Smedley Butler: The Maverick Marine

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Early Life of Smedley Butler
  3. Smedley Butler’s Military Career
  4. Butler’s Transition to Civilian Life
  5. Smedley Butler’s Legacy and Controversies
  6. Smedley Butler in Popular Culture
  7. Resources for Further Reading and Research on Smedley Butler
  8. Conclusion
  9. Call to Action
  10. FAQ’s


In the annals of American military history, few figures are as fascinating and complex as Smedley Butler. Born on July 30, 1881, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Butler would go on to have a military career that spanned over three decades, earning him the reputation of a hero and a maverick. His life post-military was equally compelling, marked by his transition into a vocal critic of U.S. military policy and capitalism. Today we aim to delve deep into the life of Smedley Butler, exploring his military exploits, his pivotal role in exposing the Business Plot, and his enduring legacy in both military and political spheres. Through a blend of historical facts, analyses, and visual elements, we embark on a comprehensive journey through the life of a man who left an indelible mark on American history.

Let’s begin with a look at the formative years of Smedley Butler, setting the stage for the remarkable life that followed.

The Early Life of Smedley Butler

Smedley Darlington Butler was born into a prominent Quaker family, steeped in military tradition. His father, Thomas S. Butler, was a judge and later a Congressman, which exposed Smedley to the realms of leadership and service from an early age. Despite his Quaker upbringing, which traditionally espoused non-violence, Smedley was drawn to the military, a decision that would define his life and career.

Timeline of Smedley Butler’s Early Years

  • 1881: Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
  • 1898: Enlists in the Marine Corps at age 16, lying about his age to serve in the Spanish-American War.

From his early days, Butler showed a propensity for leadership and a penchant for action. These traits would catapult him into numerous conflicts around the globe, earning him a place in military lore.

As we transition from Butler’s early life to his illustrious military career, it’s essential to understand the backdrop against which his career unfolded. The turn of the 20th century was a period of significant expansion and conflict for the United States, setting the stage for Butler’s rise to prominence.

Smedley Butler’s Military Career

Smedley Butler’s military career spanned from the late 19th century through the early decades of the 20th century, a time when the United States was expanding its influence globally. Butler participated in numerous military campaigns, earning a reputation for bravery and leadership. His career is a testament to the complexities of American foreign policy during this era.

Chart Detailing Key Points in Butler’s Military Career

1898EnlistmentEnlisted in the Marine Corps for the Spanish-American War.
1900Boxer RebellionParticipated in the Boxer Rebellion in China, beginning his rise through the ranks.
1914Occupation of VeracruzLed troops in the occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, earning his first Medal of Honor.
1915-1931Various CampaignsServed in the Philippines, Haiti, and Nicaragua, among others, often in leadership roles.
1931RetirementRetired from the Marine Corps with the rank of Major General.

Heroics and Controversies

Throughout his career, Butler was known for his heroism and his controversial stands. He was one of the few individuals to be awarded the Medal of Honor twice, a testament to his bravery. However, his outspoken nature and criticism of U.S. military policies often put him at odds with military and political leadership.

  • Medals of Honor: Received for his roles in Mexico and Haiti, highlighting his bravery under fire.
  • Critique of Military Interventions: Even during his service, Butler began to question the motives behind U.S. military interventions, a stance that became more pronounced after his retirement.

Key Military Campaigns and Battles

Butler’s military career was marked by his participation in key campaigns that reflected the U.S.’s growing international presence.

  • Boxer Rebellion: His early service in China set the stage for his lifelong engagement in international conflicts.
  • Central America and Caribbean: His leadership in interventions in Haiti and Nicaragua exemplified the U.S. approach to its “backyard.”

The Impact of Butler’s Military Strategies

Butler was not just a soldier but a strategist who left a lasting impact on military tactics and U.S. foreign policy.

  • Counter-Insurgency Tactics: In Haiti and Nicaragua, Butler implemented strategies that would inform U.S. military tactics for decades.
  • Critiques of Imperialism: His later criticisms of U.S. interventions were rooted in his direct experiences, offering a unique perspective from a high-ranking officer.

Butler’s Transition to Civilian Life

After retiring from the Marine Corps, Butler’s life took a dramatic turn. No longer bound by the constraints of military service, he became a vocal advocate for peace and a critic of U.S. foreign policy.

Advocacy and Political Activism

Butler used his platform to speak out against what he saw as the misuse of the military for corporate gain. His speeches and writings, most notably “War is a Racket,” articulated a scathing critique of the military-industrial complex.

  • “War is a Racket”: In this seminal work, Butler argued that war primarily benefits corporations and the wealthy, at the expense of the soldiers and the public.

The Business Plot

One of the most intriguing episodes of Butler’s post-military life was his testimony before Congress regarding the Business Plot, a supposed coup to overthrow the U.S. government.

  • Exposure of the Plot: Butler claimed that a group of wealthy businessmen approached him to lead a coup against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Congress investigated but found no evidence to support the most damning allegations.

Smedley Butler’s Legacy and Controversies

Butler’s legacy is multifaceted, embodying the heroism of his military service and the controversy of his later years.

Butler’s Critique of U.S. Military Interventions

His transformation from a celebrated Marine to a critic of U.S. foreign policy is perhaps what he is most remembered for today. His insights into the motives behind military interventions remain relevant.

Controversial Aspects of Butler’s Career

While revered by many, Butler’s outspoken nature and accusations like those surrounding the Business Plot have made his legacy complex and contested.

Butler’s Influence on Military and Political Thought

Despite the controversies, Butler’s critiques have influenced generations of thinkers and activists questioning U.S. foreign policy and military engagement.

Smedley Butler in Pop Culture

The life and legacy of Smedley Butler have permeated various aspects of popular culture, reflecting his enduring impact on American society. His outspoken critique of military intervention and capitalism has inspired books, films, and documentaries, contributing to a complex portrayal that spans heroism and dissent.

  • Books: Butler’s own writings, particularly “War is a Racket,” remain popular among those interested in military history and critiques of American foreign policy. Additionally, biographies and historical analyses provide a multifaceted view of his life and career.
  • Films and Documentaries: While there are no major Hollywood films solely about Butler, documentaries and historical series often feature his contributions to military history and his role in exposing the Business Plot.
  • Educational Curricula: In some academic circles, Butler’s life is studied as a case example of ethical leadership and the consequences of political and military power.

Butler’s presence in popular culture serves not only to memorialize his contributions but also to provoke ongoing discussion about the role of the military in society and the ethics of interventionism.

Resources for Further Reading and Research on Smedley Butler

For those intrigued by the life of Smedley Butler and wishing to delve deeper into his story, a wealth of resources is available:

  • Books:
    • “War is a Racket” by Smedley D. Butler: Butler’s own passionate argument against the military-industrial complex.
    • Biographies of Butler provide comprehensive looks at his life, from his heroic military career to his later activism.
  • Documentaries and Films: Various documentaries on American military history and political plots of the 20th century feature segments on Butler, offering insights into his impact.
  • Online Archives and Museums: Digital collections from military archives and museums often contain letters, photographs, and official documents related to Butler’s career and activism.

These resources offer a starting point for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of Butler’s life and the historical context in which he operated.


Smedley Butler’s life was a study in contrasts: a celebrated Marine who became a vocal critic of the very wars he once fought. His legacy is as complex as it is influential, embodying the tensions between military valor and the critique of militarism. Through his actions and writings, Butler challenged Americans to reconsider the motives and consequences of military intervention, leaving a legacy that continues to provoke debate and reflection.

Call to Action

Smedley Butler’s story is more than a historical footnote; it is a call to critically engage with our past and the principles guiding our present. Whether you are a student of history, a military enthusiast, or someone interested in the ethics of power and intervention, Butler’s life offers valuable lessons.

  • Share Your Thoughts: We invite you to share this post and contribute your views on Butler’s legacy. How do his criticisms of military intervention resonate today?
  • Continue the Conversation: Join forums, book clubs, or community groups focused on military history or political activism to discuss Butler’s impact and the broader implications of his life’s work.

Smedley Butler’s life reminds us of the power of critical thought and moral courage. By exploring his story, we engage with the complex tapestry of American history, reflecting on the challenges and responsibilities of military power and activism.


Who was Smedley Butler?

Smedley Darlington Butler was a United States Marine Corps Major General and two-time Medal of Honor recipient. After retiring from the military, he became a vocal critic of U.S. military intervention and capitalism.

What is “War is a Racket”?

“War is a Racket” is a short book written by Smedley Butler in which he argues that war is conducted for the profit of the few at the expense of the many. Butler contends that military action should be taken only for defensive purposes and criticizes the profit motives behind wars.

Did Smedley Butler really expose a coup plot against the U.S. government?

Yes, Butler testified before a Congressional committee about what became known as the Business Plot. He claimed that a group of businessmen approached him to lead a coup to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt and establish a fascist veterans’ organization. The committee acknowledged the existence of such a plot, but no prosecutions followed.

How did Smedley Butler earn his Medals of Honor?

Butler received his first Medal of Honor for his leadership during the U.S. intervention in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914. His second Medal of Honor was awarded for his bravery in Haiti in 1915, where he led a successful engagement against a superior force in a critical combat situation.

What were Smedley Butler’s views on military interventions?

Butler became increasingly critical of U.S. military interventions, which he saw as serving corporate interests rather than the nation’s security or democratic ideals. He believed that military action should be defensive and that the U.S. should avoid entangling foreign conflicts.

How is Smedley Butler remembered today?

Butler is remembered as a courageous and decorated Marine, as well as a critic of the military-industrial complex and U.S. foreign policy. His legacy is complex, embodying both martial valor and a commitment to peace and justice.

Can I visit any memorials or museums dedicated to Smedley Butler?

While there are no museums dedicated solely to Smedley Butler, his medals and some personal effects are displayed in military museums and institutions, such as the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia. Additionally, historical sites related to his military service can be visited in various locations around the world.

What can we learn from Smedley Butler’s life and career?

Butler’s life teaches the importance of critical thinking, moral courage, and the willingness to speak out against injustice. His military service and subsequent activism highlight the complexities of American foreign policy and the potential consequences of military intervention.

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