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Jonathan M. Katz and The Gangsters of Capitalism

Jonathan M. Katz
Jonathan M. Katz

Author Jonathan M. Katz writes about the history of American imperialism in his new book Gangsters of Capitalism through the eyes of Smedley Butler, an often forgotten Marine who was involved in every major overseas conflict from 1898 until the eve of World War II. Katz traveled the world recreating Butler’s journeys and he’ll discuss it at Books & Brews at Pile Fire Brewing in Harrisonburg on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with Katz and asked him to describe Smedley Butler.

Jonathan M. Katz: He was a marine who joined the Corps in 1898 and passed through all the ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major General. He was twice the recipient of the Medal of Honor and participated in every overseas invasion/occupation that the United States fought with one or two very small exceptions from 1898 until the 1930s. But then, spent the last 10 years of life sort of repenting for what he had done and he became an anti-war, anti-imperialist activist who among other things blew the whistle on what he alleged was a fascist coup to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. So he was a lot of different things to a lot of different people different in different points in history.

WMRA: I'll be honest with you, Jonathan, this is the first time I've ever heard of Smedley Butler and it seems that I'm not alone. It seems a lot of other people have forgotten about him or never even heard of him before. Why do you think that is?

JMK:  Because it's a story that we don't like to tell about ourselves. When Americans think about war, generally speaking, we think of World War Two, maybe the Civil War, sometimes the American Revolution, that's about it. And it's not a coincidence that those are the wars that we pick is because those are the wars, especially World War 2, that's the good War, right? I'm putting that in quotes. Because it was a good war, we were on the side of good in that war especially in fighting and helping to defeat Nazi Germany. But by focusing on those wars where we're the good guys and we're fighting the bad guys that allows us to not think about these other Wars that are actually much more common in American history. Wars of Empire, wars of rapaciousness, wars of seizing resources, wars that don't make us look very good. And these are words that we’ve fought in our own lifetime.

WMRA:  Do you think when he became anti-war that had to do with maybe some guilt that he had about the things that he did, you think he was searching for some personal redemption?

JMK:  I think so. You can recognize in Butler's letters his attempts to write his own biography. The “As Told to Biography” that he published in 1931 “And War is a Racket” and these articles that he wrote for “Common Sense.” Through all of those things, I recognize very clearly PTSD. This is a man who had seen a lot. He had been through a lot. He'd been shot multiple times. His friends had died, and he also was dealing with what is now known as moral injury. Essentially, the condition of having feeling implicated in having done, or allowed something to happen that conflicts with your moral core and Butler has a very, very strong moral core. You know, he was a Quaker and even though he sort of broke with the Quakers, effectively by joining the Marines, he still had a very clear sense of what he thought was right and wrong. And over the course of his 33 years in the Marine Corps, he was doing a lot of things that is very clear. Reading his letters to his mother and his wife that he thinks are wrong. And I think to a certain extent that was responsible for his late in life turn.

WMRA: If there's one thing you want people to know about Butler and the story you tell in your book, what is it?

JMK: It's that wars, including wars, and especially, wars that we don't think about, that we forget about, have a way of coming home. That's the big lesson that I really would like people to take from it is that injustices done abroad, whatever excuses that we come up with, to hurt people elsewhere can ultimately, and in some ways, inevitably will ultimately be used against people in our own country. And so, all that has to be corrected at once.

Chris Boros is WMRA’s Program Director and local host from 10am-4pm Monday-Friday.