“I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism.” So declared famed Marine Corps officer Smedley Butler in 1935, at the end of a long career spent blazing a path for American interests in Cuba, Nicaragua, China, the Philippines, Panama, and Haiti. In a new book on Butler’s career, “Gangsters of Capitalism,” Jonathan Katz details Butler’s life and explains how it dovetails with the broader story of American empire at the turn of the century.
Ryan Grim: So chances are you’ve never heard the name Smedley Butler before, but if you have, it’s probably in the context of one of the wildest conspiracies ever hatched against an American president.
The plan was never executed thanks to Butler, and the political and media class kind of collectively decided not to talk much about it, so it has almost entirely faded from memory. The simple version, though, is that leading reactionary politicians and business leaders plotted seriously to overthrow FDR by marching on Washington with 1000s of disgruntled veterans led by an unimpeachably principled Marine Corps General.
The problem came when the General, Smedley Butler, exposed the plot and turned them all in. That may have been the capstone to Butler’s life. But what he did before that was also of enormous consequence for the development of our politics, of our foreign policy, of our presidency — everything. Basically, we are who we are, for better or for worse, thanks to what Smedley Butler did over the course of his fascinating and bloodsoaked career. He was involved one way or another in American interventions in Cuba, the Philippines, China, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, and Haiti. He emerged from that journey the nation’s most celebrated pacifist, the man who first exposed the creation of the military industrial complex; he would know, he said, because he built it — or at least he was the man at its center, who made sure that it did its work.
If you think of American imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th century as a virus, today, we’re living with its endless variants and mutations, which continue to infect governments around the world. Some of the strains have hit multiple countries. In July, U.S.-trained Colombian mercenaries assassinated the Haitian President. And despite — or, perhaps, because of — evidence that the Haitian Prime Minister may have been involved, the U.S. is standing behind that Prime Minister. Some of the same mercenaries involved in that assassination were also brought into Bolivia ahead of its last election, with orders to assassinate the prot??égé of Evo Morales, Luis Arce, who was running for president. You can read about that connection over at The Intercept, and check out our previous episode on the scheme and Bolivia, how they failed, and Arce won in a landslide — and that reporting, by the way, has led the new Bolivian government to charge the former defense minister and request his extradition from Brazil. They played clips of this podcast at their press conference announcing it. [Sounds from the press conference.]
Our guest today, Jonathan Katz, is the author of the new book: “Gangsters of Capitalism, Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire.” He previously lived in Haiti and can get us up to speed on the sprawling investigation into the potential role of the U.S. and that assassination. But first, the story of Smedley Butler.
Jonathan, welcome to Deconstructed.
Jonathan Katz: Hey, it’s great to be here. I’m a big fan of the podcast.
RG: Well, I’m a big fan of this new book. Terrific work, congratulations. I think it’s a real achievement.
JK: Thank you. Thank you.
RG: So Smedley Butler has to be one of the most fascinating American lives ever lived. And to tell his story, let’s kind of set the scene for the historical period. And you can cut in when you feel like you want to — but coming out of the coming out of the Civil War, obviously, we have a period of reconstruction that lasts for 10- 2 years, gets annihilated by the combination of an economic crisis and white terror down in the South, which means that the 1870s, ’80s, ’90s are spent in a new national project — it’s not going to be the national project that was envisioned in reconstruction, which is making a genuine democracy of all of America’s citizens, a multiracial democracy. It’s not going to be that. It’s going to be Jim Crow, and the energy needs to be directed elsewhere — so you have the railroad construction, you have Manifest Destiny, you have the ongoing genocide of the American Indian population and the the expansion out West.
And then you talk about how this project, which morphs into a global imperial project, starts to bring the North and South together, becomes something that forges the United States back into one and also allows the men of the United States to start feeling manly again, because these are the people born after the Civil War, and so they don’t have the heroic experiences that their fathers and grandfathers had to talk about.
Also, as modernity is coming into being, people are living more comfortable lives. Women are demanding actual rights: political rights, economic rights, and all of this is causing men to feel rather insecure about themselves. And one way to feel more secure, and one way to continue this great expansionary project is to find new places to expand to.
And around this time Smedley Butler is, what, 16 years old?
JK: Yeah, that’s right.
RG: So he’s the son of a member of Congress and doesn’t want to be a boy who’s just the son of a member of Congress. And so like boys for centuries, he thinks he can forge his manhood in battle. And so he finagles his way into the Marines, very quickly gets sent off to Guantanamo, and from there leads a life at the front end of the spear of American imperialism for the next several decades. And the things he participates in are resonating to this day. Fascinating to me that he first winds up in Guantanamo —
RG: Speaking of refracting through to today. How is it that this young kid winds up in Guantanamo?
JK: That’s a great question. And to add one other bit of complexity to Smedley Butler’s personal story. So, he’s the son of a congressman. He’s also a Quaker. He comes from a prominent Quaker family — really two prominent Quaker families, on both his mother’s and his father’s sides: the Butlers and the Darlingtons on Philadelphia’s Main Line. And he essentially gets caught up in a war fervor. I mean, you did a really good job there of laying out all the things that lead up to this moment. The specific catalyst at that moment — we’re in 1898 now — is that there’s been a growing war caucus calling for American involvement in Cuba. It’s composed of both Cuban exiles — Cubans have been a Spanish colony at that point for over three centuries. And they’ve been fighting for their independence for nigh on 30 years. And some of them, not all, but some of them have been trying to encourage Americans to send the U.S. military. And there are Americans who want to do that. Most notably, Teddy Roosevelt, who at the beginning of this is, speaking of finagling, he’s the New York City police commissioner, he finagles job as assistant secretary of the Navy, and then basically, I mean, really, to the extent that one person can start a war, I mean, he came pretty close to doing it himself. He’s agitating from within William McKinley’s administration to go to war in Cuba. And he writes an important memo that says: If we get this war declared against Spain to liberate Cuba, let’s also go for the Philippines at the same time.
So Smedley Butler is a 16-year-old, he’s a high school student at what’s now called the Haverford School. Back then it was called the Haverford College Grammar School.
RG: I’ve been to the Haverford School. It’s a ridiculously ornate, old-school European feeling. I stumbled into it once, but it was just mind-blowingly, kind of ridiculously privileged looking.
JK: Yeah, I mean, anybody who’s ever spent time in Philly, the Main Line, it’s the Main Line. It’s the rich, it’s the extremely posh and old-school part of town.
And Butler was a high school student, and this war fervor is starting. There’s a lot of resonance here, especially with the build up to the war in Iraq, because you’re dealing with a real tyrant in the Spanish Empire, much like Saddam Hussein was legitimately an awful human being and an awful tyrant. And the Spanish are inventing a process that they call it reconcentratión, which gets translated into English as concentration camps.
They are starving and killing civilians. And it’s in that moment that the McKinley administration, and Teddy Roosevelt, send a warship to Havana, the U.S.S. Maine, to basically oversee U.S. business interests in the middle of this spiraling civil war. And the U.S.S. Maine explodes. Nobody even today knows exactly why the Maine exploded, it seems like it was most likely an accident, just a result of poor design of the ship. And the McKinley administration, actually, contrary to popular belief, does not outright blame the Spanish, but they also don’t say anything as the tabloid press — the famous yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer — run these just completely irresponsible articles based on horrible sourcing that: Oh, we have a guy in Havana and he overheard a conversation and the Spanish were saying, Yeah, we did it.
And it’s this combination of things that gets Butler to want to go and join this war on this. There’s a huge mobilization for the reasons that you’re saying. I mean people were feeling left out. Their fathers, and in Butler’s cases, grandfathers had, despite the fact that they were Quakers, by the way, had fought for the Union of the Civil War. That was because that was something of a special case, because —
RG: — Quakers were leading abolitionists.
JK: Exactly, exactly. And the Quaker Meeting tries to stop Smedley from going, but his mother intervenes on his behalf.
And Butler lies about his age, claims to be 18 but he’s 16, and joins the Marine Corps. And the reason he ends up at Guantanamo is because — so the Marine Corps up to that point had been, essentially, a rump service of the Navy. I mean for most of their life as a service branch in the 19th century, they were just kind of glorified ship guards, who occasionally, if something needed to be done on Tripoli, or Japan or something, and you needed guys with guns to get off the boat and guard the docs or raid the warehouse, or whatever, you sent the Marines. But this is America’s first overseas war. And so while the army, which has been spending the previous decades committing genocide and land theft against the native peoples on North America, while they’re getting their act together to get on these converted boats and go to Cuba, the Marines are the only force that’s available that knows how to get a bunch of guys together, give them guns, put them on a boat, and then get them off the boat on the other side.
And the Marines land, initially, at this harbor on Cuba’s East Coast, Guantanamo Bay, and they come ashore, and they seize it for the United States. And so that’s where America’s involvement in the Spanish American War begins. It’s where America’s overseas empire begins, and it’s where Smedley Butler’s career begins.
RG: And you can imagine, a 16-year-old boy who’s reading this journalism — because he we now know, and probably if you were educated enough at the time, you could probably see through some of the propaganda, but a 16-year-old reading those papers really thinks that the the dastardly Spanish are blowing up the ship, and also the Spanish are dastardly in a lot of ways in what they are doing on that island. And he has a historical analogy that isn’t too far in his past, and that would be the French helping out the Americans in the American Revolution.
JK: That’s right.
RG: And so I can imagine a 16-year-old thinking: Well, I’m going to be like Lafayette. And I’m going to go over and I’m going to help the Cuban revolutionaries overthrow the imperialist Spanish.
JK: Yeah. And of course, like the idea that the Cuban Revolutionary fighters are called Mambises, and a lot of them have been fighting for 30 years. The idea that Mambises were waiting for —
RG: Was Smedley Butler —
JK: Yeah. [Laughs.] A 16-year-old from the Haverford School.
RG: From the Main Line.
JK: Yes. But that’s America for you.
RG: But so then Smedley shows up, and I thought it was interesting how you note that a bunch of the Marines sympathize much more with the white looking Spaniards and are shocked to find out that the revolutionaries they’re helping out are Black and they’re like: Wait a minute. And it doesn’t fit with their idea of what they’re over there.
JK: Yeah, exactly. And Teddy Roosevelt. So after he’s basically started this war, he then goes to fight in the war. And he forms a voluntary unit called the Rough Riders, it’s a name from popular culture, it came from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and Rough Riders of the world, and they can’t bring their horses, so they are actually not even riding.
But after the famous battle of San Juan Hill, which is where Roosevelt’s fame is really made on national level, Roosevelt starts telling these stories about cowardice on the part of the Black soldiers who were fighting alongside him because Buffalo Soldiers were in the battle with him. And he’s just making things up, and lying, and just defaming them.
And also, by the way, the Cubans, a lot of them are Black, or mixed race. And all the Marines, specifically the Marines, are all white. I mean, there aren’t non-white Marines until 1942, until the Second World War. And a lot of the Marines — and this actually starts coming in to an even greater extent, as Butler’s career advances come from the South, specifically from the Jim Crow South — they weren’t sure what to do with it. And that then ends up informing what the U.S. government does next, which is as soon as the war is won against Spain, we betray the Cubans, we also betrayed the Filipinos, and in the case of the Philippines, we just colonize them outright, which is a campaign in which Butler was personally involved. And in the case of Cuba, because of essentially a compromise in the declaration of war between the racist expansionist and the super racist isolationists, who at that point, had no use for Cuba, because slavery was outlawed in the United States, and didn’t want the non white and Spanish-speaking and Catholic Cubans to become part of their country as part of a compromise, a clause gets written into the declaration of war that basically says that the United States won’t annex Cuba as a colony. But we kind of do it in a de facto way. And the thing that we do take outright and have never given back is the place where the Marines landed, where Butler began his career, at Guantanamo.
RG: And you’re talking about how when Fidel Castro finally took over he said he was finishing the job of the Mumbises, and he wasn’t going to fall for the same tricks —
JK: Mhmm. Exactly.
RG: — that had happened last time.
So then, like you said, he goes from there over to the Philippines, and his Philippine adventure bookends his Chinese invasion. So let’s do China first.
JK: OK. Sure. So China, in the same year, in 1898, an uprising starts. It’s a popular uprising among people who practice and believe in a folk magic version of martial arts. And they’re attacking primarily Chinese Christians, but also Christian missionaries — and, to a lesser extent, sort of the imperial powers who are starting to gobble up China, who have been gobbling up China for decades at that point. And China’s still a monarchy and the Qing Empire sees this group of rebels and thinks: Well, we could use these people and we will ally with them to get rid of this foreign encroachment.
The foreigners see these martial artists and not recognizing what kung fu is, they call them boxers, because that’s what it looks like they’re doing their boxing.
RG: [Laughs.] Right.
JK: And so this becomes known as the Boxer Rebellion, and a bunch of other things happen, but essentially, in 1900, this eight-nation Alliance, that includes Great Britain, Russia, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, etc., and the United States — and Japan, by the way — comes and stages a full-scale invasion and Butler, at the age of 18, and then he turns 19 while he’s doing it, fights his way in from the coast to Beijing.
RG: And this is a side note, but you found a local historian there who said that there’s evidence that the British used chlorine gas —
RG: — which would be banned in Europe, but also significantly before World War I.
JK: Yeah. So I traveled all over the world for this book, and I speak a lot of the languages of the places I go: Spanish, Haitian Creole, I do not speak anything approaching Chinese [laughs]. But I, just in terms of how the sausage is made, I found that because I had some documents, I OCR’ed them, and then I used Google Translate, and then I went to some scholars of China who speak Chinese and know this period to confirm with them that what I was reading was correct. And one of them pointed out, there was a poem written around that same time, which my finding that confirmed one of the readings of this poem, which was that this gas had been deployed in that was then outside of Tianjin, it’s now actually basically part of Tianjin, because that’s how cities go in China, and yeah, it seems like a pretty strong case could be made that 14 years before chemical weapons are first deployed on the battlefield in World War I that the Europeans were deploying them in China.
And, actually, the connections there are notable because even the first time that chemical weapons are deployed in World War I, it’s against colonized troops. So that’s a theme that runs throughout — like Europeans are always thinking: Oh, well we have these horrible weapons, let’s use them against people who you don’t see as being fully human.
RG: Yeah. And the description in the poem makes it implausible that there’s really any other explanation. Like it’s impossible to imagine somebody kind of so perfectly fabricating the consequences of something that nobody else would have seen anywhere else.
JK: Exactly. Exactly.
RG: So he takes part in the sacking of Beijing as an 18-year-old.
RG: Gets shot in the chest.
JK: First, he gets shot in the leg, thanks to Herbert Hoover.
RG: Right —
JK: [Laughs.] Because Herbert Hoover, who is there as a young engineer with his wife, Lou, leads Smedley and his Marines into battle in the wrong spot of the Battle of Tientsin and gets a bunch of them killed.
RG: Right. That was an incredible story. A lot of people might not know Herbert Hoover’s background, but he was this coal magnate. And he was also this international master of logistics, and he did some great things with that.
RG: He bailed out the early Bolsheviks from mass starvation through kind of a relief package that he oversaw. I think as secretary of commerce he was really heralded for some of the ways that he responded to like the giant floods of 1921 or something like that.
JK: Yeah. Totally. Totally.
RG: He was just really an impressive guy up until he was faced with something that didn’t match with his ideology. But as a 25-year-old, he volunteers to take Butler’s crew. He says: Look, I know my way around Beijing, I can get you guys there, don’t worry.
RG: Oh. Tientsin. Yes. Yeah. The master of logistics really blew it. Like, took them to a cemetery.
JK: Exactly. Right. Right. Yeah. And the Chinese troops are up on the city walls. And they’re just sitting ducks in this marshy field. And Butler says, you know, that he had fantasized about getting shot in battle, but he didn’t think it would hurt as much as it ended up doing.
RG: And so then he wakes up on his 18th or 19th birthday inside —
JK: 19th. Yeah.
RG: — the walls of Beijing, after having been shot, and surviving again. He’s then the American delegate to go into the Imperial Palace after the empress had fled, while Marines and the rest of the eight powers are just absolutely just massacring —
JK: Yes. And looting.
RG: — everyone in sight. And stealing everything that isn’t nailed down and lots of things that were nailed down — including, I found this interesting, an amount of silver that was then melted down into a bowl that that the 9th still uses at its celebrations today.
JK: Yeah. The Liscomb bowl.
JK: Yeah. And then they call themselves the Manchu 9th, because of their time in China. And still today. If you meet anybody from the 9th Infantry, they’ll tell you — or, at least, if you say “Manchu” to them, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
RG: Right. And so it’s around this time he starts to get an inkling. I mean, he doesn’t synthesize it yet. But he’s starting to realize that there’s a little bit more to what he’s being sent to do than just freedom fighting.
RG: And Herbert Hoover’s situation here actually is instructive. Like, why is there a 25 year old coal mining engineer who was so invested in the Marines sacking this city in the first place? And so, because he’s going to be an imperial crusader for another — he’s got a ways to go. But when do you think it starts to fully dawn on him? When did he start connecting the dots about what he’s doing?
JK: As I can tell, it really starts happening in Nicaragua. So in 1909, long story short Butler in the Marines helped seize the land for the Panama Canal. They help affect the secession of the state of Panama from the Republic of Colombia.
RG: And by now, he’s not just leading units. He’s leading operations.
JK: Exactly. He’s got the entire battalion that is called the Panama Battalion because it’s based in the Panama Canal Zone.
And the place that the canal did not get built was in Nicaragua. People still talk about building a canal in Nicaragua today. There are purported projects between the Chinese government and Nicaraguan government that are constantly starting and stopping. And the President of Nicaragua is mad at the Americans for not having built the canal in his country; he starts retaliating against American business interests — including, by the way, Herbert Hoover’s also got mines in Nicaragua. Smedley Butler is the zealot, he’s like the Forrest Gump of early 20th century American imperialism, but he’s not the only one. Herbert Hoover, a lot of these other guys, show up in place after place.
RG: Small world.
JK: It’s a very small world. It’s a small club, and you’re not in.
JK: And Butler is in charge of this battalion that keeps going to Nicaragua to intervene, basically, on behalf of U.S. business interests, and against, they’re called liberals, but the Nicaraguan revolutionaries who want to protect Nicaraguan sovereignty. And one of the things that happens during this time is the annexation of the Philippines, which has essentially been completed by this point was so costly and so embarrassing on a political level, because word of these atrocities, some of them committed by Marines in the Philippines, have just embarrassed presidential administrations.
At this point, William Howard Taft is another guy who’s everywhere. He was governor general of the Philippines when when the Americans annexed it; he’s president now, and he comes up with this idea called “dollar diplomacy,” where basically instead of taking over a country militarily outright and raising the American flag, you allow them to nominally keep their sovereignty, but you take over their financial system, you take over their central bank.
And in the case of Nicaragua, there are two banks, in particular Brown Brothers, which is now Brown Brothers Harriman — may be notable to some of your listeners because their headquarters is across the street from Zuccotti Park where Occupy Wall Street happened. And J. & W. Seligman & Co., those American banks come in and get a charter and start the National Bank of Nicaragua, which is chartered in Connecticut, and they start a new currency, the Nicaraguan córdoba which is backed essentially by the U.S. dollar, and they have the Marines as their shock troops putting down insurrections, making sure that their guy becomes president, a guy named Adolfo Díaz, who’s actually the accountant for one of the American mining companies, not Herbert Hoover’s mining company, but another one based in Pittsburgh, and then making sure that any time rebels, members of the Nicaraguan Liberal Party, tried to rise up and unseat him, that he’s protected by a Praetorian Guard that includes Smedley Butler.
And Butler, at this moment, he’s been doing this for two-ish decades. And he’s achieved the level of Major so he’s now you know, flag officer, and he can sort of dictate his own movements. He can decide where to go, he can decide who to talk to. And in doing that, he starts to realize, like, wait a second, like we’re not here protecting democracy. We’re not here protecting the interests of the great American Republic writ-large. We’re here because Brown Brothers has got a little money, is one of the things he says in a letter to his parents.
RG: Did the fake election have something to do with it? Because he’s tasked with making sure that the Brown Brothers man wins the election. And he’s scheduled the election to last like an hour and only tells like six people?
JK: Yeah, they go out and find some friends, funnel them through the polls, and then and then close the polls immediately after.
RG: Like the fakest election you could ever imagine.
So let’s pause quickly in the chronology to talk about the why of this. And so, now we’re getting into the early 1900s — the country is effectively settled at this point. You had, in the 1890s, this just absolutely punishing economic depression. And you had extraordinary labor unrest, more violence between workers and bosses than in Europe and almost anywhere around the world, probably — just all of it being put down by the National Guard, the state coming in and crushing the labor movement.
In order to keep people happy, you talk about the way that the Philippine adventure was certainly expensive in terms of dollars spent by the government. But the resources that were extracted from the Philippines, the resources coming in from Nicaragua, coming in from China, start to fuel the consumer economy here in the early part of the 20th century, that then kind of becomes the outlet for a lot of the unrest and alienation that’s coming from the transition that the United States is going through from this kind of yeoman, frontier type of society into one that’s being funneled into offices and into factories. Does that sound right to you?
And so the Philippines, it’s poetic that they are the exact length of the West Coast of the continental United States. And, as you note, all of this is happening, so in 1892, the director of the U.S. Census, famously to anybody who’s been through a high school American History course, declares that the frontier is at that point for all intents is closed. And a young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner, at the University of Wisconsin, he ends up at Harvard teaching future presidents including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he comes up with with his frontier thesis, this is called, where he basically says that the American character, like American greatness was created through this outlet of the frontier and that the closing of the frontier, portends doom precisely for some of the reasons you’re saying. One of Turner’s ideas, is that the reason why America is a classless society — which, of course, it isn’t, right, but this is something that people tell themselves, and something that people still tell themselves —
RG: Right. To the extent it’s more classless than, say, Europe.
JK: Exactly. We don’t —
RG: At that time.
JK: Well, the one thing that you can say is that Americans do not, even today, have as finely tuned a sense of class status and class identity as, say, Britons do.
JK: And Turner’s argument is that the reason for this was because there was this outlet of what he calls “free land.” Now, he completely brushes aside the fact that this land is not free, this land has people living on it, who have to be killed or moved aside or whatever. But that it’s this sort of space where people can go and become men and sort of in these alchemical encounters with the savage vastness, the savage wilderness, become like a truer and freer version of themselves or whatever.
And this is very influential for a lot of people. And the other guy, the other intellectual architect behind this push, is a guy named Alfred Thayer Mohan, who is a naval theorist, who is the most important military theorist, really, of the late 19th, early 20th century. And his big theory is that navies are more important than armies. And he envisions this great American naval empire, where basically our ships with guns will lead the way in open markets and defend sea lanes to create this huge American commercial empire across the seas. And these two ideas, in concert with each other, become the intellectual framework for what happens.
So, the Philippines, is, well, we’ve run out of space to Manifest Destiny in North America. Let’s just go Manifest Destiny — due west across the Pacific at the doorstep of China. And it’s arable land, there are resources, there’s this thing called Manila hemp, which nobody remembers today, although if you’ve seen a rope or go to a gym where you climb a rope, it’s probably made of Manila hemp, it’s where the term “manila envelope” comes from, because it’s made of the same substance. But, essentially, this stuff runs the economy at that time. You use it to make the belts that run through electric generators, you use it to make the rigging on ships.
And China, then, as now represents, sort of the great limitless market where you can just go and make all the money you want. The Caribbean and Central America represent places that you know, you can extract resources, including bananas, produce that you can basically buy for a song and sell cheap to great profit in America. And all of these places are then hungrily looked at by the banks as places where they can expand American banking, and they can expand financing and they can finance all these projects. And the thing is that in each of these cases, just as with the expansion across the Appalachians and into the American West, you run into this problem, that there are already people there who have their own ideas of how they want to live their lives and who should be calling the shots for them. And that’s where you need somebody like Smedley Butler. It’s where you need the Marines to come in and use force to kill enough of them and intimidate the rest of them, so all of these other big dreamers and greedy capitalists can get their way.
RG: Right, and it’s not so it’s not like these are just some unfortunate injustices that are being waged by some thoughtless and cruel policymakers. They’re the things that are floating the system.
RG: They’re keeping it going. And so he’s starting to recognize this, but he’s a Marine, he’s enlisted, and he’s going to follow orders. He winds up in Haiti, how long after Nicaragua? Not terribly.
JK: His last stint in Nicaragua is 1912; in between that in Haiti, we invade Mexico at the behest of the oil companies.
RG: Oh, that’s right. And he sneaks into Mexico —
JK: At the behest, by the way, of William F. Buckley, Sr., who’s the lawyer for the oil companies in Mexico and he calls the Wilson administration and says: Invade please, and they do. And in 1915, we and Smedley Butler invade Haiti.
RG: And so, what he does in Haiti reverberates today, and in some ways he is celebrated by, how would I put this, the liberal kind of imperialist say that Smedley Butler in Haiti showed the softer way —
RG: — of carrying out this type of project. It’s nation building, its hearts and minds, it’s counterinsurgency, the kind that Petraeus would point to —
JK: One hundred percent.
RG: And say that, right, you need to win people over rather than just gunning everybody down. But as Butler himself says, in a letter to his parents: I think it’s not going to happen without a little bit of shooting.
RG: And his definition of little, at this point, is relative? Because he’s been shooting now for a decade and a half.
JK: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: There are so many wild moments of his time in Haiti. But what did you take away from it?
JK: Yeah, so it’s like you say, I mean from the Haitian perspective, he goes down in Haitian history, they literally call them the devil; he goes down in Haitian history as being the most evil of the Marines.
And you hit the word, counterinsurgency. I mean, essentially, what Butler is doing in Haiti is inventing counterinsurgency, and actually, it’s Butler’s adjutants in Haiti. Some of them go back to Nicaragua to fight against the original Sandinistas whose leader, Augusto Sandino, is radicalized by an encounter with Butler’s handiwork. He sees the slain body of the Nicaraguan rebel leader who’s been killed in battle with Butler’s Marines and declares lifelong revenge against Wall Street and the Yankee soldiers who follow his dictates.
RG: And Sandinistas are in power today.
JK: Right. Exactly. But it’s in Haiti and Nicaragua, especially that of Butler and Butler’s adjutants, their field notes become the basis for the “Small Wars Manual.” That’s first of all, still read as a book itself by Marines and soldiers today, and it also becomes, ultimately, the basis of “The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual” that Petraeus and company wrote.
And it’s an interesting detail in the book and I’m glad you caught it. Butler is operating from within the perspective of the Marine Corps in a more, I would say, liberal way, than some of his superiors. I mean, he’s got this senior officer, his mentor, a guy named Littleton Waller, who is just a seething racist from an old, aristocratic, Virginia
RG: Burnt Philippines to the ground kind of guy.
JK: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Literally, I mean he’s ordered to kill and burn the Philippines and that’s what he does. And is court martialed for it and acquitted.
And in Haiti he sort of wants to do the same thing. I mean, Haiti represents Black freedom, Black excellence, Black self-liberation, and to people who, like Littleton Waller, who grew up destroying reconstruction, and laying the groundwork for and then implementing Jim Crow, it’s an intolerable example. And they, and they’re chomping at the bit to teach the Haitians a lesson in white supremacy. And Butler, because he is a Quaker from Philadelphia, he has a much more subtle — and I would say more modern, more recognizable today — form of racism, where he doesn’t necessarily think of himself as racist, although he throws around the N-word a lot. But he, like Teddy Roosevelt, to use a prior example Roosevelt, who’s also just a white supremacist, I mean, you can’t read “The Winning of the West,” or Teddy Roosevelt’s ranting in Tucker Carlson-style, about race suicide and essentially the white genocide that like, all these immigrants are coming in and overtaking the true Americans, which which are the Anglo, and, of course, the Dutch, because the Roosevelt family came from from Netherlands originally. But nonetheless, Roosevelt and Butler have this sort of more genteel, Northern style of racism, where they think that lynching is bad, it’s very uncivilized; they think that slavery was bad and that it was good that the Civil War was fought to end it. But they still look at people in places like Haiti or Black people in the United States as being somehow less than themselves. And because Butler is sort of in that nuance, that is what enables him to essentially invent counterinsurgency, because he’s able to look at Haitians a little bit more as individuals, he’s able to sort of understand a little bit more the nuances of local politics, he bothers to pay enough attention to the Haitians that he realizes that they don’t speak French, they speak their own language, Haitian-Creole, and that none of his men speak it, and that they should learn it.
RG: A low bar.
JK: A low bar.
RG: It’s a low, low bar.
JK: A bar that you can Marine crawl over.
RG: Not learning the language, but learning that they speak a different language than you thought.
JK: Exactly. Exactly. Well, and you need that in order to do counterinsurgency, and we see it today, I mean, in the forever wars, in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Libya, etc., you see modern-day echoes of that where people are willing to work with the locals, and they’re willing to deal with the locals, and they think that with time and with training, perhaps the Afghan people could learn some form of democracy, perhaps they won’t be as naturally innate — I’m being sarcastic, I don’t know if that comes across.
JK: And that’s kind of what Butler is doing. Butler says these things. I mean, he says these things to his father, who is a congressman. He’s like: In time and with a white man to show them the way, maybe these Haitians can make something of themselves. But, as you note, there’s no such thing as a bloodless counterinsurgency. So one of the reasons why Butler is still known today in the circles in which he is known, is in the Marine Corps. Because he was one of two Marines that received two medals of honor. And the second Medal of Honor that he receives is for a massacre in Haiti at a place called Fort Rivière, which is deep in the mountains in northern Haiti — I actually went there in researching this book — and kills a lot of people and basically crushes this initial resistance, which then rises again and then gets crushed brutally again, including by Butler’s ultimate creation, the Gendarmerie d’Haïti, which is the model of a local client military that gets used in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and then ultimately in Iraq and Afghanistan.
RG: Right, and Butler, at this fort, he’s the third person who sneaks in through something of a sewage tunnel.
RG: And kind of pops into the middle of these fighters. And it appears at that point that the American weapons really carry the day, that the Haitians have these rifles that don’t fire well, at close range, don’t fire quickly. And it very quickly becomes like rocks and sticks against guns.
JK: Yeah, the Americans bring machine guns; the larger ones are pulled up by mules. Actually, Butler — I don’t even think this fact made it in the book, so I’ll just throw it out here on the podcast — Butler actually had a patent. He patented this intermediate technology, where he designed a more stable way for a mule to tow a machine gun. This is something very quickly replaced once mechanized transport becomes a thing just a couple years later.
RG: Right, a patent that combines a mule and a machine gun is going to be obsolete, probably fairly quickly.
JK: Exactly. It was the BlackBerry of 1950. [Laughs.]
RG: Right. Yes. So what is the fallout in Haiti of that particular occupation?
JK: So in Haiti, we’re still feeling the fallout today. That occupation lasts for 19 years, which was a record — technically speaking, the occupation of Nicaragua, the start date and the end date are farther apart, but there was a little bit of time off in between. So the occupation of Haiti was the longest continuous U.S. military occupation, until that record was broken in Afghanistan, just before the withdrawal. And Haitians are — I mean, that’s a complicated story, which we could do an entire podcast about. You could do a podcast series about it.
Because unlike in other places where a Butler was — in Nicaragua, the head of the constabulary force that Butler helps create, the Guardia Nacional, is a guy named Anastasio Somoza García, who becomes the dictator of Nicaragua and he and his sons reign as dictators until the Sandinista Revolution in 1979.
In the Dominican Republic, the head of the Guardia Nacional is a guy who’s also trained by —
RG: Where Butler also was.
JK: Where Butler also was, he was everywhere — Rafael Trujillo —
RG: Right. He’s propping up all the baddies.
JK: Right. But Haiti has always got to be a little more complicated [laughs]. In Haiti, the Gendarmerie d’Haïti becomes a sort of a new Haitian army called the Guard. And there is a head of the guard, Paul Magloire who seizes power in a coup, but he doesn’t remain for very long. And so the ultimate big, bad dictator of Haiti, and I don’t want to sound like I’m making a joke here because he was awful — François Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Papa Doc and Baby Doc — they’re a little bit more complicated because they use the centralization that the American occupation created to establish their own system of control. They also use the memory of the opposition to the American occupation as an ideological basis. Even though they are absolutely, ideologically fascists, they are 100 percent from the right. There’s nothing socialist or redistributive, or class politics, or anything about them — but they often refer to themselves as being a revolution. François Duvalier says: I and the revolution are one.
They use this memory because one of the things that the more racist Marines, like Littleton Waller, who were there with Smedley Butler, do is they introduce a kind of Jim Crow politics into Haiti where they elevate, using essentially colorism, a light-skinned, more Francophone and ultimately Anglophone, tiny elite. They see them as being the future rulers of the country. And Francois Duvalier, in particular, he and some other Haitian intellectuals — I mean he wasn’t intellectual — called noirisme, which is basically Black power, against this light-skinned elite. And he says: We’re going to replace the light skinned elite that the Americans created with a dark-skinned elite of us and our friends, and ultimately some light-skinned people, too, as long as they’re loyal to the regime. And so they end up ruling Haiti until 1986. And we can sort of spool it out from there, but it’s —
RG: Yeah, it does make sense that you’d have a relationship between a kind of national humiliation and fascism.
RG: And you obviously see that in Germany to the extent that Trump’s right-wing populism has undertones of it, it’s rooted in a similar kind of sense of humiliation — the world is laughing at us.
JK: Absolutely. Absolutely.
RG: And you could see how a revolutionary movement could use that humiliation as its ideological spring.
JK: And also in China, where Butler and the Marines intervene twice —
RG: Right. Century of humiliation. Right.
JK: Exactly. And they still talk about it to this day. And I was there reporting this book for a month, and it was everywhere.
RG: And so let’s come back to Haiti, because there’s a lot to talk about with the recent assassination of the president. But before we get to that, let’s wrap up Butler, who becomes this not just pacifist? Tell me — is pacifist too much?
JK: He says at one point: I’m a pacifist. Hell yes, I’m a pacifist. But I always have a club behind my back.
RG: Right! [Laughs.] But more interesting than that, he publishes a book which becomes a phenom, because he’s a huge celebrity. At this point, he had come back. He had been Philadelphia’s police chief, cracking heads in prohibition. Nothing we export is going to stay abroad; everything comes home. So whatever we’re putting out there now, be ready for it to come back.
So it comes back to Philadelphia — I mean, actually, let’s linger on that for one moment.
RG: Can you also see the roots of the militarized policing that we have today, both in his development of counterinsurgency and then his transporting of it into Philadelphia to fight the mob and prohibition?
JK: Oh Yeah. I mean, so the idea of using the military methods as a way of reforming urban police in the U.S., it was gaining currency at that time, that wasn’t his idea initially. And that’s why he’s brought, is because there’s this cry for reform in the Philadelphia police.
RG: And he’s still in the Marines, right?
JK: He takes a leave of absence.
RG: Right. He’s not retired.
JK: He petitions Harding, I guess, for a leave — maybe Coolidge is president at this moment. But anyway, he takes a leave of absence from the Marines to go to Philadelphia. And the idea is that he’s going to clean up the police force, he’s going to clean up the city. This rampant corruption in Philadelphia is run by a political machine which was known as the Republican organization at the time, and Prohibition is happening. So there’s a lot of gangsterism. There are these big gangster guys, like Mickey Duff, and Max “Boo Boo” Hoff, and the Lanzetta Brothers, and Butler’s basically like: We’re gonna do in Philadelphia what we did in Haiti, what we did in Nicaragua. And he uses similar tactics, he uses similar language, he draws parallels directly and says: We need machine guns, we need to turn the back seat around in the police vehicles, so we can get a gunman in the back, so they can shoot people from behind.
And actually, when I was writing this book, I thought I wanted to be telling a story of Butler’s life, but a larger story of ultimately the rise and fall of the American empire. And I was like: Well, I’m not gonna to make this a biography of Butler. And one of the ways in which I told myself that it wasn’t gonna be a biography of Butler, I said: Well, I’m not gonna deal with his Department of Public Safety days in Philadelphia, running the Philadelphia Police Department. And then while I’m writing the book, the George Floyd uprising happens, and I’m looking around and I’m like: Oh, God, I guess —
JK: I guess I actually have to do this.
RG: Right, and that’s actually a metaphor for the way that we would like to pretend that we can keep all of this elsewhere.
JK: Yep. Exactly.
RG: But we can’t.
JK: Exactly. And ultimately — I don’t know if I’m jumping ahead here — but the reason why Butler is known, especially to the people on the left today, as a hero, is because he takes this big anti-war, anti-fascist turn in the last decade of his life. He writes a book called “War Is a Racket,” where he basically does sort of this imperfect but attention-getting. And, essentially, in the larger scheme of things, take on what becomes known as the military industrial complex.
RG: And a tell-all of what he did in Nicaragua, and who he did it for, what corporations were benefiting.
Yeah, he writes a series of articles for a socialist magazine called Common Sense. And they’re all sort of taking himself to task. The most famous one is the second one that he writes. And he writes this famous confession, as I call it, I quote it fully in my book, where he says: “I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues,” — that’s Citibank, which still exists, by the way — “I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909 to 1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras ripe for American fruit companies in 1903,” he’s referring to Standard, and ultimately, United Fruit Company; they’re now Chiquita Brands International and the Dole Food Company. “In China in 1927, I helped see to it that Standard Oil, now Exxon Mobil, went his way unmolested. During those years I had, as the boys in the backroom with, say, a swell racket. I was rewarded with honors, medals, promotions. Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was operate in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents.”
Fuck yes, Smedley Butler!
RG: [Laughs.] Right. So you can see why somebody who comes across that paragraph is ready to elevate and celebrate Smedley Butler. And he was, then, extremely useful in shining a light on what he had done because he had a completely unimpeachable position to speak from, having been the one that carried all of this out.
JK: And blows the whistle on what he alleges is a fascist coup to overthrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt and stop the New Deal in 1934.
And the reason why those plotters, however many of them were, pick him is because he has the track record that he talks about in that confession. But they didn’t anticipate the degree to which he wasn’t willing to do that at home, and the degree to which his own politics had shifted.
RG: When did he publish the confession?
JK: That’s from an article in 1935 in “Common Sense.”
RG: So that’s after they came to him?
JK: Mhmm. Yeah.
RG: Oh, OK. So that is what I had been confused about in the past about Butler, because I hadn’t put the timeline together, because I remember thinking: This guy has made clear his position here. Why are you trying to recruit him into a fascist coup? He’s become a pretty outspoken anti-fascist, but it sounds like he hadn’t quite been as public yet.
JK: Yeah, I mean, I have seen things online, people quoting Butler as having said that in 1933. I have not found any primary source documents where I can find that.
RG: And it would make sense that that’s not correct, or if it was, it was one comment to one newspaper that wasn’t picked up.
RG: And we could do an entire episode on the fascist coup that Butler says was organized. And there’s very strong evidence that people with a lot of power and money, strangely, if you only think in partisan terms, two of the men involved, allegedly, were the last two Democratic nominees for president.
RG: John Davis and Al Smith, who are now extraordinarily embittered at the turn that the Democratic Party has taken toward Roosevelt. And the allegation is that they, in allegiance with these corporate interests that Butler has been doing the bidding of for decades now, come to him say they want him to address, what, the American Legion?
RG: Stand up for the gold standard.
JK: [Laughs.] Yes.
RG: Which Wall Street is utterly panicked about because they think that Roosevelt is going to start busting deficits and start spending money on people, and that that’s gonna hurt their bottom line — and that they want him to lead a contingent of veterans into Washington and basically become Roosevelt’s something like chief of staff, at which point Roosevelt would sign a paper saying that he’s a figurehead of king, a constitutional monarch who doesn’t have any authority and, and Butler will restore the gold standard and run the contrary.
JL: It’s not actually clear if they wanted Butler to do that, or if they just wanted Butler to handle the military end of it. There’s some indication that maybe they were thinking about Hugh S. Johnson, who you New Deal Nerds out there will know as the head of the National Recovery Administration, he was looked at as sort of the adult in the room by right-wingers at the time. He was this army general who would who would, who would keep the Bolshevik instincts of Rexford Tugwell and the Roosevelt brain trust and check.
RG: And there does seem to be some evidence that he was leaning in that direction or that he was open to it?
JK: He certainly likes Mussolini. I mean, Johnson was a big Mussolini fan. And I mean people on the right today, I think Dinesh D’Souza in one of his stupid books tries to use Johnson’s very real admiration for Mussolini — he circulates these pamphlets written by Gentile about the Stato Corporativo — as sort of like: Let’s try to do this with the NRA. D’Souza isn’t smart enough to figure out that he wasn’t a liberal. He was the conservative in the room in the New Deal who was trying to bring in this Mussolini influence because it had an intellectual genealogy to it because Mussolini came out of socialism himself, but then rejects it and sort of comes up with this not capitalist, but anti-proletarian, anti-class politics vision of busting heads.
And, yeah, I mean, again, among many other reasons why it was a bad idea to get Smedley Butler involved in this thing is that Butler had ended his Marine career getting court-martialed for insulting Benito Mussolini in 1931 stuff.
RG: Right. [Laughs.] And standing by it.
RG: Right. And so there are congressional hearings about this.
RG: Butler presents a ton of evidence, other witnesses come forward that back up Butler, the people that he accused of being involved in this come to the committee and deny everything and deny things that then are demonstrably proven to have happened. And the media writes it up as if it was clear that it didn’t happen.
RG: But then if you read to the end of the articles, like on page A17, or whatever, then all the evidence is unspooled. Like, oh, wait, actually, this does appear like it may have happened. When you had finished your research on this, where did you come down on how real this plotting was?
JK: I think that the guy who tried to recruit Butler, Gerald C. MacGuire, I think he thought he was the front man for a fascist coup. He said it to enough people. Butler enlists the help of a newspaper reporter, Paul Comly French, a reporter for The Philadelphia Record and The New York Post. He says MacGuire said that to him. MacGuire comes before this committee, it’s a two-man subcommittee of — it’s actually the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities. It’s the predecessor HUAC, and it’s John W. McCormack, who becomes speaker of the house, and Samuel Dickstein, who, by the way, at least there’s significant evidence, that after this, he becomes, briefly a Soviet agent of the NKVD. Speaking of just like, how crazy this history is. But MacGuire comes before them, and he kind of perjures himself and contradicts himself but even throughout this sort of contradictory testimony, enough comes out where he’s saying: Yes, I met with Butler. Yes, we talked about these things, and I talked with Butler in all the places that he said we did, about the things that he said we talked about, but it’s not my fault, essentially, is kind of what he’s saying.
And the other piece of it is that MacGuire’s boss, a guy named Grayson M.P. Murphy had enough of a background in military intelligence, and enough ties to the future OSS and future CIA, that it would be hard to imagine that it had never occurred to that guy at any point to try to overthrow FDR.
Beyond that, it’s really hard to say. And the main reason why it’s really hard to say is because the McCormick-Dickstein committee don’t do a full investigation. They don’t bring in the big names, the big shots, as Butler calls them, to testify. They don’t bring in the Du Ponts, they don’t bring in Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors, etc. And they don’t really do a full investigation.
So, initially, Butler’s testimony runs on the front page of The New York Times; The Times gives equal space to the denials of the accused, and then writes an unsigned editorial mocking Butler. Time Magazine writes this satirical piece called “Plot Without Plotters,” where they imagined Butler leading a mob up a Pennsylvania Avenue with Thomas Lamont and Jack Morgan, J.P. Morgan’s son, they were the heads of J.P. Morgan Company at the time bringing up the rear — because who could imagine a mob moving up Pennsylvania Avenue?
RG: Right. [Laughs.] Crazy!
JK: — violently trying to do something to influence the American government! Beggars belief.
RG: Couldn’t happen.
JK: Couldn’t happen!
RG: So speaking of violent overthrows, back to Haiti, so last July, might get these dates slightly off, but last July 5, the president at the time Jovenel Moïse appoints Ariel Henry to be Prime Minister. He’s an ally of the former president, Little Micky.
JK: Sweet Micky.
RG: Sweet Micky. Right.
I’m glad you’re here because you’ve spent years living in Haiti, you’ve been back and forth, so you can keep these characters straight better than I can.
JK: I’ve known Sweet Micky since before we had the same haircut. That’s a joke that won’t fly since I’m on the radio, and also, I don’t want to say that I’m a friend of his [laughs], not at all. I’ve known him since before I lost my hair, is the joke — and he’s bald. Anyway, that’s all.
RG: So July 5, he is named Prime Minister. July 7, I think it was, a group of Colombian mercenaries led by Haitians stormed into the presidential residence and slaughter him.
RG: And Ariel Henry is not exactly in line — he hasn’t even been sworn in yet — but begins to jockey to assume power. The United States backs Henry’s claim to the throne, so to speak.
In September, the prosecutor who was tasked with looking into this says that Henry had made at least two phone calls, we now know three, with this Joseph Badio, who was accused of what being a lead organizer of the assassination, one call right before the killing, two calls after the killing. Henry responds by ordering the guy’s boss to fire him. Guy’s boss refuses. So he fires both of them and shuts down the investigation.
The United States stands by Henry. Puts out a statement saying that he’s their guy. Daniel Foote, who’s the U.S. envoy to Haiti resigns in protest, and cites this in his letter, he also resigns over shipping plane loads of Haitians back into this conflict-riven society.
JK: And the photos of U.S. border guards whipping, or whatever they said they were doing —
RG: Right. Whatever they were doing —
JK: Throwing their reins toward Haitian immigrants trying to reach the United States.
RG: So Foote resigns. Henry remains in power. I recently reported that, you may know her, the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Pamela White, had said back in back in March at a congressional hearing, the way to deal with Haiti, put aside Moïse, and find a respectable prime minister that you can put in, she called it the “prime minister option.” And then he needs to then dissolve the election council and create a new one that the U.S. has faith in. And then we need to call a summit of Haitian leaders and Western allies and name a new leader.
So he did in late September dissolve that election council. They did call this summit, the summit just ended a day or two ago where I guess they’re sort of saying they’re appointing a president in New Orleans. I guess a Creole connection is supposed to make that legitimate, somehow?
JK: I mean, there are academic conferences where they called New Orleans part of the Circum-Caribbean.
RG: There you go. So the night that the police had put together a report, it started circulating on WhatsApp in Haiti, and we obtained a copy of it, and Haitian investigators now have have tons of people involved in this saying that they met with people who said they were FBI agents, said they were State Department people, lots of people involved — the financier of it said that he only funded it because he was told that the United States was supportive of it.
One way, I think to read that, would be to say that the United States has a couple different ways of carrying out coups, and as you’ve talked about here, you burn things to the ground like in the Philippines, you do some dollar diplomacy, you do some counterinsurgency, or you set up situations in which local elites take matters into their own hands. And the United States winks and nods and allows it to go on. This feels like the latter version of it, but you know Haiti a lot better. What’s your read on what happened, and what’s gonna happen?
JK: Yeah. And putting it back in the context of the book really fast, that’s something that I really tried to bring out, is how much of this is more complicated than just the Americans coming into a place and imposing their will.
I mean we’re using local dynamics, and partnering with local elites, and looking at local fishers in the same way that Butler did at a hyperlocal level with counterinsurgency figuring out how to navigate the divisions between the kako insurgents and the villagers who weren’t sure where they stood. We also do that at a macro level, and part of the reason why I was able to come into this project writ large with that perspective is because I’ve seen that happen so much in Haiti.
The United States, it always shocks people, and then they often quickly forget how much imperial control the United States has from behind the scenes in Haiti. It may seem like it’s just natural law that you have like this big, powerful, wealthy country appears and this smaller country is a two-hour flight from Miami, and that’s how the relationship would be, but there was nothing natural about that. That was the product of years of individual decisions and a lot of violence, dating back to the first U.S. occupation of Haiti from from 1915 to 1934. And so, yeah, Henry becomes prime minister, essentially, via a press release. I mean, the core group, which is sort of a consortium of the most powerful ambassadors and I guess representatives of the OAS and the U.N., they just sort of issued a press release, and they’re like: OK, he’s the prime minister now. That’s no way to — I can’t even imagine how even the prospect that the Russian government may have spread propaganda, or tried to do some hacking on behalf of one candidate in the United States set off, I think, rightly, a freakout.
JK: Two wrongs don’t make a right. But we just do that times 1,000 in Haiti.
There was this huge group known as the Montana Group, because they met at a hotel in Port au Prince called the Hotel Montana, which was destroyed in the earthquake and then partially rebuilt — this broad consensus of groups from all over Haitian society came together to lay out a path forward for creating a new electoral commission and holding new elections when the country is ready for them, and sort of trying to create space for something approaching a democratic will to be lived out in Haiti, and the Biden administration has just flat-out ignored them. It’s the same imperial, imperious attitude toward Haiti that followed the last time a Haitian President was assassinated with the killing of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in 1915.
And it’s about, especially in that first occupation, you can very clearly lay out the throughlines of the reasons for Citibank getting involved, and there were these outstanding loans that Haiti had taken out to pay back this intolerable indemnity that the French had had levied against them after the Haitian Revolution, and they were worried that their loans weren’t going to get paid back. And so they send the Marines to stage a bank heist, basically, on behalf of Citibank and other Wall Street banks. That’s what sort of occasions the assassination of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam and then that assassination happens.
By the time you get to the 21st century, I was living in Haiti 2007 to 2011. And now in the aftermath of the assassination of Jovenel Moïse, to a certain extent, it’s almost muscle memory. I mean, there’s no real point.
RG: What about the resources and mining? What wealth is on Haiti that might attract U.S. interest?
JK: The only U.S. economic interest that I’ve ever really been able to discern, in my whatever it’s been now, 15 years? God, like, 15 years of covering Haiti, is cheap labor.
Under Jean-Claude Duvalier, Baby Doc, especially in the 1980s, there was this period where these cheap garment assembly factories were making things you know, for instance, there was a time when every baseball used in the US major leagues was sewn in Haiti — Disney Toys, and Sesame Street toys, and Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, and you know, all these things. And when the Clintons got involved in Haiti, after the earthquake, in 2010, they had already started to be involved again in 2009 before the earthquake hit. That was sort of their angle, they wanted to see Haiti kind of go back to its sweatshop model of cheap labor for U.S. corporations to give us a place that’s closer than China to outsource.
In terms of material wealth, I mean, there is gold. There’s gold mined in the Dominican Republic, I know that because I’ve been to the mines, but it seems like a big headache to try to get it out of the ground in Haiti. And I’ve never really seen anyone who knows mining make the persuasive argument that there’s this enormous wealth of gold that is worth the cost of extraction and also the cost of doing business in a country as unstable as Haiti is. There’s rumors of oil — maybe. I don’t know.
RG: Well, we do it because it’s what we do. Because it’s what Smedley Butler taught us how to do.
JK: That’s honestly my honest answer. It really is. It’s just that this is what we do. I mean, right now in Ukraine with Russia. And I’m not a Russia apologist, I’m not trying to say that invading Ukraine is good. It’s not. But Tony Blinken has, he’s made these arguments like: Oh, well, Russia thinks that Ukraine is in its sphere of influence, but spheres of influence are barbaric — we don’t do things like that anymore.
JK: That’s bullshit! Haiti is in our sphere of influence. That’s really why. It is because we can. And it’s because Haiti is looked at in global politics as being the responsibility of the United States in this very paternalistic, Eurocentric, white supremacist or whatever way.
RG: Well, right, and the more cynical view in Haiti that has been pitched to me is that Moïse’s trip to Turkey was the last straw.
JK: Oh, that’s interesting.
RG: That his face turned Turkey which is allied with — you know, they’re not our best friends nowadays.
RG: And they’re better friends with Russia and China, and that him getting on a plane and actually going to Turkey, and taking that meeting was considered a breach of trust, it busts our sphere of influence.
JK: I don’t want to get so far afield, but Moïse is a fascinating character because like the dude came out of nowhere. I mean, he was just supposed to sort of be a placeholder. He was supposed to be kind of the Medvedev to Martelly’s Putin, right? That he would just sort of come in and keep the seat warm until Martelly came back into power. And then instead he kind of does the dictatorial turn himself. Except there is no powerful central government left to be dictator of. The Haitian government, for years, has kind of existed in name only.
I mean, that’s honestly as best I can tell. And who knows? Maybe at some point, the great gushing oil well will be found and all will be revealed. But the whole Clinton cash thing — I went down all those rabbit holes, I climbed up the hills, I looked into the PVC pipe in the hill, where Tony Rodham supposedly had his big gold mine. And I’ve just never seen any of it.
I think insofar as there is a U.S. interest — I mean, Joe Biden said it himself when he was a senator, he made this horrible statement during the Haitian migrant crisis in the early 90s, that Haiti could rise up — I forget the number — three miles or sink under the ocean and it wouldn’t make a difference in terms of the U.S. national interest. And I think that it’s horrible — and can I say, it’s fucked up —?
RG: You can. No FEC rules here.
JK: OK. It’s a fucked up way of looking at the world. But ultimately it’s true. And, again, I mean, this goes back to Butler. By the time the U.S. invades Haiti in 1915, Haiti has been beaten down enough, even by that point, that it has ceased to be an important place in and of itself. There aren’t even material resources that the United States particularly wants there. We want it for its sea lane. We want it because we don’t want the Germans to come in and get a beachhead across the windward passage from Guantanamo Bay, Citibank wants to protect its investment, people are looking at ways of sort of making money on the side — but ultimately, we’re an empire. And when you’re an empire, you don’t need that bigger reason to invade and occupy and blow up another country.
RG: Right. And it shows the way it’s on autopilot in the sense that even with Biden as president who had said he doesn’t care if Haiti sinks into the sea, the U.S. still, at a very minimum, we can say, is standing behind the de facto prime minister who is credibly accused of being involved in the assassination of the president —
JK: And protecting him.
RG: We can also guess that more U.S. involvement there. But even without that, we know that the Biden administration is doing that, and we also know that the Biden administration — or Biden himself — doesn’t care about Haiti at all, yet is still doing it.
JK: Because why not? Because it’s a flick of the wrist.
I mean, the epigraph of my book is a Haitian proverb.
RG: I saw that.
JK: “The one who deals the blow”— that was my translation, deals. But: “The one who deals the blow forgets, the one who carries the scar remembers.” And that is still the way. I read your story, I guess it was yesterday, about our chicanery with the Central Bank of Afghanistan. That is something straight out of the occupation of Haiti and of Nicaragua.
The other cliché is that when the Empire sneezes, the world catches a cold. It’s like, with a flick of the wrist, we flatten a country. And it means nothing to us. We’re not doing it because we hate these people; we don’t even know they exist, we don’t care. As long as our shopping carts are full, and our paychecks come in on time, and, ultimately, as long as Jeff Bezos’ and Elon Musk’s investments come through, we don’t care what happens to anybody else. That’s what it means to be an empire. And to be on the opposite side of that is what it means to be colonized. And, as we are talking about it, these things have a way of coming home. But the Empire still stands and the gangsters of capitalism are still out there in 2022.
RG: And the Haitian proverb explains why Smedley Butler is widely known in Haiti, but completely unknown here, though I hope that changes a little bit, that people enjoyed learning about his story. And I want to thank you for sharing it and for the book.
JK: Thank you.
[End credits theme.]
RG: That was Jonathan Katz, and that’s our show.
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