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The first United States occupation of Haiti began on July 28, 1915, when 330 US Marines landed at Port-au-Prince on the authority of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to safeguard the interests of U.S. corporations. The first invasion forces however already had debarked from U.S.S. "Montana" on 27 January 1914.[1]

The occupation ended on August 1, 1934 after Franklin D. 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.


Between 1911 and 1915, a series of political assassinations and forced exiles saw the presidency of Haiti change six times.[2] Various revolutionary armies carried out this series of coups. Each was formed by cacos, or peasant brigands from the mountains of the north, along the porous Dominican border, who were enlisted by rival political factions under the promises of money, which would be paid after a successful revolution, and the opportunity to plunder.

The United States was particularly apprehensive about the roles (real and imagined) played by Germany, which had intervened in the Western hemisphere- including Haiti- at several points over the past few decades to exert its' influence as a rival power that was increasingly hostile to American domination under the Monroe Doctrine. In the lead up to the first world war the strategic importance of Hispaniola, its' manpower and material wealth, and its' port facilities were grasped by almost all naval staffs operating in the Caribbean, including the German and still-neutral American navies. This lead to considerable German military and intelligence investment across the island as part of a wider network of German espionage and military interests in Latin America and the Caribbean during the latter 19th century, 1900's, and 1910's.

This fear of German imperial ambitions was mirrored by apprehension and rivalry with the small German community in Haiti, which numbered approximately 200 in 1910 and wielded a disproportionately high amount of economic power.[3] German nationals controlled about 80 percent of the country's international commerce, owned and operated utilities in Cap Haitien and Port-au-Prince, the main wharf and a tramway in the capital, and owned a railroad serving the Plain of the Cul-de-Sac.[4]

The German community proved more willing to integrate into Haitian society than any other group of white foreigners, including the more numerous French. Some Germans married into the nation's most prominent mulatto families, thus bypassing the constitutional prohibition against foreign land-ownership. They retained strong ties back to their homeland and often to German military and intelligence networks in Haiti, and also served as the principal financiers of the nation's innumerable revolutions, floating loans at high interest rates to competing political factions.[4] Because of this, they posed an economic threat to American monetary interests and made American political and military leadership fear they were acting as a stalking horse for the imperial government in Berlin. In an effort to limit German influence, in 1910–11 the State Department backed a consortium of American investors, assembled by the National City Bank of New York, in acquiring control of the Banque Nationale d'Haïti, the nation's only commercial bank and the government treasury.[5]

In February 1915, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, the son of a former president established a "dictatorship," but in July, facing a new anti-American revolt, he massacred 167 political prisoners. All of them were from elite families, particularly from the better educated and wealthier mulatto population with German affiliations. Sam was then enthusiastically lynched by a mob in Port-au-Prince immediately after word of the executions reached them.[6]

It is alleged that this anti-American revolt against Sam threatened American business interests in the country (such as the Haitian American Sugar Company HASCO). Because of these competing interests and the possibility of the caco-supported anti-American Rosalvo Bobo emerging as the next President of Haiti, the American government decided to act quickly to preserve their economic dominance over Haiti.[7]

American President Woodrow Wilson sent 330 U.S. Marines to Port-au-Prince on July 28, 1915. The specific order from the Secretary of the Navy to the invasion commander, Admiral William Deville Bundy, was to “protect American and foreign” interests. An additional motivation was to replace the Haitian constitution which prohibited foreign ownership of land.[8] However, to avoid public criticism the occupation was labeled as 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.[9]

On November 17, 1915, U.S. Marines captured Fort Riviere, a stronghold of the Cacos rebels.

The Haitian government had been receiving large loans from both American and French banks over the past few decades and was growing increasingly incapable in fulfilling their debt repayment. If an anti-American government prevailed under the leadership of Rosalvo Bobo, there would be no promise of any debt repayment, and the refusal of American investments would have been assured. Within six weeks of the occupation, representatives from the United States controlled Haitian customs houses and administrative institutions such as banks and the national treasury. Through American manipulation, 40% of the national income was used to alleviate the debt repayment to both American and French banks.[10] Despite the large sums due to overseas banks, this economic decision remained controversial. While it helped improve the economic stability and credibility of the Haitian government, it happened at the cost of other expenses, leading to allegations that it froze economic development. For the next nineteen years, advisers of the United States governed the country, enforced by the United States Marine Corps.[3]

Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, the mulatto president of the Senate, agreed to accept the presidency of Haiti after several other candidates had refused. In 1917, President Dartiguenave dissolved the legislature after its members refused to approve a constitution written by Franklin D. Roosevelt (then Assistant Secretary of the Navy)[11][12] However, a referendum subsequently approved the new constitution in 1918 (by a vote of 98 225 to 768). It was a generally a liberal document. The constitution allowed foreigners to purchase land. Jean-Jacques Dessalines had forbidden land ownership by foreigners, and since 1804, some Haitians had viewed foreign ownership as anathema.[13]

Government and opposition

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.[14] Representatives from the United States wielded veto power over all governmental decisions in Haiti, and Marine Corps commanders served as administrators in the provinces. 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]

The US administration overhauled- if not dismantled in perpetuity- the already tottering constitutional system, reinstituted civil conscription for building roads, and established the National Guards.[15] It also made massive improvements to infrastructure: 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[citation needed].

Opposition to the Occupation began immediately after the Marines entered Haiti in 1915. The rebels (called "cacos" by the U.S. Marines) vehemently tried to resist American control of Haiti. During the first period of the occupation, they received considerable support from the German government and entrenched German-Haitian elite; while German capabilities were seriously limited by World War One and the United Stated remained neutral, both sides regarded each other hostilely and were determined to wrest hegemony over Hispaniola. The main beneficiaries of German determination in this case were the indigenous resistance movements. In response to this upswing of hostility, the Haitian and American governments began a vigorous campaign to disband 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, who went on 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.)

Racial attitudes towards the Haitian people by the American occupation forces were blatant and arguably widespread. The NAACP secretary Herbert J. Seligman in the July 10th, 1920 NATION, wrote: “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.” [16] For their own part, the rebel forces acted well outside the usual etiquette of combat, engaging in terrorism and other war crimes against both the occupation forces and the general population.

The end of the First World War in 1918 deprived the rebels of their main ally in the guerilla struggle and the US of both the menace of a hostile power in control of Tortuga and the justification it enabled. Nevertheless, the occupation of Haiti continued after World War I, despite the embarrassment that it caused Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the scrutiny of a congressional inquiry in 1922.[citation needed]

In 1922, Dartiguenave was replaced by Louis Borno, who ruled without a legislature until 1930. That same year, General John H. Russell, Jr. was appointed High Commissioner. The Borno-Russel government oversaw the expansion of the economy, building over 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, and sugar and cotton became significant exports.[17]

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 as braceros, went annually to the Oriente Province of Cuba between 1913 and 1931.[18] Many Haitians continued to resent the loss of sovereignty. 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. itself, in particular the NAACP.[19]

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 during a march to protest local economic conditions.[13] This led Herbert Hoover to appoint two commissions, including one headed by a former U.S. governor of the Philippines William Cameron Forbes, which criticized the exclusion of Haitians from positions of authority in the government and constabulary, now known as the Garde d'Haïti.

Haitian reactions

Aside from the caco rebels, Haitian writers and public figures also responded to the Occupation. For example, one public figure, a minister of public education, Dantès Bellegarde[1], continuously discussed his issues with the event. 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 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.[20] 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. Another figure that was highly regarded during the period was Jean Price-Mars.[21] He associated the reasons behind the Occupation to the division between the Haitian elite and the poorer people of the country. One of the dividers between the two groups was Vodou, with the implication that the elites did not recognize Vodou because they connected it to an evil practice.[22] Along with Haitian figures, the NAACP sent James Weldon Johnson,[23] an African American, to Haiti to discover the real situation because it was depicted as a mission to progress and pacify the country in the United States. Johnson's trip lead him to write a series of scathing articles in the magazine The Nationm which helped rally domestic American opinion against the occupation.

Transition to fully Haitian government

In 1930, Sténio Vincent, a long-time critic of the occupation, was elected President.

By 1930, President Hoover had become concerned about the effects of the occupation, particularly after the December 1929 incident in Les Cayes. Hoover appointed two commissions to study the situation, with William Cameron Forbes heading the more prominent of the two.

The Forbes Commission praised the material improvements that the U.S. administration had wrought, but it criticized the exclusion of Haitians 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 further asserted that "the social forces that created [instability] still remain — poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government."[24]

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 Roosevelt, the presumed author of the most recent Haitian constitution and the proponent of the "Good Neighbor policy". 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.[25] The U.S. retained influence on Haiti's external finances until 1947.[26]

Effects on Haiti

The occupation by the United States had several significant effects on Haiti. An early period of unrest culminated in a 1918 rebellion by up to 40,000 former cacos and other disgruntled people. The scale of the uprising overwhelmed the Gendarmerie, but Marine reinforcements helped put down the revolt at an estimated cost of 2,000 Haitian lives.[13]

The occupation greatly improved some of Haiti's infrastructure[3] 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 an available phone service with automatic dialing. Agricultural education was organized with a central school of agriculture and 69 farms in the country.[17]

When it came to living conditions, the Americans inhabited the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince in houses that the majority of Haitians would only dream of. Consequently, the neighborhood in which the Americans lived was called the “millionaire's row.”[27] Hans Schmidt accounted an 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."[28] American 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 whom later became active in politics and government. The mulatto elite managed to dominate the country's bureaucracy and to strengthen its role in national affairs.

The education system was re-designed from the ground up; however, this involved the destruction of the existing system of "liberal arts" education inherited (and adapted) from the French. Due to its emphasis on vocational training, the American system that replaced the French was despised by the elite.[29]

All three rulers during the occupation came from the country's small mulatto minority. 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.[30] Among these were ethnologist Jean Price-Mars and the journal Les Griots, edited by Dr. François Duvalier.

Two Haitian Campaign Medals were issued 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 small German-Haitian community and the Imperial government that it had been associated with were utterly broken by the long years of hostile occupation. Their associations (true and not) with anti-American mechanization had resulted in their strict censure and the German cells operating on the island were purged or forced to surrender. The US 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


  2. Robert Heinl, Pg. 791
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 of Haiti, 1915-34
  4. 4.0 4.1 Schmidt, 35.
  5. Douglas, Paul H. from Occupied Haiti, ed. Emily Greene Balch (New York, 1972), 15–52 reprinted in: Money Doctors, Foreign Debts, and Economic Reforms in Latin America. Wilmington, Delaware: Edited by Paul W. Drake, 1994.
  6. Millett, Allan Reed. "Semper fidelis: the history of the United States Marine Corps". p. 185 .
  7. Weinstein, Segal 1984, p.28.
  8. "Haiti's Tragic History"
  9. Weston 1972, p. 217.
  10. Weinstein, Segal 1984, p. 29.
  11. Roosevelt asserted his authorship of the Haitian Constitution in several speeches during his 1920 campaign for Vice President - which was at best a politically awkward overstatement and caused some controversy in the campaign. (Arthur Schlesinger, The Crisis of the Old Order, 364, citing 1920 Roosevelt Papers for speeches in Spokane, San Francisco, and Centralia.)
  12. "SAYS AMERICA HAS 12 LEAGUE VOTES; Roosevelt Declares He Himself Had Two Until Last Week, Referring to Minor Republics.". The New York Times. 19 August 1920. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 U.S. Haiti Rebellion 1918
  15. Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti (Common Courage Press: 1994)
  16. Pietrusza, David. "1920 the year of the six presidents". p. 133 .
  17. 17.0 17.1 Heinl. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". pp. 454–55 .
  18. Woodling, Bridget; Moseley-Williams, Richard (2004). "Needed but unwanted: Haitian Immigrants and their Descendants in the Dominican Republic". Catholic Institute for International Relations. p. 24 .
  19. "Haiti, Haitians, and Black America". H Net. .
  22. Price-Mars, Jean (1983). So Spoke The Uncle. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press. pp. 1–221. ISBN 0894103903. 
  24. Occupation of Haiti 1915-34
  25. p 223 - Benjamin Beede. The War of 1898 and U.S. Interventions, 1898-1934: An Encyclopedia (May 1, 1994 ed.). Routledge; 1 edition. pp. 784. ISBN 0-8240-5624-8. 
    The Haitian and U.S. governments reached a mutually satisfactory agreement in the Executive Accord of 7 Aug 1933, and on 15 August, the last marines departed.
  26. Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934 New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. (232)
  27. Schmidt 1995, p.152.
  28. Schmidt 1995, p.137-38.
  29. Schmidt, p. 183.
  30. Schmidt, p. 23.


  • Heinl, Robert, Written in Blood: The History of the Haitian People (University Press of America: Lantham, Md., 1996.
  • Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
  • Weinstein, Brian and Aaron Segal. Haiti: Political Failures, Cultural Successes (February 15, 1984 ed.). Praeger Publishers. pp. 175. ISBN 0-275-91291-4. 
  • Weston, Rubin Francis. Racism in U.S. Imperialism: The Influence of Racial Assumptions on American Foreign Policy, 1893-1946. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. 1972

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