“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
So begins the radical 1935 speech-turned-book “War is a Racket,” written and delivered by decorated Marine Smedley D. Butler. Butler gave this speech on a tour of America during the tense, divided period between World Wars. His intent becomes quickly clear: To prevent another global war. Butler died about five years after “War is a Racket” was published, and the points he brought up in his speech are still hotly debated into the modern day.
Profit Over People and “War is a Racket.”
“Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die,” Butler writes. “This was the ‘war to end all wars.’ This was the ‘war to make the world safe for democracy.’ No one told them that dollars and cents were the real reason. No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits.” Butler backs his bold claim with this fact: “The normal profits of a business concern in the United States are six, eight, ten, and sometimes even twelve per cent. But wartime profits–ah! That is another matter–twenty, sixty, one hundred, three hundred, and even eighteen hundred per cent–the sky is the limit.” Butler fills his book with statistics similar to this, and his meaning is clear: War breeds grief for the masses and profits for the few.
Butler summarizes his observations in World War 1 by proposing how a second war may progress, “We would all be stirred up to hate Japan and go to war–a war that might well cost us tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of lives of Americans, and many more hundreds of thousands of physically maimed and mentally unbalanced men. Of course, for this loss, there would be a compensating profit–fortunes would be made. Millions and billions of dollars would be piled up. By a few.”
Smedley D. Butler’s Three Point Solution
Indeed, it could be said that war profiteering continues to happen in our modern world. So, if war is fueled by profit, what can our government do to stop this cycle?
In chapter four of “War is a Racket,” Smedly Butler lays out three key steps the government should take to end the profit of war.
“We must take the profit out of war.”
First of all, he proposes that everyone, privately and publicly employed, make the same wage as conscripted soldiers. “Why shouldn’t they?” Butler asks. “They aren’t running any risk of being killed or of having their bodies mangled or their minds shattered. They aren’t sleeping in muddy trenches. They aren’t hungry. The soldiers are!” Butler argues that the low wage soldiers were paid (he cites $30 a month several times throughout the book) would quickly snuff out dreams of riches and profit bred by war. “Give capital and industry and labor thirty days to think it (wartime wages being cut to the same as soldiers) over and you will find, by that time, there will be no war. That will smash the war racket—that and nothing else.”
“We must permit the youth of the land who would bear arms to decide whether or not there should be war.”
Secondly, Butler realizes that there is, in some instances, necessity for war. In this case, he says, a vote should be put to the population as to whether or not the war is really necessary. Not the American public, however. Butler claims that only the young men who are eligible for a draft should be allowed to vote on matters of declaring war. “Only those who suffer should have the right to vote,” he argues.
“We must limit our military forces to home defense purposes.”
The last suggestion Butler makes is that the military should be limited in the distance they can travel from the USA. He says, “Our nation cannot start an offensive war if its ships can’t go farther than 200 miles from the coastline. Planes might be permitted to go as far as 500 miles from the coast for purposes of reconnaissance. And the army should never leave the territorial limits of our nation.”
These three steps, Butler firmly believed, will be the only things that can limit war and its profits.
Were Butler’s Ideas Implemented?
So, what effect did Smedley D. Butler’s views have on the world? Did they fall into relative obscurity, unpopular and unsupported by the general populace? Or have they steered us clear from repeating the mistakes of our forefathers into the present day? That may be a matter of both fact and opinion, but the truth is that his same frustrations were widely voiced by the public, and those ideas pushed then-senator (and later US President) Harry Truman to propose and lobby for the Renegotiation Act of 1942 (Feuerherd.) This bill was passed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, in summary, required that contractors working with the US government in times of war may be required to renegotiate costs/contracts, within reason (Judson.) This act actually worked well to curb corporate corruption during the World War 2 era, and the general public’s pleasure with its success couldn’t have hurt Truman’s later presidential campaign.
Smedley D. Butler spent a lot of time later in his life fighting for an end to what he considered to be greed-driven and heartless wars. He gained ground and lost ground, and in the end, whether or not he achieved what he was fighting for is debatable and likely not a simple ‘yes-or-no.’ Don’t forget to share your opinions on Butler’s ideas, book, and success in the comments or in our forum, and if you are interested, you can access “War is a Racket” for free here.
Butler, Smedley D., and Adam Parfrey. War Is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America's Most Decorated General, Two Other Anti-Interventionist Tracts and Photographs from the Horror of It. Feral House, 2003.
How Harry Truman Rose to Fame Curbing War Profiteers. https://daily.jstor.org/how-harry-truman-rose-to-fame-curbing-war-profiteers/.
The Renegotiation of Government War Contracts - Uchicago. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2052&context=uclrev.