Occupational Hazards



The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S.
By Alan McPherson 
Oxford University Press, 2014

There was a time when U.S. naval officers were tasked with running entire countries. They did their best. In Nicaragua from 1912-1933, Haiti from 1915-1934 and the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924, contingents of Marines directly administered or determined who ruled nominally independent nations, trying to apply Progressive-era notions of good governance and economic progress. In Haiti, while fighting a rural insurgency, they embarked on education reform, sanitation projects and an ambitious program of building roads—literally paving Haiti with good intentions. Thousands of deaths and millions of dollars later, the Marines withdrew. The national guard they trained became an instrument of dictatorship. Their good intentions seemed to have accomplished nothing so much as to put Haiti on a path to hell.

Alan McPherson’s outstanding new book does much more than chart the sweeping impact of the major U.S. occupations in the Caribbean. It also does more than remind us vividly and in greater detail of some of what we already knew about the conduct of those occupations. He illustrates, for example, the paradox of nation-building in Haiti, where the Marines’ civilizing mission included reintroducing the corvée, a system of brutal forced labor that did not go down well in a republic founded by former slaves. The occupation was also hampered by the views of officers such as company commander William Upshur, who found Haitians “no more fitted to govern themselves than a tribe of apes” (31).

McPherson’s book is not merely a breathtaking compendium of evidence about the sordid nature of the occupations drawn from sources from five countries in three languages. It also benefits from his rare ability to engage in historical comparison through multinational research and deep knowledge of more than one country. Norbert Finzsch once called comparison the Bigfoot of historical scholarship: often reported, seldom found. McPherson’s uncommon ability to handle this Bigfoot allows him to draw conclusions from three cases that reveal the many varieties of resistance to occupation, and the diverse motivations behind it. His most significant argument is that attributing the resistance the Marines encountered to the power of nationalism is mistaken: instead, it emerged from below the national level. Subnational power brokers, from partisan politicians to caudillos and caciques (strongmen operating, respectively, at the regional or local level), eager to defend or advance their own standing and patronage networks, were the earliest and most tenacious opponents of the occupiers, and their followers made up the majority of armed insurgents. Typically, the United States sparked resistance not from nationalists who resented a foreign presence, but from locals who saw the Americans’ centralizing project—their nation-building—as a threat to their own parochial or personal interests. 

This finding is of great consequence, since the main idea behind counter-insurgency efforts a century ago and today has been to strengthen the state, improve its legitimacy through political and economic reform and assure it a monopoly on violence. McPherson’s study suggests that the very strategy of nation-building that is supposed to thwart insurgencies instead spawns more resistance by challenging dispersed power centers. So did other aspects of U.S. reform intended to “modernize” society and create a stronger central state, such as regularizing land ownership records, which disrupted traditional holdings and created a class of aggrieved peasants thrown off their farms. Progressive-style reforms to license bakers, fishmongers and midwives for hygienic purposes alienated poor people who had been able to earn a living until the Marines arrived. Attempts to promote more widespread education could backfire, as when Dominicans protested the financing of schools through loans from U.S. banks, or Haitians defended their traditional belles-lettres curriculum over the vocational education Marines thought more suitable to train Haitians for manual labor. 

The first phase of resistance to the initial intervention arose for local reasons by those directly affected. A second phase then emerged against the conduct of occupation, provoked by abuses committed by the occupiers, from the killing and torture of civilians to forced labor, from the requisition of land and livestock to forcible home entries and nighttime arrests that only increased hostility. The echoes in today’s counterinsurgency efforts are deafening. Current debates over whether sending more troops is the way to overcome resistance should take note of McPherson’s finding that when the number of Marines went from the hundreds to the thousands, the increased scale of unwelcome interactions with the population, especially violent incidents, created “a recruiting bonanza for insurgents” (93).

In the second phase, resistance tended to expand from rural areas to urban professionals and thence to the international plane. One of the most interesting aspects of McPherson’s research is his analysis of extensive transnational networks stretching from Mexico City to Buenos Aires and New York. These networks allowed occupation opponents to supply financial support to resistance forces or to use newspapers and direct lobbying to pressure the U.S. Congress and executive branch to withdraw the Marines. Haiti benefited less from transnational solidarity in Latin America than did the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, because of racism and cultural distance from Spanish-speaking countries. All three attracted the sympathy of progressive U.S. citizens, from labor groups and left-wing scholars to African Americans across the political spectrum, who published exposés, demonstrated in the streets and testified in Washington against the occupation of Haiti. McPherson argues that the role of foreigners and exiles was essential to ending the occupations, but that since their interest was drawn by acts of resistance inside the occupied countries, credit should go to “the invaded” themselves.

McPherson acknowledges that some of the most prominent opponents of occupation, from Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua to ousted Dominican president Francisco Henríquez y Carvajal, both major figures in his account, did effectively articulate nationalist platforms. Resistance acquired a permanent nationalist tint in the hindsight of later movements such as Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in the 1970s. McPherson dismisses economic determinists and conspiracy theorists who saw Wall Street investors pulling the strings of the occupation to fatten their profits or exploit the circum-Caribbean for economic gain. The Haitian occupation, he points out, cost $50 million during a period when U.S. investments in Haiti were worth only $15 million. (That made it unprofitable for the United States, but not necessarily for individual companies.) He also documents the reluctance of occupation officials and State Department officers to entertain requests for assistance that came from private investors with grievances in the countries under U.S. rule. 

McPherson’s accounting does leave room for an economic interpretation of occupation alongside the political project he has so ably documented: the long-term desire to redesign Caribbean economies so that their role was essentially to convert foreign capital and local land and labor into export commodities, with costs for land, labor and taxes kept low enough through repression and emoluments to produce exalted returns for U.S. investors. When Latin Americans challenged any part of that system, they soon encountered new forms of U.S. intervention.

Those who judge the book by its title may expect to find a study that extols virtuous victims who threw off the yoke of imperial control. McPherson praises selfless action where he finds it, but most individual actors in his history are less heroic than prosaic. In the encompassing category of resisters to occupation, we find rural folk from 14 to 80 years old taking up arms or tearing up railroad ties to slow the Marines’ advance, but doing so for a daily wage from a local caudillo; cabinet members resigning en masse, but because they are no longer able to dominate the political system; and disappointed job-seekers trying to beat the Marines and their appointed functionaries after failing to join them. Eloquent intellectuals who published nationalist tracts (and were sometimes jailed by the occupiers as a result) often appear as self-promoting elitists whose nationalism was colored by contempt for their darker neighbors. 

McPherson does not romanticize resisters and seems to hold special disdain for those who proclaimed idealistic commitment while lining their pockets. But this is not a pox-on-both-their-houses account. He clearly denounces the occupations as misguided, not only for their excesses and for violations of international law, but for interfering with the right of each people to unfold its own history. The determination of retrograde caudillos to preserve their local autonomy existed alongside indigenous processes of centralization that were disrupted rather than furthered by the Marines’ arrival, and the substitution of a U.S.-imposed regime under U.S.-trained national constabularies led not to the preservation of democracy but to the emergence of dictatorship. McPherson’s intimately detailed portrait of good intentions gone bad demonstrates the “folly” (269) of occupations that intend to teach self-government by imposing military government. 

Max Paul Friedman, a professor of history at American University, is the author of Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign against the Germans of Latin America in World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2003), winner of the Herbert Hoover Prize in U.S. History and the A.B. Thomas Prize in Latin American Studies. 

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