• Gangsters of Capitalism

  • Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire
  • By: Jonathan M. Katz
  • Narrated by: Adam Barr
  • Length: 14 hrs and 46 mins
  • 4.6 out of 5 stars (421 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A groundbreaking journey tracing America’s forgotten path to global power - and how its legacies shape our world today - told through the extraordinary life of a complicated Marine.

Smedley Butler was the most celebrated warfighter of his time. Best-selling books were written about him. Hollywood adored him. Wherever the flag went, “The Fighting Quaker” went - serving in nearly every major overseas conflict from the Spanish War of 1898 until the eve of World War II. From his first days as a 16-year-old recruit at the newly seized Guantánamo Bay, he blazed a path for empire: helping annex the Philippines and the land for the Panama Canal, leading troops in China (twice), and helping invade and occupy Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Mexico, and more. Yet in retirement, Butler turned into a warrior against war, imperialism, and big business, declaring: “I was a racketeer for capitalism." 

Award-winning author Jonathan Myerson Katz traveled across the world - from China to Guantánamo, the mountains of Haiti to the Panama Canal - and pored over the personal letters of Butler, his fellow Marines, and his Quaker family on Philadelphia's Main Line. Along the way, Katz shows how the consequences of the Marines' actions are still very much alive: talking politics with a Sandinista commander in Nicaragua, getting a martial arts lesson from a devotee of the Boxer Rebellion in China, and getting cast as a POW extra in a Filipino movie about their American War. Tracing a path from the first wave of US overseas expansionism to the rise of fascism in the 1930s to the crises of democracy in our own time, Gangsters of Capitalism tells an urgent story about a formative era most Americans have never learned about, but that the rest of the world cannot forget.

©2022 Jonathan M. Katz (P)2022 Macmillan Audio

Critic Reviews

"Lively, deeply researched ... Katz’s engaging style brings history alive."—Associated Press

"Like Butler himself, Katz’s book is singular and hard to pin down ... an exhilarating hybrid of studious history and adventuresome travelogue."—Jacobin 

"Katz’s realism may shock many readers, but they would be well served to join him in pulling back the curtain, tipping over the jugs of institutional Kool-Aid, and taking a long, cold hard look in the proverbial mirror. Like watching a train wreck in slow motion, this is a raw historical perspective that will both fascinate and unsettle."—Task and Purpose 

What listeners say about Gangsters of Capitalism

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nostalgic melancholy sadness of yet another time

13 hours of this book left, so far on the middle 19th and early 20th century American imperialism. Fascinating how much I did not know about our own history. Amazing just a couple generations before me, I'm quite sure that if I don't know this and I try to pay attention to these kinds of things, then the general public without the wandering curiosity of my and the current generation knows even less than I do on average. It's scary how the old saying that history repeats if it's forgotten might be playing out right now in the absence of what happened just a couple generations ago. Even more scary, it seems as though we have so little connection and even less reflection or association with a couple generations just a couple hundred years before. They come and they go, and here we are with a somewhat arrogant view of our own generation, and it's trials and tribulations as we go through our own lives with binders, oblivious to the ghosts and the memories of those who left footprints before us. With a blink of an eye, lost sentences, dates, events, misrepresentation... We become disassociated with a vengeance from all the others whose footprints are quickly erased by the wind of change. I don't know if my own mortality is what's creating this nostalgic sorrow as I learned about these generations come and gone. Realizing our greatest trials and tribulations will be forgotten to the coming generations as seconds and minutes of hours passed by on the clock I forgotten with each new hour. Yet I celebrate each second and minute only to work for money ... There is no headline or current event as important as these passing minutes right now as I realized my life is so short. I want to cherish my children and family while I'm here, not spend the time struggling for money for something that will be soon forgotten as those even more successful have been forgotten before me :-(

7 people found this helpful

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A good history of how we’ve gotten to where we are

I had hoped I could find a little wisdom and guidance in this biography, but it seems Smedley was as perplexed as the rest of us about living in the belly of the monster. The author does a good job of tracing the events Smedley was involved in down to the predicaments we find ourselves in today.

6 people found this helpful

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Mistitled book

If you're looking for a focused look at American imperialism, this book isn't it. I would estimate that roughly half of the material in this book is on topic. The other half is compromised of one fourth recalling details from a globe trotting trip the author took tracking the places Smedley's life took him. The other fourth, which is spaced out throughout the book, a weird focus is given to modern China.


Hours of this book are dedicated to what reads like a call to action from the author against modern China in a book titled after an American who died over 80 years ago.

The author's China hysteria reached a pitch when he quoted Mike Pompeo, attributing him to Secretary of State, but notably leaving out that he was also the CIA director to say that China had infiltrated American society and organizations to such a thorough extent that even PTA meetings at schools had Chinese spies. You'd expect a ridiculous McCarthy-era accusation would be interrogated by an author like this, but it never was. Instead, it was used to contrast against what he viewed as American inaction towards China.

6 people found this helpful

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historical tour of the crimes of American Empire

thoughtful investigation of the life of Smedley Butler in both historical context and through the lense of the author traveling to major sites of Butler's life. ties the strands of the present back to some of the historic turning points for the early American Empire. documents many of the atrocities that Butler took part in or orchestrated for the benefit of gangster capitalism.

6 people found this helpful

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History Not Taught in School

For those worried about Critical Race Theory, do not read this book, because what you want to avoid is the truth about how the USA became the richest and most powerful country on earth. This book is not so much about domestic genocide and slavery, although it is alluded to — it is more about how U.S. corporations drove and still drive the capitalist wealth creation machine in an international context. This is the global underbelly of “make America great again.”

4 people found this helpful

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Best Book I’ve Read in Awhile

This book was amazing. A solid biography of Smedley Butler and perfectly ties each of his deployments to the modern day effects. A must read for all Marines and history buffs.

4 people found this helpful

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Author allows his political views to embellish

The author presents their biased opinions as fact mixed in with actual historical events. This book had the promise to be an amazingly enlightened view of history. The true facts are sad and terrible enough. The author continuing to put in his extreme far left views makes you question the veracity of their work. If you want a biased presentation to confirm your political option this is the book for you. If you chose to not live in an echo chamber try Dan Carlin for fact and truth.

3 people found this helpful

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A great book explaining American imperialism

This book explains the term "American Imperialism". It was a term that I had not understood and this book fills in many of the blank spaces of early 20th century American history.
That being said, the author's personal opinions overshadow much of the historic context that his research has revealed. I was interested in Butler's actions and how they are still being felt today, I don't care about Katz's moral judgement.

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Incredible story

Gets to the heart of contemporary US politics through one man's story. Amazing and very timely.

2 people found this helpful

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The history Americans seldom learn

Katz traces a convoluted history of American empire through the flawed but compelling war biography of Smedley Butler who likely thwarted a more disastrous January 6th. If Americans knew more of this history, we would be better at protecting this fragile, precious democracy.

1 person found this helpful