OLD GIMLET EYE
(From  Proceedings  U.  S.  Naval  Institute, November 1986, p. 65-72.)
by  Lieutenant  Colonel  Marrill  L.  Bartlett, U. S. Marine Corps (Retired)

     The penetrating stare that brought Smedley Darlington Butler the  nickname  "Old  Gimlet Eye" was in evidence most of his career -- as was his maneuvering to influence the  selection of the Marine Corps's top leadership. 

     Marine  Corps  heroes,  once  accepted,  tend to remain enshrined.   Such was the  case  of  Major  General  Smedley Darlington  Butler,  whose  service  began  in 1898 with the Spanish-American War and ended in 1931 -- with  a  reprimand in  lieu  of  a  threatened court-martial.  Those dates span probably the most colorful career of  any  officer  who  has ever  worn  forest green.  Butler had more than his share of time in combat and in foreign expeditionary duties; received two   Medals   of   Honor;   saw  detached  service  as  the Commissioner of Safety, to clean up Philadelphia during  the 
"roaring  twenties";  and  commanded a brigade sent to China during a period of domestic turmoil that threatened American lives  and  property.    The hawkish, penetrating stare that brought Butler the nickname 'Old Gimlet Eye" has  transfixed 
readers  of  Marine  Corps  history  for  more  than  half a century. 

     Despite  such  a  brilliant  career,  Butler  failed to receive the nod for the Corps' highest post  when  the  14th Commandant  of the Marine Corps (CMC), Major General Wendell C. Neville, died in office  in  1930.    Many  thought  that Butler  --  a senior major general in the Corps and with his spectacular  record  --  deserved  the  position  and  cried "Foul!"    Some  of  these  suggested  that  a  coalition of 
civilian politicians and shore-based admirals had  torpedoed Butler   --  convincing  President  Herbert  C.  Hoover  and Secretary of the Navy Charles F. Adams to bypass  Butler  in favor  of  the  mild-mannered  and  uncontroversial  Ben  H. Fuller, a Naval Academy classmate of the new Chief of  Naval Operations,  William  V.  Pratt.    A more balanced and less hagiographic  examination  of  Butler's   career,   however, suggests  that in this instance the politicians and admiralsacted wisely,  and  in  the  best  interests  of  the  naval services and the nation. . . . 

     In  the  next  few  years,  Smedley  Butler  served  in assignments   characteristic   of   America's   new  age  -- expeditionary infantry duties -- in  which  large  units  of 
Marines and sailors would be formed initially from among the Leathernecks  and  Bluejackets  in  the  fleet,   and   then reinforced  by  battalions  of  Marines  formed at barracks.  During the expedition to relieve  Beijing  and  Tientsin  in 
1902,   Butler  encountered  the  indefatigable  campaigner, Littleton  W.  T.  Waller.    For  the  remainder   of   his professional  life,  Butler  considered  Waller -- sometimes 
known as the "Butcher of Samar" for his harsh tactics during the  Philippine Insurrection -- to be the ideal Marine Corps officer: "The greatest soldier I  have  ever  known  .  .  . .  Waller  may  have  liked  to  talk about himself, but he had plenty to talk about."  Sadly for both  Waller  and  Butler, not everybody agreed. 

     In 1910, following a spate of in-house acrimony between the  CMC,  Major General George F. Elliott, and the Adjutant and Inspector, the colorful Colonel Charles H.  Lauchheimer, Elliott  opted  for retirement.  Most observers -- including Butler -- assumed that the venerable Waller would  gain  the Corps'  highest  post.    However, in a private meeting with Secretary of the Navy George von Meyer, President William H. Taft  bowed  to  pressure  from  the  powerful  PennsylvaniaSenator  Boise  Penrose  and  appointed   his   constituent, Philadelphia's  William  A.  Biddle,  to the post.  Stunned, Butler became an irrepressible and unrepentant  bushwhacker.  Well  into  the second decade of this century he carried the banner for the notion that his future and that of the  Corps would  best  be served by leadership like Waller's.  For the other Marine Corps leaders, he had only contempt and his own special brand of guerilla warfare. 

     The passage of legislation in  1913  that  limited  the tenure  of  each  CMC to four years -- unless reappointed -- ended  the   traditional   system   of   appointment   until 
retirement,  which  had  been in effect since 1798.  Instead Josephus Daniels, the new Secretary of the Navy . . . Biddle into  retirement  and  began  the  search  for  a  new  CMC.  Excitedly, Butler assumed that Waller would win this  time.  He  generated  a  flurry of correspondence knowing full well that every letters would be read by his congressman  father:  "I  am  so  unhappy.  I do not know what to do -- nothing to 
look forward to and absolutely  no  silver  lining  to  this awful  black  cloud.   All my hard work had been thrown away and I  am  broken.    The  only  hope  is  Colonel  Waller's appointment  and  I  am losing faith in that . . . . If Col. Waller could only win them over -- thing[s] would be exactly as it [sic] should be." 

     Much  to  Butler's  dismay  --  an   despite   whatever political  leverage  his  father  applied -- stronger forces determined the selection of a new CMC in  1913-14.    Biddle had  hoped  to  slide  in  the  veteran  campaigner, Colonel Lincoln Karmany, before sufficient political forces could be organized   to   oppose  this  handpicked  successor.    But Secretary Daniels eliminated Karmany from the  running  when 
he  learned  of  his messy divorce in order ot marry another woman. 

     Waller  had  the endorsement of all 21 Democrats in the Senate, but carried the unacceptable baggage of  Samar  with him.    Secretary  Daniels reasoned that it made no sense to appoint  an  officer  with  a  reputation  for  callous  and inhumane  treatment  of  the  Filipino people, just when the Wilson Administration promised a more enlightened and humane government  of  the  Philippines.    Thus,  when Daniels and President Wilson  examined  their  remaining  options,  they found  that  there  most  likely  candidates  for the Corps' highest post were John Archer Lejeune -- still a  lieutenant colonel  and  too  junior  in  grade  --  and Colonel George Barnett, ably championed by  his  roommate  from  the  Naval Academy   Class   of   1881,   Congressman   John  Weeks  of Massachusetts.  Daniels was not completely comfortable  with Barnett,  but  he  agreed  to his appointment because of the 
seniority question.  This sent Butler's morale to even lower depths:  "I  suppose  Mrs.  Barnett [a wealthy socialite] is wild.    Poor, poor Colonel Waller -- my  disappointment  is nothing to his." 

     In  1914,  shortly  after  Barnett's  appointment,  the United  States  landed sizable naval forces at Vera Cruz, on Mexico's  Gulf  coast.    As  events  surrounding  America's somewhat  dubious  action in the region unfolded, Butler wasawarded his first Medal of Honor  --  along  with  58  other naval  personnel  (as  compared for only 13 for all of World War I).  Most observers considered the awards given  Marines somewhat  specious -- since they all went to officers -- and Butler pleaded with his congressman father to have his medal withdrawn. 

     In  1916,  Butler  became  head  of  the   U.S.-advised national  police  force  of  Haiti  (Gendarmie  d'Haiti) and received a major general's commission in  the  organization.  The  temporary  promotion  suited Butler's ego, but even his 
mentor Waller found it a bit much.  In one  of  his  lengthy situation  reports  to  Lejeune  (the Assistant CMC), Waller reported putting his restless subordinate in place.  On  one occasion, when Butler had returned from the bush and planned to visit Waller's  mess.  he  asked  where  he  should  sit.  Amused, Waller suggested that if he came wearing his rank as a Marine Corps major he would sit at the table in accordance 
with  seniority;  on  the  other hand, if he appeared in the uniform of a major general  in  the  Gendarmie  d'Haiti,  he could feed in the pantry! 

     By the fall of 1916, Butler's morale had plunged to new lows,  but  his  venom  level  remained high.  He longed for another  assignment:  ".  .  .  [I]  am  simply   the   very subservient  chief of a nigger police force and, were it not that I have to same a little nest egg for the future,  would quit  the  d--d  job."  By this time, even Waller was having trouble with the difficult assignment  in  Haiti.    At  one point, relations between Butler, Waller, and Admiral William B. Caperton (commanding the U. S. Naval  Mission  to  Haiti) had  become  so  strained  that it appeared as though Butler 
might be ordered out of the  country.    Lejeune  eventually counseled  Waller to stand back -- lest he fail selection to brigadier general because of his penchant for  ruffling  the Navy's feathers. 

     Earlier, Butler had characteristically let  his  father know  just  what  he  thought  of  the Navy component of the mission: "really, these Navy people are not fit  to  be  put 
ashore,  officers  or  men.  .  .  ."   For his part, Waller responded to Lejeune's counsel by expressing  his  own  bias against   the   local   political  leaders,  whose  opinions 
continued to be sought by the Naval Mission: "I do  not  see why the desires of these negroes should be considered in the appointment of a brigadier  general  of  the  United  States Marine Corps." . . . 

     Upon his return to the United States  in  1919,  Butler became  chief of staff at Quantico, under Lejeune.  With the [World] war over, the wily Secretary of the Navy had decided to  replace  Commandant  Barnett  with  Lejeune-- and set in motion events that would stun naval circles and  Washington, D.C.  officials.  Playing upon Butler's dislike for Barnett, Daniels  gained  their  support  for  the  change   in   the 
commandancy  --  an important political consideration, given the fact that the incumbent CMC enjoyed powerful  Republican support on Capitol Hill. 

     With the impending  change  about  to  unfold,  Lejeune began  to  have misgivings about the duplicity involved.  In two stormy confrontations held that the post headquarters at Quantico,  the  assistant  base  adjutant  remembered Butler 
suggesting to Lejeune that "Barnett was a weak old woman and had  to  go!  If  Lejeune  was  not  prepared  to assume the commandancy then someone else would be  found  to  take  the position." 

     The details of  the  ouster  of  Barnett  as  the  12th Commandant  of the Marine Corps in 1920 have been documented elsewhere. ("Ouster of a Commandant," Proceedings,  November 1980, pp. 80-85).  As Barnett walked out of his headquarters on the last day of June, Butler sat in his  car  across  the 
street  because  (as  his  aide-de-camp  told  the story) he wanted the satisfaction of seeing a defeated  Barnett  leave office.    Congressman  Butler  responded  more  directly to Lejeune a few days  later:  "My,  I  am  pleased  with  your appointment.  Now,  we are going to have a real Marine Corps and it is commanded by a real soldier."   In  the  next  few months,  however,  domestic  political considerations almost upset the change in the commandancy. 

     In  1926,  Butler placed Colonel Alexander S. Williams, his second in command, on report -- for violation of the law prohibiting  the  consumption  of  alcohol.  According  to Butler, Williams (a popular veteran of Samar)  had  appeared intoxicated  at  a  hotel in Coronado.  By this point in his career, Butler had become a militant prohibitionist, as  had other  Marine Corps officers.   (Earlier, Lejeune had become so  disgusted  with  the   bootlegging   problem   that   he recommended the outright purchase of civilian-owned Quantico Town, to remove the nest of sleazy characters  just  outside 
the base.) 

     With Butler pressing  his  case,  Williams  received  a court-martial,  was  found  guilty,  and was punished with a loss of numbers on the lineal list.  After Williams died  in an  automobile  accident six months later, critics suggested that Williams had committed suicide and  blamed  Butler  for the tragedy.  At the time, most Americans turned a blind eye to  the  laws  prohibiting  the   consumption   of   alcohol -- considering them unreasonable and impossible to enforce -- and Butler was pursuing a typically unpopular course. 

     Quite  possibly,  Smedley  Darlington Butler could have existed in no military organization but  the  U.  S.  Marine Corps  and  at  no  time  but  the early 20th century.  John Archer Lejeune recognized Butler as a colorful  anachronism, and saw clearly that he could never be the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  With Butler heading the  Corps,  either  from 1928 to 1932 (according to the Josephus Daniels scenario) or possibly from 1930 (following Neville's death) to 1934,  the important  development of amphibious doctrine may never have taken place -- for during the 1920s, amphibious warfare took a  back seat to the crowd-pleasing battle reenactments.  And given Butler's anti-Navy, anti-Naval Academy,  and  anti-War 
College  views, the U. S. Marine Corps may well have entered and finished World War II by manning small  detachments  for shipboard duties and defense battalions -- unable to provide amphibious forces to form the spearhead for victory  in  the 
Pacific. 

 

These items and much more can be found at The Marine Corps Research Center (MCRC)


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