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Intervention in Haiti Previous
Digital History ID 3163

 

In July 1915, a mob murdered Haiti's seventh president in seven years. Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was dragged out of the French legation and hacked to death. The mob then paraded his mutilated body through the streets of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. During the preceding 72 years, Haiti had experience 102 revolts, wars, or coups; only one of the country's 22 presidents had served a complete term, and merely four died of natural causes.

With the European powers engaged in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson feared that Germany might occupy Haiti and threaten the sea route to the Panama Canal. To protect U.S. interests and to restore order, the president sent 330 marines and sailors to Haiti.

This was not the first time that Wilson had sent marines into Latin America. Determined to "teach Latin Americans to elect good men," he had sent American naval forces into Mexico in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution. American Marines seized the city of Veracruz and imposed martial law.

The last marines did not leave Haiti until 1934. To ensure repayment of Haiti's debts, the United States took over the collection of customs duties. Americans also arbitrated disputes, distributed food and medicine, censored the press, and ran military courts. In addition, the United States helped build about a thousand miles of unpaved roads and a number of agricultural and vocational schools, and trained the Haitian army and police. It also helped to replace a government led by blacks with a government headed by mulattoes. The U.S. forced the Haitians to adopt a new constitution which gave American businessmen the right to own land in Haiti. While campaigning for vice president in 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had served as assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration, later boasted, "I wrote Haiti's Constitution myself, and if I do say it, it was a pretty good little Constitution."

Many Haitians resisted the American occupation. In the fall of 1918, Charlemagne Peralte, a former Haitian army officer, launched a guerrilla war against the U.S. Marines to protest a system of forced labor imposed by the United States to build roads in Haiti. In 1919, he was captured and killed by U.S. Marines, and his body was photographed against a door with a crucifix and a Haitian flag as a lesson to others. During the first five years of the occupation, American forces killed about 2,250 Haitians. In December 1929, U.S. Marines fired on a crowd of protesters armed with rocks and machetes, killing 12 and wounding 23. The incident stirred international condemnation and ultimately led to the end of the American occupation.

By that time, Roosevelt had changed his mind. In 1928, he had criticized the Republican administrations for relying on the Marines and "gunboat diplomacy." "Single-handed intervention by us in the internal affairs of other nations in this hemisphere must end," he wrote. After he became president in 1933, Roosevelt proclaimed a new policy toward Latin America. Under the Good Neighbor policy, he removed American Marines from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.

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