Jonathan M. KatzMar 23, 2022
Gangsters of Capitalism
Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire
St. Martin's Press 2022
Jonathan Katz’s Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) tells the story of the birth and maturation of modern American imperialism, and its culmination in an alleged domestic coup attempt in 1934 led by a shadowy capitalist cabal and modeled on foreign interventions. The protagonist, Smedley Butler, is one of the most decorated war heroes in American history, a man with a singular legacy as a soldier that began when an idealistic 16-year-old boy from a privileged Quaker background joined the Marines to avenge the “sinking” of the USS Maine in 1899. From there, the career of the “Fighting Quaker” put Butler on the frontlines of nearly every important venue for the expansion of American formal and informal empire. Especially in the Caribbean―and above all in Haiti―he crushed local resistance and installed US-business friendly regimes and pioneered counterinsurgency and the so-called “banana republics” before bringing those hardnosed imperialist violent suppression tactics home to American shores as the chief of the Philadelphia police. Increasingly cynical, demoralized, and traumatized by what he had seen and done, Butler eventually became a great critic of the empire and imperialism he had devoted his life to, calling himself a “racketeer for capitalism.” As Katz writes, Butler’s “contradictions are America’s,” and these contradictions are on full display in Gangsters of Capitalism as Butler simultaneously killed and conquered for American interests and established despotic and pliable regimes in countries around the globe―Cuba, the Philippines, China, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti―all while upholding the “principles of equality and fairness.”
Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese language and history in the University of Bergen's Department of Foreign Languages.