[This is Chapter 4 of Murphey's book Out of the Ashes.]

                                                                      Chapter 4


                     AMERICAN INTERVENTIONS IN THE CARIBBEAN, 1898-1932



            During the three decades after 1900, the United States intervened into the affairs of Caribbean nations at least 31 times.1  A comparison of these interventions with those into Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia-Croatia and Kosovo many years later during the decade that followed the end of the Cold War will show how American leaders have repeated a pattern that the earlier experience should have taught them was costly and unproductive, even if they were otherwise inclined to consider outmoded the pre-1898 principle of non-intervention. 

            At the end of the first period, President Herbert Hoover understood how futile the melioristic interventions were; but, as with so much of Hoover's wisdom (which on foreign affairs reflected the traditional American policy), it is often disregarded by later leaders. This isn't to say that those later leaders don't often act hesitantly and with some trepidation, realizing that they may cause the United States to be drawn into something far more extensive than anticipated.  But, like Presidents George H. W. Bush in Somalia and William Clinton in Bosnia, the scale with those who are hesitant is not nearly so weighted against intervention as it was for Americans prior to 1898, who considered their opposition a matter of principle.         

            Because the subject is so extensive, I will devote three chapters to this comparison, first to sketch the early-twentieth century Caribbean interventions, and then to do the same for the post-Cold War interventions I have just mentioned. Finally, Chapter 6 will examine the lessons from trying to police and provide social welfare for other peoples.

            In order to simplify, I will omit a detailed review of both the Spanish-American War and the confrontation with Iraq that has continued since 1990.  Just a brief comment about them. Each illustrates our thesis.  Tragically, the hindsight of the entire twentieth century shows that the Spanish-American War accomplished worse than nothing for the Cuban people, since they have undergone  corruption, then dictatorship, then Communist tyranny. And the United States is still embargoing and bombing Iraq more than ten years after the end of the Gulf War, with no end in sight since the only faction capable of governing Iraq is the one that supports Saddam Hussein.  It is true that Iraq was forced out of Kuwait, but OPEC's recent renewal of its oil boycott underscores that the conflict with Iraq has not even accomplished what was arguably its most important objective – to safeguard from monopoly power the supply of oil for the United States and the other industrial nations.  


Overall: The Phases of Caribbean Intervention

            In Chapter 2 we saw that until 1898 the United States followed a policy that, as John Quincy Adams put it, "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."  This restraint largely evaporated, however, in 1898 during the age of the Social Gospel, Populism and Progressivism.  A significant part of American opinion came to regard meliorist intervention – i.e., intervention into the affairs of other peoples almost entirely "for their own good" and with very little self-interested justification in terms of the national interest of the United States – as the right and necessary thing to do.  It reached its full expression with Woodrow Wilson's rationale for going into World War I: "to make the world safe for democracy."

            There were a number of pretexts with varying degrees of plausibility for American interventions into Caribbean nations during the first third of the twentieth century.  Well-meaning policy-makers sought conscientiously to address several concerns.  Those concerns were so little "our business," however, that it is reasonable to conclude that the more important motive-power came from the sea-change that had occurred in the American outlook.  The change had made many things "our business" that Americans had not considered so before. In fact, disengagement began as soon as a president came into office who held the traditional outlook.

            "In 1902 Venezuela was torn by civil strife and defaulted on bonds to foreign investors," according to historian Walter A. McDougall.  Britain and Germany imposed a blockade, and German ships twice bombarded the coast.  "The claims were adjudicated, but [President Theodore] Roosevelt drew what for him was an obvious conclusion.  So long as Caribbean states were permitted to fall into anarchy," European countries would have a reason to intervene.  "So when the Dominican Republic fell into civil war and bankruptcy in 1904, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine declared that henceforth the United States would itself serve as gendarme and bill collector in the region." By this, the United States made itself the policeman of the Caribbean.  The "obvious conclusion" that Roosevelt reached led, at least from the pre-1898 point of view, to an amazing overreaction, since other means could have been used to keep European powers out and were in fact found sufficient at a later time.  To take on the direction of several independently sovereign nations for that purpose would previously have been unthinkable.         

            At the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States asserted a general right to intervene in Cuban affairs, which it did on several occasions.  American concern with the Central American states came to center mainly on their interference with each other's affairs, and this led to a conference in Washington in 1907 that produced a series of treaties signed by five of the nations.  Dana Munro says that "after 1907 the main effort of American diplomacy in Central America was to persuade or compel the five governments to live up to these agreements."3

            The most pronounced move into meliorist intervention came with President Woodrow Wilson.  Lester Langley says that "Wilson easily exceeded his two Republican predecessors in the degree of interference in the Caribbean.  His was a politics of morality which, when extended into the tropics, would inspire and uplift Caribbean governments in their presumed quest for financial responsibility and an honest ballot."  Langley tells how "in eight years in office [Wilson] and his subordinates responsible for Caribbean affairs would reinforce existing American attitudes about the need for American tutelage...."4

            The Republican presidents of the 1920s before Hoover continued the interventionist policy, including the military occupation of Haiti that Wilson had begun in 1915, but Langley says the policy underwent a "subtle modification," reflecting some skepticism. After a new treaty system negotiated in 1923 proved to no avail, the United States became more amenable to the "authoritarian, personal" leaders who were rising to the top, since they at least would "provide continuity and political stability."6  They did not at that time appear to have any monsters among them.  Munro, who worked on Central American policy during those years, says that "we appreciated the inconsistency of advocating democratic practices and at the same time giving moral support to governments like those of Guatemala and El Salvador, which were not democratic, but it was apparent that these were the only sort of governments that some of the Central American states were likely to have in the foreseeable future."7  In the effort to maintain stability and orderly transitions, the United States had since 1907 held, with some important exceptions such as in Nicaragua and Honduras, to the "Tobar Doctrine," under which the United States wouldn't officially grant recognition to governments that came about by coups against existing governments.  

            It should be noted that all of this, even when it fell short of Wilson's vision, presupposed the essential change in outlook.  The accepted premise was that it was appropriate and in some sense necessary for the United States to judge and to steer the internal affairs of the Caribbean nations.  It was "our business."

            American policy returned at least temporarily to pre-1898 principles when President Herbert Hoover adopted a "hands off" policy.  He repudiated the Roosevelt Corollary, held that it was no business of the United States to use force to uphold contracts between Americans and either the governments or citizens of other countries, and overturned the Tobar Doctrine so as to extend recognition to any regime, even those that were simply de facto, that would abide by international obligations.8  Munro says that "President Hoover... was averse to any form of intervention in the Caribbean."9  Nevertheless, immediate withdrawal was difficult.  In Nicaragua and Haiti the best he could do during his four years in office was to conduct a slow disengagement.10

            This overview omits, of course, much of the detail and subtleties.  It is instructive, therefore, to see the particulars of each intervention.



            The Spanish-American War ended with the Treaty of Paris, ratified by the United States Senate on February 6, 1899.  The Platt Amendment (to the Army Appropriation Act of 1901) provided for an American right of intervention after the four-year military occupation was over.  While the United States did not make Cuba a colony, the Platt Amendment "virtually meant no Cuban independence after all."11  The Platt Amendment was made a part of the Cuban constitution and of a 1903 treaty between Cuba and the United States. 

            The post-war American military occupation ended in 1902, and a republic was established.  The republic dissolved under the pressures of civil war in 1906 after just four years, and William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War under President Theodore Roosevelt, sent in the Marines to reoccupy the country.12  Elections that Langley calls "probably the fairest in Cuban history" were held in 1908, and a newly-elected president was inaugurated the next year; but "unfortunately, in the years that followed, the electoral code suffered continual abuses as Cuban politicians learned how to manipulate the system... By a similar corruptive process the Cuban military was eventually politicized."13  The United States' State Department thereafter found it desirable constantly to intervene "to discourage what it considered improvident or corrupt actions."14   More civil war followed a disputed election in 1916. 

            As the years passed, an impassioned Cuban nationalism came into being, fed "mostly from bitterness generated by the Cuban-American relationship... The Platt Amendment, which had created the protectorate, was galling to a generation of young Cubans who matured in the 1920s.  Just as hated," Langley says, "was the island's economic dependence on the United States."  After Gerardo Machado became president in 1925, "the corruption and brutality of his regime" led to another revolt in 1933.15  The limited time-frame of our discussion allows only a suggestion of what followed: the ascendancy of Fulgencio Batista, his dictatorship, and the eventual Communization of the island under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, which has continued into the twenty-first century.          


The Dominican Republic

            The island of Hispaniola is divided between the Dominican Republic on the east and Haiti on the west.  President Theodore Roosevelt created a Dominican customs receivership in 1905, collecting customs revenues, Langley says, "to safeguard the republic from internal bankruptcy and external pressures from its European creditors."16  A 1907 treaty provided that this receivership would remain in effect until the bonds that had been issued to pay the republic's debts were paid off.  Civil wars that began in 1911, however, created a worse, not the hoped-for improved, fiscal situation.  In 1915, Woodrow Wilson demanded that the U.S. have broad jurisdiction over finances and police.  When the Dominicans rejected this, Wilson sent in American forces in 1916, placing the republic under a military governor.17

            After Samuel Guy Inman toured the Dominican Republic in 1917, he reported stark conditions that we now associate with "the Third World."  As paraphrased by Langley, Inman wrote there was "virtually no public sanitation; the population was 90 percent illiterate; the lack of roads allowed for little overland communication... Disease, especially venereal disease, was epidemic."18  When hostility toward the United States grew both in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in Latin America, the United States began intermittent negotiations with Dominican leaders that led to a withdrawal that was completed in 1924.19 

            Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molinas ("Trujillo") was elected president in 1930 and, although his propensities weren't apparent at first, created what Munro calls "one of the most atrocious dictatorships in the history of Latin America."20



            Before the period we are considering here, Haiti had a history more of barbarism than civilization.  It was once a French colony, with an economy of sugar and coffee plantations based on masses of black slave-labor.  A slave revolt in 1791 killed or drove out all the French.  Independence was declared in 1804, and the voodoo-practicing former slaves lost most contact with western civilization.  A few mulattoes became a new elite because only they could read or write, but control during the nineteenth century was usually in the hands of the black military, factions of which from time to time supplanted each other by force.  The situation was so chaotic that the U.S. Marine Corps was sent in eight times to protect Americans there between 1867 and 1900.21    The result was that, according to Munro, "Haiti was probably the most backward country in the Americas in the first years of the twentieth century."22  In 1911 and shortly thereafter, seven presidents were assassinated or ousted by force.  Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines in 1915 after a mob dismembered President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, who it was thought had himself ordered the arrest, torture and execution of 167 political prisoners.23

            A treaty that year gave the U.S. most governmental functions, but this led to ongoing conflict.  "American marines," Munro says, "had had to suppress a peasant revolt, with a shocking amount of bloodshed."24  "The most terrible violence occurred in 1919," according to Langley, who puts the death toll at 3,250 Haitians, killed "in a manner unpleasantly reminiscent of the suppression of Filipino rebels a generation before."25  (Munro estimates the deaths at 1,500.)26   The Marines stayed until 1934, but the 19-year stay accomplished nothing.  Langley says that, rejecting either French or American influences, a new generation of Haitians "would find its identity in its African heritage, its negritude."  Both the peasants and the elite felt contempt for the American effort to introduce modern agricultural and technical skills.27  This was underscored by riots in 1929, which, reenforcing President Hoover's outlook, precipitated the eventual withdrawal.

            Conditions have remained miserable in the two-thirds of a century since that first American occupation.  In 1937 a war with the Dominican Republic led to the slaughter of 10,000 Haitians.  The army established a government by force in 1946 and 1950.  Dr. Francois Duvalier won the presidency in 1957 and made himself dictator-for-life.  He was succeeded in 1971 by his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who was also made "president-for-life" and served until his overthrow in 1986.  This, plus much more, meant that by the turn of the next century the Washington Times found it necessary to report that "Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.  Most people survive on less than a dollar a day."28  This is reminiscent of Munro's summary, quoted above, of the situation almost a century earlier.



            The long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz ended with the 1911 revolution led by Francisco Madero.  Madero, however, was killed two years later by General Victoriano Huerta.  America's President Woodrow Wilson refused to deal with Huerta's government, even for the limited purpose of protecting American business interests in Mexico.  Asked, the next year, what his policy was toward Mexico, Wilson said "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men."  McDougall grasps how vast and indeterminant this goal was when he comments that "to make the Mexican revolution somehow turn out ‘right' only made Wilson a prisoner of events."  When Wilson was informed in April 1914 that a German ship was about to deliver machine guns to Huerta, he had the Marines storm Vera Cruz.  In a speech to midshipmen at Annapolis, Wilson gave a broad rationale: "The idea of America is to serve humanity."29 

            One undesirable thing led to another, with nothing really accomplished.  Wilson backed Venustiano Carranza against Huerta, but after Carranza forced Huerta into exile later that summer, "Carranza, too, proved to be anti-American, and he, too, faced an internal rival, Pancho Villa, who enjoyed killing yanquis on both sides of the border."30  After Villa raided New Mexico in March 1916, Wilson had General John J. Pershing chase him (unsuccessfully, as it turned out).  Once Wilson's attention was absorbed by the American intervention into World War I, his administration recognized the Carranza regime, despite Carranza's anti-Americanism.  In the aftermath, Mexico was governed for more than seventy years by a one-party system, until finally that party's presidential candidate was defeated in 2000.



            The United States suppressed a revolution in Nicaragua in 1912, and then remained with a Legation force of 100 Marines, which had the effect of assuring several years of order.  (Maintaining order seems like a good thing, but that may simply be from an outsider's viewpoint.  To the people most closely affected, the "order" may or may not be a good thing.  It may, as they see it, embodied much that is unjust.)  After the Marines withdrew in 1925, however, there was a period of civil war during which Mexico became active in Nicaragua in support of Marxist elements.  The Marines were accordingly sent back to Nicaragua in 1927.  The United States supervised the 1928 election, but ran into rising feeling in Latin America about American "imperialism."  One of the factions in the civil war, General Augusto Cesar Sandino, continued to conduct a guerrilla war "to expel foreign invaders."  By the end of 1928, 5,000 Marines were in the country, although within a year that was reduced to about 1,300.  The United States oversaw the congressional elections of 1930 and the next presidential election in 1932.  The Marines were again withdrawn in 1933, at which time Sandino entered the capital triumphantly and made his peace with the elected president.  Sandino was assassinated in 1934, and power devolved upon the commander of the national guard, Anastasio Samoza, who established an authoritarian regime that remained in power until several decades later it was overthrown by the "Sandinistas."  Nicaragua experienced Communist dictatorship, and civil war as the "Contras" sought to oust the Communists, until the end of the Cold War.  When Soviet backing evaporated, the Sandinistas did something unique among Communist regimes, allowing a free election in which they were voted out.    



            These details, while not exhaustive, tell enough to show that the interventions were, with little exception,



            often gave rise to long-term military involvement, and

            created enemies rather than friends for the United States.

            Only the building of the Panama Canal provided real benefits to the United States and the rest of the world, but even this legacy is now in doubt.  Despite its benefits, the Canal gave rise to continuing charges of American "imperialism."  This played upon the American Left's abiding sense of guilt about American conduct, so that even at the height of the Cold War against Communist expansion, the United States, with the support of Presidents Ford and Carter, agreed to a treaty that turned the Canal over to the Panamanians in 1999.  The Red Chinese have now been allowed a major presence at the Canal.

            Next, we will see similar detail about the recent American interventions into Haiti, Somalia, Yugoslavia and Kosovo.




[1].  The total is calculated by Darin H. Van Tassel, "Operational Code Evaluation: How Central America Came to Be ‘Our Backyard' in U.S. Culture," in Valerie M. Hudson, ed., Culture & Foreign Policy (Boulder, CO: L. Rienner Publishers, 1997), p. 253.

[2].  Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 115.

[3].  Dana G. Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, 1921-1933 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 116.

[4].  Lester D. Langley, The United States and the Caribbean in the Twentieth Century (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, revised edition, 1985), p. 63.

[5].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, p. 95.

[6].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, p. 108.

[7].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 10.

[8].  Patrick J. Buchanan, A Republic, Not an Empire (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1999), p. 244.

[9].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 15.

[10].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 309.

[11].  Moorfield Storey and Marcial P. Lichauco, The Conquest of the Philippines by the United States, 1898-1925 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1926), p. 16.  Storey was a former president of the American Bar Association; Lichauco was associated with the Harvard Law School in a capacity that the book does not specify.

[12].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, p. 41.

[13].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, p. 43.

[14].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 16.

[15].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, pp. 138, 139.

[16].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, p. 44.

[17].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 44.

[18].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, p. 79.

[19].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 45.

[20].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 300.

[21].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, p. 69.

[22].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 71.

[23].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, pp. 71, 72.

[24].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 3.

[25].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, p. 77.

[26].  Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Republics, p. 74.

[27].  Langley, The United States and the Caribbean, pp. 103, 105.

[28].  Article by Tom Carter, Washington Times National Weekly Edition, August 14-20, 2000, p. 26.

[29].  McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State, pp. 130, 131.

[30].  McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State, p. 131.