Central America and the Caribbean, Interventions in (1900–35)

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Cpt. Smedley Butler, Sgt. Ross Iams and Pvt. Samuel Gross entering Fort Riviere during the battle in 1915. Capture of Fort Riviere, Haiti, 1915, by Donna J. Neary; illustrations of three Medal of Honor recipients: (left to right) Sergeant Ross Iams, Major Smedley Butler, and Private Samuel Gross (USMC art collection).

The United States has always been concerned about the wellbeing of its Central American and Caribbean neighbors, if only to safeguard its own interests. Although rarely concerning itself in the affairs of these countries prior to the 20th century, between 1900 and 1935 the United States dramatically increased its involvement in the region for three intertwined reasons: first, the strategic need to protect the Panama Canal from European hands, which meant keeping Europe out of the region altogether; second, the urge to spread Christianity and democratic values to nations that Americans perceived as backward and in need of political reform; third, the need to protect American economic interests throughout the region, especially as its investments in the region increased during those decades. These interventions are emblematic of a time when the United States was beginning to take a more active role in global affairs, including the Spanish–American War in 1898, the annexation of the Philippines, and involvement in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

The first major intervention occurred in 1903 under Pres. Theodore Roosevelt when the United States obtained permission to build an interoceanic canal in Panama. In January 1903, the United States negotiated with Colombia to build a trans-isthmian canal across Panama, then a province of Colombia. The Colombian legislature rejected the treaty even as Panama was trying to secede and establish itself as a sovereign nation. Roosevelt then recognized Panama as a nation and sent naval warships and Marines to prevent Colombia from quashing the rebellion. After successfully seceding in November 1903, Panama brokered a deal with the United States to permit the construction of the canal.

Roosevelt also used the U.S. military in 1906 after Cuba’s first free elections sparked a revolution on the island. Hoping to prevent Cuba from devolving into a land of revolutions, the president ordered a battalion of Marines and sailors to occupy Havana in September 1906. The United States maintained a military presence in Cuba until 1909, both to monitor elections and serve as a constabulary force. Roosevelt’s successor, William Taft, followed a foreign policy called “dollar diplomacy,” whereby American banks would assist Central America’s financial recovery, which would in turn increase American influence and undermine the region’s reliance on Europe. In 1910, Taft used Marines under Maj. Smedley Butler to prevent the Nicaraguan government from crushing a rebellion that the United States wanted to see succeed, allowing the United States to become the unofficial financial protector of Nicaragua in 1911. When revolution broke out in 1912, Marines returned, routed the rebels in the jungles of Nicaragua, and actively helped to re-establish a pro-American government.

Pres. Woodrow Wilson understood the strategic importance of protecting the Panama Canal, but it was his social progressivism that led him to have the United States intervene to a greater degree than had Roosevelt or Taft. Wilson disapproved of a revolution in Mexico that installed as president the unelected Victoriano Huerta, and he looked for reasons to depose Huerta and give Mexicans a more democratic and stable government. In April 1914, Wilson found his excuse when Mexican authorities in the industrial city of Tampico mistakenly arrested some U.S. sailors. The seamen were quickly released with apologies, but Wilson demanded more from Mexico. Citing Mexican intransigence, Wilson ordered the invasion of the port of Veracruz, which the United States occupied for seven months. A military government under the Army and Marines reformed the city and its politics, helping force Huerta’s resignation. Mexican frustration at the occupation was such that, when the military left in November, the city quickly reverted to its old ways.

Wilson used Marines as a tool of reform when he sent them to occupy Haiti in 1915 and protect foreign nationals during a bloody revolution, and then forced Haiti’s leadership to find a president who would allow America to reform its country. The Marines stayed until 1934, keeping the president in power and working to create an effective national constabulary, while other Americans strove to reform Haiti’s public health, sanitation, agricultural, and commercial institutions. Similarly, in 1912, Marines were ordered to the Dominican Republic to put down rebellions, suppress insurgents, disarm the countryside, and protect the customs houses from depredation by both the rebels and corrupt Dominican officials. The United States withdrew in 1913, but returned in 1916 to suppress another group of Dominican insurgents; the Navy governed the Dominican Republic until 1922.

The last U.S. intervention in the region began in 1925 when civil war destabilized the government in Nicaragua. Three weeks after leaving the country, Marines returned to protect American citizens and property. Pres. Calvin Coolidge widened the intervention in 1927 to curb communist infiltration in the country, which meant chasing out the allegedly socialist insurgent Gen. Augusto C. Sandino. The Nicaraguans governed themselves while the Marines monitored elections and pursued the Sandinistas without success. In 1933, the Marines withdrew.

By 1928, Americans were questioning the concept of intervention as a valid form of diplomacy. The withdrawal of Marines from Nicaragua in 1933 and from Haiti in 1934 amounted to U.S. rejection of interventionism. By then, the public was against the use of such heavy-handed tactics. This change is clearly seen in Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 “Good Neighbor Policy,” which limited interventions only to assisting threatened American citizens. The Good Neighbor Policy was consistent with the nation’s desire for international isolation after an extended period of aggressive military and diplomatic activity in global affairs.

Bibliography Bemis, Samuel Flagg. A Diplomatic History of the United States. 5th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1965. Langley, Lester D. The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898–1934. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. Millett, Allan. Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps. The MacMillan Wars of the United States Series, edited by Louis Morton. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Further Reading LaFeber, Walter. The United States in the Caribbean. 2d ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Langley, Lester D. The United States and the Caribbean in the Twentieth Century. 4th ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989. Leonard, Thomas M. Central America and the United States: The Search for Stability. The United States and the Americas Series, edited by Lester D. Langley. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991. Munro, Dana Gardner. Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1900–1921. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964. Rosenberg, Emily Smith. Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy, 1900–1930. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 1999.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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