Worst of "Friends": The Cold Peace Between Herbert Hoover and Smedley Darlington Butler

Updated on December 7, 2019
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JOHN C. GREGORY is an independent copy writer, novelist and agricultural journalist. Learning from the land and from history is his mission.

Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States
Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States

Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots; Hamilton and Burr; Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy; and Joan Crawford and Bette Davis comprise but a few of history’s most prominent feuds. Add or remove, or otherwise tweak, a variable or two and these bitter enemies may otherwise have known abiding friendship. Often rooted in minor offenses or slights, feuds metastasize beyond their original boundaries to form deep and relentless hatreds. Such is the course of human nature. Still, there are some for whom such bad blood should be abhorrent, the Quakers, for example. From its inception, the Religious Society of Friends has promoted pacific behavior and amity. Ironically, two of this sect’s most famous sons—Herbert Hoover and Smedley Darlington Butler—chose these tenets against which to apostatize.

The peace testimony is to Quakers what papal infallibility is to Roman Catholics – inviolable…and open to interpretation. Founded in the mid-17th century by heterodox Puritan George Fox, the Friends movement determined early on that fighting contradicted New Testament precepts.[1] It was a rule to which several notables took exception over the years. General Nathanael Green, for example, capped a military career as the first Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army and General Washington’s valued adjutant. That same career commenced when young Nathanael was expelled from his local Friends meeting in Rhode Island over his fondness for all things martial...and a few things fermented.[2]

Friends Meeting discipline also visited Pennsylvania Congressman John Conard. A vocal proponent of going to war with Great Britain in 1812, he was removed from the rolls for his very public stance.[3]The Civil War posed a unique dilemma for Quaker men – which was a worse sin? War or human enslavement? While many remained firmly in the camp of pacifism, some – like Captain James Parnell Jones, a veteran of Antietam – decided that taking up arms for the Union was a necessary evil. For this action, he was removed from his Maine congregation.[4] However, although regionally organized into monthly and annual meetings, the local bodies maintained authority over who qualified for good standing and who earned disciplinary action. For this reason, expulsion was not a consistent consequence among Quakers who chose to serve.

Ironically, one such warrior who remained in good ecclesiastical stead was Smedley Darlington Butler. Worming his way into the Marines before he was of age—as an officer, no less—Butler was the son of a congressman who represented a portion of Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line. He saw action in every major military engagement from the Spanish-American War through World War I. While his exploits would have earned him few plaudits among devout Friends, they did garner for Butler two Congressional Medals of Honor (he remains only one of a pair to have received two). All the while, he rose to the rank of Major General before his retirement in 1931.

Although Herbert Hoover never served in the armed forces, his career reflects at least a mild rejection of the peace testimony, i.e. non-violence in every instance. He records in his memoirs the lesson learned from an irascible uncle with whom he lived after the premature death of his parents: “He was one of many Quakers who do not hold to extreme pacifism. One of his expressions was, ’Turn your other cheek once, but if he smites it, then punch him.’”[5] This philosophy fairly well summarizes Hoover’s quasi-Quaker approach to foreign policy – pursuing peace until the homeland is threatened. Though he was inspired by the political leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt (as was Smedley Butler), Hoover never shared the Rough Rider’s emotional attachment to battle.

Despite their common religious heritage, with which both continued to identify, Herbert Clark Hoover and Smedley Darlington Butler spent most of their respective careers in distant contempt for one another. On the surface, they could not have been of two more contrasting temperaments. Butler represented the swashbuckling, instinctive warrior ethos while Hoover exemplified the careful, cerebral calculating of a professional engineer, entrepreneur and political infighter. Still, their mutual repulsion echoes back to the very first major schism among the Religious Society of Friends, perhaps reflecting two opposing sides of the Quaker coin.

The Hicksites and the Orthodox

From the very founding of the Friends movement in England by George Fox and others, a creative tension existed between the new sect’s innovative understanding of “Inward Light” and its adherence to the ancient scriptures inherited from the Puritan forbears. Inward, or Inner, Light is roughly identified with the Holy Spirit, yet is considered among many Quakers to be resident in all humans regardless of faith claims.[6] Having experienced successive revelations in 1646, Fox determined that the Light of Christ would—if heeded—expose the sinful heart and its need for cleansing. He did not dismiss the authority of the Bible, but instead relied upon the Inner Light to glean the truth of its text. The degree to which Quakers exercised that spiritual dependence varied, without disrupting the essential unity among Friends.

Historian Thomas D. Hamm believes the Society of Friends was indeed united at the turn of the 19th century:

Although six yearly meetings existed, all looked to Philadelphia and London as centers of Quaker thought and leadership. More important, these Friends shared a common theology: the distinctive doctrines of the Inward Light of Christ, immediate revelation, unprogrammed worship, pacifism, and separation from “the world” manifested in plainness and peculiarity.[7]

As the early 1800s saw revivals and schisms among many Protestants in the United States, Quaker unity, too, suffered a rupture from which it would not heal. Perhaps bound to occur with westward expansion, various Quakers began to resemble their Baptist and Methodist co-pioneers in many aspects and practices. Meanwhile, those in the east grew more worldly (think Dolley Madison), eschewing the plain clothing and customs of their forebears. Those things that distinguished the Friends from their neighbors were growing less pronounced, a phenomenon begging for reform.

Enter Elias Hicks, who believed the watering down of Quaker lifestyles sprouted from an erroneous view of Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible. For one thing, Hicks believed that Jesus was not Christ from everlasting ages past, but instead became Christ through perfect fidelity to the Divine Light. Virgin birth was not an essential doctrine to Hicks’ way of thinking. In like manner, the Bible—while a reliable record of God’s deeds and decrees in history, was not equal to Inward Light as an authority in the present, and must furthermore share with human reason in the role of discipleship and spiritual formation.[8]

His opponents, although never diminishing the spiritual heft of the Light, considered scripture to be at least on par with it as a guide to conduct and living. Hicks believed these “Orthodox” opponents to be mainstreaming Quaker principles to gain power in politics and the marketplace. Dubbing them “crypto-Episcopalians,” he cast aspersions on their motives. Meanwhile, the Orthodox opposition believed Hicks was inviting Unitarianism and skepticism to sully pure Quaker theology. In April of 1827, the Hicksites walked out of the Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia to institute an organization free from Orthodox manipulations. The wounds of this separation were deep and lasting. [9]

Neither man might think of their differences in terms of Quaker history but a case is strong that Herbert Hoover—raised in the Orthodox tradition—represents a “by the book” temperament. Equally compelling is the fact that the Hicksite Smedley Butler personifies (his militarism notwithstanding) the more intuitive, evolving inclination that befits his sectarian heritage. Neither man saw much of each other in the course of their controversial careers but their respective temperaments put them at odds on occasion. This fact is ironic given their very similar worldviews.

.Fear, Loathing and the Boxer Rebellion

The first event at which Hoover and Butler would have chance to meet was the summer of 1900 in Tientsin, China. Hoover was working as an engineer on behalf of the British mining concern of Bewick, Moreing and Company. The challenges were many, the worst of which was the Boxer Rebellion, a widespread nationalistic uprising against all things foreign or Christian. Hoover was sympathetic over some of the reasons for this unrest but he recoiled at the frenzied violence, destruction and death it left in its wake.[10]

The future president soon received a taste of Boxer mayhem when the foreign settlement just east of the walled city of Tientsin—which was only before burned and conquered by the Boxers—came under fierce assault by these insurrectionists. Until then, the settlement had served as a European oasis in lifestyle, culture and manners, a “piece of England, France or Germany set down in China,” as diplomat and historian Larry Clinton Thompson describes it.[11] While the compound housed a small multi-national military contingent, this was not sufficient to fight off the barrage of gunfire and exploding shells that erupted in mid-June. Although more troops were en route to bring relief, this modest corps of warriors turned to Hoover and his staff of engineers to bolster a defensive infrastructure. As Thompson documents:

Hoover quickly rounded up a thousand Chinese Christians and ransacked the godowns along the Pei River for sacks of sugar, peanuts and rice to use as building blocks of barricade…Hoover’s hastily-constricted barricades helped the settlement’s defenders beat off Boxer and Chinese Army attacks on June 18 and June 19.[12]

As this quote indicates, the rudderless imperial government had no stomach to fight the Boxers…so it joined them. The supplemental foreign troops—Smedley Butler and a contingent of U.S. Marines among them—arrived in China on the 19th, but encountered myriad obstacles on the way to Tientisin, namely Boxer harassment and sabotaged railroads. Repairing train tracks where they could, and traveling on foot otherwise, these rugged men, without maps or knowledge of the terrain, fought their way to Tientsin—two steps forward, one step back.[13] Having bravely distinguished himself during this expedition, Butler exulted in its completion as well as the reception he experienced upon arrival at the foreign settlement:

I’ve marched in many parades since then…I’ve heard crowds cheer in a way to set Marine blood a-tingling. But the wholehearted enthusiasm of our Tientsin reception has never been equaled.[14]

Hoover, too, was euphoric upon the arrival of the leathernecks:

During the morning the Chinese stopped firing on us. Soon someone said he heard cannonading in the distance. How we strained our ears! Then it came plainer and plainer. We climbed on the roof of the highest warehouse to get a glimpse. We saw them coming over the plain. They were American Marines and Welch Fusiliers. I do not remember a more satisfying musical performance than the bugles of the American Marines entering the settlement playing "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."[15]

It would be the last time for very many years before the two men were on the same page again.

There is scant evidence that Hoover and Butler encountered one another at this time (though Butler would later claim they did, under humiliating circumstances for the future president). Yet it is reasonable to induce that Hoover ran afoul of the young Marine officer (and many others) because of an incident that predated Butler’s arrival at the settlement. As the compound was taking heavy fire from the Boxers and their allies, the resident foreign population—informed by both paranoia and reality—began to suspect the Chinese, including those employed by Hoover, living among them. Without adequate investigation, a British naval officer, Captain Bailey, corralled all 600 of the Chinese working for the mining company, putting them on trial in a kangaroo court. Death sentences were already being implemented when Herbert Hoover intervened.

Considering Bailey to be a “bully,” Hoover first challenged the hasty trials directly, but was rebuffed by the Brit. He then appealed to the senior military man in the settlement, a Russian Colonel, who promptly ordered Bailey and his prosecutors to stand down.[16] Hoover, compelled by both justice and self-interest, saved many innocent lives by exposing the trials. It did not, at any rate, gain him any love among the warriors charged to protect him. There was a fine line between whistle-blower and stoolpigeon. Thompson concludes:

Hoover’s protection of the Chinese earned him the antipathy of many of his countrymen.[17]

Why assume Butler was among the cadre who turned against Hoover? For one thing, Butler recalls Captain Bailey in his memoir (as told to Lowell Thomas) with fondness as an exemplary Englishman and a boon companion:

Captain Bailey of the British Navy was with us at the time, helping us to enjoy the Fourth. Captain Bailey was a perfect John Bull in appearance. He was a great friend of Captain Forsythe of our navy, who could have been made a model for Uncle Sam. The two inseparables were always known as John Bull and Uncle Sam.[18]

The closeness of the military officers at Tientsin represents a common phenomenon among warriors, according to Ryan LaMothe, a pastoral psychologist:

The allure of the military and its warrior ethos is, for many, almost religious, providing men with a sense of identity, a close-knit, synchronic and diachronic community, a way of life and a transcendent mission.[19]

In 1900, Butler was helpless against the allure and the community.

…Butler remained attached to the warrior ethos as a major feature of his identity.[20]

It is not unreasonable to assume that Butler would have adopted Bailey’s attitude toward Herbert Hoover. This opinion would surface years later when both Butler and Hoover were at the pinnacle of their careers.

World War I: The Cream Rises to the Top

During the ensuing years, each man would establish himself as a leader in widely different venues. Hoover would do so by mastering the rules of government bureaucracy and using them to spectacular effect. Butler, on the other hand, would march to the beat of his own drummer and nevertheless earn recognition and promotion from his beloved corps. Neither the Orthodox nor the Hicksite had much intersection during this time.

World War I, or the “Great War,” as it was called before Pearl Harbor, was a bloody, disastrous and—in the mind of many, Quakers especially—unnecessary affair. At the same time, the conflict shifted Hoover to the public realm, elevating his reputation and personal prestige considerably.

As a prominent American businessman in London, he was approached by the U.S. ambassador about arranging for food shipments to the Belgians, then occupied by the Germans and blockaded by the U.K. Given the obstacles on both sides of the conflict, Hoover’s ability to compel various governments to permit the foodstuffs to travel unhindered to the intended recipients was a diplomatic tour de force. Equally amazing was his engineering of the whole project from farms to Belgian tables by means of his Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), its fleet of ships and railroad cars. Not to be minimized was Hoover’s prodigious fundraising, along with strict financial accountability. Four years of successfully feeding a nation that would have otherwise starved earned Hoover an appointment as food czar in the Woodrow Wilson administration, giving him his first official government appointment.[21]

Butler was likewise occupied during the war years, though not with the action he craved. Instead, he was appointed to command a personnel replacement depot in Brest, France, a sort of clearinghouse for incoming and outgoing troops. While it was the kind of administrative job Butler detested, taking over at Camp Pontanezen automatically qualified him to be a brigadier general. At age 37, he already sported two Medals of Honor on his chest and became the youngest general in the USMC. By the time he was finished at Pontanezen, Butler brought hygiene, order and a modicum of comfort to what had previously been a rat-infested hotbed of illness and chaos.[22]

Although Butler entered the war a hero, both men emerged from the conflict with sterling public images. Ironic it is that each would come to view the other with much less reverence.

Hoover Opts for Credentials

Butler’s near-miraculous transformation of Camp Pontanezen persuaded the Corps high command to place him in charge of the Marine Barracks at Quantico, Virginia. Formerly a provisional and makeshift garrison, the USMC chose Quantico as a permanent site for officer training and continuing education. From 1920 to 1924, Butler supervised this base that would serve as much more than a training academy. It was the headquarters of the Expeditionary Force, and also the facility where Caribbean operations were organized. Perhaps most importantly, Quantico was proximate to Washington, D.C. and General Butler wasted no time selling the Marines to the lords of appropriations in Congress.[23] After taking a brief sabbatical to reform the Philadelphia police department, Butler returned to the Corps, commanding an expedition to Shanghai and eventually going back to Quantico, again leading the base from 1929 to 1931 (and earning a promotion to major general).

Herbert Hoover was no wallflower during this time, either. Having proven his competence and humanity during the Wilson administration, the Republican was an obvious cabinet choice for President Warren Harding in 1921. Serving as secretary of Commerce for the ensuing eight years, Hoover capitalized on his own gift for organization to make government more responsive to national problems. Known as “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of Everything Else” in some quarters, Hoover leaned on the technical letter of his department’s statutory authority to involve himself in a broad range of matters…and stepping on more than a few of his colleagues’ toes in so doing.[24] Central to Hoover’s outsize influence was his uncanny ability to buttress his expanded authority with some arcane statute or little-known rule. The Orthodox Friend (his independent theology notwithstanding) needed some sort of warrant, however slim. This practice built Hoover into an indispensible man, catapulting him to the presidency.

It was here—Hoover as Commander in Chief and Butler in the top echelon of Marine brass—that the two men assumed opposing positions, publicly if not passionately. The issue: a vacancy in the office of Commandant of the Marine Corps. Many believed Butler had earned the promotion through heroism and chivalry. Others, including most of Butler’s peers among the general officers of the USMC (and a good number of US Navy flag officers), cited Butler’s poor educational credentials and loud contempt for rules and conventions.[25] The general’s public view that a 1912 election in Nicaragua was illegitimately determined with USMC collusion was typical shooting from the hip that annoyed his colleagues…and superiors. Unlike the Orthodox man in the White House, the Hicksite Quaker spoke only from his internal sense of right and wrong. Upon advice from the secretary of the Navy, President Hoover appointed a well-credentialed and diplomatic general to the top post.[26]

The “Luce Interna” Takes on Il Duce

If Butler’s ardent voicing of opinions lost him the Commandant’s job, the setback taught him no lessons. In the wake of a second stint in China—where he commanded a successful peacekeeping mission, receiving universal praise for his restraint and diplomacy—Butler recovered his natural impetuousness when he openly accused Italian dictator Benito Mussolini of running over and killing a child, either negligently or intentionally. Prior to World War II, Mussolini was a legitimately recognized head of state. Butler’s Hicksite obedience to his Inner Light (pitting his “Luce Interna” against Il Duce, as the Italian fascist was known) set State Department and Navy Department teeth on edge. It also upset the protocol-minded president.

The result: a court martial, ordered by Herbert Hoover himself. Unfortunately for the president, Hoover was as politically tone-deaf as he was bureaucratically savvy. This was the first court martial against a general officer since the Civil War. While the diplomatic and military establishments thought Butler deserved this comeuppance, the rank and file Marines—not to mention the general public—saw only injustice toward one of the country’s bravest heroes. Butler remembered:

An avalanche of newspaper criticism was descending on the administration. There were indications that the administration was eager to quash the court martial and thus stop the newspaper storm which was annoying it…I was banking on the essential fairness of the American people. I wanted the facts to be aired.[27]

It never got that far, as the Hoover administration buckled under the media fury, settling for a reprimand against Butler. Still, the general felt humiliated and resigned from his beloved Corps in disgust. He had never publicly opposed the president before, and was himself a lifelong Republican, but the court martial was the last straw. Hoover makes no mention of the incident—or of Butler at all—in his memoirs.

Butler Joins the Bonus Army (and the FDR Campaign)

Yet Butler remained a presence. As the economy reeled after 1929, desperation grew, particularly among Great War veterans. By 1932, between 15,000 and 20,000 of them, joined by families and sympathizers, descended on the nation’s capital seeking payouts from a government fund set up on their behalf. The sticking point was that no payments were authorized by the governing statute until 1945. President Hoover would not bend on what the law commanded. The man once called the “Great Humanitarian” was now viewed by the protestors as a soulless stickler.

Setting up makeshift (and unsightly) camps in parts of downtown DC and the Anacostia Flats, the marchers erected what were known in other cities across the country as “Hoovervilles”. His popularity already ebbing because of the severity of the Depression, the president decided that the shantytowns had to go. Ordering U.S. Army troops to dispatch the squatters, Hoover believed he was keeping to the letter of the law. In so doing, he conveyed neither heart nor sympathy for those who had put their lives on the line. The aggressive tactics employed by General Douglas Macarthur did nothing to mitigate this impression.[28] President Hoover saw chaos and determined that the law must be preserved.

General Butler saw pain and hardship. The law be damned.

Already contemptuous toward Hoover, Butler joined the fray. Declaring the right of the Bonus Army marchers to the early disbursement of their recompense, Butler castigated bankers and industrialists for getting rich from war and its attendant bloodshed. He left little doubt as to who was enabling these financial villains, resolving to act as a “Hoover for ex-President Republican.”[29] In the aftermath of the march, Smedley Butler went all out for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election.

Although Hoover had many problems aside from Butler’s enmity, it might have helped him to have this highly decorated warrior campaigning for him. Conflicting temperaments prohibited such an alliance. True, by 1932, the president’s name was synonymous with hard times. Nevertheless, a popular and charismatic hero would have offset Hoover’s dour image.

Crediting their respective—and opposing—religious traditions as the root of their conflict might be a stretch. At the same time, years of spiritual discipleship, especially in childhood and youth, contribute to the formation of adult inclinations. It would shock no Quaker in the know that an Orthodox president and a Hicksite general would not hit it off. As Thomas Aquinas famously preached to fellow Catholics:

The unbelief of heretics, who confess their belief in the Gospel and resist that faith by corrupting it, is a more grievous sin than that of the heathens, because the heathens have not accepted the faith in any way at all. Hence, the unbelief of heretics is the worst sin.


[1] Thomas D. Hamm, The Quakers in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 22.

[2] Terry Golway, Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2005), 39-40.

[3] Erika Quesenbery, “The ‘Fighting Quaker’ in Cecil County,” Cecil Whig, May 10, 2014, https://www.cecildaily.com/our_cecil/the-fighting-quaker-in-cecil-county/article_7337b2a6-2428-56d1-9396-88401e6ce8d7.html.

[4] Curtis, Peter H. "A QUAKER AND THE CIVIL WAR: THE LIFE OF JAMES PARNELL JONES." Quaker History 67, no. 1 (1978): 35-41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41946849

[5] Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, v.1: Years of Adventure, 1874-1920 (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 12.

[6] Thomas D. Hamm, The Quakers in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 9.

[7] Hamm, Quakers in America, 37.

[8] Hamm, Quakers in America, 40-41.

[9] Hamm, Quakers in America, 43.

[10] Hoover, Memoirs, v1, 37.

[11] Larry Clinton Thompson, William Scott Ament and the Boxer Rebellion: Heroism, Hubris and the “Ideal Missionary” (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009), 98.

[12] Thompson, William Scott Ament and the Boxer Rebellion, 99.

[13] Thompson, William Scott Ament and the Boxer Rebellion, 100.

[14] Thompson, William Scott Ament and the Boxer Rebellion, 101.

[15] Hoover, Memoirs, v.1, 52.

[16] Hoover, Memoirs, v.1, 49-51.

[17] Thompson, William Scott Ament and the Boxer Rebellion, 102.

[18] Lowell Thomas, Old Gimlet Eye: The Adventures of Smedley D. Butler, (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1933), 60.

[19] Ryan LaMothe, “Men, Warriorism, and Mourning: the Development of Unconventional Warriors,” Pastoral Psychology 66 (2017): 820, DOI 10.1007/s11089-017-0756-2.

[20] LaMothe, 828.

[21] Richard Ernsberger, Jr., “The ‘Man of Force’ Who Saved Belgium,” American History, v. 14, Issue 1, (April 2014): 36-38.

[22] David T. Zabecki, “Paths to Glory,” Military History, v. 24, Issue 10 (Jan./Feb. 2008): 66.

[23] Hans Schmidt, Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1987), 129.

[24] William E. Leuchtenburg, Herbert Hoover (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009), 56-58.

[25] Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 59.

[26] Zabecki, “Paths to Glory,” 68.

[27] Lowell Thomas, Old Gimlet Eye, 308.

[28] “The 1932 Bonus Army,” National Mall and Memorial Parks, National Park Service, accessed 6/26/2019, https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-1932-bonus-army.htm.

[29] Hans Schmidt, Maverick Marine, 219.

General Smedley Darlington Butler
General Smedley Darlington Butler

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