On July 28, 1915, more than 300 U.S. marines landed in Haiti, ostensibly to stabilize the political situation on the island. As a New York Times article at the time put it, “We are not there for conquest. We are there for peace and order primarily, and incidentally for instruction.” Yet the outcome would be closer to conquest than to peace, with U.S. forces remaining in control of Haiti for almost two decades. Incidental instruction turned into a grand nation-building experiment.
When President Woodrow Wilson announced the rationale for the occupation, he focused on the brutal murder of Haitian President Guillaume Sam that occurred in late July of 1915. But in fact, plans had long been in the works for an occupation of Haiti: as early as 1914, the U.S. had already drafted an announcement of the occupation with only the date left blank. The occupation had long been desired by U.S. financial institutions, especially First National City Bank of New York whose leadership had in the early 1900s been acquiring investments in Haiti such as the Banque National d’Haïti and the rights to build a Haitian national railroad. The U.S. secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan knew little about the island: after one briefing, he apparently marveled at being told about “N*****s speaking French.” As a result, Bryan relied heavily on advice from National City’s Vice President Roger Farnham, who would be put in charge of Haiti’s finances once the occupation began. All of National City’s pre-1915 desires for the island—a new constitution allowing foreign ownership of property, U.S. control of all of Haiti’s revenues, dissolution of a recalcitrant Haitian legislature to be replaced by a president deferential to U.S. decisions—would be imposed in the early years of the occupation.
What the occupation therefore yielded was a paradise for foreign capital. Investors like National City Bank eagerly acquired Haitian debt previously owned by France, much of which remained from the famous 1825 indemnity in which Haiti agreed to pay today’s equivalent of $40 billion to compensate the French for property lost when their slaves rebelled and declared their freedom. This debt became especially attractive during the occupation since U.S. lenders could have full confidence that, with the U.S. in absolute control of Haitian finances, all revenues would be would be diverted into debt-repayment rather than spending on local projects. Without any funds left over to spend locally, major infrastructure projects during the occupation such as the building of a super-highway system throughout the island to enable the movement of military troops for pacification purposes were carried out by conscripted labor that The Nation likened to “the African slave raids of past centuries.” Haiti became essentially a vassal for U.S. finance, in some years devoting up to 80% of GDP towards servicing foreign debt. The outcome for Haiti was much less positive than for its U.S. investors. National City Bank’s successor, Citigroup, is today one of the most profitable corporations in the U.S., even as Haiti continues to struggle with international debt.
The political situation created during the occupation also reverberated throughout the twentieth century. The U.S. dissolved all of the island’s political institutions and created in their place a constabulary, officered by U.S. marines, that served as de facto government of the island. The stated goal throughout the latter years of the occupation was to train Haitians to take over this institution in order to leave them responsible for the island’s security after U.S. forces departed. The U.S. did the same thing in their occupations of the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua during this period, ending those occupation by leaving constabulary officers Rafael Trujillo and Anastasio Somoza to become two of the hemisphere’s most ruthless U.S. trained dictators. In Haiti, the centralization of power under a militarized police lay the ground for François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his infamous Tonton Macoutes to terrorize the country for decades. Haiti’s political dysfunction today comes directly from these reorganized institutions.
Haiti one-hundred years after the occupation is thus the product of this U.S. experiment in nation-building. Being able to reflect on the occupation from the perspective of a century, we can judge its success by considering the new Haiti that it created. The occupation made Haiti one of the Caribbean nations most thoroughly incorporated into the U.S. sphere of influence, a laboratory for free-market ideas that would restructure the island and leave behind new governmental and economic systems that would endure on the island throughout the twentieth century. Haiti would become a source of cheap labor for U.S. industry (for example, all Major League baseballs were hand-sewn in Haiti for decades) and a site of pure profit for Wall Street lenders looking for high returns on loans backed by the might of the U.S. military. The Haitian people, from the occupation until today, have borne the brunt of this profiteering.
Yet the occupation of Haiti also shows how this exploitation was fought and overcome. The occupation only ended after thousands of Haitians had died fighting against U.S. military forces. The turning point came in 1929. A general strike resulted in marines firing on and killing unarmed protesters, finally turning world public opinion against the occupation. From this point forward, the occupation came to be considered a failure and embarrassment to U.S. foreign policy. By its last few years, successive U.S. presidents were focused only on figuring out a dignified way to withdraw military forces from the island. Today, we must remember these early victims of Wall Street greed, who a century ago suffered from, stood up against, and eventually drove U.S. forces out of Haiti.
For more information about the occupation, see:
- Hans Schmidt’s The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934 (1995)
- Mary Renda’s Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism (2001)
- Raphael Dalleo’s American Imperialism’s Undead: The Occupation of Haiti and the Rise of Caribbean Anticolonialism (2016)
- Peter Hudson’s Bankers and Empires: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (2017)