Gangsters of Capitalism (Review)

Jonathan Katz’s book about the career of a decorated Marine turned critic attests to the symbiotic relationship between militarism and U.S. commercial expansion.

May 26, 2023

Gangsters of Capitalism, St. Martin's Press, 2022.

The final years of the 19th century and opening decades of the 20th witnessed the rapid growth and solidification of the United States as a global empire. Hardly pausing for breath after prolonged and genocidal campaigns to wrest control of the Great Plains from Indigenous peoples, U.S. imperialists turned their attention overseas, with militarism enduring as the principal instrument of expansion. Indeed, if the Marine-backed coup against the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893 announced the nation’s arrival as a bellicose extra-continental force, the 1898 invasions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines signaled that it was part of an ambitious imperial project. In the coming decades, U.S. military incursions and occupations would emerge as a persistent feature of life across large portions of Central America, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific.

Journalist Jonathan Katz’s Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire provides a unique view into this frantic and exceedingly violent process. The book follows the life of a patrician Pennsylvanian who joined the Marines as an idealistic teenager soon after the U.S. declaration of war against Spain in 1898. During a decades-long career, Butler ascended the ranks due to a combination of distinguished service and family connections—his father was a congressman and his stepfather the heir to a railroad fortune—and played roles of varying importance in many of the pivotal moments that enabled the United States to construct a globe-spanning empire by mid-century.

As a young recruit, Butler was not only present for the seizure of Washington’s first extra-continental naval base at Guantanamo Bay but also participated in the looting of Beijing during the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. Later, as an officer, he served multiple stints in the Philippines during the decades-long war against anti-colonial rebels, helped to secure territory for the Panama Canal, and oversaw the early years of the military occupation of Haiti that stretched from 1915 to 1934. During these and other imperial episodes, Butler participated in and supervised myriad atrocities that ranged from the massacre of civilian populations to the institution of a brutal system of forced labor. While the modest celebrity that he achieved along the way led to an appointment as police commissioner in Prohibition-era Philadelphia and inspired an ill-fated senate campaign, he is now best known for his emergence as an unlikely critic of U.S. imperialism towards the end of his life. In speeches across the country, articles for the socialist magazine Common Sense, and the polemic 1935 pamphlet War is a Racket, the retired officer delivered blunt and self-disparaging accounts of the U.S. role in the world.  In his own estimation, he had been a “high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers” and “a racketeer for capitalism.”

Given this surprising about-face, Katz devotes much attention to Butler’s shifting perception of the morality of the Marines’ actions over the course of the narrative; a motif made possible by access to the Marine’s letters to his family. He also follows his journalistic instinct to visit the territories where Butler was deployed to survey the wreckage and interview residents about the lasting repercussions of U.S. invasions and occupations. While these throughlines provide an engaging character study of Butler and occasionally insightful commentary on the legacies of Marine interventions, the book is most valuable for demonstrating militarism’s centrality to U.S. expansion during this formative moment in the nation’s rise to global power. As Katz shows, Marines like Butler did not merely intervene to enable U.S. investment, they also re-engineered local societies and landscapes so that Gilded Age tycoons could maximize their profits.

The early chapters on Butler’s role in the Spanish American War do an excellent job of outlining the domestic forces driving U.S. imperialism and exploring the ideas that animated them. Different from continental expansion, the primary goal of the interventions Katz documents was not to seize territory for white settlers but rather to secure U.S. control over foreign markets, raw materials, and workers. Recurrent recessions punctuated by escalating labor militancy towards the end of the 19th century had convinced Washington officials and Wall Street financiers that the nation’s future wellbeing depended upon increasing exports of the nation’s “surplus” industrial and agricultural products. In their view, this would not only enable future growth but also produce the prosperity necessary to diffuse domestic class struggle.

With longtime rivals like England and France and rising powers like Germany and Japan competing for influence, military theorist Alfred Mahan argued that achieving U.S. commercial supremacy would require an expansive and aggressive naval presence. According to Theodore Roosevelt, the conflicts that arose from this militarized approach to controlling foreign resources and trade networks would have the added benefit of preserving the nation’s masculine virility, which threatened to wither away in the absence of “frontier” warfare. Conveniently, these imperial ideologues’ conviction that non-European peoples required instruction in self-government provided a paternalistic logic to endow both brief interventions and lengthy occupations with a humanitarian veneer.

As Katz readily admits, this framing for turn-of-the-century imperialism is not new. Still, he excels at explaining how a small circle of bankers, lawyers, and business-leaders influenced decisions about where to intervene and illuminating their frequent dependence upon the Marines to conduct the messy work of dispossession. The section explaining Butler’s first deployment to what became the “Panama Canal Zone” provides a good example. Among U.S. expansionists, the construction of a waterway linking Atlantic and Pacific trade was viewed as a central pillar of the United States’ future commercial empire. In addition to facilitating increased trade between the two coasts of the Americas, the canal would enable U.S. manufacturing to reach potentially vast markets in Asia at lower cost and with greater speed.

After French efforts to build a canal across the Central American Isthmus floundered, William Cromwell, founder of the infamous law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, negotiated a deal for the U.S. government to purchase the land and assets from French investors and finance construction. When Colombia refused to approve a treaty that would grant the United States sovereignty over a six-mile-wide concession through its territory, a banker linked to Cromwell coordinated a secessionist plot alongside a group of Panama City elites and leaked the plan to the press. Butler eventually enters the story as one of the hundreds of Marines sent to the area to discourage a response from the Colombian military. The show of force worked, and Panama became an independent country in 1903—with JP Morgan waiting in the wings, ready to take charge of the new nation’s finances. Around this time, Butler also led Marine invasions in Honduras and Nicaragua to defend the interests of U.S. businesses that included the recently formed United Fruit Company. Most of his time, however, was spent stationed in Panama to maintain an environment conducive to the canal’s construction.

While the book contains no shortage of details about the massacres that so often accompanied Marine invasions, the chapter on Butler’s life in the Canal Zone reveals some of the more subtle forms of damage that a U.S. military presence inflicts. Like in other territories where the Marines established prolonged occupations, the officers in Panama enforced a social order structured around U.S.-style racial hierarchy. Recently arrived U.S. citizens occupied the summit, followed by “semi-white” Southern Europeans, the territory’s existing population, and the thousands of West Indian workers recruited for the incredibly dangerous labor of building the canal. While U.S. citizens received payment in gold, everyone else was paid in silver. And whereas many of those on the “gold roll” lived in luxurious single-family homes while being waited upon by poorly paid West Indian domestic servants, “silver rollers were forced to use separate building entrances, ate worse commissary food, and were housed in poorly built shacks.”

Unsurprisingly, the daily degradations of this social order provoked deep tensions between U.S. “Zonians” and everybody else. When tensions boiled over—as they did during the “Cocoa Grove riot” on July 4, 1912—Katz shows how Panamanians and West Indian immigrants faced dire consequences while U.S. citizens enjoyed impunity. As he describes, following an Independence Day baseball match between the army and the Marines, drunken soldiers spilled out of the Canal Zone and began to terrorize Panama City. With Zonians wreaking havoc, the local police intervened and placed several U.S. soldiers under arrest. However, Butler and the canal’s lead engineer quickly interfered to ensure their speedy release and secure the conviction of a Panamanian police officer allegedly involved in the death of a bartender from California. After fights between Zonians and Panamanians continued in subsequent months, U.S. officials went further, expelling tens of thousands of locals from their longtime homes in the Canal Zone on the basis that they posed a security hazard.

Elsewhere, Katz explains how Butler and the Marines repressed local cultural traditions that they viewed as impediments to U.S. domination. For instance, during the decades-long occupation of Haiti that began with the armed seizure of the nation’s gold reserves at the behest of National City Bank in 1915, Butler led a concerted campaign to eradicate Vodou. Like Santería in Cuba or Candomblé in Brazil, Vodou is a religion that began to take form on slave plantations through a synthesis of Yoruba, Catholic, and other spiritual practices. Among enslaved people, it not only provided a means to maintain African cultural forms but also to build new networks of kinship amidst the slave regime’s efforts to impose “social death.” Vodou’s prominence as a source of solidarity during the Haitian Revolution only strengthened the religion, while also producing an enduring moral panic about it among those who viewed the existence of an independent Black republic as a cataclysmic development. Through the imperial lens, Vodou was not only a “superstition” that proved Haitians’ irrationality and inferiority, but one capable of cohering resistance to white rule.

When the U.S. occupation of Haiti prompted the growth of an impressive armed insurgency in the countryside, the Marines identified Vodou as an influence driving support for the rebels and attempted to suppress it. As Katz writes, Butler’s forces “raided shrines and arrested priests. They burned piles of sacred instruments and images of Catholic saints used in worship.” Butler’s belief that the Marines occupying Haiti were, as he put it in Senate testimony, “trustees of a huge estate that belonged to minors” no doubt helped him justify this and other barbarities committed throughout the occupation, such as forcing a U.S.-drafted constitution upon the national assembly at gunpoint and imposing a system of corvée labor that resembled the brutal chain-gangs then common across the Jim Crow South. Among other U.S.-friendly clauses, the coerced constitution would be the first since the Haitian Revolution to permit foreign land ownership, facilitating a cascade of land purchases by U.S. investors. Similarly egregious examples of violence, dispossession, and exploitation are featured in chapter after chapter.  

If Katz’s narration of imperial interventions is consistently illuminating, his analysis of their enduring impacts is more uneven. Echoing other recent books on U.S. empire, Katz attempts to go beyond describing the mechanics of expansion to also explain how the processes he documents have shaped the contemporary world. This approach is most successful in his discussion of places where U.S. occupations lasted longest, such as Haiti and the Philippines. In other locations, however, the connections between past and present are less insightful and the portrayals of foreign societies surprisingly careless. A tangent about the drug trade, for instance, is only loosely tied to the Marines’ 1914 invasion of Veracruz to advance U.S. oil interests in the midst of the Mexican Revolution. Meanwhile, a chapter on Butler’s involvement in crushing the Boxer Rebellion seems more concerned with instilling fear about China’s emergence as a formidable imperial rival than parsing the lasting repercussions of that intervention. Perhaps most jarring, his characterization of Cuba as a “totalitarian Communist state” recalls trite Cold War propaganda in both its imprecision and its dogmatism.

This unevenness aside, Gangsters of Capitalism is a valuable resource for readers interested in understanding how the United States transformed from a hemispheric power to a global one in the space of a few decades. Through his close focus on Butler’s career and the circumstances that surrounded it, Katz provides insight into the ideology, the material interests, and, most crucially, the militarism that fueled turn-of-the-century U.S. expansion.

Cos Tollerson is a writer and researcher living in New York City. He has a PhD in Latin American & Caribbean History from NYU, where he completed a dissertation focusing on right-wing Brazilian elites’ ideas about modernization during the Cold War.

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