The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 195th installment in the series. 

July 28, 1915: U.S. Occupies Haiti 

When the First World War began there was already a long history of American interference in the internal affairs of Latin American and Caribbean countries, including the Spanish-American War, which brought the U.S. control of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898, as well as numerous minor interventions characterized as “gunboat diplomacy” or “dollar diplomacy,” like the occupation of Nicaragua from 1912-1933. These actions were generally intended to protect American lives and property, prop up pro-U.S. regimes, and prevent European powers from gaining a foothold in the New World by taking control of bankrupt states that defaulted on European loans. 

The outbreak of hostilities in Europe did nothing to change this pattern, and may even have encouraged a more muscular foreign policy in “America’s backyard,” prompted by fears that the continental struggle might spill over into the Western Hemisphere. These concerns weren’t unfounded: in 1917 U.S. public opinion was enraged by the Zimmerman Telegram incident, in which Germany tried to distract the U.S. by stirring up war with Mexico (poisoning an already troubled relationship). A bit less plausibly, in 1917 the U.S. also bought the western Virgin Islands from Denmark – giving the Danes little choice in the matter – in part because of fears they could serve as a German U-boat base. 

Germany also had a large historical presence in Haiti, where German merchants and landowners controlled the majority of the island republic’s foreign trade and much of its agricultural production. After the country descended into chaos in 1908, the small but powerful group of German settlers funded rural rebel groups (cacos), leading to a succession of short-lived dictatorships from 1908-1915. Fearing Germany might use the disorder as a pretext to establish a military presence on the island, in March 1915 the U.S. helped install a new dictator, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, to limit German influence and protect U.S. interests in Haiti. 

However Sam was a bad choice of strongman, completely lacking political sense not to mention any sort of conscience. On July 27, 1915 he ordered the summary execution of 167 political prisoners without even a pretense of a trial, then tried to take refuge from the enraged public in the French Embassy. To no avail: disregarding diplomatic protocol, the next day an angry mob stormed the building, beat him unconscious, and then tore his body apart in the street. 

Once again citing the threat of German invasion, as well as Haiti’s strategic position on the approach to the Panama Canal, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson responded swiftly by sending several hundred U.S. Marines from U.S. Navy ships in Port-au-Prince harbor to restore order that same day. The Marines met with virtually no resistance in the capital, but would soon be given responsibility for crushing the cacos concentrated in Haiti’s mountainous, rural north, where they ultimately killed anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 rebels. Over the course of the occupation about 20,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Haiti at various times (top, U.S. Marines fight Haitian rebels; below, more Marines embark on the USS Connecticut in Philadelphia, bound for Haiti).

Most ordinary Haitians resented the U.S. occupation and agreed with Dantes Bellegarde, a nationalist politician, who argued it was “in violation of the right of the people and in contempt of Haiti’s sovereignty.” Unfortunately for them this was just the beginning of a long-term engagement, as America ended up maintaining a presence in Haiti for 19 years. 

In the weeks following the landings U.S. officials took control of most of the government’s basic functions, including public works and customs administration, and soon disbanded the army, which was replaced with a U.S.-trained police force known as the Garde D’Haiti.  On August 12, under the watchful gaze of U.S. Marines, Haitian parliamentarians elected a U.S.-backed politician, Phillipe Sudre Dartiguenave, as the new president. The U.S. Marine commander, Smedley Butler, reported: “His Excellency Phillipe Sudre Dartiguenave was put in office in September. I won’t say we put him in. The State department might object. Anyway, he was put in.” In November 1915 Dartiguenave signed a comprehensive treaty that affirmed American control of Haiti, administered through a High Commissioner and Financial Advisor, as well as U.S. aid obligations. 

At the Americans’ behest Dartiguenave dissolved the Haitian Senate in April 1916, ending any pretense of self-rule – a bitter pill for a country established by a successful slave rebellion against French rule in 1804. Indeed, in an age of endemic racism there was little doubt that white American administrators viewed black Haitians as unfit for self-rule, and the mixed-race Creole elite as a questionable quantity at best. Press censorship and the use of forced labor to build roads, with white overseers directing black laborers, further reinforced Haitians’ resentment of the American occupation.

Adding insult to injury, in 1917 Haiti’s puppet government approved a new Constitution that opened the economy up to foreign investors, raising the prospect of Haiti becoming another “banana republic.” The constitution was written by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy, an ambitious Democratic politician named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ironically almost two decades later FDR, now president, would also be responsible for withdrawing the U.S. occupation force. 

See the previous installment or all entries.