The Conquest of Haiti

By Herbert J. Seligmann

The Nation 111 (July 10, 1920).

To Belgium's Congo, to Germany's Belgium, to England's India and Egypt, the United States has added a perfect miniature in Haiti. Five years of violence in that Negro republic of the Caribbean, without sanction of international law or any law other than force, is now succeeded by an era in which the military authorities are attempting to hush up what has been done. The history of the American invasion of Haiti is only additional evidence that the United States is among those Powers in whose international dealings democracy and freedom are mere words, and human lives negligible in face of racial snobbery, political chicane, and money. The five years of American occupation, from 1915 to 1920, have served as a commentary upon the white civilization which still burns black men and women at the stake. For Haitian men, women, and children, to a number estimated at 3,000, innocent for the most part of any offense, have been shot down by American machine gun and rifle bullets; black men and women have been put to torture to make them give information; theft, arson, and murder have been committed almost with impunity upon the persons and property of Haitians by white men wearing the uniform of the United States. Black men have been driven to retreat to the hills from actual slavery imposed upon them by white Americans, and to resist the armed invader with fantastic arsenals of ancient horse pistols, Spanish cutlasses, Napoleonic sabres, French carbines, and even flintlocks. In this five years' massacre of Haitians less than twenty Americans have been killed or wounded in action.

Of all this Americans at home have been kept in the profoundest ignorance. The correspondent of the Associated Press in Cape Haitien informed me in April, 1920, that he had found it impossible in the preceding three years, owing to military censorship, to send a single cable dispatch concerning military operations in Haiti, to the United States. Newspapers have been suppressed in Port au Prince and their editors placed in jail on purely political grounds. Even United States citizens in Haiti told me of their fear that if they too frankly criticised "the Occupation," existence in Haiti would be made unpleasant for them. During my stay of something over a month in Haiti several engagements occurred between Haitian revolutionists and United States Marines. Early in April, Lieutenant Muth, of the Haitian gendarmery, was killed, his body mutilated, and a marine wounded. In that engagement, as in others which occurred within a few weeks of it, Haitian revolutionists or cacos suffered casualties of from five to twenty killed and wounded. No report of these clashes and casualties, so far as I know, has been published in any newspaper of the United States. The United States Government and the American military Occupation which has placed Haiti under martial law do not want the people of the United States to know what has happened in Haiti.

For this desire for secrecy there are the best of reasons. Americans have conceived the application of the Monroe Doctrine to be protection extended by the United States to weaker States in the western hemisphere, against foreign aggression. Under cover of that doctrine the United States has practiced the very aggressions and tyrannies it was pretending to fight to safeguard weaker states against. In 1915, during a riot in the capital of Haiti, in which President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was killed, the mob removed a man from the sanctuary he had claimed in the French legation. It is said the French threatened to intervene, also that the German Government had, before the European war, demanded control of Haitian affairs. In justifying its invasion of Haiti in 1915, the United States makes use of the pretext with which the Imperial German Government justified its invasion of Belgium in 1914. The invasion was one of defense against any Power which, taking control of Haiti, a weaker state, might use its territory as a base for naval action against the Panama Canal or the United States.

Instead of maintaining a force of marines at Port au Prince sufficient to safeguard foreign legations and consulates against violence, the United States proceeded to assume control of the island. The American hold was fortified by a convention empowering the United States to administer Haitian customs and finance for twenty years, or as much longer as the United States sees fit; and by a revised constitution of Haiti removing the prohibition against alien ownership of land, thus enabling Americans to purchase the most fertile areas in the country. Thenceforward Haiti has been regarded and has been treated as conquered territory. 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 at sight. Many Haitians not carrying guns were also shot at sight. Machine guns have been turned into 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. In some cases Haitians peaceably inclined have been afraid to come to American camps to give up their weapons for fear they would be shot for carrying them.

The Haitians in whose service United States marines are presumably restoring peace and order in Haiti are nicknamed "Gooks" and have been treated with every variety of contempt, insult, and brutality. I have heard officers wearing the United States uniform in the interior of Haiti talk of "bumping off" (i.e., killing) "Gooks" as if it were a variety of sport like duck hunting. I heard one marine boast of having stolen money from a peaceable Haitian family in the hills whom he was presumably on patrol to protect against "bandits." I have heard officers and men in the United States Marine Corps say they thought the island should be "cleaned out"; that all the natives should be shot; that shooting was too good for them; that they intended taking no prisoners; that many of those who had been taken prisoners had been "allowed to escape," that is, shot on the pretext that they had attempted flight. I have seen prisoners' faces and heads disfigured by beatings administered to them and have heard officers discussing those beatings; also a form of torture -- "sept" -- in which the victim's leg is compressed between two rifles and the pressure against the shin increased until agony forced him to speak. I know that men and women have been hung by the neck until strangulation impelled them to give information. I have in my possession a copy of a "bon habitant" (good citizen) pass which all Haitians in the interior have been required to carry and present to any marine who might ask to inspect it. Failure to carry the pass formerly involved being shot or arrested. Arrest for trivial offenses has involved detention in Cape Haitien and Port au Prince for as long as six months. In justice to the officers and men of the Marine Corps, it should he said that many of them detest what they have had to do in Haiti. One officer remarked to me that if he had to draw a cartoon of the occupation of Haiti he would represent a black man held down by a white soldier, while another white man went through the black man's pockets. Other officers and men have criticised the entire Haitian adventure as a travesty upon humanity and civilization and as a lasting disgrace to the United States Marine Corps. But the prevailing attitude of mind among the men sent to assist Haiti has been such determined contempt for men of dark skins that decency has been almost out of the question. The American disease of color prejudice has raged virulently.

The occupation points with pride to military roads. These roads were in large part built by Haitian slaves -- I intend the word literally -- under American taskmasters. An old Haitian law of corvée, or enforced road labor, rarely if ever invoked, authorizing three days' work in each year on roads about the citizen's domicile, was made the excuse for kidnaping thousands of Haitians from their homes -- when they had homes -- forcing them to live for months in camps, insufficiently fed, guarded by United States marines, rifle in hand. When Haitians attempted to escape this dastardly compulsion, they were shot. I heard ugly whispers in Haiti of the sudden accumulation of funds by American officers of the Haitian gendarmery who had the responsibility of providing food for these slave camps. Charlemagne Peralte, an important political leader under the Zamor Government, arrested for political activity, was forced to labor in prison garb on the streets of Cape Haitien, where he was well known. He escaped in September, 1918, flaming with hatred and became known throughout Haiti as Charlemagne, one of the most resourceful of revolutionary leaders in the Hinche district until he was killed in the autumn of 1919. It is no coincidence that his power was greatest and the revolt severest in the regions where the corvée slavery had been most in use.

Colonel John Russell, at present brigade commander in Haiti, who is struggling with an impossibly difficult situation, largely created by his predecessors, formally abolished the corvée late in 1919. That was not undoing the damage which had been done. Colonel Russell could not, even by issuing the most stringent orders against indiscriminate murder of Haitians by marines, wipe out what had occurred under a former commanding officer who had been sent to Haiti although it was in his record that he had been court-martialled for brutality to natives in the Philippines.

Another creation of the Americans in Haiti, although it is now improved in personnel and leadership, fanned the flames of hatred and violence which swept the island. I refer to the Gendarmerie d'Haiti. This is a military force of black men, officered with one or two exceptions by corporals and sergeants of the Marine Corps promoted to lieutenancies and captaincies over Haitians. Many of the white men were ignorant and brutal. Some of the Haitians enlisted in the gendarmerie were notorious bad men. Several of them have been shot for murder and extortion among their own people.

The armed peace which has resulted from the conquest of Haiti by the United States has opened a new field for American investors. Already the Banque Nationale d'Haiti, the bank of issue of all Haitian paper currency, is owned by an American bank. The National Railways of Haiti are owned by Americans. Sugar mills and lighting plants are in American control. Groups of Americans are purchasing or are endeavoring to purchase the most fertile land in the country. The representative of one company told me they owned 58,000 acres. In this scheme of American "protection" of Haitian welfare, the Haitian's place is illuminated by a remark which I heard one American entrepreneur make. He advocated that Chinese coolies be imported to supplant uninstructed Haitian labor.

After an indefensible invasion of a helpless country, after the professions of solicitude and good-will which accompanied the crime, what has the United States to offer in extenuation? Military roads, which the Haitian people do not particularly want, a civil hospital in Port au Prince, and the Haitian Gendarmerie. The present Government of Haiti which dangles from wires pulled by American fingers, would not endure for twenty-four hours if United States armed forces were withdrawn; and the president, Sudre d'Artiguenave, would face death or exile. No beginning has been made in combating with teachers the appalling illiteracy of the Haitian people. No attempt has been made to send civilian doctors or even military doctors to minister to the needs of diseased Haitians in the interior. These sins of commission and of omission are attributable less to the men confronted with the overwork and the difficulties, and often with the inferior food which their Government sends them, in Haiti, than to an Administration, and especially a State Department ready to countenance armed invasions without plan and to undertake, by a nation which has signally failed in administering its own color problem, the government of a black republic.

The jumble of jurisdictions imposed upon Americans in Haiti by the irresponsible gentlemen in Washington would paralyze even a genuine attempt at regeneration of Haitian government. The customs receipts and the disbursements of Haiti are administered by two Americans independent of the military command. Of the customs administration, suffice it to say that not one business man to whom I talked, and there were prominent Americans as well as Haitians among my informants, had a word to say in its favor. There is no appeal from the scrupulously inept customs rulings except to Washington. The fiction of a Haitian republic is maintained, although the American military command can suppress newspapers and virtually controls Haitian politics and elections. The Haitian Government, such as it is, either yields perforce to American pressure or finds itself in feeble and ineffectual opposition. The gendarmerie, theoretically under the Haitian Government's command, is officered by American marines, paid by both Haiti and the United States.

This militarist, imperialist burlesque on the profession, with which the United States entered the war in behalf of weaker states leaves the Haitians little to do but to wonder what the United States intends. If they had power, they would drive the armed invader into the sea. They have not the power. They are disarmed and cynical, those who can think. If Haitian government was not conspicuously successful, lives of Americans and other foreigners were safe before the invasion. For the rest, in the absence of an plans for Haiti's regeneration except through "development" of the country by exploiters, the Haitian may derive what spiritual nourishment he can from the Wilsonian phrases with which United States thuggery disguises its deeds.

Herbert J. Seligmann was a member of the advisory committee of the Haiti-Santo Domingo Independence Society.

The Conquest of Santo Domingo

By Lewis S. Gannett

The Nation 111 (July 17, 1920).

Santo Domingo is conquered territory. The Dominican has less independence and fewer rights than had a Belgian under German occupation. He has not even the consciousness that there are crusading nations to defend his rights. "The rights of small nations" do not include his country. American boys died to free Poles, Czecho-Slovaks, Jugo-Slavs, and Belgians; but in this hemisphere they suppress Dominicans.

Some Americans may salve their colored consciences by the thought that Haitians are black, and that what we do to Haitians must therefore be discounted. Dominicans are white: we have not even the invalid excuse of color. We, the United States of America, who prate of democracy and republicanism and small nations and rights, have driven out the lawful officials of the Dominican republic, dissolved the congress, forbidden elections, ruled by martial law and sanctioned atrocities -- and with an ironic honesty unequaled even in Prussian annals we solemnly declare that we will continue to rule "in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Santo Domingo in so far as these are not modified by the military government."

There is no President in Santo Domingo, no cabinet, no congress, and there has not been for four years; there is only the arbitrary rule of the United States Marine Corps. There is a censorship so dictatorial and so humorless that the word "Liberty" is stricken out from the program of the Teatro Libertad in the capitol city. By official order of the United States authorities it is now plain "Teatro." And this in the name of America, while we were fighting to make the world safe for democracy!

American intervention in Santo Domingo began in 1905 and culminated in 1916. It was precipitated by financial adventuring and chronic revolution. Bond issues had been issued freely at usurious rates of interest. An American financial expert in 1905 found the national debt to be $40,000,000. Much of this had been taken over by a New Jersey corporation entitled the San Domingo Improvement Company, which secured control of the Dominican customs, but effected only one improvement -- the completion of a railroad, and this with Dominican funds. The origin of the debts was unsavory, the interest payments irregular or in default, and dissatisfaction was general. In 1904 the Improvement Company, which some years before had been ousted from the customs houses, re-secured control of the customs of the port of Puerto Plata, and this led to uneasiness and threats of similar control by French and Italian creditors. The Dominican government appealed to the American, and President Roosevelt, in the spring of 1905, named a General Receiver of Dominican customs, who succeeded in scaling down the foreign debt to $20,000,000 and getting a loan for that amount from an American bank. A treaty ratified in 1907 confirmed this procedure. It was part of this agreement that the Dominican government should not, until this debt was paid, increase its public debt unless with the consent of the American Government.

But a new series of revolutions beginning in 1911 led to an increase of the internal debt, which was in 1912 transferred to another New York bank. The American navy had repeatedly given moral support to one side or the other in various disturbances; in April, 1916, when a new revolution threatened further harm to American interests, the navy, with the consent of one faction, landed marines near Santo Domingo, took the capital on May 15, landed at the principal other ports in June, and finally "pacified" the entire country, with a loss of seven Americans killed and fifteen wounded, as against several hundred Dominicans. For a few months a nominal Dominican Government persisted. The American military authorities insisted that the Dominicans agree to a treaty similar to that which had been forced upon Haiti, providing for collection of customs under American auspices, the appointment of an American financial adviser, and the establishment of a native constabulary force officered by Americans. This they refused to do, and the American authorities thereupon cut off their income. The Dominican Government was left penniless and impotent.

A proclamation of November 29, 1916, frankly put supreme power into the hands of the American military government. That proclamation recited that because of failure to carry out the treaty of 1907, and in a desire to obtain domestic tranquillity --

"the republic of Santo Domingo is hereby placed in a state of Military Occupation by the forces under my command, and is made subject to military government and to the exercise of military law applicable to such occupation ... with no immediate or ulterior object of destroying the sovereignty of the Republic of Santo Domingo but on the contrary to give aid to that country in returning to a condition of internal order...."

The original of this proclamation, signed by Captain H. S. Knapp of the U.S.S. Olympia, contains marginal annotations in the hand of Woodrow Wilson. A censorship decree followed, and, on December 4, Executive Order No. 1:

It being necessary to the purpose of the occupation that the offices of Secretary of State of the Departments of War and Marine, and of Interior and Police, be no longer administered by Dominican citizens but be administered by officers of the United States forces in occupation,

It is ordered that until further notice Dominican citizens are ineligible to hold, and cease to hold, such offices, which are hereby vested in Colonel J. H. Pendleton, U.S.M.C., Commanding the forces of the United States on shore in Santo Domingo.

H. S. Knapp,
Captain, U. S. Navy,
U.S.S. Olympia, December 4,1918.

Other orders followed in rapid succession, removing the ministers of Foreign Relations, Finance, Justice, Agriculture, etc., and naming officers of the American navy to fill these offices and administer them, in the choicest of phrases, "according to the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Santo Domingo, in so far as these are not modified by the military government." Executive Order No. 12 was brief: it declared that "for the present and until further notice no elections will be held in the Republic of Santo Domingo." No. 18 is longer. It should be noted that some Dominicans who still clung to independence, had held local elections and attempted to reassemble a congress:

As no quorum of the Dominican Congress exists, due to the expiration of the terms of office of certain members of the Senate and House of Deputies, and to the fact that such elections as may have been held to fill the vacancies so caused will not be recognized as valid by the military government, having been held under the direction of an administration not recognized by the United States, and to the further fact that all elections have been suspended for the present by Executive Order No. 12 of December 26, 1916,

It is ordered,

1. That the sessions of the Dominican Congress are suspended until after elections shall have been ordered and held to fill vacancies now existing;

2. That the Senators and deputies whose terms have not expired are likewise expelled from office until the full Congress shall have been called into session and that their emoluments shall cease.

H. S. Knapp.
U.S.S. Olympia, January 2, 1917.

There may have been need for financial interference; there never was and could never be, excuse for such ruthless suppression of every institution of popular government and for the substitution of a military despotism.

Incidents in the atrocious history of that despotism have been recited by Archbishop Adolfo Nouel, and are printed elsewhere in this issue. Other incidents, including the use of naval airplanes as an instrument of "pacification" were told in The Nation for February 21. If such things had happened in Armenia or Belgium, the American people and press would be at fever-heat in denunciation. They happened at our own doorstep, under our own flag, in the name of the American people, and we are silent.

Captain Knapp of the Olympia, who sponsored these orders, was promoted to Rear Admiral, and in 1919 was succeeded by Rear Admiral Thomas Snowden. There has been no substantial change in the methods of government. Perhaps in partial response to a memorandum presented to the American Government at Washington by the exiled president of the Dominican Republic, Dr. Francisco Henriquez y Carvajal, Admiral Snowden last October named a Consulting Board of four prominent Dominicans to meet with him on Wednesday afternoons "to discuss matters relevant to the welfare of the Republic." The four Dominicans accepted, in the understanding that a new policy was to be inaugurated, that the censorship would be abolished, that the provost courts would give way to civil courts, and that at least local municipal elections would be held. They presented three memoranda to the Admiral, which are printed on another page in this issue of The Nation. These memoranda are careful, modest, almost humble, suggestions for first steps toward a restoration of self-government in Santo Domingo. They followed Henriquez y Carvajal's memorandum. The Admiral replied, in conversation, that Santo Domingo would continue to be a republic and would have a congress, but that he, the Admiral, would be the Congress. The only official answer was a new censorship decree, also printed elsewhere in this issue of The Nation. The Consulting Commission, convinced that they were not to be consulted seriously, resigned; the Admiral, in reply, "regretted" their resignation, and assured them that their memoranda were being "studied."

That is the story to date. It is a story which, told with more color and detail, is going the rounds of Latin America. It does not engender love for the United States nor enhance our reputation for good faith. So long as we tolerate such business under our own flag, in the interests of banks which invest in risky republics, the speeches of our presidents and the pronouncements of our party platforms, will be a stench throughout Latin America.

Lewis Stiles Gannett (1891-1966) was assistant treasurer of the Haiti-Santo Domingo Independence Society (1921), a director of the American Fund for Public Service and chair of the publications committee of its Committee on American Imperialism (1924), a member of the Hands Off China Committee (1927), and a member of the National Committee of the All-America Anti-Imperialist League (1928).

The U.S. Occupation of Haiti (1915-1934)

  • The Conquest of Haiti, by Herbert J. Seligmann, July 1920.

  • The American Occupation, by James Weldon Johnson, Aug. - Sep. 1920.

  • Hearing the Truth About Haiti, by Helena Hill Weed, Nov. 1921.

  • Haiti and Santo Domingo Today, by Ernest H. Gruening, Feb. 1922.

  • Haiti Under American Occupation, by Ernest H. Gruening, April 1922.