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Keeping The Neighbors In Line, But At What Cost? Latin America’s “Invaded” Nations

Jun 26, 2014

Eighty years after President James Monroe announced his opposition to any European intervention in Latin America, President Theodore Roosevelt expanded on the idea and justified the United States’ aggressive pursuit of its own economic and political interests in the region during his 1904 State of the Union address.

Between 1912 and 1919, the United States invaded Nicaragua to stop a civil war, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic to prevent the kind of European influence the Monroe Doctrine sought to prevent. University of Oklahoma Latin America historian Alan McPherson chronicles U.S. invasions of these three countries in his latest book The Invaded.

“World War I had begun in 1914, and Americans were afraid that Germans were going to try to land in these two parts of the island of Hispaniola, either to just control the islands or to get their loans back, which weren’t being repaid by the Haitians and the Dominicans,” McPherson says. “They stay to try to change the way Latin Americans operate politically, and their political values.”

Like corruption. McPherson says uprooting the power structure was first on the U.S. Marines’ agenda, which led to a struggle with the urban elites who wanted to keep their status.

“They’ll often speak in nationalistic rhetoric, but behind-the-scenes when they actually talk to journalists, they’ll say, ‘I want to get money for my family. I need to get back in government, and get my job back so I can steal from the treasury some more.’,” McPherson says.

But the resistance is more complicated than the traditional narrative of defending national sovereignty and freedom from foreign control. Many people resist simply to avoid physical harm from U.S. troops.

“Marines are applying the water cure, and several other kinds of tortures in all of these places, and do so quite openly,” McPherson says. “Their homes are being destroyed often. Their cattle, their pigs are being killed.”

By the 1920s and 30s, a large Latino community in New York started to influence anti-imperialist, isolationist U.S. Senators and the American Federation of Labor. Newly inaugurated president Franklin Roosevelt formalized the removal of troops from Latin America with his Good Neighbor Policy in 1933, but McPherson says the humanist Roosevelt was really swayed by determined Latin Americans willing to wait out the United States.

“He and others said over and over in their documents, ‘We’re getting too much pressure from Argentina, from Mexico. We go to the international conferences and all the diplomats from Latin America say, “The only thing we want is freedom for the Haitians, the Dominicans, or the Nicaraguans,” McPherson says. “And the Great Depression also hit in the late 20s and early 30s, and that also tightened the budgets at the State Department and the Department of War and of Navy, so they said they couldn't afford this anymore in all sorts of ways - politically and economically.”

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Alan McPherson, welcome to World Views.

ALAN McPHERSON: Thank you.

GRILLOT: So Alan, you've written this very interesting book, The Invaded. It documents and details the U.S. invasion and occupation of three Latin American countries in the early part of the 20th century, in the early to mid-20th century. It's really fascinating. Can you begin by just telling us why we invaded? Where we invaded? Give us the details and the context of what happened in this case in the early 1900s?

McPHERSON: Sure. Well, this was a time when the United States was quite powerful, and essentially other European nations let it occupy and invade pretty much anywhere in the Caribbean and Central America. So these are three of many other interventions. But they're the three longest ones and deepest ones. So the United States invaded Nicaragua in 1912 to stop essentially a civil war. But they also, more broadly, wanted to stop Nicaragua from possibly building a canal with the help of the Germans or the Japanese. They also wanted to secure railroads which brought goods to the United States. So there were economic and geopolitical issues. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the other two case studies, invasions came in 1915 and 1916, respectively. These were, ostensibly, responses to the fear of Germans. World War I had begun in 1914, and Americans were afraid that Germans were going to try to land in these two parts of the island of Hispaniola, either to just control the islands or to get their loans back, which weren't being repaid by the Haitians and the Dominicans. So again, there are economic issues, geopolitical issues, and the overall issue of wanting to stabilize the politics of Latin America, especially of these smaller, poorer countries. This is one of the big arguments of the book, is that I argue that intervention comes from often these geopolitical and economic issues, but occupation, which means saying for several years, is really a response to the political culture of these places. So Americans come for some reasons, but they stay to try to change the way Latin Americans operate politically, and their political values. And that's why they often stay way after World War I is even over.

GRILLOT: So what I think is particularly interesting about your book is that you don't just document the invasion itself, but you document the response from the perspective of the invaded, the title of your book. Which is a little different take on many works in this area. So how is it that the invaded responded? Is it maybe a little bit different perspective on that than what we find intuitive about it?

McPHERSON: That's true. That's exactly the purpose of the book, is to try to figure out why do people resist military invasions? I think the traditional point of view of most scholars is that they're just nationalists. They want to defend their national sovereignty. They want to be free of foreign control, and they pretty much leave it at that. But if you dig deep into their sources, if you go to their archives, and you read U.S. documents for the voices of Latin Americans themselves, you find that the resistance has a much more varied set of reasons for resisting, and they're not as pure as you might imagine from other scholarship. For instance, many people resist for very concrete reasons, and not for these nationalistic reasons. A lot of people resist because they're being physically hurt by the Marines. They're being tortured. Marines are applying the water cure, and several other kinds of tortures in all of these places, and do so quite openly. So often they're just physically trying to protect themselves and their family. Their homes are being destroyed often. Their cattle, their pigs are being killed. They're being "borrowed" by the Marines. So there are a lot of these very physical things they're trying to protect. But then that's usually the farmers, which is the majority of the people. But then you have the politicians, and they resist for very different reasons. Generally they want to stay in power. The first thing the Marines usually do is that they kick everyone out of power when they land, because they find the politicians are far too corrupt, and so on. Which is often true, but everybody's corrupt, so whoever else they put in power is going to do the same thing. So it often becomes a struggle between these urban elite and the Marines. The urban elite just want to get back into power and do what they did before, which is to take out huge loans that they can't possibly pay back. And they'll often speak in nationalistic rhetoric, but behind the scenes when they actually talk to journalists and talk to Marines, they'll say, "I want to get money for my family. I need to get back in government, and get my job back so I can steal from the treasury some more."

GRILLOT: So, clearly, your book has largely been described as one that focuses on the passionate motivations about the resistance. And you refer to this physical protection, or self-defense. They're really defending their homes and their families and their land and their positions in power. They're protecting all of that, but there's also the cultural side of this. There's the cultural imposition that comes along with invasion and occupation. As you mentioned, they stay for a long time, and then the invaders impose a certain kind of way of life. Is that part of this picture here as well?

McPHERSON: It is part of the picture. It doesn't come immediately. The Marines don't go in and say, "We're going to remake education." But they realize that to remake political culture, you have to get these people to think differently. So to a certain extent, they'll impose language. They'll operate the government in English and force Dominicans or Haitians to learn some English. But they do also try to remake the public schools. They realize that public schools are essentially corrupt. Teachers aren't showing up, the students aren't showing up, yet everybody's getting paid, so it's a vehicle for corruption. So they'll also impose taxes, and build more public schools, and they'll remake the curriculum so it's more pragmatic, so that these farmers can learn to read and write and know basic math and not poetry and law to 11-year-olds. So that brings up a lot of resistance, because the elite in most of these countries are educated in Paris, or in Madrid, and they don't really want the peasants to be educated. They want them to be kept in this semi-feudal state. The Marines really think that they can do this within a generation. They land, and within a couple of weeks they start talking about staying for one or two generations. Whereas the State Department usually has said, "No, no. We're just there for World War I. Once the war is over, there's no German threat, we'll leave." So there's already a disconnect within what Americans want.

GRILLOT: So the resistance begins. The invasion happens. The resistance begins, and yet you tell us a very interesting story about the day-to-day activities and the resistance, but also the networks that emerge. Tell us more about that. How those in these countries, in Nicaragua, in Haiti, in the Dominican Republic actually worked within a network outside of their countries to resist the invasion from the United States.

McPHERSON: Yeah, that's a really under-studied facet of these occupations. They would've never ended if there weren't trans-national networks. The networks always begin in the occupied countries, but these people have friends. Especially the elite. The elite are very important in this in that they have friends in places like Cuba or Paris or Madrid. And New York, there's a large Latino community in New York, which is very important. There are communist parties throughout Latin America. There's people in Argentina and Mexico that are very important and spreading the message. They'll find torture victims and spread photographs throughout the world. Eventually it all gets back to Washington, D.C. and to a few senators who are, by nature, anti-imperialist. They're often isolationists, so they take up the cause. The American Federation of Labor, the great union of the early 20th century also takes up their cause. So they're able to create this really trans-national that has been very important in raising money and getting voices heard in Washington. Which eventually leads to dis-occupation by the 20s and 30s.

GRILLOT: So now tell us about that withdrawal. When the U.S. left these countries - is it because we're not getting anywhere or is it really because they just were resistant to the extent that they couldn't get anywhere in that country? Paint that picture for us.

McPHERSON: Well, I think most scholars have assumed that we left and we created what was called the Good Neighbor Policy. And the central tenet of the Good Neighbor Policy is that we would no longer occupy or intervene militarily in Latin American nations. They've associated that with Franklin D. Roosevelt. To a certain extent, that's correct. He certainly pushed for that, and he used that slogan of the good neighbor. But in fact, even 10 years before Roosevelt, American presidents wanted to at least stop intervening, if not pull out troops that were already there. And they were using the phrase "good neighbor." Herbert Hoover was the one who really coined that phrase. But I think assumption among most scholars is that we did this just because Franklin Roosevelt was a nice guy. A very humanist president, so the same instinct that led to the New Deal led to taking troops out of Latin America. It's really not the case. I think Roosevelt was someone who didn't want intervention, but he mostly didn't want it because of the resistance. Because Latin Americans were resisting so hard and so long, and they had so many allies around the world, and especially in Latin America. So he and others said over and over in their documents, "We're getting too much pressure from Argentina, from Mexico. We go to the international conferences and all the diplomats from Latin America say, 'The only thing we want is freedom for the Haitians, or freedom for the Dominicans, or the Nicaraguans'" So they said it's really not worth it. They're starting to realize also that it costs a lot of money, and it gets you very little. Economically, the United States was not starting businesses, was not buying a lot of land. Business people didn't want to invest in places where there were guerrilla wars. And the Great Depression also hit in the late 20s and early 30s, and that also tightened the budgets at the State Department and the Department of War and of Navy, so they said they couldn't afford this anymore in all sorts of ways - politically and economically.

GRILLOT: So even though we weren't still occupying these countries, we replaced the occupation with this Good Neighbor Policy, but in some ways it was still another form of imperialism. Another way to promote American way of life, other advanced, modern society in these countries?

McPHERSON: Sure. Yeah. Like I said, the Good Neighbor Policy, one of the facets was take American troops out. Another facet was open up these economies as much as you can, so we started signing all of these trade deals in which we would reduce tariffs for their primary goods coming into the United States, and they would reduce their tariffs on our finished goods. So we would bring in more sugar, but sell them more cars. Which was generally a bad deal for them, and a good deal for us. And the other facet is the encouragement or the tolerance of dictators. That really came as a result...we didn't necessarily want to have dictators take over these small countries, but we had put together the structures so that they could. We had built national armies rather than regional armies in the small towns. There was one big national army, so if you had one person in charge of that army that person could easily defeat the president and take over. We also had built national roads, national telegraphs, so the armies could get to all the towns and repress any kind of challenge to their power.

GRILLOT: Well clearly, I think there are some very important lessons to learn from this historical case that are applicable still today. Tell us what you've learned through this process, through this research, and through writing this book. Tell us what it is that we need to learn about this experience that will help us in our foreign relations today, because a lot of this sounds extremely reminiscent of recent invasions that the United States has engaged in. So do we still have more to learn?

McPHERSON: It appears that we're not learning them, no. One of the main lesions, apart from the fact that nationalism is actually quite a minimal phenomenon, is that there's actually very little you can change in a peoples' political culture by occupying. By nature, when people are occupied and guns are put in front of them and they're forced to go through political change, it doesn't change their belief systems. Very few people wanted to follow the Americans, and let's say be more Democratic or less corrupt or have more taxes or give more education to the poor. They wanted none of those things. When we left, they started doing the same thing as they had been doing 20 years before. They had tried to do throughout the occupations. We've seen the same sort of things in Iraq, for instance. As soon as we leave, and even when we were there after a few years of occupation, sectarian violence started up again. So the reasons that Iraq is always divided is the reason they're divided today. But now it's even more chaotic because we've done sort-of the opposite. We've taken away the dictator, so now you have several small dictators who are vying for power. We made the opposite structural change there. The book also offers lessons for the occupied, or the invaded. There are ways of resisting. There are ways of getting people out of your country. One of the best ones is just lie to them. I think the book says if you're not able to be united, pretend that you are. So in all of these occupations there's always a moment in which the opposition to the occupation is very divided between rich and poor, between urban and rural, between different political groups - they hate each other. And they're going to continue going at each other once the Americans are gone, but they realize they've got to put up a united front, or else the Marines will never leave.

GRILLOT: Very interesting. Alan McPherson, thank you so much for joining us today. It's really fascinating, and we'll enjoy reading your book.

McPHERSON: Thank you very much.

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