History has not been kind to Haiti. As the world’s first black republic, and the only nation founded by a successful slave revolt, it was regarded with contempt by world powers from the very beginning. From France’s onerous debts, to the U.S.’ repeated interference in domestic affairs, this poor yet proud nation has endured countless threats to sovereignty and prosperity — and little recognition of it.
It would likely surprise most Americans to know that their small Caribbean neighbor, rarely more than a footnote in public consciousness let alone government policy, has been repeatedly invaded, occupied, or otherwise meddled with by the U.S. since the early 20th century. In fact, as the Washington Post reminds us, it was 100 years ago today that President Woodrow Wilson — who had then-recently championed liberal, democratic values, such as self-determination, in Europe initiated an almost two-decade-long occupation of Haiti.
Perhaps to its credit, the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian is pretty candid about America’s longstanding interests in the country, and the true motivations of its intervention.
The United States Government’s interests in Haiti existed for decades prior to its occupation. As a potential naval base for the United States, Haiti’s stability concerned U.S. diplomatic and defense officials who feared Haitian instability might result in foreign rule of Haiti. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson suggested the annexation of the island of Hispaniola, consisting of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to secure a U.S. defensive and economic stake in the West Indies. From 1889 to 1891, Secretary of State James Blaine unsuccessfully sought a lease of Mole-Saint Nicolas, a city on Haiti’s northern coast strategically located for a naval base. In 1910, President William Howard Taft granted Haiti a large loan in hopes that Haiti could pay off its international debt, thus lessening foreign influence. The attempt failed due to the enormity of the debt and the internal instability of the country.
As a result of increased instability in Haiti in the years before 1915, the United States heightened its activity to deter foreign influence. Between 1911 and 1915, seven presidents were assassinated or overthrown in Haiti, increasing U.S. policymakers’ fear of foreign intervention. In 1914, the Wilson administration sent U.S. Marines into Haiti. They removed $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank in December of 1914 for safe-keeping in New York, thus giving the United States control of the bank. In 1915, Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was assassinated and the situation in Haiti quickly became unstable. In response, President Wilson sent the U.S. Marines to Haiti to prevent anarchy. In actuality, the act protected U.S. assets in the area and prevented a possible German invasion.
While the U.S. administration did bring some measure of stability, as well as well-needed improvements in infrastructure and education, these gains were far outweighed by the brutality and repression that characterized the period (indeed, any benefits to public works and stability were likely either incidental or part of making the country more palatable to U.S. interests).
Citing the State Department’s account:
The United States gained complete control over Haitian finances, and the right to intervene in Haiti whenever the U.S. Government deemed necessary. The U.S. Government also forced the election of a new pro-American President, Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, by the Haitian legislature in August 1915. The selection of a President that did not represent the choice of the Haitian populace increased unrest in Haiti.
Following the successful manipulation of the 1915 elections, the Wilson administration attempted to strong-arm the Haitian legislature into adopting a new constitution in 1917. This constitution allowed foreign land ownership, which had been outlawed since the Haitian Revolution as a way to prevent foreign control of the country. Extremely reluctant to change the long-standing law, the legislature rejected the new constitution. Law-makers began drafting a new anti-American constitution, but the United States forced President Dartiguenave dissolve the legislature, which did not meet again until 1929.
The Post goes into further grim detail about the character of the U.S. administration of the country.
Particularly in 1919 and 1920, rebel uprisings sought to dislodge U.S. influence on the island. The revolts were in part spurred by the heavy-handed practices of the American occupation, which included segregation and enforced chain gangs to build roads and other construction projects. There was brutal suppression, according to eyewitness accounts.
“Military camps have been built throughout the island. The property of natives has been taken for military use. Haitians carrying a gun were for a time shot at sight. Many Haitians not carrying guns were also shot at sight,”wrote Herbert Seligman in the Nation magazine in 1920. “Machine guns have been turned into crowds of unarmed natives, and United States marines have, by accounts which several of them gave me in casual conversation, not troubled to investigate how many were killed or wounded.”
Dubois cites one iconic image taken by a U.S. marine of the slain Haitian rebel Charlemagne Peralte, strung up naked in a loin cloth. The photo was disseminated across the island as a warning against insurgency, but instead — with its haunting evocation of the crucifixion — became “an icon of resistance.”
And although the occupation formally ended in 1934, with no more U.S. troops on the ground, the negative legacy remains to this day.
As the journalist Jonathan Katz details in his book on Haiti’s long, miserable experience with foreign aid and intervention, the Americans left behind a new template for inequity and misrule.
“After the United States left in 1934, their successors continued bolstering [Port-au-Prince’s] control over rural politics, expropriating peasant land for factories that produced commodities for the United States and stifling dissent using the army the Americans created,” Katz writes.
To be sure, the U.S. is hardly the first nor only country to engage in these tactics. Indeed, at that time, colonization, occupation, and coercion were the norm of the international system. Whole swathes of the planet were either directly controlled by European powers, or in some informal and indirect sense beholden to them. The U.S. was simply playing up its role as an up and coming global power by getting in on the game, especially in a hemisphere of weak and poor nations, where it was by far the strongest and richest country (hence the Monroe Doctrine and the Big Stick Policy).
Moreover, Haiti was hardly the only country in the hemisphere, let alone in the world, to come under U.S. domination. Entire books have been written documenting the U.S.’ extensive involving in the affairs of numerous countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The list of interventions, from limited but violent engagements, to outright occupation, is quite extensive. The following map touches on just a few of the more significant examples.
The Post aptly concludes with an excerpt of a very salient and still applicable account by Smedley Butler, a former major general in the U.S. Marine Corps who is one of only 19 troops to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He and his troops were in involved in Haiti and similar endeavors. I am going to reproduce the entire speech here, which he gave during a nationwide tour in 1933.
War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.
I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.
I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.
There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its “finger men” to point out enemies, its “muscle men” to destroy enemies, its “brain men” to plan war preparations, and a “Big Boss” Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.
It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.I helped make Mexico, 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 benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could 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.
These observations and issues, which form part of an engaging book by Butler called War Is A Racket, remain sadly relevant to this day — especially with so few of us remembering, much less reflecting upon, the moral and strategic consequences of our actions (or in some cases, inactions) abroad.