plate in MacGuire's
head that made him so prolix.
finally asked whether the general planned to attend the forthcoming American
Legion convention in Miami. Butler replied curtly that he did not. He felt
irritated by MacGuire's arrogant assumption that the stale scheme of using the
Legion for his gold clique's propaganda was a matter of the "utmost
importance" to Butler.
then insinuated that it was time to "get the soldiers
The Plot 23
together." Butler agreed
grimly, but his cryptic tone, he was sure, implied a considerably different purpose
for organizing the veterans than MacGuire had in mind.
revealed what he had been up to on the Continent (hiring the previous seven
months. His backers had sent him abroad to study the role that veterans'
organizations had played in working for and bringing about dictatorships. In
Italy MacGuire had found that Mussolini's real power stemmed from veterans
organized in his Black Shirts; they had made him dictator and were the chief
protectors of his regime.
to suspect what MacGuire had in mind, Butler tried to seem matter-of-fact as he
asked whether MacGuire thought Mussolini's form of government was a good
example for American veterans to work toward. MacGuire didn't think so.
investigations on the Continent, he revealed, had convinced him that neither
Mussolini nor Hitler, nor the kind of paramilitary organizations they had
built, could be made attractive to the American veteran. But he had discovered an organization that
could be, he revealed in elation.
He had been in France during a
national crisis brought about by nationwide wage slashes. Riots had erupted in
Paris early in February, ending in the calling of a general strike that had
paralyzed the country. Civil war had been averted only by the formation of a
National Union ministry made up of all parties except Socialists, Communists,
role in ending the crisis had been played by a rightwing veterans'
organization called the Croix de Feu. It was a superorganization, MacGuire
explained, an amalgamation of all other French veteran organizations, and was
composed of officers and noncoms. The Croix de Feu had 500,000 members, and each was a leader of ten others, so
that their voting strength amounted to 5,000,000.
occurred to Butler that if MacGuire's description was accurate, the Croix de
Fen was an elitist outfit minus the democratic voice of the greatest majority
of veterans-the buck privates, who were expected only to follow and obey,
exactly as they had been ordered to do in wartime.
now told Butler that his group planned to build
24 The Plot to Seize the White House
an American version of the Croix de Fen. Asked its
purpose, the fat man hesitated, then replied that it was intended to
"support" the President. Butler asked wryly why Roosevelt should
need the support of 500,000 "supersoldiers" when he had the whole
American people behind him.
Looking petulant and
impatient, MacGuire ignored the question, pointing out that the crux of the
matter was Roosevelt's dilemma in not having enough money to finance the New
Deal and the danger that he might disrupt the American system of finance to get
it. MacGuire and his group were firmly determined that the President would not
be allowed to do it.
exasperating circumlocution and the twists in his logic, a fresh pattern was
becoming clear to Butler. Far from "supporting" Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, MacGuire and the interests behind him were obviously planning to
compel the President to yield to their demands about American finances.
The American version of the
Croix de Fen was intended to be a powerful paramilitary organization to enforce
those demands. But when Butler pressed him on its purpose, MacGuire denied
emphatically any intention to frighten the President. In fact, he explained, the
whole idea was really to support and help Roosevelt, who was obviously
overworked, by providing him with an "Assistant President" to take
details of the office off his shoulders. It was quite constitutional, MacGuire
insisted. The aide would be called a Secretary of General Affairs.
According to MacGuire, the
President himself had been grooming an aide for such a role-General Hugh S.
Johnson, controversial administrator of the National Recovery Administration
(N.R.A.). But, MacGuire confided, Johnson had been too loose-lipped to suit
Roosevelt, and as a result was slated to be fired within three or four weeks.
to explain how he acquired this information, MacGuire assured Butler that his
group was close to the White House and had advance information on all such
Confused, Butler didn't know
quite what to make of these oddly faceted revelations, but he was subsequently
reminded of MacGuire's prediction when Johnson resigned in pique from the peace
administration soon afterward and began attacking Roosevelt
The Plot 25
and the New Deal in a syndicated column for the
Scripps Howard press.
Butler did not have to feign
new interest in MacGuire's proposals; obviously much more was now involved than
simply lobbying efforts for restoration of the gold standard. MacGuire,
interpreting the general's absorption as an omen of cooperation, grew more
candid about the plan of his group.
They would work up public sympathy for the overburdened President, he
explained eagerly, by a campaign explaining that Roosevelt's health was
failing. The "dumb" public would accept the need to give him
"relief" by having a Cabinet official take the chores of patronage
and other routine worries of the office off his shoulders. Then the President's
status would become like that of the President of France, a ceremonial
figurehead, while the Secretary of General Affairs ran the country.
Thus, at one stroke, the
country would be rid of Roosevelt's misrule and would be put back on the gold
standard. And now, MacGuire concluded triumphantly, how did the general feel
about heading the new "superorganization" that would be the power
behind bringing about these sweeping changes?
Unable to contain himself
any longer, Butler exploded that if MacGuire and his backers tried to mount a
Fascist putsch, he would raise another army of 500,000 veterans to oppose them
and the nation would be plunged into a new civil war.
Upset, MacGuire hastily
assured the general that he and his group had no such intentions, but only
sought to ease the burdens of the Presidency. Butler sarcastically expressed
doubt that Roosevelt would appreciate their concern and turn his executive
power over to their "Secretary of General Affairs," while limiting
himself to ceremonial functions. Besides, Butler pointed out tersely, any
attempt to build a huge paramilitary army of half a million men would require
MacGuire revealed that he
now had $3 million in working funds and could get $300 million if it were
needed. He added that in about a year Butler would be able to assemble 500,000
veterans, with the expectation that such a show of force would enable the
movement to gain control of the government fully in just a few days.
26 The Plot to Seize the White House
was stunned. Either MacGuire was a madman, psychotic, or fantastic liar, or
what he was describing was a treasonous plot to end democracy in the United
demanded to know who was going to put up all the money. MacGuire replied that
Clark was good for $15
million and that the rest would come from the same people who had financed the
"Chicago propaganda" about the gold standard at the American Legion
convention, and who were now behind the planned march on Washington.
plans, Butler wanted to know, did they have to take care of the veterans? The
"superorganization," MacGuire said, would pay privates ten dollars
and captains thirty-five dollars a month for one year, and after that it would
no longer be necessary. But how did the plotters plan to manage the legal
aspects of setting up an Assistant President in the White House? MacGuire
explained that the President would be induced to resign because of bad health.
Vice-President Nance Garner, who didn't want to be President, would refuse the
office. By the rule of succession, Secretary of State Cordell Hull was next in
line, but he was far too old and could easily be set aside to make way for a
Secretary of General Affairs to take Roosevelt's place as President.
again urged Butler to head the paramilitary army. The scale of the plot, as it
was unfolding to him, took Butler's breath away. It occurred to him now that
MacGuire's backers had been contemplating the creation of a Fascist veterans'
army at the time MacGuire had first approached him to "get the soldiers
together" behind their gold-standard campaign. That explained why MacGuire
had wooed him so persistently, despite the general's obvious reluctance and
outbursts of temper when patriotic indignation overcame his attempts to play
along and learn what the plotters were up to.
modesty prevented Butler from recognizing that he was perhaps the best-known,
and certainly the most popular and charismatic, military figure in the United
States. He also suited the plotters' plans perfectly because he was noted for a
brilliant, hard-hitting style of oratory that, they undoubtedly reasoned, could
be put to the service of demagoguery in the same spell
The Plot 27
Hitler and Mussolini had magnetized millions into following them. His rasping
voice and fiery spirit captured audiences and held them hypnotized.
reputation for fearless honesty, for speaking his mind bluntly no matter whose
corns he trod on, also made him the ideal candidate to sell the plotters'
propaganda to the nation's veterans, if he could be persuaded to view their
scheme as ultrapatriotic. A combination of these reasons had unquestionably
inspired Jerry MacGuire's insistent campaign to win him as the head of the
putsch. It explained why MacGuire had refused to lake No for an answer,
counting on his persuasive powers as a I bond salesman to break down Butler's
sales resistance by camouflaging the raw nature of the conspiracy, and
tempting him into the plot with the biggest bribe ever offered to any
American. The opportunity to become the
first dictator of the United States. In
a word, MacGuire was convinced that with Smedley Butler as their Man on the
White Horse, the plotters would have their greatest chance of success.
uneasy and on guard, Butler now resolved to play along carefully until he had
penetrated the full secret blueprint of the conspiracy. Keeping his voice
cordial, he expressed interest in MacGuire's scheme, but exhibited enough
doubts to induce him to reveal more in the effort to reassure Butler and win him
Butler became convinced that if MacGuire was telling the truth, far
richer and more powerful men than just Robert S. Clark had to be involved.
Clark had told Butler that he had been willing to spend $15 million of his
fortune in the plotters' schemes to restore
the gold standard. But MacGuire had revealed that the people behind him could,
and would if necessary, raise $300 million for the putsch.
determined to find out who they were. He demanded assurances from MacGuire that
reputable and important people were really behind the plan to create an
American Croix de Feu, pointing out that he could not afford to risk his
reputation by getting involved in any second-rate adventure.
that at last he was on the verge of winning the general's support, MacGuire
eagerly sought to impress him with
28 The Plot to Seize the White House
the caliber of the
influential movers and shakers of America who were involved in the plot. He
revealed that in Paris he had made his headquarters at the offices of Morgan
and Hodges. Butler tried to conceal his astonishment.
There was only
one Morgan in the financial world-J. P. Morgan and Company. MacGuire left no
doubt in his mind that the nation's biggest financiers were, indeed, involved.
According to the bond salesman, there had been a meeting in Paris to decide
upon the selection of the man to head the superorganization. MacGuire and his
group had held out for Butler, but the Morgan interests distrusted the general
as "too radical," preferring Douglas MacArthur instead.
term as Chief of Staff expired in November, and the Morgan interests felt that
if Roosevelt failed to reappoint him, he would be bitter enough to accept
their offer. Butler observed that MacArthur would be likely to have difficulty
in lining up veterans behind him, because his dispersion of the Bonus Army had
made him highly unpopular.
indicated that the Morgan coterie's second choice was Hanford MacNider, an Iowa
manufacturer who was a former commander of the American Legion. But MacGuire emphasized
that his own group was still insisting that Butler was the only military leader
in the country capable of rallying the veterans behind him. The Morgan
interests had acknowledged Butler's immense prestige and popularity, he revealed,
but were apprehensive that as head of the paramilitary force Butler might lead
it in the "wrong direction."
observed that MacNider would have no more popular appeal than MacArthur because
he had gone on record as opposing the bonus. MacGuire then revealed that
MacNider would be cued to change his stand, and would do so. Butler remembered
this prediction when, three weeks later, MacNider suddenly reversed his
position and came out in support of the bonus.
could not be persuaded to head the new superorganization, MacGuire said, the
offer would definitely be made to MacArthur, whether or not the latter was
reappointed Chief of Staff. He confided that there would be an administration
fight over MacArthur's reappointment, but he would get it because he
The Plot 29
was the son-in-law of
Philadelphian Edward T. Stotesbury, a Morgan partner.
It was a
bold prediction, since never before in American history had a Chief of Staff
been allowed to succeed himself. Butler was all the more startled and impressed
with MacGuire's sources of information when his prediction came true several months later.
informed Butler that James Van Zandt, the national commander of the V.F.W.,
would be one of those asked to serve as a leader of the new superorganization.
He would be approached by one of MacGuire's envoys at the forthcoming V.F.W.
convention in Louisville, Kentucky.
when the new superorganization would surface and begin functioning, and what it
would be called. MacGuire said that he didn't know the name of it yet but that
the press would announce its formation in two or three weeks and that the
roster of its founders would include some of the most important men in
America. One of them, MacGuire revealed, would be none other than former New
York Governor Al Smith, who had lost the 1928 presidential race to Hoover as
the candidate of the Democratic party.
his bushy eyebrows in astonishment. It seemed incredible that the derby-hatted
"happy warrior," who had grown up in New York's East Side slums,
could be involved in a Fascist plot backed by wealthy men. But he knew that
Smith was now a business associate of the powerful Du Pont family, who had
cultivated him through Du Pont official John J. Raskob, former chairman of the
Democratic party. Under their influence Smith had grown more and more
politically conservative following his defeat, while still remaining a
really be possible that a leading standard-bearer of the Democrats was committed
to help overthrow the chief Democrat in the White House? In slight shock
Butler asked MacGuire why Smith was involved. MacGuire replied that Smith had
decided to break with the Roosevelt Administration and was preparing a public
blast against it which would be published in about a month.
Pressed for more information
about the new superorganization,
30 The Plot to Seize the White House
MacGuire told Butler that it would be described
publicly as a society "to maintain the Constitution." Butler observed
dryly that the Constitution did not seem to be in any grave danger, then he
bluntly asked what MacGuire's stake was in the enterprise. MacGuire shrugged
that he was a businessman, and besides, he, his wife, and his children had
enjoyed a long, expensive stay in Europe, courtesy of his backers.
leave, MacGuire said that he was going to Miami to agitate again for the gold
standard, as well as to get the new paramilitary organization rolling. He
promised to contact Butler again after the Legion convention.
After he had
gone, the bemused general was almost tempted to dismiss the whole plot as the
product of a disordered imagination-his or MacGuire's. But a grim sense of
foreboding told him that he was in the eye of a gathering storm.
There were too
many things that MacGuire had told him that rang true, and could not possibly
have been invented. Even as Butler brooded over the affair and wondered what to
do about it, another of MacGuire's uncannily accurate predictions materialized
two weeks after their talk.
1934, the press announced the formation of a new organization, the American
Liberty League, by discontented captains of industry and finance. They
announced their objectives as "to combat radicalism, to teach the
necessity of respect for the rights of persons and property, and generally to
foster free private enterprise."
New Deal, they attacked Roosevelt for "fomenting class hatred" by
using such terms as "unscrupulous money changers," "economic
royalists," and "the privileged princes of these new economic
The Plot 31
widened when he read that the treasurer of the American Liberty League was none
other than MacGuire's own boss, Grayson M.-P. Murphy, and one of its financiers
was Robert S. Clark. Heading and directing the organization were Du Pont and J.
P. Morgan and Company men. Morgan attorney John W. Davis was a member of the
National Executive Committee-the same Davis that Clark had identified as
author of the gold-standard speech MacGuire had tried to get Butler to make to
the American Legion convention in Chicago.
contributors to the American Liberty League included the Pitcairn family
(Pittsburgh Plate Glass), Andrew W. Mellon Associates, Rockefeller Associates,
E. F. Hutton Associates, William S. Knudsen (General Motors), and the Pew
family (Sun Oil Associates). J. Howard Pew, longtime friend and supporter of
Robert Welch, who later founded the John Birch Society, was- a generous patron,
along with other members of the Pew family, of extremist right-wing causes.
Other directors of the league included A1 Smith and John J. Raskob.
organizations affiliated with the league were openly Fascist and antilabor. One
was the Sentinels of the Republic, financed chiefly by the Pitcairn family and
J. Howard Pew. Its members labeled the New Deal "Jewish Communism"
and insisted "the old line of Americans of $1,200 a year want a
The other was
the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution, which the conservative
Baltimore Sun described as "a hybrid organization financed by northern
money, but playing on the Ku Klux Klan prejudices of the south." Its
sponsor, John H. Kirby, collaborated in anti-Semitic drives against the New
Deal with the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, leader of the first Silver Shirt
squad of American storm troopers.
brood of anti-New Deal organizations spawned by the Liberty League," the
New York Post subsequently charged, "are in turn spawning
stunned by this fulfillment of MacGuire's prediction. As he later testified,
just at the time MacGuire had said it would, the American Liberty League had
appeared and was all that MacGuire had said it would be. And it was obviously
32 The Plot to Seize the White House
coincidence that Grayson
M.-P. Murphy, Robert S. Clark, and the Morgan interests were deeply involved.
Even yet another of
MacGuire's predictions came true a fortnight later, when A1 Smith published a
scathing attack on the New Deal in the New Outlook, breaking publicly with the
President over economic policies.
If Butler had had any
lingering doubts about the authenticity of MacGuire's claim to have inside
knowledge of what American big-business leaders were up to, the appearance of
the American Liberty League on schedule, and A1 Smith's break with the White
House, convinced him that MacGuire's revelations of a plot to seize the White
House were no crackpot's fantasy. MacGuire had called the shots every time.
Butler was now genuinely
alarmed. For the first time it dawned upon him that if the American Liberty
League was, indeed, the "superorganization" behind the plot that it
seemed to be, the country's freedom was in genuine peril. Such money and power
as the men behind the League possessed could easily mobilize a thinly disguised
Fascist army from the ranks of jobless, embittered veterans and do what
Mussolini had done in Italy with the financial support of the Italian
Getting in touch with Van
Zandt, Butler told the V.F.W. commander that he had been approached to lead a
coup as head of a veterans' army. He warned that the conspirators intended to
try to involve Van Zandt, too, at the V.F.W, convention in Louisville. Thanking
him for the warning, Van Zandt assured Butler that he would have nothing to do
with the plotters.
Butler was tempted to leave
for Washington immediately to warn the President or his advisers. He now knew
enough to expose the whole plot. But he was pragmatist enough to realize that
on his unsupported word, without the slightest shred of evidence, he was likely
to be greeted with polite skepticism, if not ridicule. Heads would shake. Poor
Smedley Butler. How sad-a fine, brave Marine general like that, losing touch
with reality. Too many campaigns, too many tropical fevers. At best they might
believe that MacGuire had, indeed, told him all those fantastic things, but
then MacGuire, obviously,
The Plot 33
had to be some kind of
psychotic nut. And Butler would have to be an idiot to have taken him
seriously, to have believed that many of the nation's greatest leaders of the
business and financial world would get involved in a conspiracy to depose the
President and take over the White House!
MacGuire, of course, would
deny everything. So would Robert S. Clark. So would everyone connected with the
American Liberty League-if this was, indeed, the superorganization MacGuire
had revealed was behind the plot.
The enemies Butler had made
among the military brass during his colorful career would help the press
ridicule his revelation. "Old Gimlet Eye," they would scoff, "is
at it again-stirring up a storm, making headlines. Worst publicity hound that
ever wore a uniform!"
But Smedley Butler had never
in his life backed off from his duty as he saw it. Convinced that the democracy
he cherished was in genuine danger, he steeled himself for the ordeal of public
mockery and humiliating attacks that he knew would follow his exposure of the
conspiracy. He was enough of an expert tactician, however, to know that he
couldn't win his battle without supporting troops. He would need corroborative
testimony by someone whose word, when combined with his own, would have to be
respected and force a full-scale investigation.
Butler confided in Tom
O'Neil, city editor of the Philadelphia Record. Observing that the whole affair
smacked of outright treason to him, he asked O'Neil to assign his star reporter
to dig into the story. O'Neil agreed, and reporter Paul Comly French, whose
news features also appeared in the New York Post, was instructed to seek
confirmation of the plot. Butler knew and respected French, who had done an
intelligent and honest job of covering his fight against crime and corruption
in Philadelphia ten years earlier.
French set about determining
whether MacGuire and his group were operating some kind of racket to extort
money out of the rich by selling them political gold bricks, or whether a cabal
of rich men, enraged by the President and his policies, was putting up big
money to overthrow F.D.R. with a putsch.
34 The Plot to Seize the White House
In view of the powerful people the general had named
in connection with the plot, French knew that his assignment was a keg of
dynamite. Even if he could somehow confirm the existence of the plot and
identify the conspirators, he and the general were bound to meet with
incredulity when they sought to expose the blueprint for treason and the
Much would depend upon
establishing and documenting the credibility of Smedley Butler, the chief
witness. If the general's career showed him to be given to gross exaggeration
or chronic lying, or to be an officer of dubious character whose word could not
be trusted, then his sworn testimony against those he charged with treason
would be held worthless.
If, on the other hand, an
examination of his life and career proved that he was a man of incorruptible
character, integrity, and patriotism, then his testimony would have to be given
the gravest consideration, especially when supported and corroborated by the
findings of French's investigation.
Whatever the outcome, the reporter
knew that the denouement would be a stormy one. To Butler's enemies he was a
highly controversial, unorthodox fighting man whose irrepressible temper and
tongue kept him in the headlines. To his friends he was a patriotic war hero
with strong convictions about democracy and a deserved reputation for bluntly
speaking out the truth, regardless of consequences.
What kind of man, actually,
was the Marine general who was accusing many of America's leading financiers
and industrialists of seeking him as the indispensable man for their Fascist
plot to seize the White House?
The Indispensable Man
Darlington Butler was born July 30, 1881, in West
Chester, Pennsylvania, the first of three sons. Both his parents came from old
and distinguished Quaker families. Some of his forebears included pacifists who
had operated an underground railroad station for runaway slaves, and
grandparents who had joined the Union Army to defend Gettysburg against Robert
E. Lee's army.
On his mother's side he was descended from the Hicksite branch of the
Society of Friends and Congressman Smedley Darlington, the grandfather for whom
he was named. His paternal lineage traced back to Noble Butler, who came to
America shortly after William Penn.
His father, Thomas S. Butler, was a bluntly outspoken judge who spent
thirty-two years in Congress, where he wielded great influence as chairman of
the House Naval Affairs Committee. Once when he had advocated a large Navy, a
close Quaker friend reproached him, "Thee is a fine Friend!"
the fine Friend snorted, "is a damn fool!"
The Quaker archaisms thee,
thy, and thine were
used only within the family and sometimes to intimate friends. The Quakerism of
both Thomas Butler and his son Smedley was of that order of earlier
hot-tempered Quakers who belabored each other with wagon tongues, while pausing
between the hearty blows they exchanged to invoke divine forgiveness.
Smedley picked up some of his father's uninhibited language as early as
age five, inviting maternal chastisement until his father went to his defense
by roaring, "I don't want a son who doesn't know how to use an honest damn now and then!"
38 The Plot to Seize the White House
Reared in upper-class
comfort with a politically prominent father, grandfather, and uncles, it was
taken for granted that he was marked for prominence. Subtle pressures were
exerted by four maiden aunts who adored and fussed over their first nephew,
keeping him in golden curls and dressing him in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit.
Jeering peers who mistook the clothes for the boy found his fistwork as fancy
as his finery.
tales of both his grandfathers in the Union Army, he developed a passionate
love for tin soldiers, toy cannon, and books with pictures of battles. His
mother, Maud Darlington Butler, sought to inculcate peaceful doctrines in her
son by taking him to Hicksite Quaker meeting twice a week and sending him to
the Friends' grade school in West Chester.
early fascination with things martial persisted. When he was twelve, he joined
a West Chester branch of the Boys' Brigade, a preparedness youth movement that
went in for military drills. His father had no objection and even bought his
son the first uniform Smedley ever wore. He felt proud.
Preparatory School near Philadelphia, a popular choice of old Quaker families,
he joined both the baseball and the football teams. Although he was younger and
lighter than his teammates, his fighting spirit, qualities of leadership, candor,
and fair dealing made him highly popular and won him the captaincy of both
He was only a
little over sixteen and a half on February 15, 1898, when the U.S. battleship Maine blew
up in Havana Harbor at 9:40 P.M. Americans began chanting, "Remember the
Maine, to Hell with Spain," around public bonfires, and volunteer companies
marched happily off to war singing, "We'll Hang General Weyler to a Sour
found himself swept up by the excitement. Struggling with math and English seemed
a hopelessly insipid pursuit, with the newspapers full of blazing accounts of
the terrible brutality of Spanish masters of the little Caribbean island they
had enslaved. Smedley yearned to join the noble crusade to liberate Cuba in the
company of the fine fellows he saw marching off from West Chester daily.
Fearful of revealing his
aspirations to his parents, he attempted
The Indispensable Man 39
a fait accompli by seeking
to enlist with the 6th Pennsylvania Volunteers in his hometown. Rejected as
under age, he braced himself to corner his father in the sunlit library of
their house on Miner Street one morning.
he said, "I want to enlist. Thee could get me into the Navy, as an
apprentice, if necessary."
tugged at his thick handlebar moustache with stubby fingers, regarding his
slender son skeptically. "I have known of thy desire to go to war. But
thee is too young."
jutted. "If thee won't help me, I'll run away and join the general
does, it will avail thee nothing," his father said quietly. "I will
see that they discharge thee."
One night the
crestfallen youth overheard his father tell his mother privately that Congress
had authorized an increase of the Marine Corps by two thousand men and twenty-four
second lieutenants for the duration of the war. "The Marine Corps is a
finely trained body of men," his father said. "Too bad Smedley is so
young. He seems determined to go."
A new idea
took root. Smedley had seen a Marine in West Chester-a young god in a
magnificent uniform of dark blue coat decorated with many shiny buttons, and
light blue trousers with scarlet stripes running down the seams. Wouldn't a
fellow cut a fine figure in that! That night he fell asleep with
visions of himself as a faultlessly tailored Marine charging up a Cuban hill,
his Mamluk hilt sword pointed forward, inspiring the men behind him in a
heart pounding, he gave his mother an ultimatum. "I'm going to be a
Marine. If thee doesn't come with me and give me thy permission, I'll hire a
man to say he is my father. And I'll run away and enlist in some faraway
regiment where I'm not known!"
reluctantly agreed to accompany him by train to Marine Corps headquarters in
Washington, without telling his father. In the competitive examination for
Marine lieutenants he ranked second among two hundred applicants. Joyfully he
heard the gates of childhood close behind him; ahead beckoned the exciting
world of manhood and adventure. But he swallowed
40 The Plot to Seize the White House
hard when he had to face his father and admit that
he had won acceptance in the Marine Corps by adding two years to his age.
"Well," his father
sighed. "if thee is determined to go, thee shall go. But don't add another
year to thy age, my son. Thy mother and I weren't married until 1879!"
He could scarcely contain
his pride when his lean, wiry frame was encased in a crisp new uniform. Only
average in height with sloping shoulders, one higher than the other, the new second
lieutenant nevertheless managed to look properly fierce because of a long,
large nose and a pair of blazing, protruding eyes that gave him the bold look
of a young adventurer. Huge-handed, he had a husky voice that quickly developed
into a leatherneck growl, and a lively sense of humor that appealed to his
first glimpse of war came the day he arrived at Santiago, Cuba, on July 1,
1898, past a Spanish cruiser still burning in the harbor. Rigid with
excitement, he boarded another ship that took him to Guantanamo Bay, where he
joined the Marine Battalion of the North Atlantic Squadron.
Next day Mancil C. Goodrell, the captain of Butler's
company, took him on a two-man reconnaissance of enemy positions. As they moved
along a mountain trail, a shot rang out, and a bullet whizzed past Butler's
head. He flung himself prone and hugged the earth, his heart beating wildly.
"What in hell is the
matter?" Goodrell demanded.
"That was a ...
"Well, what if it was?
A little excitement now and then keeps you from going stale."
Soldiering under Goodrell,
who had had no formal military education, Butler became infused with the spirit
of the Corps. He relished the bonds of comradeship, the fierce loyalties, the
cool courage, the pride in being a Marine that united men who considered
themselves a fighting elite.
The officers were all
professional soldiers who chewed tobacco, drank raw whiskey, cursed a blue
streak, drilled the tails off their troops in garrison, and were experts on the
Lee straightpull 6-mm. rifle, Gatling gun, and Hotchkiss revolving cannon.
Thoroughly unorthodox, wild
in their humor, they were fierce
The Indispensable Man 41
who set an example for their men in battle by often fighting on after they were
In young Butler's eyes they
were heroes all.
He was enormously proud of
his first two decorations-the Spanish and West Indian Campaign medals. But he
was even prouder simply of being a full-fledged leatherneck who had shared the
bonds of a campaign with the Marines of Guantanamo. By the time his battalion
returned home, he and two other young Marine officers-John A. Lejuene and Buck
Neville had become an inseparable trio. Lejuene and Neville were each destined
to rise to the rank of commandant of the Marine Corps.
War was a high point in my life when I went to it at the age of sixteen,"
Butler later reminisced wryly, "to defend my home in Pennsylvania against
the Spaniards in Cuba."
Commissioned a first
lieutenant on April 8, 1899, Butler left four days later with a battalion of
three hundred Marines bound for the Philippines. Emilio Aguinaldo had begun a
revolution against American occupation of the islands following Spain's
He led his company at the
head of a battalion attack on Nocaleta, a fiercely defended rebel stronghold
that the Spaniards had never been able to take. Stumbling onto concealed
trenches and rifle pits, his company met with a blanket of heavy fire. The men
went prone, waiting for his orders.
fright, Butler sprang to his feet, waving the company to charge and open fire.
The battle drove the insurgents back from the trench. He pursued them through
waist-high rice paddies until they turned and fled.
He grew increasingly
confident of his ability to survive after
Plot to Seize the White House
several more skirmishes had
driven the Aguinaldo forces north to mountain strongholds. His pride in the
Corps kept growing. When a Japanese tattoist turned up in the Navy yard at
Cavite, he had an enormous Marine Corps emblem tattoed across his chest.
Infection from the tattoist's needle brought him down with a raging fever.
In June, 1900,
he was ordered to a new Asian outpost of trouble under Major Littleton Tazewell
Waller, a crusty bantam of a man with a fierce moustache. The Marines sailed
for China to rescue the American legation, which had been imperiled by the
Boxer uprising. The expedition numbered only a hundred Marines, but by the time
they arrived in China, the situation had reached crisis proportions.
All of North
China was now up in arms against the foreign powers who had carved the country
into colonial spheres of influence. The Chinese bitterly resented the alien
flags that flew over the imperialist compounds and the foreign ships that dominated
Chinese ports, flooding the country with Western goods. Most infuriating of all
were entrance signs the foreign legations had posted at their luxurious clubs:
"Forbidden to dogs and Chinese." Eventually the allied nations had to
send over 100,000 troops to protect their nationals.
eighteen-year-old Butler, who had no understanding of the political causes of
the Boxer Rebellion, saw his role simply as that of a Marine doing his duty to
protect American citizens on foreign soil. Waller received word that the
legation compound at Tientsin, twenty-five miles inland, was in desperate
straits. A small defending force of allied soldiers was trying to hold off
fifty thousand attacking Boxers.
Butler, and their ninety-eight men were joined by a column of four hundred
Russians also en route to relieve the siege. At a gray mud village later known
as Boxertown, bursts of heavy fire suddenly exploded from trenches on all
sides. The Russians, who received the brunt of it, fell back swiftly through
the lines of the Marines. Waller's men flattened on the plain, returning the
were killed, nine wounded. Ordered to withdraw, Butler counted noses and found
a private named Carter
The Indispensable Man 43
missing. With a lieutenant
named Harding and four privates, he ran a gauntlet of fire to search for him.
Locating Carter in a ditch, Butler found that his leg had been broken. While
the four privates fought off Boxers, Butler and Harding removed their shirts to
bandage Carter's legs together, carrying him off between them. It took them an
excruciating four hours to fight seven miles through the whine of persistent
bullets to catch up with the company. Tripped several times by his sword,
Butler unbuckled it in exasperation and flung it away.
weary retreat of the Marines, Butler constantly fought off an urge to collapse
and give himself over to sleep or death, without caring too much which.
Suddenly the crack of a bullet was followed by a dull sound right next to him.
Startled, he looked up to see a stream of blood flowing down the face of a
grizzled sergeant. The veteran Marine made no sound, just scowled, pulled his
hat over the wound, and continued the pace of the march. It was an image of
tough Marine courage that engraved itself on Butler's memory.
Stumbling on through a fierce North China dust
storm with a raging toothache, his heels rubbed raw by marches that began at
2:30 A.M., famished by hunger, Butler was so miserable that Boxer gunfire
seemed the mildest of his torments.
finally joined forces with a newly arrived column of three thousand
international troops and fought their way through to the Tientsin compound.
Routing a Chinese cohort, they broke the siege as overjoyed women and children
rushed out to hug their rescuers.
international troops defending the Tientsin compound were soon reinforced by an
allied army of seven thousand men. On July 13, 1900, they attacked the native
walled city of Tientsin to rout the Boxers from their stronghold. Butler was
in the forefront of the assault, which required breaking through an outer mud
wall twenty feet high and crossing fifteen hundred yards of rice paddies to an
inner high stone wall.
company through a hail of Chinese shells and snipers' bullets, he climbed over
the mud wall only to find himself dropping into a moat. The Chinese had
flooded the paddies between the walls. He and his men splashed through the
Plot to Seize the White House
slipping and lurching in
waist-high muck as they sought to fire their weapons. When they approached the
inner wall gate, thousands of Chinese on the wall poured down a withering fire,
forcing Butler to order a retreat.
A tall private
next to him named Partridge was hit and seriously wounded. Butler and two
Marines carried him above water level through the rain of bullets splashing
sensation in his right thigh puzzled Butler momentarily until he realized he
had been shot. Ignoring his wound, he continued to help carry Partridge until
they reached some high ground. There he applied first aid to the private's
wounds, then limped off in search of a medic for him.
By the time he
found a Marine doctor, blood was pouring copiously out of his own wound. He
protested volubly when the doctor, who outranked him, insisted on treating him
first. By the time he got the doctor back to Partridge, the private was dead.
Grieved and angry, he refused to leave when the doctor ordered him to the rear
with the other wounded.
His first lieutenant,
Henry Leonard, and a sergeant insisted on dragging him off to the other side of
the mud wall. Here he was joined by a Marine lieutenant who had been wounded in
the left leg. Tying their disabled legs together, they hobbled three-legged
back to the nearest first-aid station. When they had been treated and bandaged,
they helped dress the wounds of hundreds of casualties now pouring in.
Butler for promotion, Major Waller declared, "I have before mentioned the
fine qualities of Mr. Butler in control of men, courage, and excellent example
in his own person of all the qualities most admirable in a soldier."
On July 23, 1900,
a week before he turned nineteen, Butler was made captain while recuperating in
the hospital. The enlisted men who had helped him rescue Private Carter at
Boxertown received Medals of Honor which, until 1914,
were not awarded to officers. But Butler's promotion took cognizance of his
heroism, citing his "distinguished conduct and public service in the
presence of the enemy."
his leg was fully healed, he painfully concealed a limp until he had nagged the
doctors into getting rid of him
The Indispensable Man 45
with a hospital discharge so that he could lead his
men on a march to relieve the siege of Peking. They were part of a large,
colorful international army that included French Zouaves in red and blue,
Italian Bersaglieri with plumed helmets, Royal Welsh Fusiliers with ribbons
down their napes, Bengal cavalry on Arab stallions, turbaned Sikhs, Germans in
pointed helmets, and flamboyantly uniformed troops of half a dozen other countries.
wound throbbed painfully, and he suffered spells of sickness from
polluted water and food. His stomach was not soothed by sights en route to
Peking: two Japanese soldiers, eyes and tongues cut out, nailed to a door; an
old Chinese mandarin pinned to his bed by a huge sword; village streets strewn
with fly-covered corpses, their skulls smashed in. The Boxers were just as
ruthless with Chinese "traitors" as with luckless foreigners.
In one village
a Chinese family, frightened by the allied army's approach, jumped into a canal
and tried to drown themselves. Butler and his men rescued them and pinioned
them firmly while an interpreter explained that the troops would not harm them.
After some animated conversation, the interpreter told him, "Captain,
these people say that since you have saved their lives, you are responsible for
them as guardians and must now take care of them."
yelled Butler, racing off with his men. Reaching the outskirts of Peking, they
ran into blistering fire from the top of the city's stone and mud wall. They
joined a combined five-thousand-man American and British force hastily digging
a trench before the city.
One British private
left the trench in an attempt to wipe out a Chinese strongpoint at one gate but
was hit between the trench and wall. Butler's friend, Henry Leonard, sped out
to rescue him but was shot and badly wounded. Clearing the trench at a bound,
Butler raced through fire to reach him, but Leonard proved able to scramble
back on his own, so Butler lifted the wounded Tommy on his back instead and
staggered back to the trench with him.
Just as he eased the British
soldier over the parapet, a stunning
Plot to Seize the White House
blow hit him in the chest.
Whirling and falling, he lost consciousness briefly.
recovered, he heard one Marine say he'd been shot through the heart. He tried
to speak but found he had no breath to vocalize. His shirt was torn open, and
it was discovered that a bullet had struck the second button of his military
blouse, flattening it and driving it into his chest. The button had gouged a
hole in the eagle of the Marine Corps emblem he had had tattooed on his chest
in the Philippines. The wound was not serious, although for weeks afterward his
bruised chest ached painfully, and he spat blood when he coughed.
He was later
congratulated by General A. R. R. Dorward, commanding general of the British
contingent, who called Butler's rescue of the wounded Tommy the bravest act he
had ever seen on the battlefield and recommended him for the Victoria Cross.
But the American Government in those days did not permit an American officer to
accept foreign decorations of any kind.
By August 14
Peking was in the hands of the allies, and the Boxer Rebellion was crushed.
Butler's company of Marines, the longest in China, had suffered the greatest
casualties in the fighting-twenty-six killed or wounded. Exhausted, Butler now
came down with a bad case of typhoid fever that wasted his already spare frame
down to a skeletonized ninety pounds.
The ailing captain was
shipped to a naval hospital at Cavite, from which he was invalided home to San
Francisco. Arriving on December 31, 1900, he was embraced at the port by his
worried father and mother, who had rushed to the West Coast to meet him. But
during his convalescence he had gained thirty pounds and was almost fully
recovered. He returned home with
The Indispensable Man 47
his parents resplendent in
his dress blues with two new decorations-a Marine Corps Brevet Medal for
"eminent and conspicuous personal bravery" and a China Campaign
The town of
West Chester gave him a hero's reception attended by the Secretary of the Navy
and the commandant of the Marine Corps. It was a heady tribute for a boy not
now suggested that since his enlistment period was about up, and he had done
more than his duty in serving his country, he might want to return to his
Quaker heritage in civilian life. As a boy he had sometimes talked of becoming
a civil engineer. Why not go to college and study for it?
himself powerless to explain why he felt bound to the blue brotherhood; to make
his parents understand his deep pride in the Corps, the warm bonds of
solidarity that united Marines, the enjoyable excitement of danger, the honor
of being foremost in defense of the nation and its citizens. Any other way of
life seemed pale and drab by comparison.
he told them.
On October 31,
1902, he was put in command of a company of 101 men and shipped to the island
of Culebra twenty miles east of Puerto Rico. There was trouble in Panama, and
Butler's company was part of two battalions being stationed in reserve on Culebra
while the fleet, under Admiral George Dewey, conducted maneuvers offshore.
field rations and fighting scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas, the Marines
built docks and other naval constructions. In the midst of their perspiring
labors Squadron Admiral Joe Coghlan sent 12,5 Navy gunnery experts ashore to
challenge Butler and his men to a race in dragging five-inch coastal guns up
four-hundred-foot hills. Admiral Dewey sent word that a victory shot was to be
fired from the first gun mounted.
the waist, Butler worked like a madman alongside his men to prove the
superiority of leathernecks over bluejackets. At sunrise a jubilant Butler
ordered his men to fire a victory shot. The shell sailed over Admiral Dewey's
flagship, landing a mile beyond. Instead of congratulating the winners,
Plot to Seize the White House
the furious hero of Manila Bay sent Butler an icy
reprimand for "reckless firing."
was an order to dig a canal. The work was backbreaking, with the ground solid
rock in many places, marshland in others, all tenaciously guarded by a
ferocious mosquito army. And the Navy insisted that they had to work under the
broiling tropic sun in full uniform with leggings.
inflict any ordeal upon his men that he was not willing to endure himself,
Butler wielded a shovel in the ditch beside them. Soon their ranks began to be
decimated by tropical fever. A Marine major asked the Navy flagship, which had
an ice machine aboard, for ice to bring down their fevers. His request
scornfully refused, he returned to camp to find Butler unconscious. The major
ordered him rowed immediately across the bay to a temporary Navy hospital.
the Navy's treatment, the major wrote to Butler's father in Washington to tell
him what was happening at Culebra. Thomas Butler let out an angry roar in the
House Naval Affairs Committee. Secretary of the Navy William H. Moody sent
swift orders to Admiral Dewey that no more Americans were to be used as forced
labor on the miserable canal. The Navy brass fumed, convinced that it had been
Captain Smedley Butler who had complained to his father. As soon as he was off
the sick list, Admiral Coghlan put him in charge of sixty-five natives hired to
finish the canal. Two weeks later, the canal finished, he collapsed with a
relapse of tropical fever.
was in the hospital, a belated award of the Philippine Campaign Medal made him
think about his old battalion under Major Waller, who was now back in the
Philippines under Army General Adna Chaffee fighting rebels. He was stunned
when an uproar in the American press compelled Waller's court-martial for
killing ten Filipino native carriers who had balked at orders during a march.
Waller had been acquitted, however, on grounds that he had merely been obeying
"kill and burn" orders relayed from General Chaffee.
distressed by the news. Having served under both Waller and Chaffee, he admired
them as courageous officers whose code called for protecting, first, American
The Indispensable Man 49
ever they might be; then the
men under them; then their comrades-in-arms. From his own experience in the
Philippines and China, Butler guessed that Waller had suspected the carriers
of being rebels. It was impossible to tell apart insurrectionists and
twenty-one-year-old Marine captain was not yet troubled by doubts as to what
the Marines were ordered to do in the service of their country, or why. He
shared the easy condescension of most Marines of that swashbuckling era toward
people of underdeveloped countries as naive natives who had to be patronized,
directed, and protected by Americans.
The Marines were an elite gendarmerie entrusted with
the duty of maintaining international law and order on behalf of civilization.
A Marine's only concern was carrying out his orders as expertly as possible,
without questions. It was only later, as he gradually came to know native
peoples better and learned to admire their age-old customs and traditions, that
Smedley Butler felt impelled to question his role as an instrument of American
When a revolution broke out
in Honduras early in 1903, Butler's battalion was dispatched there aboard an
old banana freighter, the Panther, as part of a squadron under
On the second day out the ship's commander summoned
all hands to the quarterdeck to complain that someone had been using profane
language near his cabin. "I know the guilty party cannot be one of these
fine men," he declared, indicating the sailors, "therefore it must
have been one of these men enlisted from the slums of our big cities."
Pointing to the Marines, he restricted their use of the deck. Butler restrained
an impulse to
Plot to Seize the White House
apply the tip of his boot to the
seat of the commander's naval rectitude.
and there," he recalled later, "I made up my mind that I would always
protect Marines from the hounding to which they were subjected by some of the
end of his duty in Culebra, his father had reproached him for not having kept
him better informed as to what was going on in America's naval outposts. Now
Butler did not hesitate to write his father field reports in the Plain
Language, sometimes asking him to use his influence on the House Naval Affairs
Committee on behalf of the Marine Corps. Thomas Butler did not always consent,
but did serve informally as the Marines' court of last resort against Navy
In Honduras Smedley was vague as to what the trouble was all about,
noting, "It all seemed like a Gilbert and Sullivan war." He led a
force ashore at Trujillo between government and rebel forces who were firing at
each other to rescue the American consular agent.
seeing some duty in Panama, for which he won an Expeditionary Medal, he
returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1905. A pretty Georgia-born girl
named Ethel Conway Peters, some of whose family had been prominent in the
affairs of Philadelphia since Colonial times, helped him make good use of his
leave time. They were married on June 3o at Bay Head, New Jersey, in a military
wedding. Commented the Philadelphia Inquirer:
"Cupid and Mars in a wedding by the sea at high noon today."
honeymoon was a world trip made possible by orders assigning him to the
Philippines as captain of Company E, Second Regiment. Arriving with his bride
by way of Europe, India, and Singapore, he was stationed at a small naval base
on Subic Bay, sixty miles north of Manila. Here, in November, 1906, his
daughter Ethel was born. Butler's popularity led to her adoption by the
regiment. Giving a dinner for the enlisted men, he carried her to the table on
a pillow as guest of honor. Not surprisingly, she grew up a "Marine
brat" and years later married a Marine lieutenant, John Wehle.
detachment of fifty men Butler spent several months
The Indispensable Man 51
dragging six-inch guns up
mountaintops to defend Subic Bay against possible attack by Japan, an attack
that did not materialize for another thirty-six years. He and his men lived
ruggedly on hardtack, hash, and coffee. A Navy supply tug, which never brought
them supplies or rations, continued to ignore them even when they signaled that
they had run out of hash.
decided to sail to the Navy supply base across the bay. With two volunteers he
set out in a native outrigger. A typhoon blew up suddenly behind them, ripping
away their sail and snapping their paddles. For five hours they fought to keep
from drowning until the storm finally blew the seafaring trio ashore at the
and chilled, Butler lost no time in arranging to have the supply tug carry beef
and vegetables back to his men. The hungry Marines cheered his return on the
tug. The camp dock had been swept away by the typhoon, so they splashed out
into the bay to form a chain that passed the food they splashed from tug to
shore. Butler was a hero to his men, but not to the Navy brass who heard about
his bypass of official channels.
board of medical survey decided that his taking the outrigger into a typhoon,
and use of the tug to take supplies hack to his men, indicated signs of an
"impending nervous breakdown." He was ordered home.
October, 1908, despite the dim view of him taken by the Navy brass, be was promoted
to the rank of major. His fitness reports submitted by his commanding officers
could not be ignored; all unanimously rated him "outstanding,"
commending him as a strict disciplinarian impatient of inefficiency, laziness,
contempt for red tape and his personal bravery were acknowledged to have made
him one of the most popular and successful officials in the Corps. His units
were distinguished by a high esprit de corps because of his devotion to his
men, his concern for their welfare and pride in their accomplishments, and his
democratic insistence upon rolling up his sleeves to work beside them
after his second child, Smedley, Jr., was born, July 12, 1909, Butler was put
in charge of the 4th Battalion, 1st Marine
Plot to Seize the White House
Regiment, and sent to Panama.
Although he was stationed on the Isthmus for four years until the Panama Canal
was opened, he was temporarily detached three times to command expeditions
into strife-torn Nicaragua.
Washington had decided to intervene openly in the internal affairs of
that Central American country. Butler's orders each time were "to protect
American lives and property." He soon realized that this general order
involved propping up Nicaraguan governments or factions that were favored in
Washington for business reasons.
Conservative party was seeking to drive the Liberals out of power. Their revolt
was led by Adolfo Diaz, secretary treasurer of the La Luz Mining Company, in
which Secretary of State Philander C. Knox was said to own stock. The Liberal
Government had smashed Diaz's forces and pinned 350 survivors at Bluefields,
where Butler had been sent with the 4th Battalion. The American Consul at
Bluefields made it clear to Butler that the State Department wanted Diaz to
Liberal generals prepared to take Bluefields with fifteen thousand well-armed
men. Before the shooting could start, Butler sent them a message. The Marines
were there only as neutrals protecting American residents, he told the
attackers. The government forces could take the town but must leave their guns
outside the city so that no Americans were accidentally shot. Marine guards
would be posted outside the city to collect all weapons from Nicaraguans
could they take the town, the dismayed generals protested, without arms? And
why weren't Diaz's forces inside the town also being disarmed? Butler thought
is no danger of the defenders killing American citizens, because they will be
shooting outward," he replied
blandly, "but your soldiers would be firing toward us."
compelled the government forces to retract, giving the Conservative forces time
to regroup and mount a counterattack that soon overthrew the Liberals. Juan
Estrada became the new President, with Diaz as Vice-President.
felt somewhat uneasy about the role the Marines had been compelled to play in
this coup, especially since he knew
The Indispensable Man 53
that the American people had no
idea of how Secretary of State Knox was using the armed forces in Central
America, or why. But as a Marine officer he did not feel responsible for
foreign policy. He saw his role simply as implementing that policy by dutifully
carrying out his country's orders as he was sworn to do.
the Marines returned to Panama, he was confronted by a host of Bluefields
shopkeepers who presented him with unpaid bills signed by members of his
battalion, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Yankee Doodle.
From the handwriting Butler deciphered the true identity of these pseudonyms
and saw to it that they paid up. The first to defend his men against
injustices, he also insisted that they scrupulously honor their word to
tradesmen in whatever foreign land they were stationed, to protect the Corps's
One month later the Nicaraguan revolutionary pot boiled over again.
General Luis Mena, the Conservative party's Minister of War, had overthrown
Estrada as President and had been overthrown in turn by Diaz. Mena went into
rebellion with government troops loyal to him and had returned to attack
Managua, the capital. Butler was rushed to Managua with a force of 350 men and
ordered to prop up the faltering Diaz government.
Diaz in the field and government forces in the capital in chaos, he took
command of them. The American minister informed him that American banking
interests had taken over the national railroad as security for a loan to the
Diaz government, so that it must now be protected as "American
property." But it ran through territory controlled by three thousand of
Mena's troops, who had captured a train and held it against a small Marine
force sent to retake it.
newspapers mocked the Americans' rout. Mena's forces refused to let any other
trains through, cutting off supplies from the port.
August 25, 1912, Butler was ordered to retake the captured train and open the
railroad line. Angry that a Marine officer had failed in the task and made the
Corps "a laughingstock," he wrote his wife, "The idea prevails very strongly that Marines
Plot to Seize the White House
soldiers, and will not fight. I cannot stand any slur on our Corps and I will
wipe it off or quit."
With a hundred Marine volunteers
behind him, Butler located the train and approached the rebel forces guarding
it with two heavy cloth bags in his hands. His way was barred by machetes and
bayonets, and he was warned to retreat or have his small force annihilated.
Through an interpreter he informed the rebels that the bags in his hands held
dynamite, and he intended to blow them off the map if they did not back off
and let his men repossess the train.
rebel commander hesitated, then glumly ordered his men to yield. The Marines
manned the train, and as it pulled away, Butler calmly emptied the two bags out
of a rear window in sight of the rebels. They contained sand.
a bridge to make sure it was safe for the train to cross, be was suddenly
confronted by a rebel general with an enormous moustache who whipped out a huge
pistol and shoved it against Butler's stomach. If the train moved forward one
inch, the rebel officer yelled to Marines clustered around the locomotive, he
would pull the trigger.
slender Marine major suddenly sidestepped, simultaneously tearing the pistol
out of the Nicaraguan's hand. Emptying the cartridges out of the barrel, he
calmly returned the gun to the crestfallen general and drew his own revolver.
The vanquished rebel leader meekly marched back to the train as a hostage, and
the train went through.
discovered that most Nicaraguans were supporting the rebellion against the Diaz
government, which had hired brutal Honduran mercenaries to crush it. The people
themselves had slain many mercenaries, who looted, raped, and murdered. Unfortunately
The Indispensable Man 55
for American prestige, a few
Americans had been conspicuous among them. Butler's hundred Marines aboard the
train were regarded with general hostility as similarly vicious instruments of
the Diaz regime.
Butler and his men succeeded in opening the line between Managua and the
port at Corinto. On the way back they had to build three new bridges and
several miles of track. Returning to Managua after a fifteen-hundred-foot
descent with the train's brakes gone, Butler collapsed into bed and pulled the
covers over his face. During the whole week-long trip he had had just seventeen
the cynicism of the American presence in Nicaragua was becoming depressingly
obvious to him. "I expect a whole lot more rot about the property of
citizens of ours . . . which has been stolen by the rebels and which I must see
restored to their owners," he wrote his wife on September 13, 1912. The
following day he complained of orders from Admiral William H. H. Southerland,
who headed the fleet at Corinto, "virtually changing our status from
neutral to partisanship with the government forces."
next ordered to open the railroad south to Granada, Mena's rebel headquarters.
Another malaria attack delayed the expedition. Always restless and unhappy when
illness forced him to be idle, Butler held ice in his mouth and drove down his
temperature until the doctor reluctantly let him out of bed. Weak and haggard
with 104 ° fever, he had to lie on a cot in a boxcar as his troop train pulled
out of Managua. His eyes were so bloodshot and glaring that his men began
calling him Old Gimlet Eye, a nickname that stuck.
constant harassment by guerrilla forces, Butler finally sent word ahead to
Granada to warn General Mena that the Americans were prepared to attack him if
he ordered any further assaults on the train. Mena replied that he was sending
a peace delegation. Hoping to impress the emissaries with his military power,
Butler ordered poles put in the muzzles of two small field guns on flatcars and
covered them with tents to give them the appearance of fourteen-inch guns. He
further awed the emissaries
Plot to Seize the White House
by receiving them seated on
a wooden camp chair mounted on stilted legs like a primitive throne.
Glaring down at them, he warned that unless Mena
signed an agreement surrendering the railroad property and moving his troops
out of the railroad area, Marine "regiments" would attack Mena's
two-thousand-man force in Granada.
worked so well that Mena not only agreed but, to Butler's amazement, also
offered to surrender himself and his army if the Americans would provide a
warship to take him safely to exile in Panama. The jubilant Marine major
notified Admiral Southerland and the admiral at once agreed.
Butler was made temporary
governor of the District of Granada until
elections could be held. He promptly released all political prisoners Mena had
thrown into dungeons and returned all the property that had been confiscated
from them. He next issued a proclamation ordering all loot taken from the
people by both rebel and government forces to be restored.
The astonished Granadans
hailed him as a liberator.
On September 30, 1912, Butler was dismayed when the
admiral transmitted cabled orders from Secretary of the Navy George von L.
Meyer to side openly with the Diaz regime and turn over to it all captured
rebels. Apologetically he disarmed Mena and his troops, confining troops,
confining them m their barracks under guard.
say," he wrote his wife, "that I hated my job like the devil . . .
but orders are orders, and of course, had to be carried out." But he
protested bitterly to Admiral Southerland at the betrayal of his promise to
Mena. Southerland finally agreed to stand behind his pledge and explain to
politicians, deprived by Butler of their customary loot, loudly complained to
the admiral that he was interfering in local affairs. Southerland felt
compelled to relieve him as governor, sending him to crush the final remnants
of the revolution. Zeledon's force of two thousand rebels was dug in at a fort
on top of the Coyatepe Mountain, a stronghold that had never been taken in
Nicaragua's stormy history.
On October 4,
Butler and Colonel Joe Pendleton charged up the Coyatepe leading an 850-man
Marine force. In a forty-minute
The Indispensable Man 57
battle twenty-seven rebels
were killed in their trenches, nine captured, and the rest put to flight. Two
Marines were killed.
The fall of
Coyatepe put the town of Masaya, the last rebel outpost, in Marine hands. As
they occupied it, some four thousand government troops celebrated by entering
the town, looting it, and getting drunk. Incensed, Butler expressed his
bitterness in a letter to his wife, decrying "a victory gained by us for
them at the expense of two good American lives, all because Brown Brothers,
bankers, have some money invested in this country."
Resting in Masaya, the major began longing to see
his family. "I feel terribly over missing my son's most interesting period
of development, but ... this separation can't last forever," he wrote
Ethel on October g. "I get so terribly homesick at times that I just don't
see how I can stand it."
The Taft Administration had another unpleasant
assignment for him-rigging the new Nicaraguan elections to make certain that
Diaz was returned to power. Checking on the country's election laws, Butler
found that the polls had to be open a sufficient length of time ("at least
that's the way we translated it") and that voters had to register to be
able to vote.
He ordered a canvass of the district to locate four
hundred Nicaraguans who could be depended upon to vote for Diaz. Notice of
opening of the polls was given five minutes beforehand. The four hundred Diaz
adherents were assembled in a line, and two hours later, as soon as they had
finished voting, the polls were closed. Other citizens had either failed to
register or didn't know balloting was going on.
"Today," Butler wrote Ethel sardonically,
"Nicaragua has enjoyed a fine `free election,' with only one candidate
Plot to Seize the White House
allowed to run-President Adolfo
Diaz-who was unanimously elected. In order that this happy event might be
pulled off without hitch and to the entire satisfaction of our State
Department, we patrolled all the towns to prevent disorders and of course there
consoled himself by reflecting that the constant revolutions in Central
American politics did not represent a struggle for power by the people
themselves, but were most often simply attempts by rascals out of office to
overthrow rascals in office. He had a high regard for the Nicaraguan people and
genuine compassion for their suffering.
On November 13, 1912, over five thousand Nicaraguans turned out in Granada
to present him with a gold medal for saving them from troop disorders and
looting. They also gave him a scroll signed by Granada's leading citizens,
expressing gratitude for his "brave and opportune intervention" that
"put an end to the desperate and painful situation in which this city was
placed-victim of all the horrors of an organized anarchy."
told him, "From this terrible situation and from the anguish that the
future held for us, we passed as by magic to a state of complete guarantee for life,
property, and well-being for all, as soon as the American hoops entered
the city. The tact and discretion with which you fulfilled your humane mission,
so bristling with difficulties, was such that your name will be forever
engraved in the hearts of the people."
were fireworks and a fiesta. "The whole thing was very impressive and made
me feel quite silly," he wrote sheepishly to his wife, "but rather
proud for my darlings' sakes."
people's committee urged him to stay on as police commissioner of the
district. The twenty-nine-year-old major found himself intrigued by the
prospect of introducing honest law enforcement in Granada. "What would
thee think," he wrote Ethel, "of my accepting a $15,000 job as Chief of this Police down here, not to leave
the Marine Corps, but to have a three-years' leave?" But he finally
decided against it.
his reservations about the ethics of the Nicaraguan campaign, it had filled him
with exhilaration of adventure. "This is the end of the expedition,"
he wrote his wife. "Would like to
have some parts of it over
again; the excitement was fine." He indicated an early awareness that he
was destined to play a meaningful role in American history: "Be sure to
keep all my letters as they are a diary of my life, and may be useful sometime
in the future."
second bronze star added to his Expeditionary Medal and a new Nicaraguan
Campaign Medal, the indefatigable young campaigner returned to Panama and his
family. His second son, Thomas Richard, was born in October, 1913.
Woodrow Wilson in the White House, war clouds loomed with Mexico when bandit
General Victoriano Huerta overthrew legally elected Mexican President Francisco
Madero. In an angry exchange of notes, Wilson insisted that Huerta must hold
new elections barring himself as a candidate. Wilson's choice was Huerta's
rival for power, General Venustiano Carranza. Banning all arms shipments to
Mexico, the President asked all Americans without urgent business there to
leave the country and sent the fleet to cruise significantly in the Gulf of
Mexico during a period of "watchful waiting."
Wilson, Huerta began importing arms from Europe to crush Carranza. The
President then violated his own embargo and rushed American arms to the
Carranza forces. Full-scale fighting broke out all over Mexico, during which
American industrial property was destroyed and United States businessmen were
compelled to flee attacks against them from both sides.
January, 1914, the Marines were ordered from Panama to the fleet standing off
Vera Cruz. Ethel Butler took the children home to Pennsylvania, and her husband
reported to the fleet flagship Florida,
assigned to the staff of Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher. Welcoming him
aboard, the admiral remarked on his courage and daring in the Chinese,
Philippine, and Nicaraguan campaigns. He was just the man, the admiral thought,
for a dangerous special mission for the War Department.
Butler feel about going into Mexico as a "civilian" spy to make an
expert analysis of Huerta's fighting forces in and around Mexico City, as well
as to gather general intelligence, in case war was declared? He would carry no
official orders of any
Plot to Seize the White House
kind, of course, and if he were
caught, the Navy would have to disavow any knowledge of either him or his
soon can I start, Admiral?" he asked.
a night sky of swollen black clouds, as most of the crew aboard the Florida watched a Western movie starring
Broncho Billy, a civilian-clad Butler dropped a small traveling bag out of his
cabin port into a small boat, then slipped off the ship after it. His
disappearance from the Florida was
carried on the ship's rolls as "desertion."
in Vera Cruz, he decided to disguise himself as an Englishman. There were many
English in Mexico at the time traveling on business. Attiring himself in a
tweed suit, spats, deerstalker's hat, and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses with a
black ribbon, he undertook a stage English accent. A fraudulent British
passport and forged letters of introduction to important Britons in Mexico City
completed his impersonation.
Vera Cruz aboard the private railroad car of the line's superintendent, a
secret Carranza supporter cooperating with the Americans. The train rolled
toward Mexico City along the road American troops would use if they invaded.
The superintendent stopped the train several times en route, letting Butler
inspect electric power plants and reservoirs by introducing him to leading
citizens as "Mr. Johnson," a public utilities expert. Managing to
stray inside some army forts on his own, he was apprehended several times but
carried a butterfly net and studied rocks," he grinned in recollection.
"They thought I was a nut and let me pass."
Mexico City he changed to American garb and posed as a private detective from
the United States seeking a condemned murderer who had escaped and fled to
Mexico. Mexican secret police escorted him to all the garrisons to help his
search for the imaginary criminal. He soon had vital data on the troop strength
and disposition of munitions dumps around Mexico City.
military maps of everything he had seen, Butler buried them in the false bottom
of his bag and took the train back to Vera Cruz. He became aware that two
Mexicans were following him. Apparently he had aroused suspicions, and the
Mexican secret service was keeping an eye on him.
The Indispensable Man 61
early morning when the train reached Vera Cruz, it paused temporarily to allow
a rail switch to be thrown that took it into the station. During this pause
Butler went to the washroom in pajamas, his bag concealed under his bathrobe.
Locking the door behind him, he slipped out of the train window. He donned his
clothes in the freight yard, then sped to the American consulate to contact
naval officers were sent ashore to the consulate. He turned over all his maps
and data to them, then left separately, dressed once more in his British guise.
Seeking to board a British steamer at the wharf to a port down the coast, from
which he would secretly be picked up and brought back to the Florida, he was suddenly seized by a
squad of police.
considered it odd for a "British entomologist" to have been visiting
the American embassy. His baggage was opened and searched thoroughly, but
nothing incriminating was found. Threatening "you blighters" with
official reprisals from the British Foreign Office, Butler bluffed them into
letting him go. A few days later he was safely back aboard the Florida, where Admiral Fletcher warmly
congratulated him on the success of his daring mission.
When war with Mexico seemed
inevitable, on April 19, 1914, Admiral Fletcher put six companies of Marines
ashore at Vera Cruz under Butler's old friend, Buck Neville, now a colonel.
At dawn when the six companies
began marching through the city Mexican troops fired at them from rooftops and
house windows, using machine guns as well as rifles. Marines rushed from house
to house smashing in doors and searching for snipers.
The Marines Butler led were not
his own command, and he
62 The Plot to Seize the White,
was not sure of their
behavior under fire. To inspire coolness he led them through Vera Cruz with no
weapon of his own except a stick. The Marines in two columns kept close to the
doorways for cover while he walked calmly down the center of the street for a
better view of snipers in houses on both sides. Ignoring bullets spurting dust at his feet, he used the stick to
point out snipers to his sharpshooters.
By nightfall the Marines had
won control of the city, but at a cost of 135 Americans killed or wounded, 7 of
the casualties Butler's men. Mexican casualties were four or five times as
Returning to Panama, Butler
relieved tedious garrison duty by expending his inexhaustible energy in making
Camp Elliott an exemplary Marine outpost. After a visit to the Panama Canal
Zone, Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison wrote him, "I was delighted . .
. to observe the esprit de corps exhibited by your command. Their alertness,
skill, and proficiency were models for military organizations."
Congress had by now
authorized officers as well as enlisted men to receive Congressional Medals of
Honor. One was now awarded to Butler for being "eminent and conspicuous in
command of his Battalion. He exhibited courage and skill in leading his men
through the action of the 22nd and in the final occupation of the city [Vera
"I've no more courage
than the next man," he protested, "but it's always been my job to
take my fellows through a mess the quickest way possible, with the loss of the
fewest men. You can't do that from a distance. Besides, I was paid to do what I
did. I've been scared plenty, but if I'd ever let my men know it, they'd have
been scared. And soldiers who are scared aren't worth so much. They'll keep
their lives, but the job won't get done."
To the astonishment of the
Navy Department, he refused to accept his Medal of Honor, explaining that he
did not consider what he had done at Vera Cruz worthy of the nation's highest
military award. Admiral Fletcher, questioned by the Navy, replied that Butler
was wrong; he had certainly merited the Medal of Honor not only for his
courageous leadership in the Vera Cruz battle but also for his heroism as a
The Indispensable Man 63
The Navy Department
thereupon sent the medal back to the reluctant hero with a terse order to keep
it and wear it, but for Butler a matter of principle was involved. He was proud
of his decorations and would wear none that he did not believe he fully
deserved. He returned the medal to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels,
writing stubbornly, "I must renew my request that the Department
reconsider its action in awarding this decoration." The matter was
shelved by the outbreak of World War I in August, 1914, but Butler was later
pressured into accepting the medal.
Wilson was keeping a careful
and worried eye on Haiti. During 1914 four presidents of that volatile little
republic were overthrown. The Germans were threatening to intervene to protect
their economic interests. Wilson suspected that they wanted to use the volatile
little republic as a naval base, which would put them within easy striking
distance of the Panama Canal and the Florida coast.
Then in 1915 a new Haitian
president, pursued by an angry mob, was forced to seek sanctuary in the French
legation. The mob dragged him out and killed him. Now the angry French
Government threatened intervention. Squirming in an agony of indecision, the
anti-imperialist Wilson finally decided to put Haiti under American control to
prevent any of the warring European powers from seizing it.
Besides, he told Secretary
of State Robert Lansing, an American occupation would give him a chance to
bring law, order, democracy, and prosperity to the wretched people of the misruled
little country. Wilson's missionary impulse dovetailed neatly with less exalted
plans by big-business interests. The National City Bank controlled the National
Bank of Haiti and the Haitian railroad system. Dollar diplomacy also involved
the sugar barons who saw Haiti's rich plantations as an inviting target for
investment and takeover.
Rioting in the capital of
Haiti in August, 1915, gave Wilson the excuse he needed to intervene with warships
and Marines under Colonel Littleton Waller, Butler's commanding officer. Haiti was placed under an American
commissioner who controlled the republic's affairs through the Haitian
Plot to Seize the White House
ministers were puppets with only advisory powers.
The government was not allowed to incur any "foreign obligations"
without American consent, and an American customs official collected all money
due Haiti. The Marines "pacified" the population and maintained the
When the Haitian National
Assembly met in Port-au-Prince, Marines stood in the aisles with bayonets drawn
until Philippe Dartiguenave, the Haitian selected by the American minister, was
"elected" President by the Assembly. He was the first Haitian
President to serve out his full seven-year term, only because of the occupation
of the Marines.
Under Dartiguenave American
control of the island was assured by a treaty signed on September 16, 1915,
which entitled the United States to administer Haitian customs and finance for
twenty years, or longer if Washington saw fit. The Haitian constitution was
revised to remove a prohibition against alien ownership of land, enabling
Americans to purchase the most fertile areas in the country, including valuable
sugar cane, cacao, banana, cotton, tobacco, and sisal plantations.
Northern Haiti, however,
remained in the grip of rebels known as Cacos, whose chiefs Dartiguenave
labeled bandits. Posing as nationalists, they were actually precursors of the brutal
Tonton Macoutes of the later Duvalier regime, just as cruel to the peasants as
the government's soldiers were.
Butler led a reconnaissance
force of twenty-six volunteers in pursuit of a Caco force that had killed ten
Marines. Like the Cacos in the mountains, he and his men lived for days off the
orange groves. For over a hundred miles they followed a trail of peels,
estimating how long before the Cacos had passed by the dryness of the peels. A
native guide they picked up helped them locate the Cacos' headquarters, a
secret fort called Capois, deep in the mountain range.
Studying the mountaintop
fort through field glasses, Butler made out thick stone walls, with enough
activity to suggest they were defended by at least a regiment. He decided to
return to Cape Haitien for reinforcements and capture it. On the way back they
were ambushed by a force of Cacos that outnumbered them twenty to one.
Fortunately it was a pitch-black night, and
The Indispensable Man 65
Butler was able to save his men by splitting them up to crawl past the
Cacos' lines through high grass.
Just before dawn he reorganized them into three
squads of nine men each. Charging from three directions as they yelled wildly
and fired from the hip, they created such a fearful din that the Cacos panicked
and fled, leaving seventy-five killed. The only Marine casualty was one man
When he was able to return with reinforcements,
spies had alerted the Cacos, and Butler took a deserted Fort Capois without
firing a shot. Only one last stronghold remained to be cleared-the mountain
fortress at Fort Riviere, which the French, who had built it during their
occupation of Haiti, considered impregnable. Butler was told it would be
difficult to capture, even with a strong artillery battery.
"Give me a hundred picked volunteers," he
said, "and I'll have the colors flying over it tomorrow."
Butler earnestly assured his volunteers that they could do the job. His
pep talks were enormously persuasive because they were sincere-so sincere that
after he gave one, he would often feel emotionally spent and limp. He refused
to believe that any job was impossible for Marines and frequently hypnotized
him self into believing it. His fervor made believers out of his men, who
never hesitated to follow him against overwhelming odds.
His officers gave him
unreasoning loyalty, even though he was a tough taskmaster and never played
favorites. One captain, asked to explain his devotion to Butler, said,
"Well, damn him, I don't know. I'd give him my shirt, and he would not
only not thank me, but he'd probably demand that I give him my other one. I
stick because-hell, I don't know why!"
What happened when Butler
led his tiny force against Fort
Plot to Seize the White House
subsequently described in a memo by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who visited
Haiti in January, 1917, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Congressional
Medal of Honor could not be awarded to an officer unless a high official of the
military branch concerned first made a personal investigation and authenticated
the citation. When Butler was recommended for the award, Roosevelt went to
Haiti to investigate.
He was taken by Butler
on an inspection tour of Haiti and the ruins of Fort Riviere, which Butler had
demolished with explosives after its capture to deny its reuse to the Cacos. In
his memorandum Roosevelt wrote what he had learned from others about Smedley
Butler's attack on the four-thousand-foot-high mountain fortress in November,
This was the famous fortification captured by Butler
and his 24 Marines in the Caco rebellion of a few months before. The top is a
hog's back ridge a quarter of a mile long. Butler and his Marines left a
machine gun at one end of the ridge while he and about 18 Marines crawled through the grass into the fort itself. Crawling down
into a corner, they found a tunnel into the courtyard, serving as a drain when
Butler started to crawl through it (about 2 1/4 ' high
x 2' wide) and the old sergeant [Ross
lams] said, "Sir, I was in the Marines before you and it is my
privilege." Butler recognized his right, and the sergeant crawled through
first. On coming to the end within the courtyard, he saw the shadows of the
legs of 2 Cacos armed with machetes
guarding the place. He took off his hat, put it on the end of his revolver,
and pushed it through. He felt the two Cacos descend on it and he jumped forward into the daylight.
With a right and left he got
both Cacos, stood up and dropped 2 or 3 others while his companions, headed by
Smedley Butler, got through the drain hole and stood up. Then ensued a killing,
the news of which put down all insurrections, we hope, for all time to come.
There were about 300 Cacos within the wall, and Butler and his 18 companions
killed [many] . . . others jumping over the wall and falling prisoner to the
rest of the force of Marines which circled the mountain.
I was so much impressed by
personal inspection of the
The Indispensable Man 67
scene of the exploit that I awarded the Medal of Honor to
the Marine Sergeant and Smedley Butler. Incidentally, Butler had received the
Medal of Honor at Tientsin at the time of the Boxer Rebellion.* He had been
awarded at the capture of Vera Cruz in 1914 but declined to accept it. The
third at Fort Riviere he did accept.
saw pathos as well as bravery in the episode at Riviere. "The futile efforts of the natives to
oppose trained white soldiers impressed me as tragic," he declared.
"As soon as they lost their heads, they picked up useless, aboriginal
weapons. If they had realized the advantage of their position, they could have
shot us like rats as we crawled out one by one, out of the drain."
power of the Cacos was broken, and the revolution was over. Surviving Cacos
sought to keep the movement alive, but their ancient horse pistols, Spanish
cutlasses, Napoleonic sabers, French carbines, and even flintlocks were futile
against the superior weaponry and training of the Marines.
Dartiguenave awarded Butler the Haitian Medal of Honor, with great praise for
his dynamic personality, intense determination, direct and unrelenting attacks
against heavy odds, and masterful ability to lead men.
after peace was restored, Butler sent for his wife and children. They had seen
little of him since the beginning of his tour in Panama, because of his three
expeditions to Nicaragua followed by the Mexican and Haitian campaigns.
joined him at Port-au-Prince in a large, comfortable house with white verandas
and a pleasant, shaded garden, located on the outskirts of the town. Sumptuous
by island standards, it nevertheless lacked indoor plumbing, and the family
had to share a two-hole privy.
taskmaster in the Corps, Butler was a gentle and undemanding father. It was
Ethel Butler who disciplined the children, a matter of necessity because of his
frequent absences. The children loved
the exotic flavor of the tropical republic. Smedley, Jr. was sent to an
integrated school with Haitian children
*Roosevelt's error; officers at the time of the Boxer
Rebellion could not win the Medal of Honor.
Plot to Seize the White House
and a few other white
youngsters. Young Ethel went to a convent taught by nuns in French and English.
allowed into town, as it was considered unsafe, they were accompanied
everywhere by a gendarme. One night while the family was seated on the veranda,
a Caco concealed somewhere on the hillside took a shot at their father,
narrowly missing him.
decided to reorganize the ineffective Haitian military, which had almost one
general for every three privates in its thirteen-hundred-man army. Dartiguenave
agreed to its replacement by a native constabulary of three thousand men to be
trained and directed by Butler. Although still only a major, Butler's rank as
head of the Haitian Gendarmerie was major general, and his power that of
Minister of the Interior.
paid $3,000 a year as commandant of the Gendarmerie, which cost the American
Government $800,000 a year. Ostensibly under the direction of the Haitian President,
the new force was actually controlled by Washington. All of its officers were
foreign minister demanded that the Gendarmerie be put under Haitian control.
Butler refused, pointing out that according to an agreement signed by Dartiguenave,
the commandant alone was made responsible for the force. The foreign minister
angrily drew up a new constitution for Haiti that would force the Americans to
relinquish their power over both the Gendarmerie and Haiti itself, and
prepared to introduce it in the Haitian National Assembly.
Dartiguenave told Butler that the foreign minister had the support of a
majority of the Assembly's legislators, who intended to ram the new
constitution through the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Then they planned
to vote to impeach Dartiguenave, ostensibly for violating the old constitution,
in reality because they considered him an American pawn.
American minister, A. Bailly-Blanchard, cabled a warning to Secretary of State
Robert Lansing, who cabled back that since the new constitution was
"unfriendly" to the United States, it must not be approved by the
Haitian Legislature. Bailly-Blanchard was ordered to take any steps necessary
The Indispensable Man 69
its passage. He summoned Butler,
Butler's regimental commander, Colonel Cole, and the top naval commander,
Admiral Anderson, to a conference, and read them Lansing's cable.
decided that Americans would have no legal justification for interfering in
Haiti's internal affairs, but that Butler, as major general of the Haitian
Constabulary, did have that right. Commanded to carry out the State
Department's orders, Butler went to see Dartiguenave, who urged him to use the
Gendarmerie to dissolve the National Assembly.
Butler had no relish for the role of dictator. If Dartiguenave and his cabinet
wanted the Assembly suspended, he insisted, then they had to take full
responsibility. He refused to act until they had apprehensively signed a decree
ordering dissolution of the Assembly "to end the spirit of anarchy which
Butler led his gendarmes to the National Assembly, he was greeted with loud,
prolonged hissing. The gendarmes began cocking their rifles. Many, veterans of
previous coups d'etat, were amazed at Butler's order to lower their guns.
handed the President's decree to the presiding Assembly officer to be read
aloud to the chamber. Instead the latter launched into a wrathful tirade
against the American occupation. His outburst threw the hall into an uproar.
of being charged, the gendarmes again threw up their weapons, and Butler once
more snapped an order to ground arms. The reluctant presiding officer finally
read Dartiguenave's decree and bitterly declared the Assembly dissolved. The
gloomy legislators then filed into the street, and the gendarmes locked the
hall behind them.
Plot to Seize the White House
The Marine Corps promoted
Butler to lieutenant colonel in August, 1916. Winning commendation as a capable
administrator, he kept Haiti stable and at peace for the first time in half a
century. He grew fond of Dartiguenave while acknowledging, "I knew lie was
an old political crook." Typical of the President's expenditures from the
treasury was sixteen hundred dollars "to have the hole in a carpet
over Haiti without a gun, despite the Cacos, Butler established a postal
service, a country school system, a network of telegraph lines, a civil
hospital in Port-au-Prince, and a five-hundred-mile road system; he also
restored lighthouses and channel buoys. Although these civic and economic
improvements unquestionably benefited American investors, Butler's primary
purpose was to improve life for the Haitians.
and have been ever since, very fond of the Haitian people," he wrote
later, "and it was my ambition to make Haiti a first-class black man's
But no amount
of Butler's "good works" could erase from Haitian minds the
humiliating awareness that they had been robbed of their independence by a
military occupation. Haitians had no shortage of legitimate grievances. The
supreme power on the island was not Butler, who was preoccupied with the
Gendarmerie, but the commanding officer of the Marines in Haiti, Littleton
Waller, who was made a brigadier general in the fall of 1916. As the officer
who had once been court-martialed for brutality toward Filipino natives, he did
not inspire among his staff officers any vast respect for Haitian
interior they talked as casually of shooting "gooks" as sportsmen
talked of duck-hunting. Patrolling against the Cacos, some Marine officers
looted the homes of native families they
The Indispensable Man 71
were supposed to protect.
Others talked of "cleaning out" the island by killing the entire
native population. Prisoners were beaten and tortured to make them tell what
they knew about Cacos' whereabouts. Some were allowed to "escape,"
then were shot as they fled.
the interior were forced to carry bon habitant (good citizen) passes. Any
native stopped by a Marine and unable to produce a bon habitant could be
either shot or arrested. Understandably, many Haitians became convinced that
all Americans were racial bigots who hated black men. And behind the Americans
in uniform were the American businessmen, who plundered the wealth of the
island with impunity.
Butler, now in
his early thirties, did not take Haitian politicians very seriously. He viewed
most of them as banana republic opportunists not too different from the
crooked ward bosses who infested the American body politic. The ingenuity and
pretensions of the shrewdest, like Dartiguenave, tickled his sense of humor,
but he regarded the Haitian people themselves with respect and affection, if
blind to the irony implicit in the presumption to offer superior government to
a black republic by a nation that had signally failed to solve its own serious
opened increasingly, however, to the fact that he was being used by
big-business interests to pacify the population in order to protect profitable
Haitian Government, such as it is, either yields perforce to American
pressure," reported correspondent Herbert J. Seligmann in The
Nation, "or finds itself in feeble and ineffectual opposition....
The present Government of Haiti, which dangles from wires pulled by American
fingers, would not endure for twenty-four hours if United States armed forces
were withdrawn; and the President, Dartiguenave, would face death or
protested to Washington about some of the injustices of the occupation. On
April g, 1916, he wrote to the State Department to point out that the Haitians
logically objected to the retention of Marine officers in the Gendarmerie
unless they were made subject to trial by Haitian courts. since otherwise
Plot to Seize the White House
the United States could
mount a coup d'etat whenever it chose to order one. His protest fell on deaf
By the spring
of 1916 Haitian discontent was growing rapidly. Waller warned Butler to be on
guard because Cacos, spreading the rumor that the Americans would soon pull
out, were urging the people to rise and destroy them now.
deeply discouraged. Despite everything he had tried to do for the people, the
dollar sign behind the occupation had made all his efforts useless. In July he
wrote to Lejeune, "All of us gendarmes are mighty tired, and I for one am
going to ask to be relieved at the first opportunity presenting itself."
Waller ordered him into Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic sharing the
island with Haiti, to put down a revolt led by Celidiano Pantilion and
"stabilize the economy." The Dominican Government had defaulted its
obligations to American banks and paid for its sins with an American occupation
to protect U.S. investments that lasted eight years.
returned from Santo Domingo, mission accomplished, a letter was waiting for him
from Lejeune. "Assistant Secretary Roosevelt came back with glowing
accounts of the splendid work being done by the Marine Corps in connection with
the Gendarmerie," Lejeune wrote enthusiastically. "You certainly deserve
the greatest credit for what you have done in making a soldier out of the
But Butler had
begun to brood about the virtue of leading American boys into battle, causing
some to lose their lives and others to suffer permanent disablement, to protect
American business interests in the Caribbean. He grew quietly cynical about
some of the compliments paid to him.
Santo Domingo revolutionists joined bandits in shaking down American plantation
managers for money. Repulsed, they set cane fires and sought to prevent cane
from being cut and ground. The American sugar interests there wanted Butler to
come to their rescue once again.
of the Sugar Association and myself," their spokesman, businessman Frank
H. Vedder, wrote to Roosevelt, "desire to express to you our appreciation
of . . . the improvement in conditions, the hard work being done by the marines
The Indispensable Man 73
field. . . . The dangers
from bandit operations are by no means past or remote. Additional troops would
be of great assistance in clearing up the situation."
relief Roosevelt replied, "I appreciate, of course, that the complete
elimination of bandit operations is at the present time exceedingly difficult,
but I trust that the Acting Military Governor will be able to give all the
protection necessary with the forces under his command."
Butler sought to convince the State Department that
the Haitians would never cease to be anti-American until Washington allowed
them to hold honest elections and choose their own President. Spies tipped off
Dartiguenave, who grew chilly toward Butler for putting his job in jeopardy.
received little attention now from the State Department, which was carefully
studying developments in World War I. Reading about the war from his remote
outpost, Butler regarded it with loathing as "madness . . . a European
bloodbath." He fervently hoped that Wilson would have the good sense to
keep American boys out of it.
President took America into the war, however, Butler instantly appealed to
Lejeune for a combat assignment in France, where he felt that he would at least
be serving his country instead of Wall Street. Lejeune replied that the State
Department was so pleased with his work as an administrator in Haiti that it
had refused to transfer him to the European war front. Unappeased, Butler
moaned to Lejeune in June, 1917, "The service is becoming more and more
detestable every day, and the knowledge that I am not allowed to fight for my
country makes it even more unbearable."
He appealed to
Roosevelt. "Secretary Roosevelt and I," replied John McIlhenny, head
of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, "are of the same opinion that the
work which you have in hand should not be interfered with or disturbed because
it is the most potent factor in maintaining a peaceful occupation."
An entreaty to
his father also failed to work. "Your father," wrote Representative
W. L. Hensley, of the House Naval Affairs Committee, "has gone into all
these matters with the Secretary of War concerning your ambitions. They feel
you are doing a
74 The Plot to
Seize the White House
great work where you are, and
for you to be transferred from there would turn things topsy-turvy."
Butler threw himself into a new orgy of roadbuilding. In forty-five days lie
built a new road from Port-au-Prince to Cape Haitien, across twenty-one miles
of the roughest, densest tropical country he had ever seen. After he had driven
the first car over it, Secretary of State Lansing cabled congratulations.
McIlhenny wrote him, "I think your achievement in building a road from
Port-au-Prince to Cape Haitien in such a time and at such a cost is a
has misled you," he replied impatiently, "concerning my value to this
country, and to the aims of the U.S. down here, for I am simply a subordinate
to the Chief of the American Occupation . . . and have no independent
By now Butler
was strongly suspicious that he was being held in Haiti by the War Department's
lack of confidence in his fitness for a command in France. When he asked a
friend in Washington to snoop and investigate for him, he was assured that his
suspicions were unfounded: The government was really having trouble finding a
competent man to replace him.
didn't believe it. His instincts told him that his old enemies in the Navy
Department were working against him. He had trodden on a good many other
important toes as well during his two years in Haiti, and he had heard rumors
spread by some naval officers that he had won all his medals and promotions
because of his father's influence.
He did not
hesitate to try to use that influence when Thomas Butler became chairman of the
House Naval Affairs Committee in 1918. But his renewed pleas to be allowed to
serve in the A.E.F. failed to move his father, and he remained bogged down
disconsolately in Haiti. He grew increasingly unhappy with the government's
management of the island's affairs.
censorship Port-au-Prince's newspapers were suppressed, and their editors
jailed, for suggesting that since Mr. Wilson was so concerned about the fate of
poor little nations overrun by powerful military aggressors that he had gone to
war in Europe for them, he might consider rescuing little Haiti from its invaders.
The Indispensable Man 75
Some years later when
Harding succeeded Wilson in the White House, Dartiguenave called
upon him to remove all Marines from Haiti and liberate the Haitian people. To
dramatize his case, Dartiguenave accused Butler of having dissolved
the Haitian National Assembly by force of arms, without authority, conveniently
ignoring the fact that he had begged Butler to do it and that he had written
him upon his departure, "I regret to see you obliged to cease your services in
this country, and I was well pleased with the broad and intelligent cooperation
that you have constantly given to the Government."
Dartiguenave's memorial to Harding, published
widely in the United States, "stirred up a hell of a commotion," as
Butler put it. The Senate appointed an investigating committee with Senator
Medill McCormick, of Illinois, as chairman. Butler was summoned as a witness. A
lawyer for the American N.A.A.C.P. demanded to know on what authority he had
presumed to dissolve the Haitian National Assembly.
President [Dartiguenave] himself dissolved the Congress," Butler replied.
"I merely carried his decree of dissolution to the Assembly."
witnesses jeered at this assertion, but their faces fell when Butler produced
the decree signed by Dartiguenave and his cabinet; it had been prudently saved
among Butler's memorabilia. The upset Haitian politicians denounced it as a
forgery, but were compelled to acknowledge it as authentic when it was compared
with other documents signed by Dartiguenave. His case won, Butler saw no need
to embarrass the State Department by also revealing that Secretary of State
Robert Lansing had secretly ordered "any steps necessary" to stop the
National Assembly from passing an anti-American constitution.
Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby asked Butler to return to Haiti as High
Commissioner with a "civilian financial adviser" who, Butler knew,
would represent American big-business investors and dictate economic policy. He
had had enough of letting Wall Street profiteers use the Marines as their
private army. He would prefer not to go, he told Denby, and certainly not with
any civilian financial adviser. In that case, Denby said coldly, he need not go
Plot to Seize the White House
March, 1918, bursting with frustration over his inability to get into the
action on France's battlefields, Butler decided to press the matter personally
with Lejeune, who was now a general, during a medical leave to Washington for
Lejeune finally succeeded in
getting him detached from Haitian service, but to Butler's dismay, instead of
being sent overseas, he was ordered to take over a swampy new Marine base at
Quantico, Virginia, on the Potomac, thirty miles south of Washington. Here he
had to train regiments of raw boots for the front and glumly watch them pull
out for France without him.
He felt irked
with his father for failing to use his influence to get him into combat. Thomas
Butler had visited the front and had been greatly disturbed by the high
casualties of American troops. Smedley wondered whether his father had refused
to help him get overseas out of a dread of losing him in the European carnage.
He persisted in nagging Marine headquarters for an
overseas command, but his refusal to be discreet even now antagonized his
superior officers. Learning that a move was afoot to raise the rank of the
Marine commandant to lieutenant general, he spoke out against it as a rank
piece of opportunism. No similar promotions were being suggested, he pointed
out acidly, for the leathernecks in the trenches of France.
His friends in
the Corps moaned at this bull-in-a-china-shop gaffe, warning him that his
indiscreet candor was hurting his career. He remained stubbornly convinced of
his right to speak out vigorously against injustice in the Corps.
found a way to get overseas when the 13th Marines came to Quantico for
training. Josephus Daniels, Jr., son of the
The Indispensable Man 77
Secretary of the Navy, was
with the regiment. Meeting his father, Butler persuaded Daniels, Sr., that
young Marines like his son needed the protection overseas of veteran Marine commanders
like Smedley Butler. Despite the opposition of the desk admirals in Washington,
Butler was finally ordered overseas with the regiment.
farewell to his family, Butler was happy in the conviction that he was heading
for the front at last. For twenty years, he told his wife, he had been
preparing for the big war that he had dreaded, yet had anticipated. At last he
would be serving his country in its greatest hour of crisis. In his patriotic
zeal his qualms about the commercial intrigues he had learned to suspect behind
troop movements were swept away.
Brest on September 24, 1918, he and his men were assigned to a dreary Army
debarkation center, Camp Pontanezen, consisting of seventeen hundred acres of
mud flats occupied by 75,000 American soldiers, of whom 16,000 had the flu.
Returning casualties had complained of scandalous conditions at Pontanezen,
where they had been forced to await ships home lying in mud, hungry, chilled,
and medically neglected.
Day after day he waited impatiently for his orders
to move up to the fighting zone. After two weeks he was handed a telegram from
A.E.F. Commander General John J. Pershing informing the thirty-seven-year-old
Butler that he had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general, making him
the youngest Marine ever to achieve that rank. And he was finally assigned his
new command-in charge of Camp Pontanezen.
the telegram three times, unable to believe it. Then be let out a roar of fury.
The bastards! The unutterable bastards! They couldn't do this to him. After
twenty years as a fighting Marine, to be denied the opportunity to lead his men
into battle and be forced to sit instead in a dirty mud hole a light-year away
from the fighting!
matters worse, he discovered that one officer after another had been put in
charge of the miserable concentration camp and pest trap that was now his
responsibility, only to fail dismally in their attempts to clean it up. It was
obvious to him that he had been handed a "lemon" of a command, ending
Plot to Seize the White House
dreams of fighting in the
Meuse-Argonne. Bitter, he added Pershing to his list of enemies in top
actually, had been motivated only by the desperate need for a good
administrator who could do something about the mess at Pontanezen, the linchpin
for troops and equipment coming into France and for wounded and sick troops
going home. Butler's record as an able administrator in Haiti and Quantico had
marked him as the man for the job. So he was forced to watch glumly as the 13th
Marines left for the front, leaving him behind in command of an all-Army outfit
off his despond and self-pity, Butler went to work. Not long afterward writer
Mary Roberts Rinehart arrived with orders from Secretary of War Newton Baker to
investigate the terrible conditions at Pontanezen. Touring the camp talking to
the troops, she was astonished to find morale high. One private told her
enthusiastically, "I'd cross hell on a slat if Butler gave the word!"
She wrote later:
In charge of the camp was that dynamo of energy,
courage and sheer ability, General Smedley Butler of the Marines. And Butler
was no red tape man. In defiance of regulations he was issuing double rations
of food, and serving hot soup all day long to those who needed it. He had
issued, also, six blankets to each man, and as the ground under the tents was
nothing but mud, he had raided the wharf at Brest of the duck-boards no longer
needed for the trenches, carried the first one himself up that four-mile hill
to the camp, and thus provided something in the way of protection for the men
to sleep on.
To have produced the morale I found under existing
conditions was nothing short of a miracle of ability, and I said so. Even the
flu, taking its daily toll of men in the hospital nearby, was practically
non-existent in the camp. . . . I had never seen General Butler before, and I
went prepared to send in a blistering report to Washington. . . . But the men
were in fine condition, and cheerful.
report to Baker was so glowing that the Secretary of War promised to send
Butler everything he needed.
Soon after the Armistice Butler threw the gears of camp
The Indispensable Man 79
into reverse. In a single day
26,000 men were processed onto ships, 2,000 newcomers
were processed into France, and 10,000 men fresh from the line were processed
into camp. Every man back from the front was deloused, bathed, and freshly
dressed and equipped within twenty-four hours. The camp was the outstanding
marvel of American efficiency on French soil,
During an inspection visit by Pershing, the commander of the A.E.F.
noticed that as Butler drove him around the camp, doughboy after doughboy
failed to salute them. Irked, he snapped to Butler, "Don't you think they
should be taught to salute?"
"Well, General," Butler said with a shrug, "if the Army
had them from six months to six years and they haven't learned to salute, you
can't expect a Marine to teach them in six days!"
He was always on the side of the powerless against the brass. One day
while he was absent his superior, General Helmick, made a surprise inspection
of Pontanezen. Finding wastefulness in one mess, Helmick savagely tongue-lashed
the lieutenant in charge. When Butler learned about it, he phoned the Army
Chief of Staff.
"If the general has any complaint with the camp," he stormed,
"tell him to pick on me and not on a young lieutenant who is doing his
level best!" When Helmick came to see him, Butler pounded on the desk and
told his superior what he thought of him for "jumping on a boy."
After Butler's angry outburst had subsided, Helmick replied, "Now,
Smedley, I'll talk. I've let you abuse me, your commander, for two reasons.
First, because you've been of such tremendous value to my organization, and
second, because I know I didn't do the right thing by that boy. I realize also
that you've worked yourself into a state of nervous collapse to make the camp a
success. I know you don't mean what you're saying. I never permit myself to be
aroused by a tired man's utterances, when that tired man is a good man."
by God," Butler said hoarsely, struck with admiration, "you are some
then went with Butler to the young lieutenant and apologized to him publicly in
front of all the cooks and KP's.
80 The Plot
to Seize the White House
Torn between court-martialing him for his frequent
intransigence toward higher authority and decorating him for his accomplishments
in an almost impossible job, the Army finally awarded him its Distinguished
Service Medal. The Navy felt impelled to follow suit with its own Distinguished
Service Medal. The French awarded him their Order of the Black Star. He wore
these decorations proudly beside his World War I Victory Medal with French clasp.
But the reward
he treasured most was the gratitude of hundreds of thousands of doughboys back
from the misery of the trenches, grateful for his efforts to ease their
hardships as they waited for evacuation home. He did a lot of hard thinking as
he watched the wounded and maimed pass through Pontanezen, some with their
nervous systems irreparably shattered.
it began to dawn on me to wonder," he related later, "what on earth
these American boys are doing getting wounded and killed and buried in
France." This uneasy reflection began to plant seeds of doubt in his mind
about the ethics of his chosen calling.
With America once more at
peace and Congress slashing military funds drastically, the future of the
Marine Corps looked bleak. Butler was indignant when Marine Corps headquarters
failed to protest its reduction to a mere appendage of the Navy. In disgust he
announced his decision to retire and wrote his father urging that John Lejeune
be appointed the new commandant in 1920 to
save the Corps.
Thomas Butler saw eye to eye with his son on the
need to preserve the Marine Corps's independence and agreed that Lejeune, who
had distinguished himself in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, was the man to fight
for it in Congress. So on January
The Indispensable Man 81
30, 1920, Lejeune became the
new commandant. He, in turn, coaxed Butler into staying on in command of
Quantico to help in the struggle to save the Corps.
the Corps's need of funds for modernization, Butler held summer maneuvers that
restaged the Battle of the Wilderness between Grant and Lee. On the first day
it was "fought" as it had happened; next day it was restaged with a
significant difference-the use of modern equipment. The presence of President
Warren G. Harding, a Civil War buff, helped win widespread news coverage.
Butler's shrewd tactic was highly effective in getting a reluctant Congress to
vote adequate funds for the Corps.
It was a
forty-mile march from Quantico to the battleground. As usual wearing no insignia
to identify him, Butler marched at the head of the column walking his horse,
carrying full gear on his back in the hot July sun. When one soldier faltered,
Butler told him gently, "Son, I'm more than twenty years older than you,
but we're going to do this together." He said later, "I wanted to
show them that they could force themselves to do things that would be necessary
in war." And they all did.
never learned that following one such battlefield exercise the forty-year-old
commander experienced a minor heart attack, for which a doctor prescribed rest
and digitalis. The word that spread through Quantico was that it was useless to
try to fall out of a hike, because the Old Man would just pick up your pack,
add it to his own, and hike right alongside you with it.
garrison life of peacetime, with no alarums and excursions to divert him, took
its toll of Butler's temper. "I was itching for a scrap-action-something
with a snap to it," he admitted later.
But he was
never irascible in any matter that pertained to ailing Marines who had served
under him. In August, 1920, a private wrote him, "I have been a patient in
St. Elizabeth's hospital for the Insane since Sept. 20, 1918. I am writing to ask if you will arrange to have me
transferred to one of the institutions in Philadelphia, so that I can be close
to the folks at home."
look into the matter and let you know," Butler replied gently. "You
can be assured that everything will be done for
82 The Plot
to Seize the White House
your comfort, for you are one of
the prize soldiers of the Marine Corps, and we all like you very much."
increasingly incensed at what he considered the ingratitude of the nation
toward its veterans. Once the war crisis was over and Americans felt safe, he
reflected, the shattered heroes of yesterday were ignored as the
"bums" of today. He was particularly embittered by the indifference
of big business toward the men in uniform who had so often been called upon to
spill blood for corporate profits.
profiteering of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the price they charged for
transporting troops led him to write his father angrily, "I am at a loss
to understand why the Pennsylvania people are so antagonistic to men in
uniform. The railroad can haul civilians from Washington to Philadelphia and
back every Sunday for $3.78 and want
$14.00 to haul soldiers. . . . These Pennsylvania people are a lot of damned
hogs and I hope that something will happen to them."
raised Marine Corps morale by developing a great football team that became the
talk of the sports world, and began building a sports stadium with volunteer
Marine labor and with cement contributed by cement companies.
veterans' groups vied with each other for the distinction of adding his name to
their letterheads. He tactfully declined invitations to join, offering his view
that all such groups "must be nonpolitical, and should never be heard on
the floors of Congress." In June, 1923, he sent regrets to the Marine Corps Veterans Association
explaining, "I have very decided views on associations, and I am not a
member of any but the American Legion, and most inactive, at that-only joining
it because General Lejeune requested me to do so." He considered the
Legion too political and undemocratic, with leaders who used it as a mouthpiece
for big-business interests.
career took an unorthodox twist.
Freeland Kendrick, the new mayor of Philadelphia, urged him to take a leave
from the Marines to become the city's Director of Public Safety. The job was
that of a "supercop," in charge of the police and firemen, with the
task of smashing the links between crime and politics in Philadelphia.
The Indispensable Man 83
Under Prohibition the city had become one of the most corrupt
municipalities in the country. Over eight thousand places sold bootleg liquor
without fear of prosecution; gangsters ran wide-open gambling joints and
brothels; robberies, holdups, and other crimes were soaring. All attempts to
clean up the City of Brotherly Love had failed because of a profitable alliance
among gangsters, speakeasy operators, and crooked ward bosses, who bribed and
controlled the police.
Kendrick, a conservative Republican politician, had been elected mayor on
a law-and-order campaign and was now under heavy pressure to keep his pledge.
He was advised to bring in an outsider, preferably a military man, who could
not be bought, bluffed, or bullied, to head the police. Brigadier General
Smedley Butler, now a vigorous forty-two and a colorful war hero with an
impressive list of credits in Who's
Who in the Services, seemed a perfect choice to please the voters. He
had even had police experience organizing the Haiti Gendarmerie.
But Butler declined the job. On November 21 he wrote
Kendrick, "While this position would appeal to me very greatly if I
believed there were the slightest chance of success, I am convinced that the
present political conditions existing would ... throw away the work of a
lifetime in a perfectly hopeless undertaking."
He was relieved when the Navy ordered him to report for orders to the
Scouting Fleet. But Kendrick and the Republican party of Pennsylvania now
needed him desperately to still a storm of public criticism. So Kendrick,
Congressman Bill Vare, and Pennsylvania's two senators went to the White House
to plead with President Calvin Coolidge that Butler be given a year's leave of
absence to clean up Philadelphia.
Only a man with Butler's reputation for total honesty, and the ability to
discipline men while capturing their imagination and winning their loyalty,
they told Coolidge, could reorganize the Philadelphia police force. The
President finally agreed and sent word to Butler that the White House would
like him to tackle the job in the interests of good government. His father
warned him against it as a political quicksand, but Butler did not see
Plot to Seize the White House
how he could refuse a
mandate from both the people of Philadelphia and the President.
His reluctant consent brought wondering letters
from old comrades all over the world, many of whom imagined that he had
resigned from the Corps. Butler assured them that it was only temporary.
"This job is a terrible one and I will probably be cut to pieces," he wrote to Lieutenant Colonel H. L. Roosevelt in
Paris. "On January 7 I will be sworn in as a Philadelphia cop, for better
Butler told a reporter for the
American, "Kendrick has his neck in a noose with me. If I fall
or I am run out, lie is going to go down also. If he reverses me just once I'll
quit, and the resignation will be in the form of a telephone call telling him I
am on my way back to Quantico, and that the keys to my office are on my desk. I
do not care whether the state laws or city ordinances are right or wrong. From
January 7 they are going to be enforced." He was not opposed to drinking
in principle, he added. What was at stake was enforcement of the law, pure and
simple, not the ethics of Prohibition.
before he took office, "Boss" Vare sent an emissary to him, Judge
Edwin O. Lewis, to offer Vare's "suggestions" for key appointments in
reorganizing the police department. None too politely, Butler made it clear
what Lewis and Vare could do with their suggestions.
rented a home in nearby Overbrook, but his wife and children seldom saw him
there because he spent seven days a week on the job, working until after
on January 7, 1924, he took the oath of office in his Marine uniform, but half
an hour later changed it for one of his own design. Blue with gold trim, it had
a cape taken from the
The Indispensable Man 85
Marine mess jacket with a
flaring red lining. It was dramatic and impressive, and meant to be.
promptly summoned all police inspectors to his office.
want the lieutenants in your forty-two districts to clean up in forty-eight
hours," he snapped, "or face immediate demotion. That is all."
Then he visited each one of the districts until he had spoken to every man on
the force. The new motto, he announced, was short and sweet: "Clean up or
first week on the job he raided and shut down 973 liquor and gambling joints,
without even warning Mayor Kendrick. Philadelphians were electrified. The
police winked at each
convinced that Butler was a smart "grandstander" who would make a big
splash for the headlines, then quiet down and take it easy. Vare would see to
night after night with only a few hours' sleep, he pressed his raids and
inspections relentlessly. He demanded from his men a dedication to duty equal
to his own, but many of them, cut off from former sources of graft, were
hostile and resistant to the new broom sweeping too clean.
was right about war," Butler sighed wearily, "but he should have
tried leading the Philadelphia police!" Nevertheless he began to show
results. Worried Philadelphia bootleggers began unloading their stocks at cut
prices. Many crooks and gamblers began streaming out of the city in search of
more hospitable territory.
excessive zeal among his forces, Butler took responsibility for police who
went too far on raids by using axes freely to destroy furniture and fixtures,
searching private homes and vehicles on suspicion, and closing premises that
had a right to stay open to sell nonintoxicating beverages. Magistrates began
refusing to issue search warrants to permit police to enter known speakeasies
masquerading as private residences. Many cases were dismissed on grounds of
insufficient or illegal evidence.
realized that he would have to modify his tactics, and astonished
Philadelphians by frankly confessing his mistakes to both the press and the
against anything that will embarrass Mayor Kendrick's administration," he
now ordered police. "Keep away from the
Plot to Seize the White House
hippodrome stuff. I must
admit that I have sinned in this latter respect more than any of you, and the
only excuse I have to offer is that I was unduly excited and
won the affection and respect of reporters, who found Butler colorful copy and
loved to join him for midnight suppers on Chestnut Street. There was never any
question he would not answer for them directly and honestly. But if they were
for him, their publishers-with the exception of the Philadelphia Record-were
not; their editorial pages sought to ridicule and discredit him relentlessly,
insisted on treating me like a queer animal from the circus," Butler
related. "My chance remarks were twisted and distorted to paint me in the
worst light. . . . About fifty of the minor officials and correspondents of the
newspapers became my loyal friends, but they had no influence in shaping the
editorial point of view."
By March angry
Republican ward leaders were furious at Butler for disrupting their network of
police control. They vigorously applauded City Treasurer Thomas J. Watson at a
meeting when he shouted, "This country, as well as the Republican
organization, would be a hell of a sight better off without Butler!" The
Philadelphia City Council closed ranks against him.
foolish notion that the laws of our country applied to rich and poor alike
accounted for the growing feeling of antipathy toward me," he recalled
later, adding, "By the end of 1924 I
had been cussed, discussed, boycotted, lied about, lied to, strung up, and
reviled. Several times I was on the point of resigning. The only reason why I
continued in my unpopular and uncomfortable position was to see what the hell
was going to happen next!"
Try as he
might, he was unable to break the power of the ward bosses. In April he was
forced to admit that be had been double-crossed by about half of his police
lieutenants, who had bowed to ward-boss pressure to permit shuttered saloons,
gambling houses, and speakeasies to reopen.
the structure, he found that every ward had one police station. The ward leader
named the captain of the station, and the police thus belonged to the ward
leader. In an
The Indispensable Man 87
attempt to destroy the power
of the ward bosses, Butler now cut the stations down from forty-six to
politicians, racketeers, and realtors, who hated him for having cost them the
rents of fifteen hundred closed brothels as well as the income from other
illegally operated properties, joined forces to demand that Kendrick fire him.
But nearly five thousand church congregations
adopted resolutions in July demanding that the mayor give full support to the
general. Added to this pressure were thousands of letters from women's clubs,
civic groups, business organizations, and individuals. Kendrick, alarmed at
being caught between the voters and the brokers of power, wavered back and
A report that
he was preparing to knuckle under to the political bosses brought another roar
of protest from the citizenry. A mass meeting of four thousand Philadelphians
resolved that Butler must be kept in office: "Since General Butler has
been in command here, more has been accomplished for the suppression of vice
and crime than in any period of like duration in this city!" They flooded
Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur with letters urging that Butler's leave
of absence from the Marines be extended for another three years.
Calvin Coolidge reluctantly agreed to extend the general's leave for one more
year, but he pointed out to the citizens of Philadelphia that the Federal
Government could not continue indefinitely to be responsible for solutions to
local problems: "The practice of detailing officers of the United States
military forces to serve in civil capacities in the different states on leaves
of absence is of doubtful propriety and should be employed only in cases of
emergency. . . . Local self-government cannot be furnished from the
by the end of the year Butler had raided almost 4,000 speakeasies, shutting down 2,566,
and had seized over a thousand stills, arresting 10,000 violators of the
Volstead Act. But to his dismay, political pressure in the court system
resulted in only 2,000 indictments by
the grand jury, with only 300 convictions.
Police magistrates, who were handpicked by the politicians, imposed only token
fines on all but 4 percent of arrested
speakeasy operators. Struggling to get honest law enforcement,
88 The Plot to Seize the White House
Butler complained to the press, was like submitting
to Chinese water torture:
"Drops of water have been dripping on my head since I have been here.
. . .Either I am unpopular, or the enforcement of the liquor laws is unpopular
in this city. . . . When the people of Philadelphia or any other city stop
playing the game of `Enforce the law against others but not against me,' they
will begin to win the fight against lawlessness."
He was bitter when he
learned of a secret deal between the brewers of Philadelphia and the Republican
State Campaign Committee. A royalty of two dollars for each barrel of illegal
beer distributed was to be paid into the Republican campaign fund, provided the
politicians put the White House under heavy pressure to recall Butler to duty
with the Marines.
Toward the end of 1925,
whether this deal was responsible or not, Coolidge refused to extend Butler's
leave. The general was ordered to report after the first of the year to command
the Marine post at San Diego. With his recall assured, Mayor Kendrick now
shrewdly sought to make points with pro-Butler voters by declaring that he
wished it were possible to keep the general as Director of Public Safety for
the remainder of his own administration.
A "Keep Butler"
movement sprang up all over Philadelphia. Forced to go along with it, Kendrick
told one mass meeting, "To announce that General Butler is to leave his
post here would be tantamount to inviting an army of criminals to
Philadelphia." But the mayor lost no time in grooming his successor.
Meanwhile Butler had become
increasingly irked by the fact that the pressure of powerful hotels and the
Hotel Association had kept their ballroom social affairs, at which liquor was
served to young teen-age girls from socially prominent Philadelphia families,
from being raided for liquor violations.
Ordering a raid on a formal
ball at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, he seized evidence showing that bootleg liquor
was being served. Confronting Kendrick, he demanded that the mayor institute
padlock proceedings against the Ritz-Carlton.
"And I mean the whole hotel,"
he insisted. "Something must
The Indispensable Man 89
he done to teach these big fellows that they must
obey the law as well as the little fellows!"
A howl of outrage was heard
in the ranks of the Republican party's wealthiest adherents. Politicians were
threatened with a wholesale withdrawal of campaign contributions unless Butler
was now unceremoniously dumped. Greatly upset, Kendrick urged him to "lay
off" the big hotels. To the mayor's horror, Butler firmly announced his
intention to organize a special police squad in evening clothes to invade all
Philadelphia hotels, and signal for raids whenever they found liquor-law
spirit was now thoroughly aroused. Although he longed to get back to his
beloved Marine Corps, it rankled him to leave a mission incomplete. If he left
Philadelphia now, he would have enforced the law against small operators who
bootlegged liquor to the poor, but not against the big operators who made it
available to the rich. His egalitarian nature pressed him to balance the
He also felt an obligation to the honest cops who
had defied the ward bosses to support his fight against corruption. Once he was
gone, he feared, they would be punished for their loyalty to him. He decided
that he owed it to them to sacrifice his career in the Marine Corps to stay on
and finish the job, especially since Kendrick had made it clear-or so Butler
believed-that he needed and wanted him.
papers carried the story that Butler was resigning from the Marine Corps to
remain as Director of Public Safety. Appalled, the hotel owners of the city
joined with local politicians in a demand that Kendrick fire Butler
immediately. The mayor was reminded that the Hotel Association's cooperation
with City Hall was absolutely essential for the success of a sesquicentennial
celebration of American independence being planned for Philadelphia.
upset, Kendrick called Butler to his office and told him, "I don't want
any resigned generals around me. You ought to go back to the Service where you
belong. The President doesn't want you here."
90 The Plot to Seize the White House
Shocked at the mayor's spineless surrender, Butler
stalked out, storming, "Oh, hell, I can't talk to such a weak fish!"
then fired him by phone. In choice Marine language, Butler told Kendrick
exactly what he thought of him. Clearing his desk, the general withdrew a
blue-steel Army Colt .q5 from it and inserted it in a holster engraved,
"To General Smedley D. Butler from W. Freeland Kendrick."
"Give him this letter of resignation and the pistol," he told
his aide. "He can publish the letter and he can do what he pleases with
the gun. I'm going back to the troops!"
of resignation declared, "Last week I decided that it was in keeping with
my promise to the police of Philadelphia that if they stood up with me, I would
do everything in my power to remain in Philadelphia.... I am being dismissed
from public service because I am making the greatest sacrifice any Marine can
make, and I should, without any other ties, be of more service to the City of
Philadelphia than I was before." He had been fired, he charged, because
"the gang that has ruled Philadelphia for many years" had been out to
get him, and did.
Philadelphia Record; which
had consistently supported Butler during his two years as the city's supercop,
declared, "He was honest; that was taken for granted or he would not have
been appointed. But he was 100 percent honest. We think we are doing the mayor
no injustice in expressing the belief that this was a little more than he had
his experience in Philadelphia, Butler declared ironically, "The fact the
mayor didn't know me led to my being chosen. The fact I didn't know the mayor
led me to accept. I had a funny idea that law was applicable to everybody. I
was a fool. I didn't get anywhere, except for getting a lot of money as
The Indispensable Man 91
the highest paid cop in America,
$18,000 Had the kids educated, lost 35 pounds and my teeth, bought a car and
ended up $300 in debt. . . . What Philadelphia really wanted was
something to talk about, a real, live general. No other city had one as a cop.
... They wanted to throw up a smoke screen and make people think Philadelphia
had thrown off the yoke of crime."
Mary Roberts Rinehart, who visited Butler in Philadelphia to study his
cleanup, wrote about it in her biography:
He did a fine job. He replaced the old roundsman,
fat and portly, with young and active men, and then he put into them something
of the marine esprit de corps. He put the fear of God into the gamblers and dive keepers. He cut down
the enormous graft which they had paid year after year. But they were only
waiting. They could afford to wait. When Butler lost the front page they would
I watched Butler and admired him; the same sheer
ability, energy and knowledge of men which had succeeded at Brest were evident
in all that he did. But it was an unbeatable game, that of the crooks,
gamblers, bootleggers and dive keepers.
as he was fired, the mayor of Syracuse, New York, sent him a wire urging him to
head that city's new Committee of Public Safety. But now Commandant John
Lejeune quickly insisted that he withdraw his resignation from the Corps.
told General Butler that I could not with equanimity contemplate his leaving
the Marine Corps," his old friend told the press. "I have the highest
regard for General Butler with whom I have served for twenty-seven years, and I
don't want the Marine Corps to lose him." Butler was given a holiday leave
with his family to his old home in West Chester for a "quiet, old-fashioned,
jolly Christmas" before reporting to take over the San Diego Naval
eve of his departure Philadelphia Record reporter
Paul Comly French and other newsmen who admired his honesty and courage gave
him an informal midnight dinner. They presented him with a square silver token,
explaining, "It's the only kind of money he'll accept-square!"
Plot to Seize the White House
"Cleaning up Philadelphia's
vice," lie told them with a sigh, "is worse than any battle I was
group of Philadelphia citizens raised funds for a bronze tablet to honor his
services to the city. The inscription read: "He enforced the law
impartially. He defended it courageously. He proved incorruptible." He
thanked them but protested wearily, "If I have to keep earning that
epitaph, it will wear me out!"
Visiting his father in Washington, lie admitted that his health had been
impaired by working eighteen hours a day and longer, and he was bitter at
having been used.
"I was hired as a smoke screen," lie charged. "The
politicians were buying the reputation I had earned in twenty-six years'
service as a Marine. I was to make a loud noise, put on a brass hat, stage
parades, chase the bandits off the streets-and let vice and rum run their
He was outraged by the huge sums lie saw being made illegally by everyone
involved in violating the Volstead Act, while Marines who served their country
were paid a paltry twenty dollars a month. In December, 1926, he wrote his
father angrily, "I do not suppose thee or the other men who are
responsible for this Government have ever stopped to think what these $20 a
month men arc doing towards the preservation of the dignity of this Government.
Now where can this Government get such devoted service for a total cost per
capita of $1,300 a year? Where can we hire men for $20 a month?"
His health still suffering, he began to think of retirement. But Lejeune
urged him to stay in uniform: "In the years to come the Corps will need
your enthusiasm, and I had in mind that you would receive the next promotion to
the rank of Major General. "My
retirement according to age is not very far in the future, and there is always
the possibility of one of the Major Generals causing a premature vacancy."
over the whole question of Prohibition and law enforcement, Butler began to
suspect that perhaps he had been wrong in trying to enforce an unenforceable
law that the majority of the American people did not seem to want and went out
The Indispensable Man 93
way to violate. The government was wrong, he finally decided, in trying to
In view of his fame as a stern enforcer of Prohibition, prudence
suggested that he keep his changed views to himself. He was unpopular enough
with the wets; to speak out now against the Volstead Act would only alienate
millions of drys who considered him one of their knights in white armor. But
popularity had never been as important to Smedley Butler as his compulsion to
blurt out the truth in public and to kick sacred cows in the rump when they
loitered in the path of justice.
On January 7, 1927, in Washington, D.C., he gave the reporters a story
that flashed from coast to coast. The Volstead Act, he now declared, was
"a fool dry act, impossible of enforcement." It was, furthermore,
"class legislation," because the rich could avoid it and the poor could
The sensational denunciation of Prohibition by one of its leading
Republican crusaders plunged the dry forces of the nation into consternation.
Democrats, rejoicing, began laying plans to make repeal of the Volstead Act one
of the key issues in the presidential campaign of 1928.
Butler's presence in Washington was occasioned by the outbreak of a
fresh crisis in China. To his delight, Lejeune informed him that lie would soon
be headed overseas once more at the head of a combat brigade.
was being torn by civil war between Chiang Kai-shek, commander in chief of the
new Nationalist armies of the South, and northern warlords led by Chang
Tso-lin. Chiang Kai-shek had organized an anti-British boycott and had
threatened to clear China of all foreign imperialists. Warlord Chang Tso-lin,
Plot to Seize the White House
by the colonial powers, had declared himself dictator of North China.
Chiang Kai-shek's forces fought their way north and battles broke out between
his army and Chang Tso-lin's, panic swept foreign residents in the North.
American missionaries and businessmen appealed to Washington for protection.
forty-six-year-old decorated hero of the Boxer Campaign who had helped relieve
the sieges of Tientsin and Peking was made commander of a new Marine
expeditionary force-the 3d Marine Brigade. His orders were "to protect the
lives and property of our Nationals in Tientsin; to offer temporary refuge in
Tientsin for our Nationals; evacuation from the Interior and to make safe
evacuation to the sea."
Department warned Butler to be extremely prudent in anything he did or said;
the smallest error of judgment on his part might have disastrous consequences
in the highly volatile situation. Not without good reason, Lejeune added some
prudent parting advice: "Be careful to avoid talking to newspaper correspondents."
arrived in Shanghai on March 25, 1927, to find tension running high.
Chinese troops had attacked several consulates at Nanking, killing many foreigners,
looting and burning the city. American businessmen and missionaries had escaped
on gunboats to Shanghai, whose port was now swarming with ships. Never before
in history had the war vessels of so many different nations anchored together
in one harbor.
entanglements had been erected, and the International Settlement was under
martial law. All legations had ordered their nationals from the interior of
China, from which there were daily reports of murders and outrages. A more
violent version of the Boxer Rebellion seemed in the making, and the white
settlements were gravely apprehensive.
3d Marine Brigade disembarked at the Standard Oil dock in the Whangpoo River
opposite Shanghai and set up tents in the Standard Oil compound. Shortly
afterward Butler was taken aboard the flagship of Admiral C. S. Williams, who
greeted him frostily.
The Indispensable Man 95
do you think of the situation, and what do you think of our
don't have half enough men to perform our task here," Butler replied.
"We need more men to do it properly."
admiral snorted. "So you're one of these fellows who wants to build a big
job for himself and get promoted."
saw red. "I intend to retire in a year," he snapped, "and don't
care whether I am promoted or not. You asked for my opinion and I gave it to
you. Now if you don't care to take my advice, and some Americans are murdered
in this town, and you sit quietly here with half of the Marines available in
the United States doing nothing but guarding coal piles, you will be held
admiral glared at him, but not without an aspect of respect. He was soon one
of Butler's chief admirers.
to keep the American forces from getting involved in the fighting between the
rival Chinese armies, Butler sought to maintain cordial relations with the
Chinese people themselves. He had no stomach for any more Haiti-style
interventions that would jockey him into the position of defending American
business interests against native rebels, and he did not intend to risk a
single Marine's life to get the job done he had been sent to China to do,
unless it became absolutely necessary.
leaders of other nations sought to organize a punitive expedition against the
Kuomintang for the Nanking uprising. To Butler's relief, Admiral Williams
refused to have anything to do with the scheme, although it had the
enthusiastic endorsement of the American minister at Shanghai.
On May 31 Butler wrote Lejeune, "Now for a little ‘secret stuff.' The
American Minister ... is a nervous wreck. He sits up all night and talks in
circles and would have had me in my grave had I stayed much longer. He feels
discredited because our Government has not adopted his plan, which meant an
invasion of China, followed by intervention and military Government, and is
desirous of going home on leave to explain his side to the President with a
hope of favorable action."
observed, "I held to the principle that the Chinese had to settle their
own form of government and pick out their own
Plot to Seize the White House
Any attempt to solve the Chinese tangle would have been shadow boxing. All we
could do was to see that mutinous Chinese troops didn't get out of hand and
shoot Americans. It was up to me to prevent a repetition of the Boxer and
danger to Shanghai seemed to ease while growing more critical in the North,
Butler left two thousand Marines stationed in the city under Colonel Henry
Davis, and led four thousand men up to Tientsin. Not too clear about the
mission expected of him, he wrote his father asking for clarification. His father
I do not think that anyone
knows our State policies concerning the situation in China. I do not believe
there are any....I have but one word of caution to give thee; do not hurt a
Chinaman unless it is absolutely necessary in order to protect the life of
Americans in China or other foreigners associated with them. Do not interfere
in Chinese quarrel....
I have not heard one person
worthy of quoting who does not deplore the presence of Americans in China. . . . We are not in China to
maintain order. In a single word, use thy open hand to protect our people but
don't kill the Chinamen to protect their property. . . . The Congress will
never permit the use of its military to permanently protect it.
this advice, he persistently reminded his men that they were there to keep the
peace, not violate it. Any Marine who laid a hand on a ricksha coolie would be
court-martialed, he warned, urging them to win goodwill for the Corps by
friendly behavior. He himself cultivated the friendship of the Chinese Minister
of Foreign Affairs and was invited to over twenty Chinese banquets. At one of
them he met an American-educated Chinese woman named Mrs. Lu, who reminded him
that he had helped evacuate her family by boat from Tientsin twenty-seven years
earlier, when she had been three. and their society is said to number twenty
well remember carrying you," he said to her delight. "You considered
me a hateful `foreign devil' and shrieked lustily, struggling every inch of the
The Indispensable Man 97
As fighting between the rival
armies raged closer to Tientsin, the roar of guns echoed through the city. Butler
kept the Marines on the alert as a defense force, as well as a rescue force
ready to leave in minutes for any place in North China they were needed. To
make sure that none of the warlords, whose allegiances were mercurial,
entertained any notion of attacking his brigade, he invited them to review a
warlords were not intimidated and demanded that Butler take his Marines out of
China. Explaining firmly that they were not going home until American nationals
no longer needed protection, he insisted that they recognize one square mile of
the base at Tientsin as a sanctuary where Americans could move about safely
without being shot at.
warlords refused until lie persuaded them by pointing out shrewdly that it was
good insurance for them in their fight against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists:
"What if you lose? Why, you can come into that square mile, tool"
they protested against the flights of Marine planes over Chinese territory,
Butler gave them pause for thought by reminding them, "You might want to
escape in one some day." He also convinced them it would be imprudent to
attack the American forces by taking them up in Marine planes for bombing
declared that he had fulfilled United States foreign policy requirements by
intimidating the most hostile of the Chinese warlords "with considerable
ease. He shared the detestation of the Chinese people for the warlords and
their troops, expressing his sympathy with the people in a letter to Lejeune:
There is a movement out here which is gaining great
headway and is being conducted by a society known as the "Red
Spears." Their aims and policies are similar to those of the Boxers in
1900 and is causing considerable uneasiness on the part of our people. The "Red Spears" are farmers and their
society is said to number twenty million members. The have been so terribly treated by the soldiers, who every fall
regularly billet themselves on them, driving out the men and misusing the
This the farmers have tired of and now murder every
Plot to Seize the White House
they can catch. I am on the side of the "Red Spears" and it may be
this will be a good way to end this pathetic slaughtering of innocent people by
a lot of brutal war-lords.
The troops of other nations in the International
Settlement marched around their perimeter defenses to intimidate the warlords
and discourage any thought of attack. After flexing his muscles to impress them
similarly at first, Butler then discreetly sought to "keep in the background
as much as possible, and not in any way behave like an army of occupation-more
like a fire company, ready to spring out to the rescue of our people, behaving
simply as rescue squads."
November 5, 1927, his wife, having left the children in San Diego, arrived in
Tientsin and joined him in a small hotel next to a godown where the Marines had
been quartered during the Boxer fighting and where he had been carried when he
was wounded in the leg.
China's civil war had quieted down for the
moment. In a report from Shanghai Colonel Henry Davis wrote Butler:
I had dinner last night with
General Chiang Kai-shek. How in the name of God he ever exercised the control
over these people to the extent he did last summer is a mystery to me. Usually
a man of strong character will demonstrate it in some way without ever speaking
a word. This bird has nothing of that kind so far as I could see, and looked
and acted like a love sick boob, his fiance, Miss May Soong [later Madame
Chiang Kai-shek], also being present at the dinner. . . . Of all the stupid
boobs I ever met he is it. I don't believe he ever was the brains behind the
movement of last summer.... He looks like a stupid ricksha coolie and grunts
like a pig when spoken to.
The Indispensable Man 99
end of December Butler found himself in a financial bind and complained to his
father of the struggle to get along on a brigadier general's pay of $530 a
month, out of which he had to pay income tax and "maintain an
establishment for Snooks [daughter Ethel] and Tom Dick in the United States,
and send Tommy [Smedley, Jr.] thru college, to say nothing of supporting Bunny
[wife Ethel] and myself here in China." He added, "I must entertain
many, due to' my official position, and I must pay for the little
entertainment out of my own pocket."
father consoled him with the reflection that although he might be better off
financially if he were home with no challenge to his abilities, "thee
would rot and the world would have been no better because thee happened to live
Lejeune wrote him that at special ceremonies on
December 7, with the Secretary of the Navy present, Lejeune had accepted the
bronze tablet honoring Butler, presented by a committee of Philadelphia's
grateful citizens, and it had been put up in the Navy Building in Washington.
He also revealed that Thomas Butler was leading the fight in the House for a
larger naval defense force, but the public was in a budget-cutting mood.
wrote his father:
Thy courage in advocating
something which will cost money fills me with pride. Our people are all
gluttons and their desire to hoard money is so great that they will probably
turn on thee and beat thee to death. It would probably be a good thing for our
nation if we were to get a good trimming sometime, and perhaps they would learn
that there is more in this world than unnecessarily fat bank accounts. The
amount of money wasted by five rich men in America in one year would be
sufficient to build and maintain a navy capable of preserving our position as
a world power.
The day before Christmas, 1927, the Standard Oil plant on the outskirts
of Tientsin caught fire during a battle between the rival Chinese armies. Nine
minutes after the alarm, Butler was leading a battalion of Marines to battle
the blaze, utilizing fire-fighting experience he had gained as Director of
100 The Plot to Seize the White House
in Philadelphia. He arrived on
the scene to find two huge warehouses blazing, with a warehouse filled with
gasoline twenty feet away and six 3-million-gallon oil tanks close by. If they
exploded, the death and devastation in Tientsin would be horrendous.
in a call for another thousand Marines, he fought furiously to contain the
fire. They built a sixteen-foot wall of earth, empty drums, doors, and anything
else that wouldn't burn between the blazing warehouses and the stores of gas,
and had the fire under control by nightfall. But at 3:00
A.M. the main drain of the plant blew up, showering the river with a stream of
burning oil. They worked through Christmas Day building a bulkhead around the
mouth of the drain, only to have ice floes carry off part of it. The river
flamed again, threatening the foreign compound on the opposite shore.
fought the conflagration for four days before Butler succeeded in bringing it
Year's Eve he wrote his father, "It was a glorious fight and has done a
great deal to weld this command together. ... Everybody in Tientsin and Peking
is highly pleased with the magnificent showing of our men."
Oil estimated their loss at a million dollars but thanked Butler for having
saved them four million more. At the height of the blaze the admiring official
in charge of the company's Tientsin holdings had vowed to donate twenty
thousand dollars toward a recreation hall for the Marines. Once the fire had
been brought under control, however, Butler heard no more of the promise. He
was disgusted with the company but on principle did not remind them. When he
told Smedley, Jr., about it, his outraged son swore never to use a tank of Esso
gas in his car for the rest of his life, and kept his word.
began having dark thoughts once more about the use of Marines to defend
big-business profits overseas. Was the government's professed concern for the
protection of Americans in China during the civil war the real reason for the
presence of the Marines? Or was it to defend the properties of Standard Oil and
other big American corporations?
under him in China was David M. Shoup, later to win a Congressional Medal of
Honor at Tarawa and become a
The Indispensable Man 101
commandant of the Marine Corps
as well as a celebrated critic of the Vietnam war. "Butler was one helluva
soldier-no doubt about his military capabilities," Shoup recalled later in
admiration. "I really felt I wanted to emulate him in every way.
Everything I saw in Tientsin indicated that he was a helluva showman, too, but
a good warrior in the service of his country."
The author questioned General Shoup about the Marines' mission in China
in 1927-1928 "I would say it was pretty hard to say who we were supporting
there," he replied. "It was just our presence there that was the
thing. I heard no solid reason for why we were being sent; we were just told we
were going to fight the Chinese. We didn't know what the mission was. But we
landed at the Standard Oil docks and lived in Standard Oil compounds and were
ready to protect Standard Oil's investment. I wondered at the time if our
government would put all these Marines in a position of danger, where they
might sacrifice their lives in defense of Standard Oil. Later I discovered that
of course it would, and did. It was only some years later that I learned that
General Butler had been thinking the same way. I thought I had been alone in
All through 1928 Butler nevertheless carried out his
orders scrupulously and prevented a shot from being fired in anger. In March he
wrote his father that he was wary of involvement with any other power represented
in China because of his suspicion of their selfish interests:
The Japanese are most anxious to control all of
North China, particularly Manchuria, and will sacrifice anything and back
anyone who will assure to them this control. . . . The British are perfectly
willing . . . if the Japanese will allow them to have the Yangtze Valley and,
unless I am
Plot to Seize the White House
greatly mistaken, these
English "cousins" of ours will be absolutely guided by their own
selfish political and commercial interests. . . . It behooves us to keep
absolutely aloof from everyone and to do nothing which is not directly in line
with the saving of lives.
Letters from home told him that his father had become very ill. Deeply
worried, he wrote Thomas Butler in April:
I do so hope . . . thee will not run thy legs off
for this fool Navy. The American people never do know what they want and it is
up to a few men like thee to guide them and
persuade them to do the right thing but, after all . . . thy children think
more of thy health than all the ships afloat. . . . We are so wholly controlled
by selfish capital . . . abetted by foolish, short-sighted but no doubt
well-meaning pacifists. We can never hope to be prepared for an emergency and
sooner or later will suffer.
That was the last communication between them. His father died on May 26,
1928. When the news reached him in Tientsin, Butler wept. He was so stunned by
the loss of the father who had been as much confidant and friend as parent that
six weeks later he wrote his mother, grieving:
Father always took pride in the fact that I was
ever to be found at the front, and now, though it is simply killing me, I must
go on and on trying to do the Nation's work. Ah, I don't care any more but must
pretend I do-just hate it all, but Father drove himself to death for the Navy
and I must do the same, I suppose. . . . I am all confused and dazed. Does thee
know I am unable positively to remember the last time I saw Father? . . .
Father has left us all such a beautiful reputation for kindly firmness that I
am constantly overwhelmed with the responsibility of living up to it. . . . Be
sure to write me fully any message that Father may have left for me, and if in
his suffering he didn't leave any-make up one. It will be all the same-I must
have something to go on.
As usual when he was depressed, he threw himself into an
The Indispensable Man 103
activity. Storms having washed away a bridge on the Tientsin-Peking main road
in September, he ordered the Marines to build a temporary structure out of
scrap lumber to keep the highway open. The delighted villagers urged him to
allow the bridge to remain; instead he magnified Chinese-American goodwill by
building a more permanent bridge for them. Chinese officials named it after him
and made him an honorary Chinese citizen. He then offered to rebuild the whole
road from Peking to Tientsin with Marine equipment, to make it suitable for
motor use, if they would supply soldier labor. They happily provided fifteen
hundred Chinese troops for the job, which he personally supervised. The Chinese
peasants were grateful for the road and bridges that helped them get their
fresh produce to market.
road was officially opened, the governor of the province held a celebration at
which Butler was the guest of honor. Ancient Chinese custom decreed that when
the citizens of a town or district unanimously voted a man to be a great public
benefactor, he could be awarded an Umbrella of Ten Thousand Blessings-a
magnificent canopy of red satin with small silk streamers proclaiming his
greatness. No foreigner in Tientsin or Peking had ever rated one. But now the
people of Tientsin presented a Blessings Umbrella to Smedley Butler.
Soon afterward he
drove into Boxertown just as a detached column from Chiang Kai-shek's army
advanced into the opposite end of the town to loot it. His car kicked up so
much racket that it sounded like machine-gun fire. The Nationalists, thinking
he had an army behind him, fled. Despite Butler's protests that he had done
nothing at all to help them, the people of Boxertown hailed him as a
When he received a second Blessings Umbrella with its silk streamers
inscribed in Chinese, one banner read, "Your kindness is always in the
minds of people." The other: "General Butler loves China as he loves
second award moved him deeply, because Boxertown was the very same town from
which Boxers, twenty-eight years earlier, had poured fire on his company,
killing three Marines and wounding nine. After he made a speech recalling this
event, he learned
Plot to Seize the White House
that five old men in the
crowd that had just presented him with Boxertown's greatest honor had been
among the Boxers who had shot at him in 1900.
He was equally
popular with his men, frequently working beside them when there was physical
labor to be done. Junior officers were so caught up by his gung-ho leadership,
General Shoup recalled, that they, too, worked voluntarily beside the enlisted
men. "Never before or since," one of them said later in awe,
"have I ever known a general who could actually inspire officers to want
to do physical labor."
In the fall of
1928 Butler followed developments by radio in the presidential race between
Herbert Hoover and A1 Smith, deeply interested in the campaign issues that
touched two facets of his personal experience-Prohibition and Latin American
relations. He wrote Lejeune in October, "There seems no doubt that Hoover
will be elected President-I guess, however, the country will survive."
Orders for the Marines to begin pulling out of
China came from President Coolidge in December. As he left China in January,
1929, Butler's affection and admiration for the Chinese people was so great
that he wrote Lejeune, "It may be that when I am retired I will live among
them." Their enthusiasm for him was equally unrestrained. A friend with
the Asiatic Fleet wrote him, "The sendoff which the newspapers at Tientsin
gave to you and Mrs. Butler was a great and just tribute to the cordial
relations which you had so successfully established, not only with the
Americans and the Chinese, but with everybody you came in contact with during
your stay in North China."
awarded the Yangtze Service Medal and in July, 1929, promoted to major
general-at forty-eight the youngest Marine officer ever to have reached this
rank. The Navy Department declared, "Probably no finer example of
successful arbitration by American officers has been demonstrated in recent
years than the peace-making achievements that crowned General Butler's efforts
in China in 1927 and 1928."
The Indispensable Man 105
Back home, Butler winced
when Lejeune asked him to take command of the Parris Island, South Carolina,
base. Weary after his China stint, he felt a need to renew his ties with kith
and kin in his hometown of West Chester. He talked of retiring.
better begin to think what is best for me and my family," he told Lejeune.
"I have given over thirty years of my best to the Marine Corps."
He was given a
long leave home, where he became aware of a rising tide of American sentiment
matching his own growing distrust of the reasons for which armed forces were
sent overseas. It had begun with a belated disillusionment over World War I,
sparked by such books as All Quiet on the Western Front and Merchants
o f Death. In 1925 a National Committee on the Cause and Cure of
War had been founded, and a rapidly developing pacifist movement had compelled
the government to enter disarmament negotiations. By August, 1928, the antiwar
movement was worldwide.
more to command the base at Quantico, Butler made it a Marine showplace and
developed Marine football, baseball, and basketball teams with such high esprit
de corps that they played the best college teams of the East and often beat
them. His fatherly interest in his men led him to help them with personal
problems, get them out of trouble, and encourage them to write home. The
admiration of Marines' families was expressed in a typical letter to him from
Philadelphia: "My brother in the Marines just came back from Nicaragua and
he ask to be transferred to Phila. his Mother was Ill you complied with his
wishes. His Mother was operated for Tumbers but it was a baby boy and to day it
was Christend Smedley D. Butler Ruth."
Military and patriotic organizations persistently
sought to lure
106 The Plot to Seize the White
joining. He wired the Sons of the American Revolution, "My ancestors were
all Quakers and I regret to say took no part, as far as I know, in the American
Revolutionary War, so I am not entitled to be a Son of the American
Revolution." Actually, recently discovered evidence indicates that his
great-great-grandfather, William Butler, although a Quaker, probably served in
the Revolution, along with three brothers.
however, finally yield to the pleas of American Legion official James J.
Deighan that he attend the national convention in Scranton as a guest of honor.
"The success of the 11th National Convention ... last week was in large
part due," Deighan wrote him gratefully afterward, "to the fact that
you were our guest.... The Legionnaires are all for you."
came that John Lejeune was resigning as commandant to head the Virginia
Military Academy and would be replaced by Butler's other old friend, Buck
Neville, now a major general. Thirty years had gone by since they had been an
inseparable trio in the feverish days of the Cuban campaign. Butler began to
feel the weight of time and too many campaigns. The endless demands on him made
retirement and rest seem alluring.
once too often for a speech, he replied in October, 1929, "I
am not a crusader or a propagandist, nor have I message for anybody, so there
is no object in my appearing anywhere, except for money." He began to
charge stiff lecture fees to cut down demands for him to travel everywhere to
address luncheons and meetings as guest of honor.
the morning papers on October z, he noted a statement by Charles E. Mitchell,
of the National City Bank: "I know of nothing fundamentally wrong with the
stock market or with the underlying business and credit situation."
following day there was a minor panic on the New York Stock Exchange, and a day
later the market collapsed. On October 29 the
bottom fell out in the blackest day in stock-market history, and within two
weeks over thirty billion dollars in stock values were wiped out.
The Great Depression had begun, and with it a swift rush of events that
would involve Smedley Butler in a fantastic plot to overthrow the American
The Indispensable Man 107
the American people imagined that the stock-market crash was something that
merely affected Wall Street. In a message to Congress President Hoover
reassured them that there was nothing to worry about; business confidence had
been reestablished. Bootleggers, gang wars, and crime continued to be the
major preoccupation of the public.
Despite Butler's reluctance, more and more organizations insisted upon
hearing the general who never pulled his punches speak out on the law-and-order
problem. There was a ground swell in Pennsylvania to nominate Philadelphia's
former crimebuster for governor on the Republican ticket. A friend wrote from
Washington, "I note that some of the politicos may draft you as Dictator
In December, 1929, Butler was glad when a demand
arose for a Senate investigation of the use of Marines to intervene in Latin
American affairs. He upset the Hoover Administration by shooting from the hip
in an extemporaneous speech he made in Pittsburgh, revealing that the State
Department had rigged the Nicaraguan elections of 1912 by
ordering him to use strong-arm methods during the Marine intervention.
opposition candidates in Nicaragua were declared bandits when it became
necessary to elect our man to office," he explained. And he said of Diaz,
"The fellow we had there nobody liked, but he was a useful fellow to us,
so we had to keep him in. How to keep him in was a problem." Then he
described how the election had been rigged, under orders, for that purpose.
"When a Marine is told to do something," he said, "he does
Butler's disclosures, picked up by the press, created a sensation in
Washington. Alarm bells rang in the State Department; the last thing the
administration wanted was an investigation concerning Marines then stationed in
Nicaragua. Officials angrily attacked Butler for "loose talk."
Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson wrote a furious memo to Secretary of
the Navy Charles Francis Adams:
. . . If the remarks are authentic, I consider them
a highly improper and false statement as to American policy, and that I should
call it to your attention for appropriate action.
108 The Plot to Seize the
There is nothing that
can do this Government more disservice than such a misstatement of our policy
in a Latin American country, and I am astounded that such an expression-if he
is correctly quoted-should emanate from a commissioned officer of the United
Navy Secretary Adams, a wealthy, polo-playing yachtsman, sent for Butler
and delivered a blistering reprimand, declaring that he was doing so at the
direct personal order of the President of the United States. Butler saw red.
is the first time in my service of thirty-two years," he snapped back,
"that I've ever been hauled on the carpet and treated like an unruly
schoolboy. I haven't always approved of the actions of the administration, but
I've always faithfully carried out my instructions. If I'm not behaving well
it is because I'm not accustomed to reprimands, and you can't expect me to turn
my cheek meekly for official
"I think this will be all," Adams said icily. "I don't
ever want to sec you here again!"
"You never will if I can help it!" Butler rasped, storming out
of his office livid
days after his attack on the government's gunboat diplomacy, which provoked a
great public commotion, Undersecretary of State J. Reuben Clark privately
submitted to Secretary of State Stimson the draft of a pledge that the United
States would never again claim the right to intervene in the affairs of any
Latin American country as an "international policeman." The Clark
Memorandum, which later became official policy-for a while at least-repudiated
the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that Smedley Butler
had unmasked as raw gunboat diplomacy.
The Indispensable Man 109
Defying Adams, Butler continued
to express his convictions freely and publicly about current problems on which
he felt qualified to speak out. He was delighted in May, 1930, when Congress,
over President Hoover's veto, passed a Spanish-American War pension bill for
veterans. With the unemployment rate climbing steadily to almost five million
that year, he urged passage of a bonus bill for all veterans. The government
had a solemn obligation to citizens who had risked their lives to protect it,
Butler insisted, to see to it that they, their wives, and their children were
not allowed to languish in hunger, poverty, and despair.
Two deaths that year saddened him. His brother Horace was killed in a car
accident in Texas, and his old friend Buck Neville died suddenly after briefly
replacing Lejeune as commandant.
Now Butler was the senior-ranking major general in the Marine Corps, the
logical choice as next commandant. An official inspection report had also
praised Quantico as the finest post in the United States. But on the same day
that it appeared, Marine Corps headquarters sent Butler a curt letter
suggesting that he make fewer speeches, because his Quantico post was in poor
shape as a result of his frequent absences.
1930, Secretary Adams paid a visit to Quantico, undoubtedly to lay the
groundwork for an official excuse to reject Butler's fitness to be appointed commandant.
Butler was equally determined to demonstrate that the rebuke he had received
about the "poor shape" of his post was totally unwarranted. Escorting
Adams everywhere over the barracks and parade grounds, he proved that Quantico
was a model of efficiency. The dress-uniform review of his crack regiments was
flawless, and the Marine air squadron performed brilliant maneuvers.
secretary acidly observed that Quantico was the most
Plot to Seize the White House
expensive place in the nation
for training men. Controlling his temper, Butler pointed out the sports stadium
built at almost no cost to the taxpayers.
"That's one of your damned follies!"
Adams muttered. He was clearly attempting to provoke the volatile Butler into
flaring up, and Butler knew it. Clenching his jaw, the general remained outwardly
calm but could not resist telling a sharply barbed joke about "an old
buzzard" who couldn't be pleased by anything.
later a Navy selection board met to choose a new commandant. One staff admiral
declared that he'd be damned before he'd see Butler made commandant; in no time
at all the damned fellow would be trying to run the whole Navy. Others agreed.
Adams happily discarded Butler's name and proposed instead Brigadier General
Ben H. Fuller who, despite being junior in rank, was approved by the board.
The news was
the last straw for Butler, who now determined to retire within a year to devote
himself to advocating the defense of the United States as he believed it ought
to be defended. Resolutely opposed to military intervention overseas on behalf
of Wall Street interests, he planned to arouse the American people into
preventing any more. At the same time he had doubts about the wisdom of
entering world disarmament agreements, as leading pacifists proposed. Could the
United States afford to disarm and trust the word of military dictators like
Italy's Mussolini, with Hitler's swiftly growing Nazi party in Germany already
laying the groundwork for a new war by renouncing the Versailles Treaty?
In a speech
before the influential Contemporary Club of Philadelphia on January 19, 1931,
he declared, "I agree with Dr. Hull of Swarthmore; if we could all lay
down our arms, there couldn't be any war. But there are mad-dog nations who won't
get the word, who will refuse, to sign the agreement, or, if they sign it,
refuse to abide by it."
impress his listeners with the kind of men dictators were, he added, "A
friend of mine said he had a ride in a new automobile with Mussolini, a car
with an armored nose that could knock over fences and slip under barbed wire.
He said that they drove through the country and towns at seventy miles
The Indispensable Man 111
per hour. They ran over a
child and my friend screamed. Mussolini said he shouldn't do that, that it was
only one life and the affairs of the state could not be stopped by one
gasped audibly. Arms akimbo, his head thrust forward angrily, Butler demanded
in a scornful voice, "How can you talk disarmament with a man like that?"
He had been
told that the audience was a private one and that he could speak in confidence,
but he soon learned that there was no such thing as confidential speech for a
man so often in the public eye. Among his listeners, unknown to him, was an
Italian diplomat from Washington who had been invited to attend.
The outraged diplomat at once reported Butler's
remarks to Italian Ambassador de Martino. The embassy sent a frantic cable to
Rome, then filed an official protest with the State Department. The morning
papers broke the story, and it made sensational headlines. A high-ranking
American officer, wearing the Marine uniform on active duty, had publicly
insulted the head of a friendly power.
State Henry L. Stimson felt compelled to deliver a formal apology to Mussolini:
"The sincere regrets of this government are extended to Mr. Mussolini and
to the Italian people for the discourteous and unwarranted utterances by a
commissioned officer of this government on active duty."
military-diplomatic bureaucracy now decided that this time Butler had gone too
far. Formal charges against him were hastily drawn and presented to President
Hoover, who promptly signed them. On the morning of January 29 Marine
Commandant Ben Fuller phoned Butler at Quantico.
Butler, you are hereby placed under arrest to await trial by general
court-martial. You will turn over your command to your next senior, General
Berkeley, and you will be restricted to the limits of your post. The Secretary
of the Navy wishes you to know that this action is taken by the direct personal
order of the President of the United States."
were "conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline" and
"conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." These accusations
were known in the armed forces as
Plot to Seize the White House
Mother Hubbard charges
because they "covered everything." Most Marine officers were
convinced that the powers-that-be had decided to "throw the book" at Old
Gimlet Eye and drum him out of the Corps dishonorably, in revenge for his
well-known fighting man's scorn of Washington's desk warriors.
Butler notified Brigadier
General Randolph C. Berkeley, his junior officer at Quantico and a good friend,
that he was under arrest-the first general officer to be placed under arrest
since the Civil War. Butler's two-star command flag was lowered on the Quantico
flagstaff, and he offered his sword to Berkeley, who indignantly refused to
Berkeley was outraged that
Smedley Butler, who wore eighteen decorations and was one of only four military
men in American history who had ever been awarded two Medals of Honor, should
be put under arrest by a telephone call. He was even more indignant that Butler
had been confined to the post, hindering his ability to arrange for his own
defense at the court-martial.
Defying the wrath of Adams,
Berkeley himself went to Washington to get Butler's old comrade-in-arms Henry
Leonard, who had lost an arm fighting beside him in the Boxer Rebellion and who
now had a law practice in the Capital, to act as Butler's counsel. Leonard
rushed off to Quantico immediately.
A prisoner on his own post,
Butler was wryly amused by an invitation to be guest of honor at a sportsmen's
dinner. His aide-de-camp, L. C. Whitaker, replied dryly for him: "As
General Butler is under arrest, he will be unable to attend."
News of his arrest brought
an outpouring of sympathy and support for him not only among his far-flung and
influential staunch friends but also among millions of Americans who despised
Mussolini and everything the dictator stood for. Admiring Butler
The Indispensable Man 113
for speaking out against
fascism, they were appalled that he was being court-martialed for being a
patriot who believed in democracy, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights,
and distrusted dictators who denied such civil liberties to their own people.
Butler also had the support
of millions of veterans who knew him as a magnificent fighting man and hero, as
well as a general who was on the side of the enlisted man against the brass;
and of hundreds of thousands of admirers who still remembered the courageous
fight he had waged against the crooked politicians and racketeers of
Many Americans, moreover,
were fed up with the Hoover Administration for sitting on its hands with the
Depression rapidly worsening, and esteemed a public leader who at least had the
courage of his convictions and spoke them bluntly. Italian-American
anti-Fascists also rallied to Butler's support by bitter protests against
Stimson's apology to Mussolini.
The administration grew
alarmed as a rolling tidal wave of angry criticism o£ Butler's arrest swept
across the country.
"Unless we are
mistaken," declared a Washington Daily News editorial, "the American people
are likely to consider these Cabinet officials guilty of a strange timidity
toward Mussolini on one hand and of an unwarranted harshness toward a splendid
American soldier on the other."
Public opinion on the side
of Butler made itself felt so quickly and emphatically that the administration
found it necessary to ameliorate the conditions of his arrest. His restriction
to the post was lifted, allowing him to travel where he needed to in order to
arrange for his defense.
wired New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had presented him with one
of his Medals of Honor as Undersecretary of the Navy, "Am in great
trouble. Can you assist me in securing services of John W. Davis as
counsel?" Davis, a leading Wall Street corporation lawyer, had been the
unsuccessful Democratic candidate for President in 1924. Roosevelt persuaded
Davis to agree to argue Butler's case at the trial.
visit to Butler's aunt, lawyer Isabel Darlington, also enlisted Roland S.
Morris, a former ambassador to Japan, as Henry Leonard's counsel in preparing
Plot to Seize the White House
of sympathetic messages poured into Quantico. Butler was deeply touched by two
letters especially: Both Governor Roosevelt and former Secretary of the Navy
Josephus Daniels volunteered to testify in his behalf at the court-martial.
That news stunned Adams and Hoover.
trial date was set for February 16. Butler was impatient to have it sooner,
anxious to get all the facts before the public, but Leonard and Morris argued
that the torrent of favorable publicity was helping his case. They proved
correct. Protests against the court-martial were pouring into the White House
by the sackful. The trial threatened to become a cause celebre, with,
implications for the whole system of military justice, especially after a
Marine colonel denounced American court-martials as basically unjust.
The impending trial was also throwing a spanner
into Secretary of State Stimson's plans for forging an international naval arms
limitation agreement. Crucial to that agreement were preliminary negotiations
between Italy and France, which feared Italian and German fascism. Resisting
Stimson's pressure to sign an arms limitation agreement with Mussolini, the
French cited as justification popular American support of Butler's view that
Mussolini could not be trusted and widespread protest over his arrest for
himself, alarmed by the bad press he was getting in the United States, with a
few notorious exceptions, sent word to Stimson that he considered the whole
incident an "unfortunate error" and believed it would be best for all
concerned if the whole plan to court-martial Butler could be quietly dropped.
who now realized that he had a tiger by the tail, passed the word to the
crestfallen Adams. The Secretary of the Navy now had to beat a hasty retreat
with as much dignity as he could muster out of his humiliating predicament. He
sent Leonard a letter announcing his decision to "settle" the matter
by calling off the court-martial and simply detaching Butler from his command
with a reprimand, placing him on the inactive list with the limbo status of
polite language Leonard told Adams to go to hell. A few hours later, after
checking with his principals, the Secretary of
The Indispensable Man 115
then offered to let the whole thing drop by just detaching Butler from the
command and issuing a reprimand. Again
Leonard turned him down flatly. Adams frantically tried a third proposal. The
administration would settle, he now pleaded, for an official letter of apology.
There would be no court-martial and no removal of Butler from Quantico.
a third refusal, Leonard demanded that Adams stop dawdling and proceed to
trial. By now the administration, in a state of near panic, meekly asked
Leonard just what terms for settling the matter would be acceptable to General
jubilant at this abject surrender, conferred with Morris and Butler. Angry at
his persecutors, Butler wanted to insist upon the court-martial, but as he
confided to a relative on February 12, "Mother
and Bunny [his wife] were both breaking under the strain," and he decided
that it wasn't worth their anguish to fight the establishment to a finish.
"I feel we could have licked them badly," he added, "but now I
have a club over their heads, as they were warned that we would tell if they
tried any more persecutions."
had already won a clear moral victory, he decided he could afford to let the
government save a little face. He agreed to write a letter reiterating his
explanation that the Mussolini speech had been made at a private club meeting
and expressing regret that anything he had said "caused embarrassment to
the Government." He would accept an official gentle "reprimand,"
which was, however, not to be written by Adams but by Leonard himself for Adams
to sign. In return for these concessions the government would announce that it
was dropping its court martial and was immediately restoring the general to
his command with full rank and privileges, without prejudice of any kind.
administration hastily accepted Butler's terms, and the suitable papers were
drawn. On February 9 the court-martial was canceled, and a mild reprimand credited
Butler's explanation that his speech had been intended to be "confined to
the limits of four walls," as well as acknowledging his
"long record of brilliant service." One newspaper headlined the
story: "YOU'RE A VERY BAD BOY"-
SAYS ADAMS TO BUTLER.
Plot to Seize the White House
The general's admirers grinned
in delight. He was released from arrest and restored to duty, his command flag
once more fluttering over Quantico. It was a signal and remarkable victory for
a lone Marine officer to win over the President of the United States and the
Secretaries of State and the Navy.
was glad to sec Smedley Butler get out of his case as he did," Will Rogers
wrote in his column on March 15, 1931. "You know that fellow just belongs
in a war all the time. He don't belong in Peace time. He is what I would call
a natural born warrior. He will fight anybody, any time. But he just can't distinguish
Peace from war. He carries every medal we ever gave out. He has two
Congressional Medals of Honor, the only man that ever got a double header.* You
give him another war and he will get him another one.... I do admire him."
The press was reluctant to let the story die. The wire services carried
journalist Cornelius Vanderbilt's revelation that he had been the one who had
told Butler the true story about Mussolini. He corrected a few details. After
running down the child, Vanderbilt said, Mussolini had observed the journalist
looking back in horror and had patted his knee reassuringly, saying,
"Never look back, Mr. Vanderbilt-always look ahead in life." Italian
officials now sought to deny that Vanderbilt had ever ridden in a car with
was appalled, but not too surprised, to read that Ralph T. O'Neill, national
commander of the American Legion, had presented to Italian Ambassador de
Martino a resolution in praise of Mussolini, passed by the National Executive
Committee. There were powerful and influential wealthy elements in the Legion
leadership who admired Mussolini's shackling of Italian labor unions under the
guise of fighting Reds.
he had defeated the attempt of his enemies to court-martial him, Butler
revealed to his friends that he intended to go ahead with his original plan to
retire at the end of the year. On March 1 he informed the press, barking,
"Get this clear-I are not resigning!"
*Rogers's mistake was a common error. In addition to
Smedley Butler, three other Americans have each won two Congressional Medals of
The Indispensable Man 117
Butler now found himself in
greater demand than ever as public speaker. The Alber Lecture Bureau of
Cleveland pleaded with him to take a leave of absence and satisfy the groups
all over the country clamoring to hear him. He was offered half of admission
fees charged, with a minimum guarantee of $250, $25 a day expenses and railroad
fare. At the same time Philadelphia's
Mayor Mackey asked him if he would assist in raising funds for the city's
Committee for Unemployment Relief.
Applying for a two months' leave of absence to make a speaking tour, he
turned over half his fees of about six thousand dollars to the unemployed and
also to the Salvation Army, which he respected as being genuinely responsive to
the needs of both the poor and the doughboys in trenches.
explained the impulse for his decision by a letter he had received while he was
under arrest during the Mussolini affair.
"General," a veteran had written him, "the stamp on this letter cost me
the two of my last four cents, but I wanted you to know that I am for you."
almost cried," Butler admitted. "I feel that if that poor fellow could give me
half of what he had, I can give him half of what I've got." He was also strongly influenced in his
sympathy for the luckless by his aunt, Isabel Darlington, who headed the Chester
County Poor Board and fought county authorities vigorously to increase welfare
begged him for a book. "I am making far
more money out of making speeches than I ever could out of writing a book," he
replied practically, "so unless Bobbs-Merrill are going to outbid the public…I
would be cutting off my nose to spite my face by writing instead of
talking." But he finally consented
118 The Plot
to Seize the White House The
Indispensable Man 119
to dictate his war memoirs to
adventure writer Lowell Thomas, who published them as a book, under the title
Old Gimlet Eye.
Aware that his imminent retirement meant a sharp drop in income and an
increase in expenses, with little or nothing saved, he sought to organize his
time as profitably as possible. He accepted radio offers to relate his
experiences in the Marines.
Butler did not consciously seek publicity, there was little doubt that the
headlines sought him out. His rapport with the press was explained by one
newsman's observation that he was "colorful copy and a helluva guy."
He often said himself, "There are three types of people who understand
me-Marines, policemen, and newspapermen." His chief interest in stories
about him in the press was less vanity than a determination to disseminate
views he held strongly.
first ominous rumblings of war beginning to be heard in both Europe and Asia,
he was determined to steel the American people against letting themselves be
dragged into any more foreign wars. He would tell them the whole truth about
the use that had been made of the Marines by the government in the name of
protecting democracy and "American interests" abroad.
August 21, 1931, invited to address an American Legion
convention in Connecticut, he made the first no-holds-barred antiwar speech of
his career. It stunned all who heard it or read it in the few papers that dared
report it in part:
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 helped purify Nicaragua for the international
banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912.
I helped make Mexico and especially
Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1916. I brought light to the
Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I
helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City [Bank] boys to
collect revenue in. I helped in the rape of half a dozen Central American
republics for the benefit of Wall Street....
In China in 1927 I helped see to it that
The Indispensable Man 119
went its way
unmolested. . . . I had . . . a swell racket. I was rewarded with honors,
medals, promotions.... 1 might have given A1 Capone a few hints. The best he
could do was to operate a racket in three cities. The Marines operated on
three continents. . . .
We don't want any more wars, but a man is a damn
fool to think there won't be any more of them. I am a peaceloving Quaker, but
when war breaks out every damn man in my family goes. If we're ready, nobody
will tackle us. Give us a club and we will face them all....
There is no use talking about abolishing war;
that's damn foolishness. Take the guns away from men and they will fight just
the same. . . . In the Spanish-American War we didn't have any bullets to
shoot, and if we had not had a war with a nation that was already licked and
looking for an excuse to quit, we would have had hell licked out of us....
No pacifists or Communists are going to govern this
country. If they try it there will be seven million men like you rise up and
strangle them. Pacifists? Hell, I'm a pacifist, but I always have a club behind
Earlier that same day, before Hoover had had a chance to read the speech,
reporters asked the President if he would seek to delay the general's
"I assume that if General Butler wishes to retire, the authorities
will approve," Hoover answered cautiously. "The general is a very
distinguished and gallant officer and I have no doubt that if the country has
need, it always can secure his services." Next day, when Butler's attack
on big business was reported, attempts to get any statement from the White
House met with icy silence.
And on that day, providing a punctuation mark to Butler's doubts that the
Kellogg-Briand Pact protected any nation from aggression, Japan invaded
Manchuria and reduced the pact to a worthless scrap of paper.
October 1, 1931, friends of Smedley Butler from all stations in life, and from
all periods of his career, gathered at Quantico as his two-star command flag
was hauled down once more, this lime with full honors. At the age of fifty,
after spending all of
120 The Plot
to Seize the White House
but the first fifteen years in a Marine uniform, under fire over 120 times, he
retired from the Corps and was once more a civilian.
In his farewell speech to his beloved leathernecks his voice was more
than customarily hoarse, and tears misted his fierce glare. "It has been a
privilege to scrap for you just as you have scrapped for me," he told them.
"When I leave I mean to give every one of you a map showing you exactly
where I live. I want you to come around and see me, especially if you ever get
into trouble, and I will help you if I can. I can give you a square meal and a
place to sleep even if I cannot guarantee you a political job."
every word, gave out the maps, and kept his promise for as long as he lived.
Demands flooded in now for
Butler's services as a lecturer. He had embarrassed governments, large and
small, including his own, by his relentless candor, but his courage and honesty
had ' won the admiration of millions of
Americans. His speeches be' came more
vitriolic than ever, scorching the hides of the powerful and the highly
eager requests for articles by magazines and newspaper syndicates with the
help of his friend E. Z. Dimitman, who was now night city editor of the
Dimitman would flesh out his views on war and peace, which Butler then
edited and revised to his own satisfaction.
never seemed to be enough money. Although he received some lecture fees up to $500, the
average fee came to $25o and in many cases turned out to be far less. Most of
what he managed to earn went into putting Tom Dick through Swarthmore and Smedley,
Jr., through California Tech and M.I.T., and paying
The Indispensable Man 121
house he and Ethel had bought in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.
an old square farmhouse that had been gutted by fire except for its walls.
Butler had rebuilt it with glass-enclosed porches and a huge, high hallway in
which he erected his two treasured Chinese Blessings Umbrellas, opened like
canopies at each end of the hall. He had thought to remodel the house for
$35,000, but it had turned out to cost far more, and he was forced to sell most
of the land to pay off the mortgage.
civilian Butler was close-fisted with money, gently but firmly resisting the
endless letters he received begging for handouts, because he had no money to
spare. His thrifty wife kept an old, ragged, shabby fur coat in the closet,
over thirty years after he had brought it home for her from the Boxer
Rebellion. She never wore it, but could not bring herself to throw it away. He
himself upset many military organizations by canceling his membership and
journal subscriptions without offering any explanation. He was too proud to
admit the real reason; he simply had to prune expenses.
Out of uniform, he took pride in his appearance and dressed well but
conservatively. Unable to break the traditions of thirty-three years of dress
parade, he polished his shoes daily and buffed the buttons on his white,
custom-made summer suits. His thought patterns, too, continued to dwell
primarily on military concerns.
One of his objectives was to stir up a demand that the Marine Corps be
removed from under the thumb of politically appointed desk admirals of the Navy
and set up as a separate branch of the armed forces under their own leaders. He
gave his reasons in an article called "To Hell with the Admirals! Why I
Retired at Fifty," which appeared in Liberty Magazine on December 5, 1931:
The clique of desk-admirals who seem to hold sway
in the Navy Department in Washington demand an Annapolis man as head of the
Marine Corps. They desire to have the Corps an insignificant part of the naval
service, a unit directly under their collective thumb. It dismays and appalls
them to learn of the heroic deeds of Marines on foreign
Plot to Seize the White House
duty. They feel it detracts from the prestige of
the navy. . . .
This group of admirals did everything possible to
keep me from being named commandant. . . . And now those officers of the Marine Corps who have been particularly loyal
and friendly to me ... are being transferred all about the country and abroad.
. . . As I go I am tempted to say to that shipless clique: "To hell with
Admiral Pratt issued a statement denouncing his broadside. The tablet that had
been erected in his honor in the Navy Building was removed. Later located and
rescued by a Butler Memorial Commission, it was installed in Philadelphia's
City Hall after his death.
article Butler wrote for Liberty stirred
the wrath of the Honduras Government by exposing the collaboration of Honduran
and other Central American dictators with American banking and commercial
interests. The controlled Honduran press accused him of misrepresenting the
situation and showered him with epithets. From Tegucigalpa a New York Times correspondent wired, "It
is realized that he is now retired, and not subject to the restraint which can
be imposed on an officer in active service."
More and more of Butler's attention was directed to the steadily
worsening Depression and what it was doing to the country. He was outraged when
hunger marchers who had gone to Washington on December 7 were denied admission
to the White House to petition for jobs.
During 1932 stocks fell go percent, farm products 6o percent, industrial
production 50 percent. By the end of the year fifteen million Americans were in
the ranks of the unemployed. Homeowners and farmers were being dispossessed
for nonpayment of taxes and debts. Outraged neighbors in many communities were
setting up roadblocks with guns to bar outside bidders at foreclosure auctions
so that the property could be bought for a song and returned to its owners.
Alarmed bankers saw this development as a Communist threat.
Butler's antagonism toward big business intensified. On February 14,
1932, the United Press quoted him as saying, "I've about
Indispensable Man 123
come to tile conclusion that some American corporations
abroad are, in a measure, responsible for trouble with the natives simply
because of the way they treat them. . . . I've seen hundreds of boys from the
cities and farms of the United States die in Central American countries just
to protect the investments of our large corporations." How could
Washington criticize Japan for its takeover in Manchuria, he demanded, when we
ourselves had been just as imperialistic?
In the spring Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot urged Butler to throw
his hat into the political ring and oppose James J. Davis, former Secretary of
Labor under Hoover, for the Re-publican nomination for senator. His admirers
were already demanding that Butler run for governor.
"I am not going to run for the Senate or governorship," he
growled to newspaper friends, "and then have the politicians laugh at
me." But Pinchot's entreaties were too strong and persistent, and Butler
Stumping the state, he appealed to Republican voters with a platform
promising jobs for the unemployed and home property loans for debtors.
Campaigning for a bonus bill, be placed all his decorations and uniforms in a
vault, publicly vowing never to wear them again until soldiers got their bonus.
Although he was personally popular, two issues he campaigned for in 1932Prohibition
and the soldiers' bonus-were not.
Despite receiving half a million votes, he was defeated. Paul Comly
French of the Philadelphia Record revealed
that Governor Pinchot had set Butler up for defeat to eliminate him as a
political threat, making a secret deal to support Davis. The Pinchot political
machine had been used against Butler in key election districts.
Reporter Jesse Laventhol, later city editor of the Philadelphia Record, who had been Butler's press
secretary during the campaign, told the author, "Butler's sponsors failed
him . . . , trading off votes for Davis in return for electing certain state
senators to give the governor control of that body."
Smedley Butler never went to Congress like his father.
124 The Plot to Seize the
In the early summer of 1932 over
twenty thousand veterans and their families joined in a Bonus Army march to
Washington, camping on the edge of the Capital to demand payment of a
two-billion-dollar cash bonus to all veterans. The House, tinder pressure,
quickly passed the Patman Bonus Bill on June 17, but the Republican Senate
rejected it, 62 to 18.
Butler was indignant at the failure of Congress to honor America's
pledge to its fighting men and was thoroughly disgusted with Hoover's failure
to do anything about the plight of the nation except issue optimistic reports
that prosperity was "just around the corner."
30, while the Democratic convention was in session, he announced that he might,
for the first time in his life, vote Democratic "if the right man is
nominated for President." It was no secret that he saw the right man as
New York's governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had already broadcast an
impressive speech on the need of the American Government to discover its
Roosevelt won the nomination, pledging a New Deal along with the repeal of
Prohibition, Butler wired him, "We salute your nomination as one of the
greatest blessings granted any nation in an hour of desperate need." He
offered to help F.D.R.'s campaign any way he could, and Roosevelt asked him to
get in touch with Democratic campaign manager James A. Farley, or Roosevelt's
chief secretary, Louis Howe. Butler soon began stumping for F.D.R. In a speech
before the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in New York on July 7 he
warned that the government had to be rescued from "the clutches of the
greedy and dishonest":
The Indispensable Man 125
Today, with all our wealth, a deathly gloom hangs
over us. Today we appear to be divided. There has developed, through the past
few years, a new Tory class, a group that believes that the nation, its
resources and its man-power, was provided by the Almighty for its own special
use and profit.... On the other side is the great mass of the American people
who still believe in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution
of the United States.
This Tory group, through its wealth, its power and
its influence, has obtained a firm grip on our government, to the detriment of
our people and the well-being of our nation. We will prove to the world that
we meant what we said a century and a half ago-that this government was
instituted not only to secure to our people the rights of life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness, but the right to eat and to all our willing millions the
right to work.
A lecture bureau urged him to undertake a national speaking tour of
100,000 miles through the United States. He agreed, not only to earn the money
involved but also because he saw the trip as a way to get to know his fellow
Americans better. He knew more about the Cacos of Haiti than the residents of
Michigan Boulevard, more about the thinking of Nicaraguans and Chinese than of
Manhattanites and Californians. As "a stranger to my native land and to my
fellow citizens," he felt a strong compulsion to "sec America
last" and learn about them, too. So he began visiting over one hundred cities
in forty-eight states, "keeping my eyes and cars open all the time."
Years of delivering training talks to his troops and pep talks before and
during battle had made him an articulate extemporaneous speaker. Without a
note to refer to lie held audiences spellbound, and each time be delivered a
talk it was different. A fast thinker on his feet, he spoke in the colorful
idiom of everyday language, which he used with the impact of a shower of
only partially successful in his attempts to civilianize his colorful barracks
argot. One Milwaukee newspaper, describing a speech lie made at a First
Methodist Episcopal church in September, 1932, ran a story headlined: BUTLER TALKS IN CHURCH,
126 The Plot to Seize the
USES NICE LANGUAGE. "Only one `hell'
and two `damns' spiced his remarks throughout the evening."
heard and saw on his tour convinced him that Americans were hungry for a change
in the administration especially for a turn away from foreign affairs to home
problems. But he found no indication that Main Street America either wanted
revolutionary change or thought it likely, despite alarm over a Red menace in
the conservative press.
held personal conversations with more than two thousand persons in all walks of
life," he said on October z, 1932,
after his tour, "and they gave me a new and true insight into
the people of America. I learned that the average American is convinced that no
change in the form of our government is necessary or advisable."
attempt by conservatives to smear "anyone who utters a progressive
thought" as a Red, he pointed out, was helping a "handful of
agitators in their vain efforts to foment disorder and discontent with our form
of government." He branded Republican warnings that a Democratic victory
would turn America
socialist an absurd myth.
new political group called the Roosevelt Republican Organization was formed in
Philadelphia, Butler was asked to take a leading role in it. Louis Howe assured
him that Roosevelt would be most grateful for any help he could give the
governor in that capacity.
before Election Day Butler made a slashing attack on Hoover in a speech to an
enthusiastic rally of Queens, New York, veterans, describing himself as "a
member of the Hoover-for-Ex-President League because Hoover used gas and
bayonets on unarmed human beings."
"Nobody has any business occupying the White
House who doesn't love his own people," he declared, adding, "I was
raised Republican, but I was born American. I have no ring through my nose, and
I vote for whom I please."
insisted that the bonus must be paid: "The bonus is an amount of money
that the American people owe the soldier, but anybody demanding it is charged
with lack of patriotism. During the war nobody charged the officers of the
Indispensable Man 127
or any of the other corporations who received enormous bonuses with `raiding
big business, he accused, had been responsible for United States entry into
World War I and was now "getting ready to start another one in the
November 8 Butler's choice for President won, and the House of Representatives
went Democratic by a margin of three to one. A chorus of newspaper fury and
frustration reflected the dismay of banking and industrial interests over
than three weeks before the President-elect's inauguration, an unsuccessful
attempt was made to assassinate him at Miami. Could the assassin's bullet
possibly have been negotiated for, Butler speculated, by a big-business cabal
that hated Roosevelt and dreaded a New Deal?
veterans' posts now started a movement to have Butler appointed administrator
of the U.S. Veterans Bureau in January, 1933, and sent resolutions to Roosevelt
to this effect.
after the N.R.A. began, General Hugh Johnson asked Butler to work with him in
administering the program. Butler thanked him but refused, explaining, "I
don't want to be tied up with anything I don't know about."
lie watched with fascination the swift unfolding of developments in the New
Deal from the time Roosevelt declared at his inauguration on March 4, 1933,
"Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear
the new President proclaimed a national bank holiday and embargoed the
exportation of gold. The famous "Hundred Days Congress," in a special
session called by the President, swiftly enacted into law the principal
policies of the
128 The Plot to Seize the
New Deal. As the American people stirred with new hope
that at last the government was beginning to fight the nightmare Depression,
Butler noted with satisfaction that the bankers and industrialists of the
nation were horrified.
between July and December he had been pursued and wooed by Jerry MacGuire, the
bond salesman for Grayson M.-P. Murphy and Company, who had sought to enlist
him in the schemes of the financial group he represented. It was with some
relief that he was temporarily freed from these persistent attentions on
December 1, when MacGuire went abroad on an unexplained mission for his
December, 1933, Butler began touring the country for the V.F.W. and made
headlines by speaking out with characteristic bluntness to attack the
leadership of the American Legion. He told a large gathering of veterans in New
Orleans that the V.F.W. commander "would not sell out his men as the
officers in charge of the American Legion have."
the platform with Senator Huey Long, he urged Long to concentrate on fighting
for the veterans' bonus and forget less important matters. "What the hell
do you know about the gold standard?" he challenged Long. "Don't pay
any attention to what the newspapers say. Stand by your friends and to hell
with the rest of them!"
Long's political demagoguery at face value, he believed him to be sincere in
his advocacy of a redistribution of national wealth and praised him as a man
"with nerve enough to maintain a fight against Wall Street." He urged
the veterans to "make Wall Street pay, to take Wall Street by the throat
and shake it up." If they wanted to get the bonus that had been promised
them, they would have "to organize . . . to get together . . . to do as
the veterans of other wars have done."
It was a
fighting speech in the classic populist vein, and it sparked national
controversy. The Cincinnati
Times Star, a newspaper controlled by American Legion officials,
angrily accused Butler of advocating a "soldier dictatorship."
afterward in Atlanta about his attack on the Legion, he stuck by his guns and
added fuel to the fire by stating
Indispensable Man 129
grimly, "I've never known
one leader of the American Legion who has never sold them out!"
the Star's accusation
that he wanted a military dictatorship, he replied with a speech denouncing
crackpot rightist movements that advocated such a course for America. His suspicions
about Clark and Maguire were obviously very much on his mind when he made it.
"To many it may seem strange for a military man to denounce
dictatorship," he declared. "Generally it is the military men who are
advocates of this stern measure. . . . But we do not need a dictator and we
would not have one anyway, because our temperament and traditions forbid
it clear that he was stumping the country only on behalf of the ordinary
"forgotten soldier," just as F.D.R. had crusaded for the
reporters, "I went on the retired list after thirty-three years of making
wars, to rock and rock. So many former soldiers came to me with their pathetic
stories that I bounced out of retirement. All we soldiers are asking is that
the nation give us the same break that is being given the manufacturers, the
bankers, the industrialists. . . . Jimmie [Van Zandt] and I are going around
the country trying to educate the soldiers out of the sucker class."
American Legion officialdom was furious at Butler's charges, the rank and file
were not. Typical of the barrage of fan mail cheering him on was a letter from
a Los Angeles Legionnaire: "Every word you say is true, and I, as an
ex-soldier and one of the rank and file, respectfully request that you assume
the active leadership of the ex-servicemen. These five million men and their
families need you for a leader and will stick through thick and thin. The
leadership of the American Legion voice actually the opposite of the true
wishes of the membership. . . . Sir, the ex-serviceman of the United States is
at your command."
Butler's first bombshell was mild compared to his next broadside against the
establishment, made in his Atlanta speech to the V.F.W. the next day. The New York Times featured
it under the headline GEN. BUTLER LAYS WAR TO BANKERS.
130 The Plot to Seize the
"largely a matter of money," he told the veterans who had gathered to
hear him. "Bankers lend money to foreign countries and when they cannot
repay the President sends Marines to get it. I know-I've been in eleven of
these expeditions." The world was not yet through with war, he warned, but
we can help get rid of it when we conscript capital along with men."
pointed out that soldiers who went through the horrors of war were not the same
when they came back, adding vehemently, "We ought to make those
responsible pay through the nose." That was why the V.F.W. was calling for
immediate payment of the soldiers' bonus, in addition to compensation asked for
disabled veterans and pensions for veterans' widows and orphans.
Ex-servicemen were made the
butt of an Economy Act passed by Congress, Butler charged, because "the
principle of taking care of soldiers is nothing at all but an old-age pension
to which the nation eventually will come, and the bankers don't want it."
He added caustically, "If Charles Dawes got ninety million dollars for a
sick bank, soldiers ought to get it for sick comrades." Pointing out that
veterans could muster twenty million votes among themselves and their families,
he urged them to use this pressure at the
polls to force decent care of the disabled.
"Democrats take care of you," he advised, "keep them in. If
not-put 'em out!" He warned veterans not to believe "the propaganda
capital circulates" in the press, which he condemned as largely
capitalist-controlled. "The paper that takes the part of the soldier,"
he charged, "loses advertising."
concern for disabled veterans was not mere rhetoric. He met many of them in the
eighteen veterans' hospitals he visited during his tour of the country. His
walks through the wards to talk with them filled him with an
angry grief. In his days of combat he had seen many men killed and wounded. But
the crushing impact of seeing fifty thousand young men gathered together in
"living graveyards," forgotten by their country and the people for
whom they had sacrificed arms, legs, faces, and minds, moved him to rage
against the old men in power who had doomed them to lives of empty despair.
Indispensable Man 131
years ago they were the pick of the nation," he wrote grimly. ". . .
In the government hospital at Marion, Ohio, 1,800 wrecks
are in pens. Five hundred are in a barrack, under nurses, with wires all around
the buildings and enclosing the porches. All have been mentally destroyed. They
don't even look like human beings." He added in cold rage, "A careful
study of their expressions is highly recommended as an aid to the understanding
of the art of war."
On February 19, 1934, all the disabled veterans in
the Veterans Administration hospital at Albuquerque signed a petition to
Butler, urging him to testify in Congress to demand passage of the Bonus Bill
and restoration of adequate compensation to disabled veterans. He replied,
"I am doing everything humanly possible to help the veterans," and
urged them to swamp Congress with letters and postcards.
George K. Brobeck, legislative representative for
the V.F.W., wrote Butler:
Every member of our National Staff is deeply
appreciative of your fine cooperation in our battle for the disabled men. I can think of no greater service that America's military
leaders might dedicate themselves to than the one you have carried on so
unceasingly, and I wish to repeat what Admiral R. E. Coontz said to me the other day.... You always know
where Butler is and whether you like it or not, he is always on the
posts lie visited often hailed the ex-Marine with a military band, partly a
tribute to his fame as commandant of the Army camp at Pontanezen, but even more
for his championship of the Bonus Army and veterans' hospitals. Wherever he
spoke to veterans'
Plot to Seize the White House
meetings and rallies,
enthusiastic ex-soldiers invariably outnumbered ex-Marines in his audience.
speeches for the V.F.W. he continued to plead their cause, along with assailing
war-makers and demanding payment of the veterans' bonus. In March he was urged
to attend the Indiana convention of the V.F.W. at Marion, which had the largest
veterans' hospital in the United States.
James, its chairman, asked him to come and "say something to these poor
boys here to cheer them up in their lonesome surroundings. We need you here at
this time more than any other person in the country. The Veterans all love you
and look to you to guide them and tell them what to do. . . . I am unable to
mention your name in a meeting without getting a round of applause."
gratified to read on April 12, 1934, that the Senate had voted an
inquiry into the manufacture of and traffic in arms. Senator Gerald P. Nye, of
North Dakota, as chairman of the Senate Munitions Investigating Committee.
began holding public hearings stressing the heavy profits made by American
financiers and armament-makers during World War I.
Committee produced shock waves by exposing the pressures exerted by the
armament industry on the government to take America into that war. Oswald
Garrison Villard, editor-publisher of The Nation, wrote, "I never dreamed that I should live to
see the time when public opinion in the United States would be practically
united in recognizing that we were lied to and deceived into going to war . . .
and when Congress would actually put a stop to those processes by which Wilson,
House, Lansing and J. P. Morgan and Company brought us into the war." The
Nye investigation, continuing until 1936, strengthened
isolationist sentiment in the United States and inspired a series of neutrality
acts during 1935-1937.
Following the hearings closely, Butler was tremendously impressed and
influenced by their disclosures. They also confirmed his suspicions that big
business-Standard Oil, United Fruit, the sugar trust, the big banks-had been
behind most of the military interventions he had been ordered to lead. In a
broadcast over Philadelphia radio station WCAU he described his experiences
Indispensable Man 133
in "the raping of little
nations to collect money for big industries" that had large foreign
for this view came thirty-eight years later when Milan B. Skacel, President of
the Chamber of Commerce of Latin America in the United States, acknowledged on
October 16, 1971, "Most
of us freely admit that some of the past business practices of U.S. firms in
Latin America were unconscionable."
before the Nye Committee, Eugene G. Grace, president of Bethlehem Steel,
admitted that his corporation had received almost three million dollars in
bonuses during World War I. He nervously expressed concern that such a
revelation might "leave a bad taste" in the mouths of veterans who
had served their country for a dollar a day, but nevertheless labeled their
bonus movement an "unfortunate" enterprise.
"Bethlehem Steel made ten times as much money during the war as
before," Butler roared over WCAU, "and this band of pirates calls the
soldiers Treasury raiders!"
reporter friends to get transcripts of the Nye hearings and read them,
insisting, "You fellows ought to know this stuff." One wanted to know
what had prompted him, even before the Nye disclosures, to "pull the
whiskers off" the face of commercialism behind the pomp and patriotic glory
a youngster, I loved the excitement of battle," he replied. "It's
lots of fun, you know, and it's nice to strut around in front of your wife-or
somebody else's wife-and display your medals, and your uniform. But there's
another side to it, and that's why I have decided to devote the rest of my life
to 'pulling off the whiskers."'
his V.F.W. lecture tour he met an old war comrade, G. D. Morgan, who was now
adjutant of the V.F.W. post in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and confided in him
about the scheming of MacGuire, Doyle, and Clark. On May 14,
1934, Morgan wrote him, "My Dear Smed: I wish you would
send me the Statistics as near as possible that you have on those two
Ex-Service men and the Banker. We are getting in the middle of a hot Congressional
Campaign and one Senator has been very adverse to our cause, so we want to
shoot the works."
month the Farmer-Labor party of Colorado urged Butler
Plot to Seize the White House
to become the party's candidate
for President in 1936, stating, "We know of no other
man in the U.S. that is as well informed on the situation with the nerve to
carry out, make possible these reforms, and that has the confidence of the
masses. The people need you badly."
In August, when Jerry
MacGuire returned from Europe, the bond salesman had insisted upon another
meeting with Butler on a matter "of the utmost importance." And at
their discussion in the empty restaurant of Philadelphia's Bellevue Hotel, MacGuire
had sought to get him to agree to lead a Fascist coup to capture the White
smoking out the plot as far as he could and then getting reporter Paul Comly
French to investigate it for corroborative evidence in preparation to exposing
it, Butler continued his crusade against war and on behalf of justice for the
veterans. Once more he found himself running into censorship trouble.
station WAVE, carrying his speech on October 3 to the V.F.W. national
convention, cut him off the air for "objectionable language" used
before "a mixed audience." The convention unanimously adopted a
resolution condemning WAVE for "unceremoniously curtailing the address of
General Butler, an honored and beloved member of this organization."
Louis G. Burd, Adjutant of the Butte, Montana, post, wrote him:
... This assertion is just some more of the same
old hooey to mislead the public. In our opinion you were cut off simply because
you are one man before the public who has the courage to . . . give the public
the true facts that they hunger to hear, and in a language of which there is no
misunderstanding. . . . Be assured, General, that this effort
Indispensable Man 135
to prevent the
searchlight from being turned onto the malefactors of great wealth and
veterans' enemies will prove futile [to stop] your untiring fight for justice
for the veterans and the common people.
Armistice Day Butler was vigorously applauded for a speech to a New York Jewish
congregation appealing to all religious groups to "stop the war
racket." He created a sensation in the press by flatly declaring that he
would never again carry a rifle on foreign soil. He proposed two constitutional
amendments. The first would make it impossible for war to be declared except
by the exclusive vote of those physically able to fight. The second would
prevent United States warships from going beyond a two-hundred-mile limit, and
airplanes from going more than five hundred miles from the American coastline.
same night from Richmond, Virginia, American Legion Commander Frank N. Belgrano,
Jr., a banker, indirectly replied in an angry speech attacking "radical
it would seem, have forgotten that our country requires of us high and willing
duty today as it did when we went forth to fight an enemy in the open. We are
facing a new and more dangerous foe today. It has seeped quietly into our
country and whispered into the ears of our workers and our people everywhere
that our ideals of government are out of date. We of the Legion are mobilized
to meet that enemy and we are calling upon loyal Americans everywhere to join
us in ridding our country of this menace."
Butler that sounded suspiciously like the reams of propaganda the American
Liberty League was now sending out, along with lecturers, to denounce the
"socialism" of the Roosevelt Administration and call for a return to
the doctrines of a laissez-faire economy.
League's campaign failed to make any impact in the congressional elections of
1934, however, and F.D.R. won an enormous Democratic majority in both houses
gossip was spreading around Washington that the American Legion was going to
provide the nucleus of a Fascist army that would seize the Capital. John L.
Spivak, a crack reporter
Plot to Seize the White House
specialty was exposing American Fascists and of whom Lincoln Steffens once
said, "He is the best of us," heard about it from an eminent
Washington correspondent with excellent sources of information and decided to
The rumors also reached the McCormack-Dickstein Committee of the House
of Representatives. This was the first House Un-American Activities Committee,
at that time equally oriented against Fascist and Communist activities. Under
Representative John W. McCormack, later Speaker of the House, it spent considerable
time and energy unmasking Fascist agents in America. Not until 1939, when a new
version of HUAC was reconstituted under the chairmanship of Martin Dies, did
this committee become infamous for its relentless persecution directed almost
exclusively against liberals and leftists of every persuasion, while ignoring
subversion on the right.
the McCormack-Dickstein Committee's investigators contacted Butler to ask if
there was any truth in the rumors that he could shed light on. Now that he had
Paul Comly French's testimony to corroborate his own, Butler decided that there
was little more to be gained by playing MacGuire along; between French and
himself, the plotters' secret plans had been ferreted out to a significant
hell or high water, press ridicule or denunciations terming him a madman, he
was now determined to testify before the committee and spread the plot for a
Fascist takeover of the United States all over the front pages. He would
destroy it before it had a chance to crush democracy in the country he loved
and had served all his life.
would he be believed, even with the support of French's testimony? What if he
wasn't? Worse, what if he had waited too long to unravel the whole sordid
story, and it was already too late to stop the conspirators?
The Conspiracy Explodes
Committee agreed to listen to Butler's story in a secret executive session in
New York City on November 20, 1934. The two cochairman of the
committee were Representative John McCormack, of Massachusets, and New York
Representative Samuel Dickstein, who later became a New York State Supreme
Court justice. Butler's testimony, developed in two hours of questions and
answers, was recorded in full.
Simultaneously Paul Comly French broke the story in the Stern papers, the
Philadelphia Record and the
New York Post. Under the headline "$3,000,000 Bid
for Fascist Army Bared," he wrote:
Major General Smedley D. Butler revealed today that
he has been asked by a group of wealthy New York brokers to lead a Fascist
movement to set up a dictatorship in the United States.
General Butler, ranking major general of the Marine
Corps up to his retirement three years ago, told his story today at a secret
session of the Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities.
McCormack opened the hearing by first noting that General Butler had been
in the Marine Corps thirty-three years and four months and had received the
Congressional Medal of Honor twice, establishing his integrity and credibility
as a witness. Then he invited the general to "just go ahead and tell in
your own way all that you know about an attempted Fascist movement in this
I preface my remarks," Butler began, "by saying, sir,
140 The Plot to Seize the White House
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?"
who has either read about or known about General Butler," replied
McCormack promptly, "would have anything but that understanding."
then gave detailed testimony about everything that had happened in connection
with the plot, from the first visit of MacGuire and Doyle on July 1, 1933.
his testimony was not released in the official record of the bearings, for
reasons that will be discussed later, but was nevertheless ferreted out,
copied, and made public by reporter John L. Spivak. This censored testimony is
indicated by the symbol † to distinguish it from the official testimony
eventually released by the McCormack-Dickstein Committee. The same was true of
testimony given by reporter Paul Comly French, who followed Butler as a
witness, and the same symbol (†) indicates the censored portions.*
first described the attempts made by MacGuire and Doyle to persuade him to go
to the American Legion convention hand make a speech they had prepared for
. . . they were very desirous of unseating
the royal family in control of the American Legion, at the convention to be
held in Chicago, and very anxious to have me take part in it. They said that
they were not in sympathy with the . . . present administration's treatment of
the soldiers. . . . They said, "We represent the plain soldiers. . .We
want you to come there and stampede the convention in a speech and help us in
our fight to dislodge the royal family."
He told of MacGuire's
revelation that he was the chairman
reader who wishes to examine the official testimony is referred to the
government report, Investigation of Nazi Propaganda Activities and
Investigation of Certain Other Propaganda Activities: Public Hearings Before
the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives,
Seventy-third Congress, Second Session, at Washington, D.C., December 29, zg34. Hearings No. 73-D.C.-6, Part 1. Extracts of the censored testimony are revealed in
the books A Man in His Time, by John L. Spivak, and 1000 Americans, by George Seldes.
Conspiracy Explodes 141
of the Legion's
"distinguished guest committee," on the staff of National Commander
Louis Johnson, and that at MacGuire's suggestion Johnson had put Butler's name
down as one of the distinguished guests to be invited to the convention.
† BUTLER: [MacGuire said] that Johnson had been taken this list, presented by
MacGuire, of distinguished guests, to the White House for approval; that Louis
Howe, one of the secretaries of the President, had crossed my name off and said
that I was not to be invited-that the President would not have it.
This tale had
struck Butler as peculiar, since the President had been grateful for the
general's assistance in winning Republican votes for him away from Hoover, and
their relations had always been cordial and warm.
I thought I smelled a rat, right away-that
they were trying to get me mad-to get my goat. I said nothing....
CHAIRMAN: When you say
you smelled a rat, you mean you had an idea that they were not telling the
BUTLER: I could not reconcile . . . their desire to serve the
ordinary man in the ranks, with their other aims. They did not seem to be the
same. It looked to me as if they were trying to embarrass the administration in
some way.... I was just fishing to see what they had in mind. So many queer
people come to my house all the time and I like to feel them all out.
MacGuire had told him, Butler revealed, that invitation or no invitation,
he and his supporters had figured out a way for Butler to address the Legion
I said, "How is that, without being
invited?" They said, "Well, you are to come as a delegate from
I said, "I do not live in Hawaii."
"Well, it does not make any difference. There
is to be no delegate from one of the American Legion posts there in
142 The Plot to Seize the White House
Honolulu, and we have arranged to have you
appointed by cable, by radio, to represent them at the convention....
I said, "Yes; but I will not go in the back
They said, "That will not be the back door. You
I said, "No; I will not do this."
"Well," they said, "are you in sympathy with unhorsing the
I said, "Yes; because they have been selling
out the common soldier in this Legion for years. These fellows have been
getting political plums and jobs and cheating the enlisted man in the Army,
and I am for putting them out. But I cannot do it by going in through the back
"Well," they said, "we are going to
get them out. We will arrange this."
Butler described the second visit of MacGuire and Doyle a month later, at
which time MacGuire had unfolded a new plan they had developed to get Butler to
the speaker's platform at the Chicago convention of the Legion.
. . . I was to get two or three hundred
legionnaires from around that part of the country and bring them on a special
train to Chicago with me. . . . they would sit around in the audience, be
planted here and there. . . . I was to appear in the gallery. These planted
fellows were to begin to cheer and start a stampede and yell for a speech. Then
I was to go to the platform and make a speech. I said, "Make a speech
"Oh," they said, "we have one
. . . They pulled out this speech. They said,
"We will leave it here with you to read over, and you see if you can get
these fellows to come."
I said, "Listen. These friends of mine that I
know around here, even if they wanted to go, could not afford to go. It would
cost them a hundred to a hundred and fifty dollars to go out there and stay for
five days and come back."
They said, "Well, we will pay that."
I said, "How can you pay it? You are disabled
soldiers. How do you get the money to do that?"
"Oh, we have friends. We will get the
money." Then I began to smell a rat for fair....
Conspiracy Explodes 143
To test the seriousness of their purpose and the extent of their backing,
he had challenged their claim to have access to the funds they claimed to have.
. . . they hauled out a bank deposit book and
showed me, I think it was $42,000 in
deposits on that occasion, and on another occasion it was $64,000....
Do you know on what bank that was?
I do not. They just flipped the pages over.
Now, I have had some experience as a policeman in Philadelphia. I wanted to get
to the bottom of this thing and not scare them off, because I felt then that
they had something real. They had so much money and a limousine. Wounded soldiers
do not have limousines or that kind of money. They said, "We will pay the
bill. Look around and see if you cannot get two or three hundred men and we
will bring them out there and we will have accommodations for them."
Butler described MacGuire's
third visit, without Doyle, during which the bond salesman had inquired as to
his progress in rounding up soldiers to take to the convention. Pointing out to
MacGuire that the speech given him urged a return by the United States to the
gold standard, Butler had demanded to know what that had to do with the
ostensible reasons for which he was being asked to go to Chicago.
. . . MacGuire had said, "We want to see
the soldiers' bonus paid in gold. We do not want the soldier to have rubber
money or paper money. We want the gold. That is the reason for this
Butler had then sought to get MacGuire to reveal the source of the funds
on deposit in his name.
He said that it was given to him by nine men,
that the biggest contributor had given $9,000 and that the donations ran all
the way from $2,50o to $9,000
I said, "What is the object?"
He said the object was to take care of the rank and
file of the soldiers, to get them their bonus and get them properly cared for.
144 The Plot to Seize the White House
Well, I knew that people who had $9,000 to give away were not in favor
of the bonus. That looked fishy right away.
He gave me the names of two
men; Colonel Murphy, Grayson M.-P. Murphy, for whom he worked, was one. He
said, "I work for him. I am in his office."
I said to him, "How did you happen to be
associated with that kind of people if you are for the ordinary soldier and his
bonus and his proper care? You know damn well that these bankers are not going
to swallow that. There is something in this, Jerry MacGuire, besides what you
have told me. I can see that."
He said, "Well, I am a business man. I have
got a wife and family to keep, and they took good care of them, and if you
would take my advice you would be a business man, too."
I said, "What has
Murphy got to do with this?"
"Well," he said,
"don't you know who he is?"
I said, "Just
indirectly. He is a broker in New York. But I do not know any of his
"Well," he said,
"he is the man who underwrote the formation of the American Legion for
$125,000 He underwrote it, paid for the field work of organizing it, and had
not gotten all of it back yet."
"That is the reason he
makes the kings, is it? He has still got a club over their heads."
"He is on our side,
though. He wants to see the soldiers cared for."
Butler revealed that he had then expressed sharply critical sentiments
about the Legion. He later discovered that these remarks had been expunged
from the record.
† BUTLER: "Is
he [Murphy] responsible, too, for making the Legion a strikebreaking
"No, no. He does not control anything in the
I said: "You know very
well that it is nothing but a strikebreaking outfit used by capital for that
purpose and that is the reason we have all those big clubhouses and that is the
reason I pulled out from it. They have been using these dumb soldiers to break strikes."
The Conspiracy Explodes 145
He said: "Murphy hasn't anything to do with
that. He is a very fine fellow."
I said, "I do not doubt that, but there is
some reason for his putting $125,000 into this."
September, 1933, when he had gone to Newark for a convention of the 29th
Division, Butler testified, MacGuire had unexpectedly showed up at his hotel to
remind him that the time for the American Legion convention was rapidly
approaching and to ask whether he was finally ready to take a contingent of
veterans to Chicago.
BUTLER: I said, "No; I am not going to Chicago."
I said, "You people are
bluffing. You have not got any money," whereupon he took out a big wallet,
out of his hip pocket, and a great, big mass of thousand dollar bills and threw
them out on the bed.
I said, "What's all this?"
He says, "This is for you, for expenses. You
will need some money to pay them."
"How much money have you got there?" He
"Where did you get those thousand dollar
"Oh," he said, "last night some
contributions were made. I just have not had a chance to deposit them, so I
brought them along with me."
I said, "Don't you try to give me any thousand
dollar bill. Remember, I was a cop once. Every one of the numbers on these
bills has been taken. I know you people and what you are trying to do. You are
just trying to get me by the neck. If I try to cash one of those thousand
dollar bills, you would have me by the neck."
146 The Plot to Seize the White House
he said, "we can change them into
I said, "You put that
money away before somebody walks in here and sees that money around, because I
do not want to be tied up with it at all. I told you distinctly I am not going
to take these men to Chicago."
"Well, are you going yourself?"
I said, "Oh, I do
not know. But I know one thing. Somebody is using you. You are a wounded man.
You are a blue jacket. You have got a silver plate in your head. I looked you
up.... You are being used by somebody, and I want know the fellows who are
using you. I am not going to talk to you any more. You are only an agent. I
want some of
He said, "Well, I will
send one of them over to see you." I said, "Who?" He said,
"I will send Mr. Clark."
"Who is Mr.
"Well, he is one of our
people. He put up some money."
"Who is he?"
"Well, his name is R.
S. Clark. He is a banker. He used to be in the Army."
"How old a man is
he?" He told me.
"Would it be possible
that he was a second lieutenant in the Ninth Infantry in China during the Boxer
He said, "That is the
He was known as the
"millionaire lieutenant" and was sort of batty, sort of queer, did
all sorts of extravagant things. He used to go exploring around China and wrote
a book on it, on explorations. He was never taken seriously by anybody. But he
had a lot of money. An aunt and an uncle died and left him $10,000,000.
Having established contact with one of the plot's
principals, Butler testified, he had been visited by Clark within the week with
and invited to travel in a private car to the Chicago convention with the
millionaire, who revealed that he would arrange an opportunity for Butler to
deliver the gold-standard speech.
said, "You have got the speech?" I said, "Yes. These fellows,
Doyle and MacGuire, gave me the speech." I said, "They wrote a hell
of a good speech, too." He said,
The Conspiracy Explodes 147
"Did those fellows
say that they wrote that speech?" I said, "Yes; they did. They told
me that that was their business, writing speeches." He laughed and said,
"That speech cost a lot of money."
In testimony afterward censored, Butler revealed that the speech had
apparently been written for the millionaire by the chief attorney for J. P.
Morgan and Company, who had been the 1924 Democratic candidate for President.
† BUTLER: Now
either from what he said then or from what MacGuire had said, I got the
impression that the speech had been written by John W. Davis-one or the other
of them told me that.
Clark had been amused, Butler testified, that MacGuire and Doyle had
claimed the authorship. Butler had pointed out that a speech urging a return to
the gold standard did not seem to be relevant to the reasons he was being asked
to go to the convention. Clark had reiterated MacGuire's explanation that he
wanted to see the soldiers' bonus paid in gold-backed currency, not in inflated
I said, "but it looks as if it were a big business speech. There is
something funny about that speech, Mr. Clark." . . .
Clark said ". . . I have got $30,000,000. I do not want to lose it. I am willing to spend half of the $30,000,000 to save the other half. If you go out and make this speech in Chicago, I
am certain that they will adopt the resolution and that will be one step toward
the return to gold, to have the soldiers stand up for it. We can get the
soldiers to go out Having established contact with one of the plot's
principals, so in great bodies to stand up
This was the first beginning of the idea, you see,
of having a soldiers' organization, getting them to go out in favor of the
gold standard. Clark's thought was, "I do not want to lose my money."
In a censored portion of the testimony, Butler explained why Clark
thought that Roosevelt would permit himself to be pressured by such tactics.
148 The Plot to Seize the White House
He said, "You know the President
is weak. He will come right along with us. He was born in this class. He was
raised in this class, and he will come back. He will run true to form. In the
end he will come around. But we have got to be prepared to sustain him when he
This blatant snobbery and fatuous assumption about the President had been
too much for Butler, and he had snapped a refusal to go to Chicago.
said, "Why not?"
I said, "I do not want to be mixed up in this
thing at all. I tell you very frankly, Mr. Clark, I have got one interest and
that is the maintenance of a democracy. That is the only thing. I took an oath
to sustain the democracy, and that is what I am going to do and nothing else. I
am not going to get these soldiers marching around and stirred up over the gold
standard. What the hell does a soldier know about the gold standard? You are
just working them, using them, just as they have been used right along, and I
am going to be one of those to see that they do not use them any more except to
maintain a democracy. And then I will go out with them any time to do
At this point, Butler testified, Clark had offered him an outright bribe
to win his cooperation.
said, "Why do you want to be stubborn? Why do you want to be different
from other people? We can take care of you. You have got a mortgage on this
house," waving his hand, pointing to the house. "That can all be
taken care of. It is perfectly legal, perfectly proper."
"Yes," I said, "but I just do not
want to do it, that's all." Finally I said, "Do you know what you are
trying to do? You are trying to bribe me in my own house. You are very polite
about it and I can hardly call it that, but it looks kind of funny to me,
making that kind of proposition. You come out into the hall, I want to show you
We went out there. I have all the flags and banners
and medals of honor, and things of that kind. . . . They have been given me by
the Chinese and the Nicaraguans and the Haitians-by the poor people. I said to
him, "You come out here. Look at that and see what you are trying to do.
You are trying to buy me away from my own kind. When you have made up your mind
that I will not go with you, then you come on and tell me."
The Conspiracy Explodes 149
After being left in the hall to inspect the
trophies and think about their significance, Butler testified, Clark had joined
him in the office at the back of the house. The millionaire had then asked
permission to make a long-distance call.
BUTLER: He called up Chicago and got hold of MacGuire at
the Palmer House and lie said to MacGuire, "General Butler is not coming
to the convention. He has given me his reasons and they are
excellent ones, and I apologize to him for my connection with it. I am not
coming either. You can put this thing across. You have got $45,000. You
can send those telegrams. You will have to do it in that way. The general is
not coming. I can see why. I am going to Canada to rest. If you want me, you
know where you can find me. You have got enough money to go through with
. . . The convention came off and the gold standard
was endorsed by the convention. I read about it with a great deal of interest.
There was some talk about a flood of telegrams that came in and influenced
them and I was so much amused, because it all happened right in my room.
Then MacGuire stopped to see me on his way back
from the convention. This time he came in a hired limousine . . . and told me
that they had been successful in putting over their move. I said, "Yes,
but you did not endorse the soldier's bonus."
He said, "Well, we have got to get sound
currency before it is worth while to endorse the bonus."
afterward, Butler testified, MacGuire had called again to ask him to go to Boston for a soldier's dinner
that was being given in the general's honor.
said, "We will have a private car for you on the end of the train. You
will make a speech at this dinner and it will he worth a thousand dollars to
150 The Plot to Seize the White House
I said, "I never got a thousand dollars for making a speech."
He said, "You will get
it this time."
"Who is going to pay
for this dinner and this ride up in the private car?"
"Oh, we will pay for it
out of our funds."
"I am not going to
Boston. If the soldiers of Massachusetts want to give a dinner and want me to
come, I will come. But there is no thousand dollars in it."
So he said,
"Well, then, we will think of something else."
He had next seen MacGuire, Butler testified, while in New York to make an
election speech on behalf of a former Marine running for local office in a
municipal campaign. MacGuire had then sought to draw Butler out on his
BUTLER: He said, "You are going on a trip for
the Veterans of Foreign Wars. You are going around recruiting them, aren't
you?" I said, "Yes; I am going to start as soon as this campaign is
CHAIRMAN: When was this campaign?
BUTLER: This was in November, 1933. All of this
happened between July and November, everything I told you.... He said,
"You are going out to speak for the veterans." I said, "Yes. . .
. You know I believe that sooner or later there is going to be a test of our
democracy, a test of this democratic form of government. The soldiers are the
only people in this country who have ever taken an oath to sustain it. I
believe that I can appeal to them by the millions to stand up for a democracy,
because they have more stake in a democracy than any other class of our
citizens, because they have fought for it. I am going out to the Veterans of
Foreign Wars. They are my kind, overseas people, old regulars, and see if I
cannot get a half a million of those fellows and preach this to them, that we
have got to stand up against war. I have got an object in doing it. I believe
that sooner or later we are going to have a showdown, because I have had so
many invitations to head societies and to join societies, all of them with a
camouflaged patriotic intent. They are rackets, all of them."
The Conspiracy Explodes 151
MacGuire had then exposed the forward edge of a new plan to use the
general, startling Butler by a proposal to join him in his travels around the
BUTLER: He said, "Well, that is what we are
for. . . . I want to go around with you . . . and talk to the soldiers in the
background and see if we cannot get them to join a great big superorganization
to maintain the democracy.
I said, "I do not know about you going along,
Jerry. Of course, I cannot keep you off of the train. But there is something
funny about all this that you are doing and I am not going to be responsible
for it and I do not want any more to do with it. You are a wounded soldier and
I am not going to hurt you, but you must lay off this business with me, because
there is too much money in it."
"Well, I am a business man," he said. . .
. "I do not see why you will not be a business man, too."
I said, "If fiddling with this form of
government is business, I am out of it; if that is your business."
"Oh," he said, "I would not disturb
this form of government."
I said, "You have got some reason for getting
at these soldiers other than to maintain a democracy."
Butler did not testify to having been offered, and turning down, $750 for every
speech he made to veterans groups during his tour in which he inserted a short
reference favoring the gold standard, a special tribute was paid to him on this
score by a secret report he did not know of that reached the White House.
been written by Val O'Farrell, a former New York City detective who had become
one of the city's leading criminal and civil investigators. On December 11, 1933,
O'Farrell had written to presidential secretary Louis Howe:
My dear Colonel:
. . . Before he [Butler] left for Atlanta, he was
approached by a representative of the bankers gold group system, and offered
the sum of seven hundred and fifty dollars
Plot to Seize the White House
for each speech if he would insert some short
reference in favor of continuing the bankers gold standard. This would have
meant an additional ten thousand dollars to General Butler, but he told the
representative of the gold group that even if he were offered a hundred thousand dollars to do
this, his answer would be "no."
Notwithstanding the fact
that I do not know General Butler, who has been occasionally subject to harsh
criticism for the things he has done or failed to do, I felt it my duty to
report this incident to you as it shows him to be a man of exceptional character.
You can probably obtain the name of the representative of this gold group from
General Butler, or if you are interested, I may be able to get it for you.
found himself fascinated by MacGuire, suspecting that the bond salesman might
be playing some kind of shrewd con game
with Clark, using his contact with Butler as a lever with which to pry money
out of the alarmed millionaire.
BUTLER: I began
to get the idea that he was using Clark-to pull money out of Clark by
frightening him about his $30,000,000-and then he was coming to me; and then he
would go back and tell Clark, "I have been to see Butler, and he will go
along if you will get me $5,000 more." In other words, I could see him working both
ends against the middle and making a sucker out of Clark. However, if Clark
wanted to get rid of his money, it was none of my business. . . .
Now, he [MacGuire] is a very
cagey individual. He always approaches everything from afar. He is really a
very nice, plausible fellow. But I gather, after this association with him, that due to this wound in his
head, he is a little inconsistent, a little flighty. He is being used, too, but
The Conspiracy Explodes 153
not think Clark is using him. My impression is that
Murphy uses him; and he uses Clark, because Clark has the money.
MacGuire's trip to Europe, Butler testified, the bond salesman had sent him a
postcard from Nice in February, 1934, and a short note later from Berlin, both
of the "having wonderful time" variety. Then after MacGuire's return,
upon his urging to see Butler on a matter of the utmost importance, they had
met in the empty restaurant of Philadelphia's Bellevue Hotel, on August 22, 1934.
BUTLER: He told me all about his trip to Europe.... He
said, "I went abroad to study the part that the veteran plays in the
various set-ups of the governments that they have abroad. I went to Italy for
two or three months and studied the position that the veterans of Italy occupy
in the Fascist set-up of government, and I discovered that they are the
background of Mussolini. They keep them on the pay rolls in various ways and
keep them contented and happy; and they are his real backbone, the force on
which he may depend, in case of trouble, to sustain him. But that set-up would
not suit us at all. The soldiers of America would not like that. I then went to
Germany to see what Hitler was doing,
and his whole strength lies in organizations of soldiers, too. But that would
not do. I looked into the Russian business. I found that the use of the
soldiers over there would never appeal to our men. Then I went to France, and I
found just exactly the organization we are going to have. It is an organization
of supersoldiers." He gave me the French name for it, but I do not recall
what it is. I never could have pronounced it, anyhow. But I do know that it is
a superorganization of members of all the other soldiers' organizations of
France, composed of noncommissioned officers and officers. He told me that they
had about 500,000 and that each one was a leader of ten others, so that it gave
them 5,000,000 votes. And he said,
"Now, that is our idea here in America-to get up an organization of that
Investigators for the McCormack-Dickstein Committee
were able to uncover a report on this French "superorganization," the
Croix de Feu, that MacGuire had written about to Robert S.
Plot to Seize the White House
and Clark's attorney, Albert Grant Christmas, from France on March 6, 1934:
I had a very interesting talk last evening with a
man who is quite well up on affairs here and he seems to be of the opinion that
the Croix de Feu will be very patriotic during this crisis and will take the
[wage] cuts or be the moving spirit in the veterans to accept the cuts.
Therefore they will, in all probability, be in opposition to the Socialists and
functionaries. The general spirit among the functionaries seems to be that the
correct way to regain recovery is to spend more money and increase wages,
rather than to put more people out of work and cut salaries.
The Croix de Feu is getting a great number of new
recruits, and I recently attended a meeting of this organization and was quite
impressed with the type of men belonging. These fellows are interested only in
the salvation of France, and I feel sure that the country could not be in
better hands because they are not politicians, they are a cross-section of the
best people of the country from all walks of life, people who gave their
"all" between 1914 and 1918 that France might be saved, and I feel
sure that if a crucial test ever comes to the Republic that these men will be
the bulwark upon which France will be saved.
During their meeting in Philadelphia, Butler
testified, MacGuire had revealed the plans of his group to develop an American
Croix de Feu.
BUTLER: I said, "What do you want to do with it when you
get it up?"
"Well," he said,
"we want to support the President." I said, "The President does
not need the support of that kind of an organization. Since when did you become
a supporter of the President? The last time I talked to you you were against
He said, "Well, he is
going to go along with us now."
"Well, what are you
going to do with these men, suppose you get these 500,000 men
in America? . . ."
The Conspiracy Explodes 155
"Well," he said,
"they will be the support of the President."
I said, "The President has got the whole
American people. Why does he want them?"
He said, "Don't you understand the set-up has
got to be changed a bit? . . . He has got to have more money. There is not any
more money to give him. Eighty percent of the money now is in Government bonds,
and he cannot keep this racket up much longer. . . . He has either got to get
more money out of us or he has got to change the method of financing the Government,
and we are going to see to it that he does not change that method. He will not
I said, "The idea of this great group of
soldiers, then, is to sort of frighten him, is it?"
"No, no, no; not to frighten him. This is to
sustain him when others assault him."
I said, "Well, I do not know about that. How
would the President explain it?"
He said: "He will not
necessarily have to explain it, be cause we are going to help him out. Now,
did it ever occur to you that the President is overworked? We might have an
Assistant President, somebody to take the blame; and if things do not work out,
he can drop him."
He went on to say that it did not take any
constitutional change to authorize another Cabinet official, somebody to take
over the details of the office-take them off the President's shoulders. He
mentioned that the position would be a secretary of general affairs-a sort of a
secretary of general affairs?
is the term used by him-or a secretary of general welfare-I cannot recall
which. I came out of the interview with that name in my head. I got that idea
from talking to both of them, you see [MacGuire and Clark]. They had both
talked about the same kind of relief that ought to be given the President, and
he [MacGuire] said: "You know, the American people will swallow that. We
have got the newspapers. We will start a campaign that the President's health
is failing. Everybody can tell that by looking at him, and the dumb American
people will fall for it in a second."
And I could see it. They had that sympathy racket,
Plot to Seize the White House
they were going to have somebody take the patronage
off of his shoulders and take all the worries and details off of his shoulders,
and then he will be like the President of France. . . .
Now, I cannot recall which one of these fellows
told me about the rule of succession, about the Secretary of State becoming
President when the Vice President is eliminated. There was something said in
one of the conversations that I had, that the President's health was bad, and
he might resign, and that [Vice President] Garner did not want it, anyhow, and
then this supersecretary would take the place of the Secretary of State and in
the order of succession would become President. That was the idea.
In corroborative testimony Paul Comly French
described what MacGuire had told him about the conspirators' plans.
the course of the conversation he continually discussed the need of a man on a
white horse, as he called it, a dictator who would come galloping in on his
white horse. He said that was the only way; either through the threat of armed
force or the delegation of power, and the use of a group of organized veterans,
to save the capitalistic system.
He warmed up considerably after we got under way
and he said, "We might go along with Roosevelt and then do with him what
Mussolini did with the King of Italy."
It fits in with what he told the general, that we
would have a Secretary of General Affairs, and if Roosevelt played ball, swell;
and if he did not, they would push him out.
He expressed the belief that at least half of the
American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars would follow the general if he
would announce such a plan.
In censored testimony Butler revealed that MacGuire
had implicated General Hugh Johnson, head of the N.R.A., as Roosevelt's own
choice to become an assistant President.
† BUTLER: He said, "That is what he [Roosevelt] was
building up Hugh Johnson for. Hugh Johnson talked too damn
The Conspiracy Explodes 157
much and got him into a hole, and he is going to
fire him in the next three or four weeks."
I said, "How do you know all this?"
"Oh," he said, "we are in with him
all the time. We know what is going to happen."
After having revealed the plans of the plotters,
Butler testified, MacGuire had then bluntly asked the general to be the Man on
a White Horse they were looking for.
said, ". . . Now, about this superorganization -would you be interested in
I said, "I am interested in it, but I do not
know about heading it. I am very greatly interested in it, because you know,
Jerry, my interest is, my one hobby is, maintaining a democracy. If you get
these 500,00o soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I
am going to get 500,000 more and lick bell out of you, and we will have a
real war right at home. You know that."
"Oh, no. We do not want that. We want to ease
up on the President." . . .
"Yes; and then you will put somebody in there
you can run; is that the idea? The President will go around and christen babies
and dedicate bridges, and kiss children. Mr. Roosevelt will never agree to that
"Oh, yes; he will. He will agree to
I said, "I do not believe he will." I
said, "Don't you know that this will cost money, what you are talking
about? He says, "Yes; we have got $3,000,000
to start with, on the line, and we can
get $300,000,000, if we need it." "Who is going to put all
this money up?"
"Well," he said, "you heard Clark
tell you he was willing to put up $15,000,000
to save the other $15,000,000."
Butler had then probed for particulars of the
cabal's plans for organizing their projected military superorganization.
are you going to care for all these men?" He said, "Well, the
Government will not give them pensions, or anything of that kind, but we will
give it to them.
158 The Plot to Seize the White
We will give
privates $10 a month and destitute captains $35. We will get them, all
"It will cost you a lot of money to do
He said, "We
will only have to do that for a year, and then everything will be all right
. . . He said
that they had this money to spend on it, and he wanted to know again if I would
head it, and I said, "No, I am interested in it, but will not head
Seeking to persuade him to change his mind, Butler testified, MacGuire
had sought to impress him with the importance of
the interests who were involved in the plot.
BUTLER: He said, "When I was in Paris, my headquarters
were Morgan & Hodges. We had a meeting over there. I might as well tell you
that our group is for you, for the head of this organization. Morgan &
Hodges are against you. The Morgan interests say that you cannot be trusted,
that you will he too radical, and so forth, that you are too much on the side
of the little fellow; you cannot be trusted. They do not want you. But our
group tells them that you are the only fellow in America who can get the
soldiers together. They say, `Yes, but he will get them together and go in the
wrong way.' That is what they say if you take charge of them."
According to MacGuire, Butler testified, the Morgan interests preferred
other noted military figures as head of the projected
veterans' army. Discussion of these choices was also eliminated from the
published version of the hearings.
† BUTLER: [MacGuire said,] "They are for Douglas MacArthur
as the head of it. Douglas MacArthur's term expires in November, and if he is
not reappointed it is to be presumed that he will be disappointed and sore and
they are for getting him to head it."
I said, "I
do not think that you will get the soldiers to follow him, Jerry. . . . He is
in bad odor, because he put on a uniform with medals to march down the street
in Washington, I know the soldiers."
The Conspiracy Explodes 159
we will get Hanford MacNider. They want either MacArthur or MacNider. . .
"MacNider won't do either. He will not get the soldiers to follow him,
because he has been opposed to the bonus."
"Yes, but we will have him in change
And it is
interesting to note that three weeks later after this conversation 'MacNider
changed and turned around for the bonus. It is interesting to note that.
said, "There is going to be a big quarrel over the reappointment of
MacArthur . . . you watch the President reappoint him. He is going to go right
and if he does not reappoint him, he is going to go left."
I have been
watching with a great deal of interest this quarrel over his reappointment to
see how it comes out. He [MacGuire] said, "You know as well as I do that
MacArthur is Stotesbury's son in law in Philadelphia-[Stotesbury being]
Morgan's representative in Philadelphia. You just see how it goes and if I am
not telling the truth."
I noticed that
MacNider turned around for the bonus, and that there is a row over the
reappointment of MacArthur.
by now of the seriousness of the plot, and its magnitude, Butler had
endeavored to learn how far along the conspirators were in the creation of the
new superorganization that would control the proposed veterans' army. MacGuire
gave him some tips on recognizing its appearance.
BUTLER: Now, there is one point . . . which I think is the
most important of all. I said, "What are you going to call this
He said, "Well, I do not know."
I said, "Is there anything stirring about it
Plot to Seize the White House
"Yes," he says;
"you watch; in two or three weeks you will see it come out in the paper.
There will be big fellows in it. This is to be the background of it. These are
to be the villagers in the opera. The papers will come out with it-" He
did not give me the name of it, but he said that it would all be made public; a
society to maintain the Constitution, and so forth. They had a lot of talk
this time about maintaining the Constitution. I said, "I do not see that
the Constitution is in any danger."
Butler's next observation, possibly the most significant in all his
testimony, was missing from the published version of his testimony. It was the
link between the conspiracy and the powerful interests Butler had good reason
to believe were the "big fellows" in the background.
† BUTLER: .
. . and in about two weeks the
American Liberty League appeared, which was just about what he described it to
American Liberty League, which had brokerage head Grayson M.-P. Murphy as its
treasurer and Robert S. Clark as one of its financiers, also had John W. Davis,
alleged writer of the gold-standard speech for Clark, as a member of the
National Executive Committee. Its contributors included representatives of the
Morgan, Du Pont, Rockefeller, Pew, and Mellon interests. Directors of the
League included A1 Smith and John J. Raskob. League later formed affiliations
with pro-Fascist, antilabor, and anti-Semitic organizations.
It astonished Butler that former New York Governor
A1 Smith, who had lost the 1928 presidential race to Hoover as the Democratic
candidate, could be involved in a Fascist plot backed by wealthy men. But the
"happy warrior" who had grown up on New York's East Side had traded
his brown derby for a black one. He was now a business associate of the
powerful Du Pont family, who had cultivated him through Du Pont official John
J. Raskob, former chairman of the Democratic party. Under their influence Smith
had grown more and more politically conservative following his defeat.
The Conspiracy Explodes 161
Butler's query about Smith, and MacGuire's reply, were both deleted from
the official testimony of the hearings.
† BUTLER: I
said, "What is the idea of Al
Smith in this?" "Well," he said, "A1 Smith is getting ready
to assault the Administration in his magazine. It will appear in a month or so.
He is going to take a shot at the money question. He has definitely broken with
I was interested to note that about a month later
he did, and the New Outlook took the shot that he told me a month before they
were going to take. Let me say that this fellow [MacGuire] has been able to
tell me a month or six weeks ahead of time everything that happened. That made
him interesting. I wanted to see if he was going to come out right. . . .
In testimony that was also censored, Paul Comly French revealed that
MacGuire had implicated the Du Ponts to him, indicating the role they would
play in equipping the superarmy being planned by the plotters.
† FRENCH: We discussed the question of arms and equipment,
and he suggested that they could be obtained from the Remington Arms Co., on
credit through the Du Ponts.
I do not think at that time he mentioned the
connections of Du Pouts with the American Liberty League . . . but he skirted
all around the idea that that was the back door; one of the Du Pouts is on the
board of directors of the American Liberty League and they own a controlling
interest in the Remington Arms Co.... He said the General would not have any
trouble enlisting 500,000 men.
story it ran on November 21, 1934, The New York Times noted, "According to General Butler ... he was
to assemble his 500,000 men in Washington, possibly a year from now, with
the expectation that such a show of force would enable it to take over the
government peacefully in a few days."
his last talk with MacGuire, Butler had once more pressured him to explain the
persistent bond salesman's personal stake in the conspiracy.
Plot to Seize the White House
BUTLER: I asked him
again, "Why are you in this thing?"
He said, "I am a
business man. I have got a wife and children."
in other words, he had
had a nice trip to Europe with his family, for nine months, and he said that
that cost plenty, too. . . .
So he left me, saying,
"I am going down to Miami and I will get in touch with you after the
convention is over, and we are going to make a fight down there for the gold
standard, and we are going to organize."
After he had been urged over forty times to accept
the leadership of the Fascist coup d'etat being planned, while he gathered as
much information about it as he could, Butler had then sought to gather
corroborative evidence through reporter Paul Comly French.
BUTLER: ... in talking to Paul French here-I had
not said anything about this other thing, it did not make any difference about
fiddling with the gold standard resolution, but this [the Fascist plot] looked
to me as though it might be getting near that they were going to stir some of
these soldiers up to hurt our Government. I did not know anything about this
committee [the American Liberty League], so I told Paul to let his newspaper
see what they could find out about the background of these fellows.
Although Butler recalled having induced French to check into the case,
former Philadelphia Record city
editor Tom O'Neil gave the author his recollection that Butler had approached
him and told him the whole story. O'Neil recalled that he had agreed to assign
French to investigate. Probably Butler first approached French, who had
referred him to the city editor.
Butler gave the McCormack-Dickstein Committee his view that the plot
might have been hatched out of a racket that MacGuire had been working as a
BUTLER: I felt that it was just a racket, that
these fellows were working one another and getting money out of the rich,
selling them gold bricks. I have been in 752 different
The Conspiracy Explodes 163
towns in the United States in three years and one month,
and I made 1,022 speeches. I have seen absolutely no sign of anything showing a
trend for a change of our form of Government. So it has never appealed to me at
all. But as long as there was a lot of money stirring around-and I had noticed
some of them with money to whom I have talked were dissatisfied and talking
about having dictators-I thought that perhaps they might be tempted to put up
Butler testified that his last encounter with MacGuire had been reference
to French's attempt to talk to him.
CHAIRMAN: Did you have any further talks with him?
BUTLER: No. The only other
time I saw or heard from him was when I wanted Paul to uncover him. He talked
to me and he telephoned Paul, saying he wanted to see him. He called me up and
asked if Paul was a reputable person, and I said he was. That is the last thing
I heard from him. CHAIRMAN: The last talk you had with MacGuire was in the
Bellevue in August of this year?
BUTLER: August 22; yes. The date can be identified.
concluded his testimony by urging the committee to question several persons
about the plot in addition to MacGuire-notably Murphy, Doyle, and Legion
Commander Frank N. Belgrano. This request was also stricken from the official
Butler was aware that Chairman McCormack was himself a Legionnaire and
that the revelations of the plot implicating Legion officials might be painful
to him. But Butler also knew that McCormack was a determined foe of Nazi
propaganda and a staunch supporter of New Deal measures. Butler counted on his
indignation over the conspiracy to bring about a full-scale investigation by
the Department of justice.
Plot to Seize the White House
After Butler had completed his
testimony, Paul Comly French took the witness chair to report on his own
investigation of the plot, in which a candid two-hour conversation with
MacGuire at the latter's office figured prominently.
Describing these talks on the premises of Grayson M.-P. Murphy and
Company, French verified every allegation about the plot the general had
attributed to MacGuire. In addition French reported the more open statements
MacGuire had made to him about the nature of the conspiracy and how it would
work. More frank with French, apparently, than he had dared to be with the
general, MacGuire made little attempt to disguise the Fascist nature of the
proposed putsch with euphemistic phrases about "supporting the
FRENCH: We need a Fascist government in this
country, he insisted, to save the Nation from the Communists who want to tear
it down and wreck all that we have built in America. The only men who have the
patriotism to do it are the soldiers and Smedley Butler is the ideal leader. He
could organize a million men overnight.
During the conversation he told me he had been in
Italy and Germany during the summer of 1934 and the spring of 1934 and had made
an intensive study of the background of the Nazi and Fascist movements and how
the veterans had played a part in them. He said he had obtained enough
information on the Fascist and Nazi movements and of the part played by the
veterans, to properly set up one in this country.
He emphasized throughout his conversation with me
that the whole thing was tremendously patriotic, that it was saving the Nation
from Communists, and that the men they deal with have that crackbrained idea
that the Communists
The Conspiracy Explodes 165
are going to take it apart. He said the only
safeguard would be the soldiers. At first he suggested that the General organize
this outfit himself and ask a dollar a year dues from everybody. We discussed
that, and then he came around to the point of getting outside financial funds,
and he said that it would not be any trouble to raise a million dollars.
French's use of the phrase "crackbrained idea" to describe the
notion by financiers and captains of industry that the country needed to be
saved from communism was obviously his own, and not MacGuire's, expression.
Censored in French's testimony was his revelation
of the sources to which MacGuire had said that he could turn for the funds to
finance the veterans' army.
† FRENCH: He said he could go to John W. Davis
[attorney for J. P. Morgan and Company] or Perkins of the National City Bank,
and any number of persons to get it.
Of course, that may or may not mean anything. That
is, his reference to John W. Davis and Perkins of the National City Bank.
testified that MacGuire had sought to impress him by indicating high-level
support for the conspiracy from important movers and shakers of the American
FRENCH: He then pushed a letter across the desk and
said that it was from Louis Johnson, a former national commander of the
CHAIRMAN: Did he show you the letter?
FRENCH: I did not read it. He just passed it over
so I could see it, but he did not show it to me. He said that he had discussed
the matter with him along the lines of what we were now discussing, and I took
it to mean that he had talked of this Fascist proposition with Johnson, and
Johnson was in sympathy with it.
During the conversation
he also mentioned Henry Stevens, of Warsaw, N.C., a former national commander
of the American Legion, and said that he was interested in the program. Several
times he brought in the names of various former national commanders of the
Plot to Seize the White House
to give me the impression that, whether justly or
unjustly, a group in the American Legion were actively interested in this
other words, he mentioned a lot of prominent names; and whether they are
interested or not, you do not know, except that he seemed to try to convey to
you that they were, to impress on you the significance of this movement?
is precisely the impression I gained from him.
As MacGuire had grown
increasingly comfortable with him, French testified, the plotter had grown
candid and enthusiastic about the Fascist rewards that would follow seizure of
the White House. French's use of the word "brilliant" in the following
portion of testimony was obviously sarcastic.
had a very brilliant solution of the unemployment situation. He said that
Roosevelt had muffed it terrifically, but that he had the plan. He had seen it
in Europe. It was a plan that Hitler had used in putting all of the unemployed
in labor camps or barracks-enforced labor. That would solve it overnight, and
he said that when they got into power, that is what they would do; that that
was the ideal plan.
He had another suggestion to register all persons
all over the country, like they do in Europe. He said that would stop a lot of
these Communist agitators who were running around the country.
He said that a crash was inevitable and was due to
come when bonds reached 5 percent. He said that the soldiers must prepare to
save the Nation.
If Roosevelt went along with the
dictatorship as the King had done in Italy, MacGuire had suggested, Butler
could have the proposed labor camps put under his own control.
† FRENCH: . . . he suggested that Roosevelt would be in sympathy
with us and proposed the idea that Butler would be named as the head of the
C.C.C. [Civilian Conservation
The Conspiracy Explodes 167
Corps] camps by the
President as a means of building up the organization. . . .
French then testified that
MacGuire had told him the plotters could obtain arms and equipment from the
Remington Arms Company, on credit through the Du Ponts. His testimony also
implicated the American Liberty League.
† FRENCH: I do not think at that time he mentioned the connection of Du Ponts with the
American Liberty League, but he skirted all around it. That is, I do not think
he mentioned the Liberty League, but he skirted all around the idea that that
was the back door; one of the Du Ponts is on the board of directors of the
American Liberty League and they own a controlling interest in the Remington
Arms Co. . . . He said the General would not have any trouble enlisting 500,000 men.
It was because MacGuire saw the
general as the indispensable man of the putsch, French testified, that he
persisted in his efforts to win Butler's adherence to the scheme.
I left him he said that he planned to get in touch with the general and again
try to persuade him to accept the leadership of this organization; that he was
going to Miami in a couple of weeks for the national convention to do a little
beat the bonus?
CHAIRMAN: I thought he was for the bonus.
was at first.
BUTLER (interposing): He wants it paid in gold. Clark told me that he had
been for the bonus or that he would be for the bonus if we could get the gold
he said he would be in Miami. I told him that the general was going out on a
rather lengthy speaking tour and did not know how to get to him. He said that
he would either see him before he went to Miami or, if he could not, after he
came back from Miami. But he did not see him and in a couple of days the
general went out West.
Plot to Seize the White House
I went back to see MacGuire on the 27th of September and talked to him for only
a few minutes this time. In the meantime I had tried to get in touch with him
once when I was in New York, but he was then
in Miami and could not. At this time he said that he was extremely sorry that
he could not get to Newtown Square [Butler's home town], but hoped to do so
soon; that things were moving nicely. Everything is coming our way, is the way
he expressed it.
same afternoon the committee grilled Jerry MacGuire, who had also been summoned
to testify at the executive session. MacGuire, who earned only $150 a week as a
bond salesman, contradicted himself on the amount of money he had received from
sponsors and what he had done with it. He denied Butler's allegation that he
had thrown eighteen thousand-dollar bills on the bed at the Newark hotel during
the 29th Division convention to bribe Butler into going to the Legion
convention in Chicago.
could not explain what he had done with at least thirty thousand in letters of
credit, funds advanced to him by either Clark or Clark's attorney, Albert Grant
Christmas, and which MacGuire had had with him at the Legion convention in
Chicago the following October, at which he had been both a delegate and a
member of the "distinguished guest committee."
McCormack-Dickstein Committee found five significant facts that lent validity
to Butler's testimony. Clark, who wanted the Legion to pass a gold-standard
resolution, had given MacGuire those funds. In the long-distance call Clark had
allegedly made to Chicago while Butler was listening, he had instructed
MacGuire, "You can put this thing across alone. You've got $45,000. You
can send those telegrams." MacGuire could not explain how he had spent
those funds. But telegrams had, indeed,
The Conspiracy Explodes 169
the convention, and the Legion had passed the resolution.
of Butler's testimony about MacGuire's mission in Europe
was borne out by the committee's finding that he had spent large sums of money
on that trip to study Fascist movements in Italy, Germany, and France. The
committee found, too, that he and Clark had handled large sums of money for
various organizations, that he had been active in organizations mentioned by
Butler, and that he had acted as cashier for one organization. His accounts of
some of these financial transactions failed to satisfy the committee, and he
was curtly instructed to reappear the following day for further questioning.
by reporters afterward, MacGuire declared that he was a personal friend of
General Butler's and had last seen him six months earlier when he had gone to
Philadelphia to sell some bonds. They had talked about an adequate military
force for the nation, MacGuire insisted, and about world affairs in general,
but he denied ever discussing a Fascist army or movement. A little desperately
MacGuire suggested that "General Butler must be seeking publicity,"
and called the general's testimony "a pacifist stunt:" His attorney,
Norman L. Marks, called it "a joke and a publicity stunt for General
Butler's reputation as an honest patriot made what he had testified to under
oath impossible for the press to ignore. On November 21, 1934, in the center of
its front page, The New
York Times carried a two-column headline:
Gen. Butler Bares `Fascist Plot'
To Seize Government by Force
Says Bond Salesman, as Representative of Wall St. Group, Asked Him to Lead Army of
500,000 in March on Capital-Those Named Make
Angry Denials-Dickstein Gets Charge
Plot to Seize the White House
the Times's account of the secret
hearings, Butler was struck by a unique arrangement of the facts in the story.
Instead of beginning with a full account of his charges, there was only a brief
paragraph restating the facts in the headline. This was followed by a whole
string of denials, or ridicule of the charges, by prominent people implicated.
Extensive space was given to their attempts to brand Butler a liar or lunatic.
Only at the tail of the story, buried inside the paper, did the Times wind up its account with a few
brief paragraphs mentioning some of his allegations.
papers that picked up the story dropped the tail carrying even those cursory
details of the plot. Newspaper publishers had little reason to be fond of the
firebrand general who, in his speech to veterans in Atlanta almost a year
earlier, had warned them not to believe the capitalist-controlled press, which,
Butler charged, suppressed facts unfavorable to America's powerful
The New York Times did
note, however, that Butler had told friends in Philadelphia that General Hugh
S. Johnson, former N.R.A. administrator, had been among those slated for the
role of dictator if Butler turned it down and that J. P. Morgan and Company and
Grayson M.-P. Murphy and Company were both involved in the plot.
a joke-a publicity stunt," Jerry MacGuire was quoted as insisting. "I
know nothing about it. The matter is made up out of whole cloth. I deny the
Johnson growled, "He had better be pretty damn careful. Nobody said a
word to me about anything of this kind, and if they did I'd throw them out the
window. I know nothing about it."
W. Lamont, partner in J. P. Morgan and Company, gave his comment: "Perfect
moonshine! Too unutterably ridiculous to comment upon!" J. P. Morgan
himself, just back from Europe, had nothing to say.
fantasy!" scoffed Colonel Grayson M.-P. Murphy. "I can't imagine how
anyone could produce it or any sane person believe it. It is absolutely false
so far as it relates to me and my firm.
The Conspiracy Explodes 171
and I don't believe there is a
word of truth in it with respect to Mr. MacGuire."
Colonel Murphy specifically denied
to reporters that he had financed any Fascist plot and called the statement
that he had made out a check for General Butler's Chicago expenses "an
absolute lie." He declared that he did not know General Butler and had
never heard of the reputed Fascist movement until the charges had been
published. He insisted that in 1932 he had voted for President Roosevelt, the
target of the alleged plot.
about these denials, Butler snorted to a New
York Times reporter, "Hell, you're not surprised they deny it, are
you? What they have to say they'll say before the committee." He wanted
them under oath, as lie had been.
Washington General Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff, was unavailable for
comment because of a real or a diplomatic "heavy cold." His aides,
however, expressed amazement and amusement that MacArthur had been named by
Butler as an alternate choice of the plotters for dictator if Butler persisted
in refusing the offer.
the principals in the case," George Seldes noted in his book Facts and Fascism, "were American
Legion officials and financial backers."
of War George H. Dern, Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson, and a large
number of senators and congressmen urged the McCormack-Dickstein Committee to
get to the bottom of the conspiracy.
are going to make a searching investigation of the evidence submitted by
General Butler," McCormack announced. "Our original information came
from several different sources. General Butler was not the first source of our
information. . . . We have been in possession of certain information for about
five weeks and have been investigating it. We will call all the men mentioned
in the story, although Mr. Clark is reported to be in Europe."
present indications," declared Dickstein, "Butler has the evidence.
He's not going to make any serious charges unless he has something to back them
up. We'll have the men here with bigger names than his." He added that
Butler had substantiated
Plot to Seize the White House
the statements attributed to him and had enied none. Both McCormack and
Dickstein emphasized that the general had repulsed all proposals from the
Dickstein indicated that about sixteen persons
mentioned to the committee by Butler would be subpoenaed and that an open
hearing might be held within a week.
frorn Washington, Butler was besieged by reporters at his home in Newtown
name has been used all around the country by organizations," he told them.
"They'd get some vets and say, `See, we have Butler with us.' They were
using me. The investigators who have been running this thing down found my name
popping up everywhere, so they wanted to know what I knew about it-and I'm not
the only man in this thing."
Dr. W. D. Brooks, of Jackson, Michigan, wired the President:
Very obviously Wall St. plans to take over the U.S.
Govt. if Hoover re-elected. Very obviously Butler is telling the truth. I have
been looking for just this attempt at a Wall St. coup if your policies looked
like succeeding. Wall St. is the enemy of our govt. and Butler is giving it to
you straight-don't doubt that for a minute.
The writer was unable to ascertain the identity of Dr. Brooks, but
apparently his opinion carried some weight at the White House, because Louis
Howe referred his wire to Attorney General Homer S. Cummings "for
acknowledgment and consideration." A demand for prosecution of the
conspirators came from many V.F.W. posts all over the country, which passed
resolutions praising Butler for exposing the plotters.
The Conspiracy Explodes 173
was the resolution of Philadelphia Post 37 on November 22, 1934:
Whereas Major General Smedley D. Butler has again
exhibited his patriotism, sterling integrity and incorruptible character by
exposing a sinister clique of adventurers who would undermine and destroy our
form of government, and whereas such treasonable activities by men of money and
of influence are more dangerous to our institutions than radical groups in our
midst, therefore be it resolved ... that it commend General Butler for his
patriotic spirit and hereby expresses its deep gratitude for his great service
to our country. And be it further resolved that the Clair Post hereby
respectfully requests the Attorney General of the United States to take proper
legal action against all guilty parties involved.
If the press seemed overeager to emphasize denials of Butler's charges,
the people of grass-roots America were far readier to believe the man who had
exposed the plot. Letters of encouragement poured in from all over the
country. One Nebraska woman wrote him:
It is heartening to find a man who has the courage
to fight that Octopus, Wall St. More power to you. There are millions of honest
people in the United States who applaud you and would follow you heart &
soul. Read of MacNider's name being linked with the case. Heard him speak
before a woman's club in Omaha. Sized him up as being that kind of tripe.
Here's hoping you expose these traitors to a showdown. Yours for justice. . .
MacGuire returned as a witness for a second day of secret grilling by the
McCormack-Dickstein Committee. Again he denied Butler's charges that he had
approached the general on behalf of a plot to establish a Fascist dictatorship.
testified that lie had received thirty thousand dollars from Robert Sterling
Clark to be deposited in the Hanover Trust Company to the credit of "The
Committee for a Sound Dollar and Sound Currency, Inc." He and his backers
had only wanted
Plot to Seize the White House
interest Butler in that committee,
MacGuire insisted, because as an important and popular public figure the
general could command attention for their movement. They wanted to give him the
opportunity to "make a little money" in the process.
Although Clark, his attorney A. G. Christmas, Walter E. Frew, and others
were behind the Committee for a Sound Dollar and Sound Currency, their names
had been carefully omitted from its records. MacGuire testified that as far as
he knew, Clark had never had any interest in a Fascist organization. But the
McCormack-Dickstein Committee located letters from MacGuire written from Europe
to Clark and Christmas that proved otherwise.
questions thrown at him MacGuire answered evasively, "It is too far back,"
or "I cannot recall." At the conclusion of his testimony Dickstein
told reporters that MacGuire was "hanging himself" by contradictions
in his story and by forced admissions made during his testimony. When this
opinion was quoted in a few evening newspapers, Dickstein observed that he had
meant it to be "off the -record."
L. Marks, the attorney who had accompanied Mac Guire at the secret hearings,
told reporters that MacGuire had denied ever having had any connection with any
Fascist organization of any sort; that he had ever been the "cashier"
for any Fascist group; or that he had gone to Europe to study the Fascist
movement. MacGuire's European trip, Marks alleged, had been solely for purposes
of private business.
declared that all information about the testimony would be withheld
because it had been given in closed executive session. But the fact that the
committee regarded the testimony as important, he added, was shown by the
decision to recall MacGuire for further questioning. Despite Dickstein's
earlier statement that sixteen people named by Butler would be subpoenaed,
McCormack said that the committee had not yet decided whether to call
additional witnesses. Noting that the most important witness, apart from
MacGuire, was Robert S. Clark, "a wealthy New Yorker with offices in the
Stock Exchange Building," who was abroad, McCormack indicated that if the
facts warranted, a public hearing would be held. Leaders of important
The Conspiracy Explodes 175
like the American Legion and the V.F.W. would then
be invited to appear before the committee.
Associated Press reported from Indianapolis that banker Frank N. Belgrano, Jr.,
national commander of the Legion, had denied that the Legion was involved
"in the slightest degree" in any plot to supply an army for a
"march on Washington." Highly placed Legion officials in Washington
also characterized as "horsefeathers" a rumor that a group of
"big-business men" had promised the Legion payment of adjusted
service certificates, in return for a pledge to support the Fascist movement.
Johnson, former Legion national commander, declared in Fairmont, West Virginia,
that he could not recall having written the letter to Jerry MacGuire, promising
to see him about Fascist army plan, that MacGuire had shown briefly to Paul Comly French. If he had written such a letter, Johnson
insisted, it would show that he and the Legion were unalterably opposed to any
November 22 the Associated Press struck a low blow at Butler by
getting Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, of New York, to express an opinion of the
conspiracy based on what he had read about it in the press. The AP ran this
"news item" under the headline "COCKTAIL PUTSCH,"
Mayor LaGuardia of New York laughingly described today
the charges of General Smedley D. Butler that New York brokers suggested he lead an
army of 500,000 ex-service men on Washington as "a cocktail
putsch." The Mayor indicated he believed that some one at a party had
suggested the idea to the ex-marine as a joke.
the press treatment of the scanty disclosures that had leaked out of the closed
hearing, Butler was not surprised by the attempts to minimize and ridicule his
exposure of the conspiracy. He had expected to be pilloried for his audacity in
pinning a traitors' label on powerful American interests. He hoped, however,
that the press would eventually be compelled to print the whole story of the
plot as it had unfolded to him, when he testified at a public hearing along
with French's corroboration.
Plot to Seize the White House
The committee would surely
have to subpoena all the people who were implicated, in one way or another, to
testify at that open meeting under oath.
Fresh support for Butler's
expose came from Van Zandt, who revealed to the press that he, too, had been
approached by "agents of Wall Street" to lead a Fascist dictatorship
in the United States under the guise of a "Veterans Organization."
He revealed that
Butler had informed him about the plotters' solicitation of the general two
months earlier and had warned him that he, too, would be contacted by them at
the V.F.W. convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Van Zandt said he had asked
Butler the purpose of the organization and the general had replied that it
sought to return the American dollar to the gold standard and, in MacGuire's
words, "to get rid of this fellow in the White House."
In addition to
Butler and himself, Van Zandt told reporters, MacArthur, Colonel Theodore
Roosevelt, Jr., and former Legion Commander Hanford MacNider had recently been
sounded out on their interest in leading the proposed Fascist veterans organization.
He also charged that MacGuire had spent months in Europe studying Fascist
organizations as models for an American one.
Roosevelt, Jr., decried as "ridiculous" the idea that he could be
used to wrest the powers of the Presidency away from his fourth cousin,
Franklin D. Roosevelt.
declared that the committee was continuing to give serious consideration to General
Butler's charges and might call Van Zandt to testify on the proposals made to
him and others he had named. MacGuire would be called before the committee
again in executive session, he announced, for scrutiny
The Conspiracy Explodes 177
of his bank accounts and
records. But McCormack indicated that he intended to keep the scope of the
investigation circumscribed by legal considerations.
intend to drag in names that come to us through rumors," he told
reporters. "If investigation discloses there is sufficient reason to
subpoena witnesses, we will do so. Simply because someone mentions the name of
Mr. Lamont or General Johnson is not sufficient to ask them to appear before
focus of the committee's interest was shifted when it turned its attention to
investigating charges that some left-wing unions had used a
three-million-dollar fund to "foment and carry on strikes." The New
York Times ran headlines reading "Reds Fund Activity in Fur
Industry" and "Red Union Funds Traced at Hearing." Buried in
third-rank subheads, and in the body of the story, was further information
about the Fascist plot.
dispatch from Paris reported that Robert Sterling Clark was sending a lawyer to
New York to answer charges made by Butler and "clear the matter up."
Clark declared himself bewildered by the mention of his name and said he would
send the lawyer "if the whole affair isn't relegated to the funny papers
went to Europe for me, but his visit had nothing to do with politics," he
insisted. "He visited France, Italy and Germany and was in Paris in
February of this year. He spent four months on the Continent. His trip was made
for the purposes of investigating the financial situation, the possibilities
of monetary stabilization and commercial trends."
showed him Van Zandt's accusation that MacGuire had returned to the United
States with copious data for setting up an American Fascist regime, he
exclaimed, "My God, what is back of all this? I saw all of MacGuire's
reports. I cannot imagine him doing anything else on the side."
Although he was
on vacation in Paris, Clark declared, he was ready to return to testify if the
committee summoned him.
Plot to Seize the White House
MacGuire showed up a third time
for interrogation by the committee, this time with the bankbooks, canceled
checks, and other financial records he was ordered to produce. Before entering
the committee room accompanied by his counsel, he asked permission to read to
the committee a cablegram he had received from Albert Grant Christmas, Clark's
lawyer, in Paris:
Read this wire when you testify. Reports of the
Butler testimony in Paris outrageous. If reports are correct, my opinion is
that a most serious libel has been committed. I am
returning at once to testify as to our anti-inflation activities.
now testified that on September 24, 1933, on the date
Butler had said he was approached by MacGuire in the Newark hotel and offered
eighteen thousand-dollar bills, MacGuire had been in Chicago. He claimed to
have registered at the Palmer House on September 21, remaining
in Chicago until October 8, so that he could not have met Butler in Newark on
committee investigators found that he had indeed called upon Butler that day
and had had available at least sixteen thousand dollars, largely in
thousand-dollar bills. Unless MacGuire had shown them to him, Butler could not
possibly have known about them, lending strong verification to the general's
charge that they had been tossed on his bed as a bribe.
produced the bank accounts of the Committee for a Sound Dollar and Sound
Currency, Inc., of which he was an official, and whose purpose he described as
"opposing monetary inflation in the United States." He and his lawyer
The Conspiracy Explodes 179
only discussions MacGuire had had with Butler concerned financial backing for
a contracting concern.
reluctantly admitted receiving $75,000 from Clark for an
"unexplained purpose," the McCormack-Dickstein Committee report
later noted, while working on a drawing account of $432 a month. This $75,000 was in
addition to $30,00o he had also received from Walter E. Frew, of the Corn
Exchange Bank, for the Committee for a Sound Dollar and Sound Currency, Inc.
"Whether there was more, and how much more," said the report, the
[McCormack-Dickstein] Committee does not yet know."
MacGuire admitted spending almost $8,000 on the
trip to Europe, ostensibly to buy bonds, but the investigators noted the trip
had resulted in detailed reports to MacGuire's backers on various Fascist
Although he still denied having tossed the eighteen thousand-dollar
bills on Butler's bed in the Newark hotel, the committee found bank records
showing he had bought letters of credit six days later from Central Hanover
Bank, paying for them with thirteen thousand-dollar bills.
The testimony of MacGuire under oath flatly contradicted everything
Butler had testified to. The McCormack-Dickstein Committee was left with no
other option than to conclude either that Butler was lying, in which case the
whole plot was a fabrication or fantasy, or that MacGuire was lying, in which
case Butler's charges were true, and the dangerous conspiracy of which he
warned was a reality.
you leave a speech with him-a speech that he was to make to the convention if
he went out there?
anything said about weakening the influence of the administration with the
sir; I do not believe the
administration was mentioned, as far as President Roosevelt or anybody down
there are concerned....
MCCORMACK: Was there some talk about his going out as an individual Legionnaire and
having two or three hundred Legionnaires go out to Chicago, too?
sir. . . .
Plot to Seize the White House
MCCORMACK: At any time did you take out a bank book
and show him deposits in it?
MACGUIRE: No, sir. . . .
MCCORMACK: Did he at any time ask you where you got
MACGUIRE: I never had any money, and he never asked
me if I had any. . . .
MCCORMACK: Did you know that Mr. Clark had a personal
talk with General Butler?
MACGUIRE: It seems to me that he mentioned it to
me, but I am not sure. . . .
MCCORMACK: Did you know that Mr. Clark talked with
him about going to the convention?
MACGUIRE: No, sir; I do not....
MCCORMACK: Did Mr. Clark call you up in Chicago at
MACGUIRE: Mr. Clark. No, sir....
MCCORMACK: Did 11e ever call you uP in Chicago from
General Butler's home?
MACGUIRE: No, sir; to my
recollection he did not. . . .
MCCORMACK: Did you tell him
[Butler] at that time that you went abroad to study the part that the veterans
played abroad in the set-up of the governments of the countries abroad?
MACGUIRE: No, sir.... .
MCCORMACK: Did you talk with
him about the forming of an organization of that kind here.
MACGUIRE: No, sir....
MCCORMACK: You previously testified that you only
had one transaction in the swapping of checks with Christmas [Clark's attorney]
of $20,000 and until later, when you
paid him back the balance?
MAcGUIRE: No; I believe that
was paid back to Christmas in cash.
MCCORMACK: What have you got
to show that?
MACGUIRE: I haven't got
anything to show it.
MCCORMACK: Did you receive a
receipt from Christmas?
MACGUIRE: No, sir; not
necessarily; as far as that goes, he is an old friend of mine. . . .
At this point McCormack produced subpoenaed bank records showing that
MacGuire had cashed letters of credit in the
The Conspiracy Explodes 181
amount of $30,300,
prior to the Legion convention in Chicago. MacGuire claimed that this
money was meant to allow him to buy bonds in case he came across a good buy.
MCCORMACK: What did you do with that $30,300 in
MACGUIRE: I kept that money in cash and put it in a
safe deposit box with the First National Bank....
MCCORMACK: What became of that money? MACGUIRE:
That money was brought back and returned to Mr. Christmas.
MCCORMACK: In cash?
MCCORMACK: When did you return this $30,300 to Mr.
MACGUIRE: I do not remember the date. . . .
MCCORMACK: Did you get a receipt for it?
MACGUIRE: No, I did not get a receipt for it....
MCCORMACK: Let me ask you this: why should you have
cashed the letters of credit in Chicago and put that money in a safe deposit
MACGUIRE: Because I felt that if I had a chance to
buy the bonds I could buy them right off for cash.
MCCORMACK: Wouldn't letters of credit be accepted
just as cash?
MACGUIRE: They probably would.
MCCORMACK: Wouldn't they be safer than cash on your
MACGUIRE: They probably would, yes; but there is no
objection to getting the cash, is there? ...
MCCORMACK: Did you buy any bonds?
MACGUIRE: No, sir.
MCCORMACK: What bonds did you want to buy? ...
MACGUIRE: I think Chicago Sanitary District 4's.
MCCORMACK: Whom did you talk to about buying the
Chicago Sanitary District 4's?
MACGUIRE: I did not talk to anybody.
MCCORMACK: Whom did you speak to about it?
MACGUIRE: I didn't speak to anybody....
McCormack next turned to subpoenaed reports that MacGuire had sent back
from Europe and cited the one he had sent back
Plot to Seize the White House
praising the Croix de Feu as a
model veterans organization. He also read out another report MacGuire had submitted
to his backers on the Fascist party of Holland.
in this report you also said: "I was informed that there is a Fascist
Party springing up in Holland under the leadership of a man named Mussait who
is an engineer by profession, and who has approximately 50,000 followers
at the present time, ranging in age from 18 to 25 years. It is said that
this man is in close touch with Berlin and is modeling his entire program along
the lines followed by Hitler in Germany. . . ." So you studied this
Fascist Party when you were in Holland, did you?
MACGUIRE: No, sir; I did not. It was a matter of public information in the press and was
reported so in the letter....
committee examined tellers from the Central Hanover Bank and Trust Company and
other banks on financial transactions that had taken place between MacGuire
and Clark, on the account of Albert Christmas, Clark's attorney.
was found that the day before MacGuire had allegedly seen Butler in Newark, he
had drawn six thousand dollars m thousand-dollar bills from a "special
account" in the Manufacturers Trust Company and had also been given ten
thousand dollars in thousand-dollar bills by Christmas in Clark's presence. The
committee was convinced that MacGuire had been the "cashier" for the
planned veterans organization.
The committee also found evidence that disproved MacGuire's alibi that he
had been in Chicago on September 24, as well as his contention that he had not
seen Butler on that day at the Newark hotel. And it was established beyond
dispute that he had written detailed letters to Clark and Christmas reporting
on the Black Shirts of Italy, the Brown Shirts of Germany, and the Croix de Feu
announced grimly that he would subpoena Clark as soon as he returned from
Europe. "As the evidence stands," he declared, "it calls for an
explanation that the committee has been unable to obtain from Mr.
November 26, 1934, referring to MacGuire's testimony,
The Conspiracy Explodes 183
declared, "You can't get away from it -somebody is trying to shield
somebody on something that looks rotten, and honest people don't do that."
When the committee called no
further witnesses from among those named in the testimony, gossip swept
Washington that the uncalled witnesses were simply too powerful to be
reporter John Spivak learned that the only one known to have been called to
testify was California banker Frank N. Belgrano, commander of the American Legion.
Checking into why he had not testified, Spivak found that he had been informed
he could return home without having to answer a single question. The reporter
could not verify a rumor that Belgrano had met with President Roosevelt at the
White House, after which he had been taken off the committee's hook.
Spivak tried to learn more about this from the committee itself, Dickstein
revealed that he didn't know why Belgrano had been sent home without being
questioned, and McCormack declined to answer any questions on the subject.
in response to Spivak and other newsmen pressing for an explanation of what the
committee was doing about Butler's charges, McCormack announced on November 2,5
that the committee would make a statement the next day detailing the testimony
it had received. He declared that it would reveal " several important inconsistencies" between the
testimony of MacGuire and statements attributed to him in the press. McCormack
also went out of his way to emphasize vigorously that General Butler could not
be accused of "publicity seeking" in making public his exposure of
day, November 26, the committee's preliminary findings were released in an
eight-thousand-word statement signed by
184 The Plot to Seize the White
and Dickstein. It began: "This committee has had no evidence before it
that would in the slightest degree warrant calling before it such men as John
W. Davis, General Hugh Johnson, General James G. Harbord, Thomas W. Lamont,
Admiral William S. Sims or Hanford MacNider. The committee will not take
cognizance of names brought into the testimony which constitutes mere hearsay.
This committee is not concerned with premature newspaper accounts, when given
and published prior to the taking of testimony. . . ."
McCormack told the author that he had always tried to operate by the rules of
courtroom law, eliminating hearsay evidence lie considered legally
inadmissible. Dickstein had given the same explanation of the committee's modus
operandi in 1934, whereupon Spivak had pointed out, "But your published
reports are full of hearsay testimony." Dickstein had merely blinked and
said, "They are?"
committee statement withheld passing judgment on the testimony it had heard as
premature, but the two chairmen indicated that they intended to pursue their
inquiry further by calling Clark and Christmas to testify on their return from
Europe, to question them about the thousand-dollar bills.
The New York Times reported:
OVER BUTLER 'PLOT'
Has No Evidence to Warrant
Calling Johnson and Others
Named, It Declares
The so-called plot of Wall Street interests to have
Major Gen. Smedley D. Butler head a Fascist movement to take over the national
government and restore the gold dollar failed yesterday to emerge in any
alarming proportions from the statement by the Congressional Committee on
Un-American Activities cm the evidence before it. . . .
committee was far from being as "calm" about the matter as the Times story insisted. On that same day
Dickstein wrote to President Roosevelt, "The committee on C.U.A.A. has
The Conspiracy Explodes 185
issued the enclosed
short report on Gen. Butler's charges, which we have made public, as the
pressure brought to bear on the committee made this course absolutely
imperative. . . . I should very much like to have a conversation with you at
after the Times ran its
"Committee Calm" version of the preliminary McCormack-Dickstein
statement, a refutation of this interpretation by Dickstein compelled the paper
to print a revised article of the retraction. Now a new headline no longer
carried the word "plot" in scoffing quotes:
BUTLER PLOT INQUIRY
NOT TO BE DROPPED
Dickstein Says Committee Will
Get to the Bottom of Story-
Awaits Clark's Return
The Congressional Committee
on Un-American Activities still intends to get to the bottom of the story of a
Wall Street plot to put Major Gen. Smedley D. Butler at the head of a Fascist
army here, Representative Samuel Dickstein, vice chairman, said yesterday. The
committee's statement of
the evidence, he explained, was intended only to satisfy the great public
interest in the plot.
Mr. Dickstein said that the
committee was pleased that this preliminary report was received "neither
as a whitewash of notable persons nor as sensationalism because of the
startling nature of the possibilities, but simply as an indication of the
purpose of the committee to proceed carefully in such an important
Dickstein emphasized that the committee was far from satisfied with the
story told by MacGuire, whose memory had failed to produce any satisfactory
account of the funds that he had handled for Clark and Christmas. Furthermore,
although Clark and Christmas had cabled from abroad that they were willing to
return to testify, Dickstein said that they had not done so and that the
committee would like to question them both. As soon as their presence was
assured, a special executive session of the committee would be called to hear
186 The Plot to Seize the White
On November 30 President Roosevelt replied to Dickstein, thanking him for
sending him the preliminary report on the testimony and declaring, "I am
interested in having it. I take it that the committee will proceed further."
On December 3, 1934, Time
magazine ran a first-page story that attempted to ridicule Butler under the
headlines "Plot Without Plotters." The story opened with a
pseudoaccount of Butler on a white horse assembling 500,00o veterans at a C.C.C. camp at Elkridge, Maryland,
and crying, "Men, Washington is but 30 miles away! Will you follow
me?" The men all shout, "We will!" Then Butler's army marches
south to Washington on Highway 1 while an ammunition train supplied by
Remington Arms Company and E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company brings up the
the column on horseback behind Butler, according to Time's burlesqued version of the plot, are "that grim,
old-time cavalryman, General Hugh Samuel Johnson" and MacArthur; behind
them, three past national commanders of the American Legion-MacNider, Johnson,
and Henry Stevens. They are followed in a shiny limousine by J. P. Morgan and
his partner, Thomas W. Lamont.
Butler ("his spurs clinked loudly") strides into Roosevelt's study
and barks, "Mr. President, I have 500,000 men
outside who want peace but want something more. I wish you to remove Cordell
Hull as Secretary of State." Roosevelt promptly telephones for Hull's
now, Mr. President, I ask you to fill the vacancy which has just occurred in
your Cabinet by appointing me Secretary of State." Roosevelt signs the
commission for Butler, who then tells him, "Let it be understood that
henceforth I will act as the
The Conspiracy Explodes 187
nation's executive. You may
continue to live here at the White House and draw your salary but you will do
and say only what I tell you. If not, you and Vice-President Garner will be
dealt with as I think best. In that event, as Secretary of State, I shall
succeed to the Presidency, as provided by law." The President nods assent,
and the United States becomes a Fascist state. Time then commented:
Such was the nightmarish page of future United
States history pictured last week in Manhattan by General Butler himself to the
special House Committee investigating un-American Activities. No military
officer of the United States since the late tempestuous George Custer has
succeeded in publicly floundering in so much hot water as Smedley Darlington
Time then recounted highlights of
Butler's career, emphasizing the controversies he had never shied away from and
implying that they arose solely from the general's taste for publicity.
Last month he told a Manhattan Jewish congregation
that he would never again fight outside the U.S. General Butler's sensational
tongue had not been heard in the nation's Press for more than a week when he
cornered a reporter for the Philadelphia Record and New York Post, poured into his ears the lurid
tale that he had been offered leadership of a Fascist Putsch scheduled for next
year. . . .
Thanking their stars for having such sure-fire
publicity dropped in their laps, Representatives McCormack and Dickstein began
calling witnesses to expose the "plot." But there did not seem to he
A bewildered army captain, commandant at the
Elkridge CCC camp, could shed no light on the report that his post was to be
turned into a revolutionary base.
Mr. Morgan, just off a boat from Europe, had
nothing to say, but Partner Lamont did: "Perfect moonshine! Too utterly
ridiculous to comment upon!" . . .
Investor Clark, in Paris, freely admitted trying to
get General Butler to use his influence with the Legion against dollar
devaluation, but stoutly maintained: "I am neither a
188 The Plot to Seize the White
Fascist nor a Communist, but an American." He
threatened a libel suit "unless the whole affair is relegated to the funny
sheets by Sunday."
"It sounds like the best laugh story of the
year," chimed in General MacArthur from Washington. . . .
Though most of the country was
again laughing at the latest Butler story, the special House Committee declined
to join in the merriment. . . . "From present indications," said the
publicity-loving New York Representative [Dickstein], "General Butler has
the evidence. He's not making serious charges unless he has something to back
them up. We will have some men here with bigger names than Butler's before
this is over."
those of its readers who might have found Time's
satirical attack too subtle, the magazine helped them get the message by
its choice of photos to accompany the story. An unflattering photo of Butler in
civilian clothes, with his finger reflectively in one ear, was labeled,
"He was deaf to a dictatorship." The pose subtly suggested that the
general, as the copy broadly hinted, was a bit daft.
In contrast, a jovial, laughing picture of that good-natured, genial
humanitarian, J. P. Morgan, looking like everybody's grandfather, was labeled,
"Moonshine provided the amusement." And a stern, handsome picture of
Colonel Grayson M.-P. Murphy, dressed in a trim World War I colonel's uniform,
hand dashingly on hip, was captioned with this quote: "'A fantasy!"'
author asked McCormack in 1971 about Time's
fairness in reporting the Butler hearing. The answer was a snort of disgust.
"Time has always been about as
filthy a publication as ever existed," he said emphatically. "I've
said that publicly many times. The truth gets no coverage at all, just
sensationalism, whatever will sell copies."
on Butler's behalf, the New York City post of the V.F.W. sent President
Roosevelt a wire on December 7 pledging their loyalty and support, and
commending Butler for his courage and patriotism in exposing the conspirators.
later McCormack announced that Albert Christmas had returned from Europe and
would testify in two or three
The Conspiracy Explodes 189
days in an executive session.
Clark's attorney was not questioned, however, until the final day of the
committee's life, January 3, 1935, after which no further investigatory action
could be taken by the committee.
. . and then the questions were limited only to money given MacGuire by the
lawyer and Clark," Spivak noted. "Presumably because of the
sacredness of lawyer-client confidences, no questions were asked about
conversations or correspondence between an alleged principal in the plot and
was an interesting exchange, nevertheless, in the matter of $65,000 MacGuire
testified that he had received for traveling and entertainment expenses:
MCCORMACK: So the way you want to leave it is there
is $65,000 or $66,000 that Mr. MacGuire received from either you, or Mr.
Clark, which he spent in the period between June and December of 1933 for
traveling and entertainment expenses?
CHRISTMAS: Yes, sir.
MCCORMACK: Did he return to you some time in August
 approximately $30,000 in cash?
you know he testified he did?
CHRISTMAS: The committee gave me some indication of
such testimony at a previous session.
MCCORMACK: Assuming he has testified to that, that
is not so?
CHRISTMAS: I would say he is in error. He is
So the committee found still another reason to doubt the veracity of
MacGuire, who had denied, under oath, all the allegations of the Fascist plot
in which he was the go-between, as alleged by General Smedley Butler.
190 The Plot to Seize the White
Press coverage of what was
obviously a startling story of utmost importance to the security of the nation
was largely one of distortion, suppression, and omission.
the case of the Liberty League-Legion-Wall Street conspiracy to overthrow the
United States Government," George Seldes declared in his book 1000 Americans, "there was one of the most
reprehensible conspiracies of silence in the long (and disgraceful) history of
book Facts and Fascism he
wrote, "Most papers suppressed the whole story or threw it down by
ridiculing it. Nor did the press later publish the McCormack-Dickstein report
which stated that every charge Butler made and French corroborated had been
sensitive revelations, as far as the press was concerned, were those touching
upon connections with J. P. Morgan and Company and the powerful interests
represented by the American Liberty League. Heywood Broun, the highly esteemed
columnist for the New York World Telegram,
once observed that the face of The New
York Times was "black with the Morgan shoepolish." Speaker
McCormack told me, "The Times is the
most slanting newspaper in the world. I would not expect anything else from
them. They brainwash the American people. It's an empire."
fairness to The New
York Times of today, however, I should quote their severest critic,
George Seldes, who wrote me in October, 1971, "I find the press [today]
more liberal, too, especially The New
York Times. (And I have not grown mellow in my views, I think.)"
prestigious Times had
distorted the Wall Street conspiracy story in 1934-1935, class-angling the
news was obviously
The Conspiracy Explodes 191
more pronounced in the heavily
anti-Roosevelt, pro-big-business press of that day, much of which derived huge
advertising revenues from corporations involved in the American Liberty League.
wrote Butler on December 26, "The
next time I see you I will explain to you just how I became involved in the
Nazi story. After I read your article in the paper the Commander of North
Dakota and a few others asked me to give them the lowdown which I did
resulting that one of the boys carried the story to the newspaper; therefore,
causing such article to appear in print, and, of course, misquoting me all
replied on January 2, 1935, "I thought your
statements on the Fascist story were darn good and served to stir up the lines.
However, I can guess how it came about, but it did no harm."
The storm of controversy over
his exposure of the plot led radio station WCAU of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
to urge Butler to make broadcasts for them two to four nights a week. He
agreed, and beginning on January 4 took to the airwaves with hard-hitting
attacks on Fascist plotters. What he had to say was impressive enough to make
small headlines in the back pages of newspapers sufficiently often to generate
enthusiastic support from the nation's veterans.
January 7 the Miami, Oklahoma, post of V.F.W. passed a resolution: "Major
General Smedley D. Butler should be commended for his high type of patriotism
in exposing the alleged plot to establish a dictatorship in the United States,
and . . . Franklin D. Roosevelt, President, and citizens of the United States,
should express their appreciation of this exposure."
movement began within the V.F.W. to have each post
192 The Plot to Seize the White
its loyalty to the President and the Constitution. "This, in my opinion,
would serve notice upon all plotters against our government," wrote Henry
S. Drezner, V.F.W. official of a Brooklyn
post, "that the Veterans will not stand idly by while an attempt should be
made to destroy our form of government."
January 31 a New Jersey veteran wrote Butler, "General,
at this time I can say you have 95 percent of the New Jersey veterans in back
of you in anything you do."
weeks later Dickstein declared that he intended to seek a new congressional
appropriation to press a thorough investigation into Butler's charges.
Butler's charges were too serious to be dropped without further
investigation," Dickstein insisted. "He is a man of unquestioned
sincerity and integrity. Furthermore, in my opinion, his statements were not
denied or refuted. I think the matter should be gone into thoroughly and
completely and I intend asking Congress for funds to make such an
investigation. The country should know the full truth about these reputed
overtures to General Butler. If there are individuals or interests who have
ideas and plans such as he testified to, they should be dragged out into the
15 McCormack submitted to the House of Representatives the committee's findings
in the investigation:
In the last few weeks of the committee's official
life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to
establish a fascist organization in this country.
No evidence was presented and this committee had
none to show a connection between this effort and any fascist activity of any
There is no question that
these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in
execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.
This committee received
evidence from Maj. Gen Smedley D. Butler (retired), twice decorated by the
Congress of the United States. He testified before the committee as to
conversations with one Gerald C. MacGuire in which the latter is alleged to
have suggested the formation of a fascist army under the leadership of General
Butler (p. 9-114 D.C. 6 II).
The Conspiracy Explodes 193
MacGuire denied these allegations under oath, but your committee was able to verify all the pertinent
statements made by
General Butler,* with the
exception of the direct statement suggesting the creation of the organization.
This, however, was corroborated in the correspondence of MacGuire with his
principal, Robert Sterling Clark, of New York City, while MacGuire was abroad
studying the various forms of veterans organizations of Fascist character (p.
111 D.C. 611).
There was also corroboration of this point in
French's testimony. The committee then cited an excerpt from the letter MacGuire
had written to Clark and Christmas from France praising the Croix de Feu as a
model veterans organization.
This committee asserts that any efforts based on
lines as suggested in the foregoing and leading off to the extreme right, are
just as bad as efforts which would lead to the extreme left.
Armed forces for the purpose of establishing a
dictatorship by means of Fascism or a dictatorship through the instrumentality
of the proleteriat, or a dictatorship predicated on racial and religious
hatreds, have no place in this country.
total vindication of Butler did not burst like a bombshell across the front
pages of America. Instead, as Seldes noted, "Most newspapers again
suppressed or buried or belittled the official verdict."
The New York Times made no
mention of the plot in its headlines on the committee's report, emphasizing
instead the committee's proposal that all foreign propagandists-Fascist, Nazi,
and Communist-be compelled to register with the State Department. In the fifth
and sixth paragraphs of the story the Times briefly reported:
It also alleged that definite proof had been found
that the much publicized Fascist march on Washington, which was to have been
led by Major Gen. Smedley D. Butler, retired, according to testimony at a hearing,
was actually contemplated.
* Italics are the author's.
194 The Plot to Seize the White
The committee recalled testimony by General Butler,
saying he had testified that Gerald C.
MacGuire had tried to persuade him to
accept the leadership of a Fascist army.
And that was all.
John L. Spivak had been tipped
off earlier by a fellow Washington correspondent that some of Butler's
testimony had been deleted in the committee's November 26, 1934 report to the
House of Representatives, and not for national security reasons. Spivak
determined to get a look at the complete uncensored record of the testimony
given at the executive session.
asked for permission to see it, in order to follow up leads on Nazi activities
in the United States, but he had been turned down on grounds that no one
outside the committee and its employees could sec transcripts of testimony
taken in executive session.
newsmen, however, joined him in pressing for a copy of the Butler testimony. It
was then that the defunct McCormack-Dickstein Committee, possibly to quiet
persistent rumors about why it was being hushed up, decided to publish a
125-page document containing the testimony of Butler, McGuire, and others, on
February 15, 1935. It was marked "Extracts," and the
last page explained why:
In making public the foregoing evidence, which was
taken in executive session in New York City from November 20 to 24, inclusive,
the committee has ordered stricken there-from certain immaterial and
incompetent evidence, or evidence which was not pertinent to the inquiry, and
which would not have been received during a public hearing.
The Conspiracy Explodes 195
newshawk instincts did not let him fully accept this explanation, because he
knew that the committee had published
hearsay evidence. Like a terrier worrying a rag doll, he persisted in trying to
find out what evidence had been cut. Other questions nagged at him. Why had the
committee at first announced it would subpoena all those named by Butler, only
to declare later that it had no evidence on which to question them? Was the
clue to this abrupt change of mind to be found in the censored testimony?
A veteran Washington correspondent told Spivak that he had heard the
deletions had been made at the request of a member of the President's Cabinet.
The implication was that release of certain names could embarrass the
Democratic party, because two had been unsuccessful Democratic candidates for
the Presidency -John W. Davis, the Morgan lawyer, and A1 Smith, governor of New
York before Roosevelt.
had been named in the committee's press release, but not A1 Smith, the
erstwhile "happy warrior" from the slums of New York who had become
codirector with Irenee du Pont in the American Liberty League, and a bitter
critic of Roosevelt's liberalism and New Deal reform.
tried everything to check out the story but found himself up against a brick
wall at every turn.
been tipped off earlier that the House of Representatives intended to let the
McCormack-Dickstein Committee expire on January 3, 1935, rather than renew it
as the committee had asked in order to continue its investigations. And die the
week later, seeking to do a story on its accomplishments in exposing Nazi and
anti-Semitic activities in the United States, Spivak won permission from
Dickstein to examine the committee's official exhibits and make photostatic
copies of those that had been made public. Dickstein wrote a letter to this
effect to the committee's secretary, Frank P. Randolph, and added, "If
necessary consult John [McCormack] about it."
flooded with work involved in closing the committee's files and records, gave
Spivak stacks of documents, exhibits, and transcripts of testimony that were
being sent to
Plot to Seize the White House
the Government Printing Office.
To Spivak's amazement, he found among these records a full transcript of the
executive session hearings in the Butler affair.
by this accidental stroke of luck, he compared it with the official extract of
the hearings and found a number of startling omissions made from the testimony
of both Butler and French, some of which could not be justified on grounds of
hearsay evidence. Spivak copied down the censored material.
I asked former Speaker McCormack if he could recall, after thirty-four years,
the reasons for these omissions from the official record of the testimony at
"I don't recall striking anything from the record," he told me,
"but if I did, it was because I tried to be as careful as I could about
hearsay evidence in open hearings. Executive hearings were different. We'd let
people say anything there because we'd get lots of valuable tips to follow up
that way. But in open hearings I insisted that all the evidence had to be
pertinent, relevant, and germane-evidence that would stand up in a courtroom to
the nth degree. I don't think all investigative committees follow this method,
but they should. I wanted to be very careful about safeguarding the character
of anyone who might be named, without hard evidence, by a witness in testimony
at an open hearing, so if somebody gave hearsay evidence, I would say, `Strike
from the official record of some revelations from the testimony of Butler and
French gave the American press, with a few minor exceptions, a legitimate
excuse to keep silent about them. It was significant that none of the biggest
newspaper chains or wire services saw fit to assign crack reporters to dig into
what was obviously one of the biggest news stories of the decade.
Spivak could not help wondering why MacGuire, the key to the plot, had not been
compelled to testify on where and how he had obtained his advance inside
information about AI Smith's plans, Hugh Johnson's firing, and the appearance
of the American Liberty League; or why he had not been asked to reveal the
sources of his information about the Morgan and Du Pont interests' involvement
in the plot.
The Conspiracy Explodes 197
Worst of all, no one involved in the plot had been prosecuted. Spivak
went to the Department of justice and pointed out that MacGuire had denied
essential parts of Butler's testimony, which the committee itself reported it
had proved by documents, bank records, and letters. Did the department intend
to file a criminal prosecution against MacGuire for perjury or involvement in
was told," Spivak reported, "it had no plans to prosecute."
Roger Baldwin, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, issued an angry
statement on the curious apathy of the justice Department in pu