Vanderbilt and Mussolini on a Murderous Joyride: A Synecdoche for the US Relationship to Fascism

US Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler recounted, in a January 1931 speech, an incident in which American entrepreneur and “philanthropist” Cornelius Vanderbilt IV (of the same Vanderbilt family after which Vanderbilt University is named) was riding in a car with Benito Mussolini. In the anecdote, the Italian self-professed “Father of Fascism” (businessmen, as we shall see, tend to favor fascism), murdered a young child.

Historian Hans Schmidt explains, in his leading biography of Butler, Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History:

Butler related an anecdote about Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini while making the point that “mad-dog nations” could not be trusted to honor disarmament agreements. Butler recounted a story told him by an unnamed friend who had been taken by Mussolini for a high-speed automobile ride through the Italian countryside, in the course of which the dictator ran down a child and did not bother even to slow down: “My friend screamed as the child’s body was crushed under the wheels of the machine. Mussolini put a hand on my friend’s knee. ‘It was only one life,’ he told my friend. ‘What is one life in the affairs of a State.’

The international media exploded in reaction to the story. Schmidt notes the Italian government denied that the incident ever took place; newspapers called Butler’s story “insolent and ridiculous.” Mussolini rejected the accusations (as violent, draconian dictators are wont to do when it benefits their reputation), claiming, “I have never taken an American on a motor-car trip around Italy, neither have I run over a child, man or woman.”

The US government, which, at this time, was rather friendly with the fascist Italian government, issued a formal apology for what it called “discourteous and unwarranted utterances by a commissioned officer of this government on active duty.” It went so far as to place Butler — the highest ranking official in the Marines and the most decorated Marine in his country’s history — under arrest. President Hoover even ordered a court martial for the general — the first time a US general had been court-martialed since 1862. That is how angry he was that Butler had spoken the truth about their iniquitous ally (the US has a long history of siding with inquitous allies).

Butler had stepped on some toes — some fascist-friendly ones.

Per usual, the public was much further to the left than its reactionary government. Butler’s speech “cast a shadow over the dictator’s heretofore almost immaculate image.” While Washington was trying to cover up the accusations, the average American was applauding Butler for his honesty (a most rare attribute for a member of the US government).

Schmidt writes:

A lecture bureau chief declared that the story, based on what Vanderbilt had said to a meeting of the Affiliated Bureaus of America in New York, “was just as Vanderbilt told it to the last detail.” Another bureau head agreed, as did members of the Reno Rotary Club and classes in journalism at the University of Nevada, who had heard essentially the same story during a recent Vanderbilt visit. The Italian Foreign Office, having denied Mussolini ever met Vanderbilt, searched its records and conceded that Mussolini received him in 1926.

In a 13 February 1931 story in Kansas newspaper Lawrence Journal-World, Vanderbilt, in his own words, recalled the incident only slightly differently:

I was riding with Mussolini, who drove. A small child ran in front of the machine at a sharp turn in the road and was hit. I looked back to see if the child was hurt. Mussolini placed his hand on my knee and said “Never look back, Vanderbilt, always look ahead in life.”

Vanderbilt, afraid his c. 1926 ride with the fascist dictator would tarnish his reputation, sued the general, accusing him of mischaracterizing the story. (Rich people tend to do these kinds of things. Throw enough money at a problem and you can solve it.)

There appears to be very little research available on Vanderbilt IV’s relationship with Mussolini, so it is hard to deduce what exactly were the circumstances of this ride.

Cornelius Vanderbilt IV in 1926 CREDIT: Wikipedia

Cornelius Vanderbilt IV in 1926
CREDIT: Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives)

The Cornelius Vanderbilt IV Papers collection in the Jean and Alexander Heard Library of Vanderbilt University includes two articles mentioning Mussolini in the title: one simply called “Mussolini,” and another called “What Young Mussolini Learned in Hollywood.” Neither appears to be digitally archived, however, so I am unable to find out what they say.

Whatever the relationship, this small historical incident is most telling in its reflection of US policy toward 1930s fascism. For as long as fascism has existed, the US has only opposed it superficially at best; often, it has downright supported it. The US has propped up countless far-right dictators across the planet. And its ruling class, its most powerful capitalists, have chummed around happily with the fascists off of whose oppressive and depraved politics they profit.

It should of course also be mentioned that Smedley Butler himself exposed an attempt by leading American capitalists to establish a fascist dictatorship in their own country. On the subject of the American economic and political elite cozying up to fascists, never forget the Business Plot.

In November 1934, Grayson M-P Murphy & Co. bond salesman Gerald P. MacGuire approached Butler, asking him, on behalf of a group of esteemed businessmen and corporations — particularly the JP Morgan bank — to lead a coup to overthrow the US government and establish a fascist dictatorship (I repeat, businessmen tend to favor fascism). The planned fascist dictatorship was to be headed by the former head of the National Recovery Administration, General Hugh S. Johnson. A sizeable $3 million and 500,000 men were to go toward the coup, which was to take place the next year in Washington, DC.

As one might expect, the corporate media reported the accusations as a “hoax.” A special committee of the House of Representatives was formed, however, to investigate the allegations. The McCormack-Dickstein Committee investigated for several weeks and found “that General Butler’s story of a Fascist march on Washington was alarmingly true.” It “also alleged that definite proof had been found that the much publicized Fascist march on Washington, which was to have been led by Major. Gen. Smedley D. Butler, retired, according to testimony at a hearing, was actually contemplated.”

The corporate media ridiculed the notion, but the report stated, in no uncertain terms:

In the last few weeks of the committee’s official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country… There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.

Smedley Butler was a hero. Capitalism tends inevitably toward fascism, and General Butler saved the US from making that disastrous leap.

In 1935, Butler published War Is Racket, in which he explained how his entire career in the military had been one serving these pro-fascist capitalists. In that same year, he wrote, in the socialist newspaper 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. 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.

As Butler’s frank confessions and Vanderbilt’s murderous joyride with Mussolini suggest, until we dismantle capitalism, the ruling class, the economic elite, will continue trying to to push us toward war and fascism.