How We Got Here: How America Made Haiti Safe for Empire

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson took office pledging to curtail the gunboat diplomacy of his Republican predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Yet he inherited conflicts in Cuba and Nicaragua, experienced tensions with revolutionary Mexico and chaos in Haiti. To justify these and other interventions, Wilson struck a typically moralistic tone, pledging “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”

In reality, Wilson’s interventions evinced a queer admixture of motives. There was a sincere, if paternalistic conviction that America should educate its neighbors in good government (heightened, or qualified by Wilson’s malignant racial views). Also fear of European nations, especially Germany, expanding their influence in the region. More crass economic and business concerns often entered into the equation, along with national pride and racism. America’s decades-long presence in Haiti combined all of the above, with a helping of base, exploitative cruelty.

Since Toussaint Louverture’s slave rebellion against France, the United States entertained a diffident, often hostile relationship with Haiti. Presidents from Jefferson through Buchanan refused to recognize the “black republic,” fearful of inspiring slave revolts at home; only in 1862 did Abraham Lincoln extend recognition. Even then, Haiti remained a chronically poor nation, suffering from uneven trade with foreign powers, limited economic development, class divisions between the mulatto elite (mostly French-speaking Catholics) and poor blacks (who spoke Creole and practiced Vodou), and endless political turmoil.

Touissant Louverture

American sailors and Marines had, in fact, already intervened in Haiti nineteen times between 1859 and 1913, usually brief stays triggered by specific threats to American lives or property. Yet events seemed especially urgent in 1915; the Haitian economy collapsed due to defaulted loans, while President Vilbrun Giullaume Sam’s repressive regime triggered a rebellion within months of his taking office. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was alarmed by increased German investments in the country and encouraged by Roger Farnham, vice president of National City Bank, to receive Haiti’s debt. “There is probably sufficient ground for intervention,” Bryan wrote Wilson, “but I do not like the idea of forcibly interfering on purely business grounds.”

Fortunately, President Sam obliged them. In July 1917 he ordered the massacre of 167 political opponents in Port-au-Prince, leading to a massive popular uprising. Sam fled to the French embassy, where a mob cornered him on July 28th and hacked the hapless president to death. His body parts were paraded through the streets, his head and limbs mounted on fence posts. Violence continued, leaving Auguste Bonamy, leader of Haiti’s Liberal Party, to despair that “We are at the brink of an abyss…the country is slipping through our hands.”

Informed of the gruesome spectacle, Wilson concluded “there is nothing for it but to take the bull by the horns and restore order.” That same day, 330 American Marines landed in Port-au-Prince. They marched in textbook order through the streets, facing little resistance. The Haitian army melted away, leaving only a handful of snipers and hostile citizens to oppose the invaders. One Marine column was pelted with garbage by angry civilians; another group of leathernecks endured human excrement dumped on them from a window. Yet the Americans suffered only two casualties during the landing, these caused by friendly fire between Marines and sailors.

Port au prince
Marines landing in Port-au-Prince

Once the city was secure, Admiral William B. Caperton landed to take control. His first task was to appoint a suitable ruler. His first choice was Sam’s rival, Rosalvo Balbo, a redheaded mulatto whom Haitians respected and hated in equal measure. After his aide, Captain Beach, met Balbo, he considered the man an unstable megalomaniac and refused to support his claim to the Presidency. “If I am cheated of my rights,” Balbo responded, “I will leave the country and abandon Haiti to her fate!” In fact, Balbo decamped the mountains of north Haiti, forming the nucleus of future resistance to the Americans…then fled to Britain once fighting actually began.

With Balbo gone, Caperton struggled to find a replacement. Though many Haitian elites initially welcomed the occupation, none wanted to be a puppet. One prominent government leader, J.N. Leger, refused the appointment, telling Caperton that “I am for Haiti, not the United States.” Eventually Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave, President of the Senate, assumed the post; on August 12th, the Haitian legislature ratified his presidency in an assembly packed with armed Marines.

There was markedly little pretense of freedom. Dartiguenave was a natural-born collaborator; one American approvingly commented that “He has repeatedly and publicly made known his intention…to do everything the US wishes.” His only personal initiatives involved cracking down on the press, complaining that “liberty is being smothered under licentiousness.” Meanwhile, President Wilson sent Addison T. Ruan as a “financial adviser” to consolidate Haiti’s national bank, naval pursers took over Haitian customs houses, and Admiral Caperton declared martial law in September 1915.

One story claims that President Dartiguenave (so disliked by his own people that he traveled everywhere with Marine bodyguards) balked at signing an American-drafted treaty. Major Smedley Butler, America’s most decorated and feared Marine, arrived at the National Palace with the treaty in hand. He found Dartiguenave sitting on a toilet reading a newspaper, then forced the humiliated President to sign. Possibly apocryphal, this colorful tale endures because it graphically demonstrates the terms of Haiti’s submission to the United States.

President Dartiguenave and friends

Not everyone submitted, of course. Guerrilla bands known as cacos formed in the countryside, terrorizing Marines by blowing on conch shells and laying haphazard ambushes. The Americans unleashed a savage campaign in response. In November 1915, Major Butler led a small Marine patrol to the mountain stronghold at Fort Riviere. Butler, who won a Medal of Honor for this action, marveled at their awful marksmanship: “We were fighting people who did not know what sights were for… they threw away their rifles and reached for rocks.” Rocks proved no match for machine guns; Butler’s force killed 51 Haitian rebels, with one Marine losing two teeth to a Haitian stone.

Yet most resistance was passive, consisting of angry glares and refusal to collaborate. Marine Sergeant Faustin Wirkus recalled that the Marines “marched over the cobble-stoned streets of the waterfront through walls of human silence and dead-eyed stares.” As Butler organized a Haitian gendarmerie, educated mulattos refused his invitation to become officers. the Haitian press wouldn’t entirely buckle, with one editor vowing that President Wilson would “on his death bed eat les excrements de son vase.” Even Dartiguenave’s own officials often defied the occupiers, with Georges Danache criticizing the Americans as “gross, brutal [and] always ready with a boot or fist.” A reputation which the Marines worked hard to maintain.

Admiral Caperton at least made shows of conciliation and tolerance: he and his aide, Captain Beach, charmed and entertained Haiti’s educated mulattoes while restraining his subordinates from unnecessary violence (one Marine complained that Caperton “knifes [his men] when they do well”). Not so Littleton Waller, the Marine Colonel who arrived in October 1915. Waller was already notorious for his conduct in the Philippines; in 1902 he had been tried for executing eleven porters suspected of mutiny, only for President Roosevelt to dismiss the charges. His arrival ensured increased brutality towards the native population.

Waller Butler
Littleton Waller (left) and Smedley Butler

For Waller, a Virginian, evinced the ugliest racial attitudes of his time. He wrote that “there is not an honest man in Haiti” and “there are some very fine, well-educated polished men here but they are real nigs beneath the surface.” He detested socializing with mulattoes, referring to it as “bowing and scraping to coons,” and allegedly promoted follow southerners to key posts, feeling they were better equipped to “handle” blacks. When President Dartiguenave criticized Waller’s behavior, the Colonel threatened to withdraw Marines from Port-au-Prince and leave the President at the mercy of his enemies.

It wasn’t only southerners who treated the Haitians with contempt. Marines and sailors echoed Waller’s language, labeling Haitians “spigs,” “niggers” and “gooks.” Incidents of violence, rape and casual murder became distressingly frequent: Haitian child Joseph Danticat witnessed several Marines kicking a native’s severed head around like a soccer ball. Even Smedley Butler, a Pennsylvania Quaker, regularly referred to Haitians as “bad niggers,” “shaved apes” and “miserable cockroaches,” and his own gendarmes as “chocolate soldiers.”

When Franklin Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, visited Port-au-Prnce in January 1917, awkwardness and insult compounded. During a reception at President Dartiguenave’s palace, white American women humiliated black Haitian men by refusing to dance. Roosevelt’s aide remarked that one of Dartiguenave’s ministers “would have brought $1,500 at auction in New Orleans in 1860 for stud purposes.” The crowning humiliation came when Roosevelt and Dartiguenave left the reception; when the President attempted to enter a waiting car first, the ubiquitous Major Butler grabbed his collar and pulled him back onto the curb.

FDR Haiti
Franklin Roosevelt (left) the imperialist

Such humiliations belied any pretense of progress. American administrators, adopting ideas from the Jim Crow South, liquidated Haiti’s liberal arts colleges and medical schools for vocational training, believing blacks and mulattoes unsuited for higher education. Others attempted to consolidate small farms into massive plantations, earning peasant enmity and resistance. Haitians labored for twenty cents a day, forced to humor their overseers’ futile attempts to introduce bananas, cotton, pineapple and even rubber trees onto Haiti’s infertile soil (sugar and coffee proved more successful). This led thousands of Haitians to flee for Cuba and the Dominican Republic, which offered little better wages but at least a modicum of personal dignity.

Yet this was nothing compared to the brutal corvee system. Tasked to improve Haitian infrastructure, Major Butler brushed off an arcane Haitian law, not enforced since 1863, which permitted him to conscript thousands of Haitians (some criminals, most innocent peasants) in unpaid slave labor. Chained together in huge groups, prodded, abused and occasionally killed by Butler’s gendarmes, they constructed a 170 mile highway between Port-au-Prince and Gonaives. Butler crowed about his achievement while assuring his superiors, “It would not do to ask too many questions about how we accomplish this work.”

Before departing for France in 1917, Smedley Butler placed one last stamp on Haiti. When Haiti’s legislature refused, first to approve an American constitution and then to declare war on Germany, Butler emerged to bring them into line. Gaining signatures from President Dartiguenave and his cabinet, Butler marched to the assembly on June 19th with several gendarmes and ordered the legislature dissolved. When legislators booed and threatened Butler, several of his men loaded their rifles in an effort to intimidate the Assembly – an act which only increased their defiance.

Corvee conscripts at gunpoint

This highhandedness was too much even for Butler, who angrily ordered the gendarmes to unload their weapons and sling arms. But the message was clear: Haitian independence was a joke, subject to American whims and gendarmerie force. Under such pressure, the Assembly’s capitulation became inevitable. After the vote, Stenio Vincent, the hotheaded Assembly Speaker, stiffly announced the Decree’s adoption. Then, as the Legislature dissolved, he angrily picked up the Decree and threw it at Butler’s feet. Thus did Woodrow Wilson make Haiti safe for democracy.

The following June, Haitians approved the American-backed constitution via plebiscite, by a laughable margin of 98,225 to 768. This gave American officials and businesses massive influence in Haiti, though the country’s turmoils made major investors wary of taking advantage. World War I allowed for the liquidation of foreign interests; 210 German nationals were interned by the Haitian government, their property seized by the state and shares in government works turned over the United States.

After several years of relative peace, 1919 saw a fresh outbreak of violence, spurred by the covert continuation of the corvee system. It centered around Charlemagne Peralte, a mulatto educated as a lawyer, who was imprisoned for anti-American activity. Escaping a work detail in Cap Haitien, Peralte fled into Haiti’s northern mountains, organizing a band of nearly 5,000 cacos. Vowing to “drive the invaders into the sea and free Haiti,” he led an uprising which far outpaced the previous, sporadic resistance to American occupation.

Peralte in field
Rebel: Charlemagne Peralte (center) in life

Beginning in April 1919, Peralte’s guerrillas began attacking both gendarmes and American Marines, ambushing patrols and overrunning outposts throughout the island. In October 1919, he suddenly appeared before Port-au-Prince itself, taunting the Americans with a bombastic letter of introduction. “I have the honor to inform you,” he wrote, “that I am at the gates of the Capital with the divisions of my guard.” Despite the Caesarian bombast, Peralte had only 300 men under his command, and they were quickly defeated by American Marines. Nonetheless, he fled into the mountain and continued his guerrilla campaign.

With the gendarmes proving nearly useless (their officers discouraged target practice for fear that they’d turn their guns on the Americans), the Marines re-arrived in force, brutally putting down the rebellion through what Colonel John Russell termed “practically indiscriminate killing of natives.” Using machine guns and airplanes, the Americans slowly decimated the attackers, inflicting thousands of casualties on rebels and civilians alike. In November, Peralte himself was assassinated by two Marines in blackface who infiltrated his camp. The Marines staked his body in an open door and left to rot; intended to intimidate Haitians, it instead inspired them to renewed resistance.

Peralte’s successor, Benoit Batraville, organized another desperate assault on Port-au-Prince on January 15th, 1920. One American observer recounted the fearsome sight of “the Cacos advancing in two columns and with flags flying and conch horns blowing”; after encountering massed machine gun fire from Marines and gendarmes, the Cacos divided into smaller groups, forcing the Marines to dislodge them. The Americans and their collaborators prevailed after a savage, daylong street battle which left over 100 rebels dead and much of the city in ruins. This defeat, along with Batraville’s death in a firefight shortly afterwards, effectively broke the resistance: at least 3,000 Haitians were killed, with some estimates approaching 12,000, in the Second Caco War.

Peralte Death
Haitian pieta: Charlemagne Peralte in death

Only now, having quashed the most serious military challenge to their rule, did Americans reconsider their policies. The NAACP and other liberal groups advocated for the withdraw of American forces from Haiti, exposing atrocities and brutality (“Don’t Make Haiti America’s Congo” became an anti-imperialist slogan). Warren G. Harding made the occupation a campaign issue in 1920, demanding an end to occupation and congressional investigation into military abuses. Woodrow Wilson, for his part, remained unrepentant. Upon leaving office, he wrote that “I have been part of this record from the first, and there is nothing in it to be ashamed of at any point.”

Despite his rhetoric, Harding did little to change policy. In 1921, a Senate panel convened to investigate American conduct in Haiti. Despite lurid testimony about colonial abuses, the Senators reaffirmed the occupation. Its chairman, Medill McCormick, opined that “in my judgment we ought to stay there for 20 years.” Nonetheless, through the ’20s American rule became more benign, with Commissioner John H. Russell instituting reforms and infrastructural improvements. President Dartiguenave, despised by Haitians and distrusted by Americans, left office in 1922; he was replaced by Louis Borno, who ruled with firmness but relative decency. Charles Moravia, a Haitian writer and diplomat fiercely critical of the occupation, nonetheless concluded that by 1929, “there was no longer more than a suffering of patriotic pride” towards the occupation.

Yet patriotic pride carried its own force, especially when combined with other factors. So Haiti erupted again in 1929, triggered by a failed coffee crop, the Great Depression and the government’s postponement of an election. Widespread protests and strikes spread throughout the country, culminating in the Les Cayes massacre that December. Marines armed with rifles and machine guns shot 24 protesters, triggering fresh outrages and demands for American withdrawal. In November 1930, new elections placed nationalist Stenio Vincent (who had impotently defied Smedley Butler a decade earlier) in the presidency, showing that Haitians would no longer tolerate American control.

FDR Vincent
Franklin Roosevelt the Diplomat; with Stenio Vincent

It wasn’t until 1934, however, that actual withdrawal occurred. Now-President Franklin Roosevelt discouraged Latin American meddling in his Good Neighbor Policy, and on August 15th, 1934 the last Marines left Haiti, defiantly blaring “Semper Fidelis” and other Marine hymns. Haitian elites responded with a new nationalism, rejecting their French affectations for African nationalism, but the country remained mired in poverty, victimized by natural disasters, skirmishing with its Dominican neighbors, and subject to coups and dictatorships – with the National Guard, descendants of Smedley Butler’s gendarmerie, remaining a powerful force in its government.

Near the end of the occupation, a Marine officer approached Georges Leger, a Haitian lawyer and nationalist leader, informing him of the Americans’ impending departure. “You’ll be glad to see us go,” the Marine mused. “Yes,” Leger affirmed, adding that despite the best efforts of the best Americans to assist and develop Haiti, “this is our country and we would rather run it ourselves.” A lesson America refused to learn, as it intervened militarily again in 1994 and 2004.

For his part, Smedley Butler later repented of his imperial past, denouncing himself as a “racketeer for capitalism” and advocating for pacifist causes. It’s easy to criticize Butler’s actions on Haiti and elsewhere, which were monstrous at best and near-genocidal at worst. Yet he and his colleagues were merely instruments of a confused policy that promised freedom, condoned brutality and ensured exploitation. Today, many Americans, some of them in the White House, look at the country’s troubled past and unsettled present and dismiss it as a “shithole.” Such stable geniuses might do well to consider why Haiti hasn’t magically evolved into a superpower – and what role his own country played in that process.

Marines in Haiti

Sources and Further Reading:

This article draws upon: Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2002); Robert Heinl, Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492-1995 (1996); Lester D. Langley, Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire, 1900-1934 (1983); Mary A. Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism (2001); and two works by Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934 (1971) and Maverick Marine: Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History (1998).

While an earlier version of this article previously appeared on my personal blog, it’s been significantly written for reproduction here. In particular, I’m indebted to Robert Heinl’s work, which offers a much-needed Haitian perspective on the occupation which the other sources largely lack.

Programming note: There will not be a new article next week due to personal plans. Expect a new series analyzing John Adams’ presidency and the Alien and Sedition Acts beginning in early February. Time will tell if the Great Democratic Party Project ever actually happens.