Gangsters of Capitalism

I finished this audiobook last week, and I’m taking a few minutes to write down my thoughts before I forget them. It’s a hard thing to remember to do! The book is called Gangsters of Capitalism, by Jonathan M. Katz. Superficially, it’s a biography of the American Marine officer Smedley Butler, best known, I think, for his part in the Business Plot of the 1930s. But more substantially, it’s an examination of America’s practice of military imperialism between about the Spanish American War and World War II — a series of invasions of countries around Latin America, the Pacific, and Asia.

Butler was a Quaker from Philadelphia who volunteered for the Spanish American War as an underage teen. His father was a congressional representative, so Butler became an officer. From his first battle experience in Cuba, he went on to participate in almost every important military invasion of the first half of the 1900s — the Philippines, China, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, on and on.

The structure of the book has a consistent rhythm. First, we see the high-level politics that use extremely flimsy excuses to incite a military invasion of yet another country. Then, we focus down on Butler himself, as he’s shipped from his previous post to a new combat post in the new country. There’s a discussion of the military campaign, both in macro form and in the specific fighting Butler is part of. As invasion becomes occupation, Butler’s wife and children often join him in the occupied zone. There’s then a recounting of the invaded country’s history from the invasion until today, and finally the author’s first-hand account of visiting the country in the 2010s or 2020s for the book.

I’m not a scholar of American imperialist history, so I’d mostly heard of these campaigns as isolated trivia, like, “Did you know the US invaded and occupied Haiti for a decade?” It’s interesting to see the stories connected and presented together, which gives more of an understanding of the process as whole, rather than isolated parts. The focus on Butler’s thoughts, experiences, and ambition gives a human perspective into the process. He was a man trying to live an ambitious 20th-century life, whose career was primarily about overthrowing governments to help shady US corporate interests.

Butler retired in the late 1920s, and was supportive of the Bonus Army movement of the early 1930s to get support for American veterans. According to Butler, a cabal of fascist-leaning corporate entities read his populism as being anti-Roosevelt, and contacted him to lead a military takeover of Washington D.C. He testified to Congress about this effort, called the Business Plot. The named plotters denied the charges, and Butler was decried as a kook. He turned against the imperialism of his time, and wrote the book War is a Racket in 1935, comparing military expeditions to organised crime. He died just before the US entered World War II.

The book is wonderfully done, zooming up and down in perspective from national to individual, back and forth in time from the 1900s to 2020s, and around the globe from China to the Americas. It’s hard to capture the tenor of those times and their effects on our own; it was a really good idea to look at it through the lens of Butler’s life. Katz’s modern day research — traveling to remote parts of each country to visit the places Butler lived and fought — is thorough, amusing, and really interesting. It’s amazing to think of how quickly our colonialist history disappears into ruins. A consistent theme of the modern era sections of the book is how important the invasions were to Filipinos and Mexicans, for example, whereas Americans have largely forgotten them.

The audiobook was a treat; well read by Adam Barr. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in modern American history.

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