United States occupation of Haiti

US Occupation of Haiti

Flag of US Occupation of Haiti
Coat of arms of US Occupation of Haiti
Coat of arms
Capital Port-au-Prince
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Republic of Haiti (1859–1957)
Republic of Haiti (1859–1957)

United States occupation of Haiti
Part of the Banana Wars
Occupation of Haiti.jpg
United States Marines and a Haitian guide patrolling the jungle in 1915 during the Battle of Fort Dipitie
Date July 28, 1915 – August 1, 1934
(19 years and 4 days)
Result American victory
 United States
 Haitian government
Haiti Haitian rebels
Commanders and leaders
United States Woodrow Wilson
United States Smedley Butler
United States Kemp Christian
United States Gerald C. Thomas
United States Franklin D. Roosevelt
Haiti Josaphat Jean-Joseph
Haiti Charlemagne Péralte
Haiti Benoît Batraville

First Caco War:
2,029 soldiers[1]

Second Caco War:
1,500 American soldiers[1]
2,700 Haitian Gendarmes[1]
First Caco War:
Casualties and losses

First Caco War:
3 killed
18 wounded[1]

Second Caco War:
28 Americans killed[1]
70 Gendarmes killed[1]

First Caco War:
200 killed[1]

Second Caco War:
2,004+ killed[1]

The United States occupation of Haiti began on July 28, 1915, when 330 US Marines landed at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on the authority of US President Woodrow Wilson. The first invasion forces had already disembarked from USS Montana on January 27, 1914.[2] The July intervention took place following the murder of dictator President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam by insurgents angered by his political murders of elite opposition.

The occupation ended on August 1, 1934, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt reaffirmed an August 1933 disengagement agreement. The last contingent of US Marines departed on August 15, 1934, after a formal transfer of authority to the Garde d'Haïti.


Between 1911 and 1915, Haiti was politically unstable: a series of political assassinations and forced exiles resulted in six presidents holding office during this period.[3] Various revolutionary armies carried out the coups. Each was formed by cacos, or peasant militia from the mountains of the north, or who invaded along the porous Dominican border. They were enlisted by rival political factions under the promises of money, which would be paid after a successful revolution, and the opportunity to plunder.[citation needed]

The United States was particularly apprehensive about the roles (real and imagined) played by Imperial Germany in the Western hemisphere. Controlling Tortuga,[citation needed] it had intervened in Haiti (see Luders Affair) and other Caribbean nations at several times during the previous few decades to exert its influence as a rival power. Germany was increasingly hostile to United States domination of the region under its claimed Monroe Doctrine. In the lead-up to World War I, the strategic importance of the island of Hispaniola, with its manpower, material wealth, and port facilities, was understood by almost all navies operating in the Caribbean, including Germany and the still-neutral United States. Germany had invested in military and intelligence gathering across Hispaniola as part of a wider network of German interest in Latin America and the Caribbean during the 1890s through the 1910s.[citation needed]

The United States' concern over Germany's ambitions was mirrored by apprehension and rivalry between American businessmen and the small German community in Haiti, which although numbering only about 200 in 1910 wielded a disproportionate amount of economic power.[4] German nationals controlled about 80 percent of the country's international commerce. They owned and operated utilities in Cap-Haïten and Port-au-Prince, including the main wharf and a tramway in the capital, and also had built the railway serving the Plain of the Cul-de-Sac.[5]

Personnel from the German Legation and the Hamburg-Amerika Line

The German community was more willing to integrate into Haitian society than any other group of Caucasian foreigners, including the more numerous French. Some Germans had married into Haiti's most prominent families of "persons of color" (mixed race of African-French descent). This enabled them to bypass the constitutional prohibition against foreigners owning land. Nevertheless, the German residents retained strong ties to their homeland and sometimes aided the German military and intelligence networks in Haiti. They also served as the principal financiers of the nation's numerous revolutions, floating loans at high-interest rates to the competing political factions.[5] Because of this, they were regarded as a threat to American businessmen's financial interests. The United States political and military leadership believed the Haitian Germans were tied directly to the government in Berlin.[citation needed]

In an effort to reduce German influence, the U.S. State Department in 1910–11 backed a consortium of American investors, headed by the National City Bank of New York, to acquire control of the Banque Nationale d'Haïti. This was the country's sole commercial bank and served as the Haitian government's treasury.[6]

In December 1914, urged on by the National City Bank and the National Bank of Haiti (which was already under foreign direction), the U.S. military took custody of Haiti's gold reserve and transferred it to the National City Bank's New York City vault.[7]

In February 1915, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, son of a former Haitian president, established a dictatorship. The culmination of his repressive measures came on 27 July 1915, when he ordered the execution of 167 political prisoners, including former president Zamor, who was being held in a Port-au-Prince jail. This infuriated the population, which rose up against Sam's government as soon as news of the executions reached them. Sam, who had taken refuge in the French embassy, was lynched by an enraged mob in Port-au-Prince as soon as they learned of the executions.[8]

American invasion

The United States regarded the anti-American revolt against Sam as a threat to American business interests in the country, especially the Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO). When the caco-supported anti-American Rosalvo Bobo emerged as the next president of Haiti, the United States government decided to act quickly to preserve its economic dominance.[9]

Black white photo of soldiers defending a gate
American Marines in 1915 defending the entrance gate in Cap-Haïtien

On July 28, 1915, American President Woodrow Wilson ordered 330 U.S. Marines to occupy Port-au-Prince. Secretary of the Navy instructed the invasion commander, Admiral William Banks Caperton, to "protect American and foreign" interests. Wilson also wanted to rewrite the Haitian constitution, which banned foreign ownership of land, and replace it with one that guaranteed American financial control.[10] To avoid public criticism, Wilson claimed the occupation was a mission to "re-establish peace and order ... [and] has nothing to do with any diplomatic negotiations of the past or the future," as disclosed by Rear Admiral Caperton.[11] Only one Haitian soldier, Pierre Sully, tried to resist the invasion, and he was shot dead by the Marines.[12]

On November 17, 1915, the Marines captured Fort Rivière, a stronghold of the Cacos rebels, which marked the end of the First Caco War.[13]:201

American occupation

Assuming direct control of banks and key institutions

For several decades, the Haitian government had been receiving large loans from both American and French banks, and with the political chaos was growing increasingly incapable of repaying their debts. If the anti-American government of Rosalvo Bobo prevailed, there was no guarantee of debt repayment, and American businesses refused to continue investing there. Within six weeks of the occupation, U.S. government representatives seized control of Haiti's customs houses and administrative institutions, including the banks and the national treasury. Under U.S. government control, a total of 40% of Haiti's national income was designated to repay debts to American and French banks.[14] While this helped improve the economic stability and credibility of the Haitian government, it led to allegations that the American actions froze Haiti's economic development. For the next nineteen years, U.S., government advisers ruled the country, their authority provided by the United States Marine Corps.[4]

U.S. installs a president

Haitian presidents were not elected by universal suffrage but rather chosen by the Senate. The American occupying authorities therefore looked to find a presidential candidate ready to cooperate with them.[15] Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, president of the Senate and among the mixed-race elite, agreed to accept the presidency of Haiti after several other candidates had refused.

U.S.-installed president dissolves legislature and imposes new constitution

In 1917, President Dartiguenave dissolved the legislature after its members refused to approve a constitution drafted under the supervision of Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy.[16][17] A referendum in Haiti subsequently approved the new constitution in 1918 (by a risible[18] vote of 98,225 to 768). It was a generally liberal document, and it explicitly allowed foreigners to purchase land. Early leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines had forbidden land ownership by foreigners when Haiti became independent, and, since 1804, some Haitians had viewed foreign ownership as anathema.[19]

U.S. Senate ratifies existing U.S. occupation

In September 1915, the United States Senate ratified the Haitian-American Convention, a treaty granting the United States security and economic oversight of Haiti for a 10-year period.[20] Representatives from the United States wielded veto power over all governmental decisions in Haiti, and Marine Corps commanders served as administrators in the departments. Local institutions, however, continued to be run by Haitians, as was required under policies put in place during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.[citation needed]

U.S. imposes conscription

U.S. occupiers re-instituted a system known as civil conscription (impressed labor), in which Haitian civilians were captured and forced to work on public projects, such as building roads, and established the National Guards.[21][page needed] Infrastructure projects included 1,700 km of road improvements; 189 bridges constructed; many irrigation canals rehabilitated; construction of hospitals, schools, and public buildings; and drinking water delivery system established to the main cities.[citation needed]

Marine's base at Cap-Haïtien

Opposition to U.S. occupation

Opposition to the U.S. occupation began immediately after the Marines entered Haiti in 1915. The rebels (called "cacos," after a local bird sharing their ambush tactics)[22] strongly resisted American control of Haiti. The U.S. government and its Haitian puppet regime began a vigorous campaign to destroy the rebel armies. Perhaps the best-known account of this skirmishing came from Marine Major Smedley Butler, awarded a Medal of Honor for his exploits. He was appointed to serve as commanding officer of the Haitian Gendarmerie. (He later expressed his disapproval of the U.S. intervention in his book War Is a Racket (1935).)

American racism

Racist attitudes towards the Haitian people by the American occupation forces were blatant and widespread. Initially, there was intermingling of officers and the elites at social gatherings and clubs but when families of American forces began arriving, such gatherings were minimized. Relations degraded rapidly upon departure of officers for World War I. The Haitian elite found the American junior and non-commissioned officers to be ignorant and uneducated. There were numerous reports of remaining Marines drinking to excess, fighting, and sexually assaulting women. The situation was so bad that Marine General John A. Lejeune, based in Washington, D.C., banned the sale of alcohol to any military personnel.[23]

The NAACP sent James Weldon Johnson, its field secretary; to investigate conditions in Haiti. He published his account in 1920, decrying "the economic corruption, forced labor, press censorship, racial segregation, and wanton violence introduced to Haiti by the U.S. occupation encouraged numerous African Americans to flood the State Department and the offices of Republican Party officials with letters" calling for an end to the abuses and to remove troops.[24] Based on Johnson's investigation, NAACP executive secretary Herbert J. Seligman wrote in the July 10, 1920, Nation:

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 on sight. Machine guns have been turned on 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.[25]

For their part, the Haitians resorted to non-conventional tactics, being severely outmatched by their occupiers. Charlemagne Péralte led a rebellion of 5,000 cacos in 1918 before he was killed in 1919.[13]:211–218 Prior to his death, he launched an attack on Port-au-Prince. The Second Caco War ended with the death of Benoît Batraville in 1920,[13]:223 who had commanded an assault on the Haitian capital that year.

The end of the First World War in 1918 deprived the Haitians of their main ally in the guerrilla struggle. Germany's defeat meant its end as a menace to the U.S. in the Caribbean, as it lost control of Tortuga. Nevertheless, the U.S. continued its occupation of Haiti after the war, despite the embarrassment that it caused President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 when he supported self-determination among other peoples. Congress held hearings in 1922 to investigate the occupation.[citation needed]

Elite opposition to U.S. rule

At the forefront of opposition among the educated elite was L'Union Patriotique, which established ties with opponents of the occupation in the U.S. They found allies in the NAACP and among both white and African-American leaders.[26]

President Borno

President Borno on an official visit to the U.S. in 1926

In 1922, Dartiguenave was replaced by Louis Borno, who ruled without a legislature until 1930. That same year, the US appointed General John H. Russell, Jr. as High Commissioner.

The Borno-Russell government oversaw the expansion of the economy, building more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of road, establishing an automatic telephone exchange, modernizing the nation's port facilities, and establishing a public health service. Sisal was introduced to Haiti as a commodity crop, and sugar and cotton became significant exports.[27]

However, efforts to develop commercial agriculture met with limited success, in part because much of Haiti's labor force was employed as seasonal workers in the more-established sugar industries of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. An estimated 30,000-40,000 Haitian laborers, known in Cuba as braceros, went annually to the Oriente Province between 1913 and 1931.[28] Many Haitians continued to resent the loss of sovereignty.

The Great Depression disastrously affected the prices of Haiti's exports and destroyed the tenuous gains of the previous decade. In December 1929, Marines in Les Cayes killed ten Haitian peasants who were among marchers protesting local economic conditions.[19] President Herbert Hoover appointed two commissions to investigate conditions, including one headed by a former U.S. governor of the Philippines William Cameron Forbes. They criticized the exclusion of Haitians from positions of authority in the government and constabulary, now known as the Garde d'Haïti.

Haitian reactions

Haitian writers and public figures also responded to the occupation. For example, a minister of public education, Dantès Bellegarde[1] raised issues with the events in his book, La Résistance Haïtienne (l'Occupation Américaine d'Haïti). Bellegarde outlines the contradictions of the occupation with the realities. He accused President Wilson of writing the new Haitian Constitution to benefit the Americans, and wrote that Wilson's main purpose was to remove the previous Haitian clause that stated foreigners could not own land in the country. The original clause was designed to protect Haiti's independence from foreign powers.[29] With the clause removed, Americans (including whites and other foreigners) could now own land. Furthermore, Bellegarde discusses the powerlessness of Haitian officials in the eyes of the Occupation because nothing could be done without the consent of the Americans. However, the main issue that Bellegarde articulates is that the Americans tried to change the education system of Haiti from one that was French based to that of the Americans. Even though Bellegarde was resistant he had a plan to build a university in Haiti that was based on the American system. He wanted a university with various schools of science, business, art, medicine, law, agriculture, and languages all connected by a common area and library. However, that dream was never realized because of the new direction the Haitian government was forced to take.

Jean Price-Mars.[30] associated the reasons behind the Occupation to the division between the Haitian elite and the poorer people of the country. He noted that the groups were divided over the practice of Haitian Vodou, with the implication that the elites did not recognize Vodou because they connected it to an evil practice.[31]

Transition to fully Haitian government

In 1930, Sténio Vincent, a long-time critic of the occupation, was elected President of Haiti. Herbert Hoover had become concerned about the effects of the occupation, particularly after the December 1929 incident in Les Cayes. Hoover appointed a commission to study the situation, with William Cameron Forbes as the chair.[13]:232–233

The Forbes Commission praised the material improvements that the U.S. administration had achieved, but it criticized the continued exclusion of Haitian nationals from positions of real authority in the government and the constabulary, which had come to be known as the Garde d'Haïti. In more general terms, the commission asserted that "the social forces that created [instability] still remain – poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government."[32][33]

The Hoover administration did not fully implement the recommendations of the Forbes Commission; but United States withdrawal was under way by 1932, when Hoover lost the presidency to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The latter as Assistant Secretary of the Navy had overall responsibility for drafting the most recent Haitian constitution; he was a proponent of the "Good Neighbor policy" for the US role in the Caribbean and Latin America. On a visit to Cap-Haïtien in July 1934, Roosevelt reaffirmed an August 1933 disengagement agreement. The last contingent of U.S. Marines departed on August 15, 1934, after a formal transfer of authority to the Garde.[34] The U.S. retained influence on Haiti's external finances until 1947.[35]

Effects on Haiti

Black and white photo of a man standing among bodies lying on the ground
American poses with dead Haitian revolutionaries killed by US Marine machine gun fire - Oct 11, 1915

An early period of unrest culminated in a 1918 rebellion by up to 40,000 former cacos and other members of the opposition. The scale of the uprising overwhelmed the Gendarmerie, but US Marine reinforcements helped put down the revolt. The assassination of rebellion leader Charlemagne Péralte in November 1918 solidified US Marine power over the Cacos.[36][page needed] An estimated 2,004 cacos were killed in the fighting, as well as 28 American marines and 70 Haitian gendarmes.[19]

The occupation greatly improved some of Haiti's infrastructure[4] and centralized power in Port-au-Prince. Infrastructure improvements were particularly impressive: 1700 km of roads were made usable, 189 bridges were built, many irrigation canals were rehabilitated, hospitals, schools, and public buildings were constructed, and drinking water was brought to the main cities. Port-au-Prince became the first Caribbean city to have a phone service with automatic dialing. Agricultural education was organized, with a central school of agriculture and 69 farms in the country.[27]

The Americans inhabited neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince in high quality housing. This neighborhood was called the "millionaires' row".[37] Hans Schmidt recounted a navy officer's opinion on the matter of segregation: "I can't see why they wouldn't have a better time with their crowd, just as I do with mine."[38] American racial intolerance provoked indignation and resentment – and eventually a racial pride that was reflected in the work of a new generation of Haitian historians, ethnologists, writers, artists, and others. Many of these later became active in politics and government. The elite Haitians, who were mostly mixed race with higher levels of education and capital, continued to dominate the country's bureaucracy and to strengthen its role in national affairs.

The United States redesigned the education system. It dismantled the "liberal arts" education which the Haitians had inherited (and adapted) from the French system. The Americans emphasized vocational training, similar to its industrial education for minorities and immigrants in the United States. The elite Haitians despised this system, believing it was discriminatory against their people.[39]

All three rulers during the occupation came from the country's mixed-race elite. At the same time, many in the growing black professional classes departed from the traditional veneration of Haiti's French cultural heritage and emphasized the nation's African roots.[40] Among these were ethnologist Jean Price-Mars and the journal Les Griots (the title referred to traditional African oral historians, the storytellers.) edited by Dr. François Duvalier.

The United States military issued two Haitian Campaign Medals to U.S. Marine and Naval personnel for service in the country during the periods 1915 and 1919–20.

Finally, the political, military, and economic power of both the German-Haitian community and the Imperial German government were utterly broken by the long years of hostile occupation. Germans had been censured for association with anti-American mobilization. German intelligence cells operating on the island were purged or forced to surrender. The US had entered the war against the German Empire in 1917, and in 1918 the latter was defeated in the war and almost immediately collapsed. The remaining German-Haitians were largely left isolated, with many opting to emigrate (usually back to Germany) or to stay on and try to claw their way back.

See also

Further reading