In light of this record Butler presumably shocked a good many people when in 1935 — as a second world war was looming — he wrote in the magazine Common Sense:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism [corporatism]. 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 in. 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 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.That same year he published a short book with the now-famous title War Is a Racket, for which he is best known today. Butler opened the book with these words:
War is a racket. It always has been.He followed this by noting: “For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out.”
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.
Butler went on to describe who bears the costs of war — the men who die or return home with wrecked lives, and the taxpayers — and who profits — the companies that sell goods and services to the military. (The term military-industrial complex would not gain prominence until 1961, when Dwight Eisenhower used it in his presidential farewell address. See Nick Turse’s book The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.)
Writing in the mid-1930s, Butler foresaw a U.S. war with Japan to protect trade with China and investments in the Philippines, and declared that it would make no sense to the average American:
We would be all 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.Noting that “until 1898 [and the Spanish-American War] we didn’t own a bit of territory outside the mainland of North America,” he observed that after becoming an expansionist world power, the U.S. government’s debt swelled 25 times and “we forgot George Washington’s warning about ‘entangling alliances.’ We went to war. We acquired outside territory.”
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. Munitions makers. Bankers. Ship builders. Manufacturers. Meat packers. Speculators. They would fare well.…
But what does it profit the men who are killed? What does it profit their mothers and sisters, their wives and their sweethearts? What does it profit their children?
What does it profit anyone except the very few to whom war means huge profits?
It would have been far cheaper (not to say safer) for the average American who pays the bills to stay out of foreign entanglements. For a very few this racket, like bootlegging and other underworld rackets, brings fancy profits, but the cost of operations is always transferred to the people — who do not profit.Butler detailed the huge profits of companies that sold goods to the government during past wars and interventions and the banks that made money handling the government’s bonds.
The normal profits of a business concern in the United States are six, eight, ten, and sometimes twelve percent. But war-time profits — ah! that is another matter — twenty, sixty, one hundred, three hundred, and even eighteen hundred per cent — the sky is the limit. All that traffic will bear. Uncle Sam has the money. Let’s get it.And who provides these returns? “We all pay them — in taxation.… But the soldier pays the biggest part of the bill.”
Of course, it isn’t put that crudely in war time. It is dressed into speeches about patriotism, love of country, and ‘we must all put our shoulders to the wheel,’ but the profits jump and leap and skyrocket — and are safely pocketed.
His description of conditions at veterans’ hospitals reminded me of what we’re hearing today about the dilapidated veterans’ health care system. Butler expressed his outrage at how members of the armed forces are essentially tricked into going to war — at a pitiful wage.
Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This was the “war to end all wars.” This was the “war to make the world safe for democracy.” No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits. No one told these American soldiers that they might be shot down by bullets made by their own brothers here. No one told them that the ships on which they were going to cross might be torpedoed by submarines built with United States patents. They were just told it was to be a “glorious adventure.”Butler proposed ways to make war less likely. Unlike others, he had little faith in disarmament conferences and the like. Rather, he suggested three measures: (1) take the profit out of war by conscripting “capital and industry and labor” at $30 a month before soldiers are conscripted; (2) submit the question of entry into a proposed war to a vote only of “those who would be called upon to do the fighting and dying”; (3) “make certain that our military forces are truly forces for defense only.”
Thus, having stuffed patriotism down their throats, it was decided to make them help pay for the war, too. So, we gave them the large salary of $30 a month.
It’s unlikely that these measures would ever be adopted by Congress or signed by a president, and of course conscription is morally objectionable, even if the idea of drafting war profiteers has a certain appeal. But Butler’s heart was in the right place. He was aware that his program would not succeed: “I am not a fool as to believe that war is a thing of the past.”
Yet in 1936 he formalized his opposition to war in his proposed constitutional “Amendment for Peace.” It contained three provisions: