S4 E5. Telltale Coup

Did a 1934 scheme nearly topple the American republic? This week: a history lesson for our times.

The United States joined in an eight-member alliance of Western nations that put down the anticolonial peasant-led Boxer Rebellion in China, near the end of the Qing Dynasty. In this painting titled I’ll Try, Sir! American troops assault the city wall of Peking (now Beijing) on August 14, 1900. The curious subject of our show today, Smedley Butler, was a young Marine who participated in that conflict early in his career, together with a future president, one Iowa engineer named Herbert Hoover. This was one of many foreign wars that would eventually turn Butler away from the project of U.S. imperialism.

Painting by H. Charles McBarron Jr. (1902-1992)

Just as FDR and his allies were crafting the New Deal, a retired Marine named Smedley Butler came forward with a shocking revelation. Powerful business interests, Butler alleged, were plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. Inspired by the rise of fascism in Europe, the conspirators had sought Butler’s aid. Little did they know, decades of fighting for American imperialism had left him disillusioned. So Butler blew the top on “the Business Plot.” Journalist Jonathan Katz helps Will and Siva unearth this bizarre tale.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is memorialized in Washington, D.C., alongside his dog, Fala — both cast in bronze. As president, Roosevelt saw the United States through the Great Depression and most of World War Two. Earlier in life, as assistant secretary of the Navy, FDR oversaw the drafting of Haiti’s new constitution during the U.S. occupation.

Photograph by Stu Jones via Shutterstock.com

At one point in his life, Katz says, Butler might have supported a plan like the one outlined for him that day in 1934, at an abandoned cafe in Philadelphia, by bond salesman Gerald C. MacGuire. Since joining the Marines at age 16 “to help free little Cuba,” Butler had cavorted across the globe, supporting military interventions and U.S.-backed coups in far-flung spots like Haiti, Central America, the Philippines and China.

The lesson in Butler’s story remains important today, as disastrous conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan continue to maim American ideals. After all, another decorated officer might have cut the other way, Katz says. Many soldiers returned from Vietnam and joined the peace movement. But veterans of such forever wars are just as easily radicalized, as evidenced in the disproportional number of Jan. 6 rioters with military backgrounds. If the United States continues to send young men and women to battle for the interests of capital, it may find itself — again and again — fighting its own demons at home.

About our guest

Jonathan M. Katz is a journalist and author. He covered the deadliest earthquake in the Western Hemisphere, in 2010, as an Associated Press correspondent in Haiti. His first book, The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Macmillan, 2013), was shortlisted for the PEN/Galbraith Award for nonfiction. In 2019, Katz was a New America national fellow and, formerly, he directed Duke University’s Media & Journalism Initiative. His latest book is Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire (MacMillan, 2022). Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

This episode was released on March 9, 2022.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Thousands of Haitians sought shelter in tent cities like this one in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Photograph by G. Allen Penton via Shutterstock.com

In Gangsters of Capitalism, Katz chases the ghost of Smedley Butler and his military campaigns across Latin America and Asia, telling the story of the most formative era in U.S. history that most Americans have never heard of.

Katz’s first book, The Big Truck That Went By, recounts his experience as the only full-time American reporter in Haiti during the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake and its aftermath. International aid organizations and celebrities spent billions trying to restore the country — and brought a lot more misery in the process. Including a cholera outbreak.

Pictured here circa 1929, Gen. Smedley Butler was a double Medal of Honor recipient.

Photograph from the U.S. Marine Corps

Smedley Darlington Butler rose to the rank of major general in the Marine Corps, but came to question his role in American militarism, calling himself a “racketeer for capitalism.” Katz explains why in a recent New York Times piece.

In a nod to Butler’s legacy, Katz runs an online newsletter called The Racket. It’s dedicated to highlighting “connections that link seemingly disparate parts of our world — in international affairs, disaster, U.S. politics, social issues, and more.”

From around the web

Between 1900 and 1913, the Muslim people of the Philippines — known as Moros — resisted assimilation efforts carried out by the American military.

Photograph from the Everett Collection via Shutterstock.com

After exposing the Business Plot, Gen. Butler published a short book called War Is a Racket. Drawing on a series of speeches he gave across the United States, Butler wrote that the real winners of foreign wars were the elites who profited from them. In many ways, he foreshadows President Eisenhower’s concern about the rise of the “military-industrial complex.”

Following his duty in the Spanish-American war, Butler shipped out to the Pacific to fight in what some historians call the U.S. military’s first counterinsurgency operation: against Filipinos who were resisting yet another colonial power.

Among other confessions, Butler said he came to realize he helped make Haiti “a decent place for the National City Bank Boys.” America’s 19-year occupation of that country, as well as its interventions next door in the Dominican Republic, were driven by financial interest, Edwidge Danticat writes in the New Yorker.

For more on Haiti and the legacy of U.S. imperialism there, listen to our earlier episode “Haiti, Interrupted.”

The leaders of the 1928 strike that ended with the Banana Massacre, in the town of Ciénaga, Colombia, from left to right: Pedro M. del Río, Bernardino Guerrero, Raúl Eduardo Mahecha, Nicanor Serrano and Erasmo Coronell.

Photograph from the United
Fruit Co. archive in Panama

Just as notoriously, the United States backed the exploits and political violence carried out by the United Fruit Co. — now known as Chiquita — in Latin American countries. The 1928 massacre of striking banana workers in Colombia is famously fictionalized in the Gabriel García Márquez novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Read also about how United Fruit tried to extort $19 million from Guatemala’s elected government, in 1952.

Writing for the New Republic, Jasper Craven asks why it is that as many as 20 percent of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists had ties to the U.S. military.

In her 2018 book Bring the War Home, Kathleen Belew — a past guest on our show — reveals how vigilante violence has often spiked when troops return from overseas conflicts.

This is also a good week to dust off some mid­-20th century postcolonial classics. Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon took on the ideology of imperialism from the critical perspective of the colonized. In Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire wrote of the need to “decolonize our minds”; and Fanon, in Wretched of the Earth, asks: “what is fascism but colonialism at the very heart of traditionally colonialist countries?”

A transcript of this episode is available here.

Heard on the show

For some extra ambience, we selected a few tracks from the once-mysterious Podington Bear (a.k.a. Chad Crouch of Portland, Ore.). Here they are in the order they appeared: “Lamb and Wolf” (Said Lion to Lamb, 2018); “Am-Trans” (Electronic, 2016); “Climbing the Mountain” (Bon Voyage, 2015); and “Dark Matter” (Thoughtful, 2013).

We also dropped in some clips from Roosevelt’s speeches and Fireside Chats of the early 1930s. You can listen to a boatload of that audio online at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. For the complete version of the March of Time newsreel on the Croix de Feu movement in France, stop by Alexander Street.

Our theme music is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

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