While researching his latest book, Jonathan Myerson Katz dove into a chapter of American history remembered by just about every country other than America.
The Charlottesville resident is the author of “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire.” The book, published by Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press imprint, won the People’s Choice Award for Nonfiction at the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Literary Awards on Oct. 14.
To learn more about the lasting impact of America’s dreams of empire at home and abroad, Katz explored the pre- and early 20th-century experiences of Butler, a heavily decorated Marine general who fought in the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, Boxer Rebellion and Mexican Revolution — “the wars we completely left out” of most school history curricula, Katz said — and World War I.
“There’s a giant black hole in time and in the history curriculum that we don’t like to talk about,” the author told The Daily Progress. “It has been an intentional process of forgetting.”
Butler picked up many nicknames throughout his career, including the “Maverick Marine,” “The Fighting Quaker” and “The Fighting Hell-Devil,” and five of his most significant medals were for heroism. In 1933, Butler made headlines of a different sort after telling a congressional committee that well-heeled industrialists had been plotting a military coup to overthrow President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Had he not refused, Butler was to have led a march of fascist-leaning veterans to Washington and been installed as dictator of the United States as part of what became known as the “Business Plot.”
Katz said that to most Americans today, Butler is “barely an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. But when you write a book about someone, it’s as if he lives in your house. He’s like a roommate.
“He was funny at times, and he was an absolute monster at other times. He was someone who had an enormous capacity for self-reflection. He’s tortured by the things he has done.”
So why aren’t Americans more familiar with this time period and its consequences? There are no easy answers. And yet, when one starts to research the origins of wealth disparities, structural racism and other contemporary ills, “all of these things are rooted in our imperial past,” Katz said.
“It’s uncomfortable. Looking at these things is an unpleasant sensation,” Katz said. “It is more that in the stories we choose to tell, the narratives we center, these stories don’t have a place.”
Although some people see Butler as “an irredeemable monster,” he is “everything you want in a literary figure. He is complex and contradictory and weighed down by his own reflection,” Katz said.
“He’s a war hero, but he’s a hero of wars that people don’t know happened and are scandalized to find out that happened. Smedley Butler is a complicated figure. He kind of serves a lot of people’s needs, but he doesn’t serve anyone’s needs. His era is bookended by the two big events we like to talk about: the Civil War and World War II. The bad guys of World War II were really bad guys — and they weren’t us.”
Katz is a world traveler himself. The native of Louisville, Kentucky, started his journalism career with the Associated Press in 2003 in Jerusalem at the time of the Second Intifada, which was triggered in part by the failure of the 2000 Camp David Summit.
His first book, 2013’s “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,” was based on his experiences in Haiti after surviving the massive earthquake there in 2010 while representing the Associated Press. He won the 2011 James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism before leaving the Associated Press to write “The Big Truck That Went By,” which was shortlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction. The book won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Cornelius Ryan Award for the year’s best book on international affairs, and it picked up the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the WOLA-Duke Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America.
Butler wrote a book of his own in 1935: “War is a Racket.”
These days, Katz is focusing on his newsletter, itself named the Racket, and continues his examination of many of the topics raised in “Gangsters of Capitalism.”
“My main thing these days is the Racket,” he said.