When it was created, 240 years ago, one of the fundamental differences between the revolutionary United States and the other nations of the western world was its refusal to indulge in overseas ambitions. The idea of empire, of subjugating or otherwise exploiting other nations without their consent, was anathema to the USA’s founding principles and its founding fathers.
To cut a complex story short, those noble intentions didn’t last long. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine, a presidential statement that the US would not tolerate further European interference in Central and South American affairs, made it clear that the US was ready in principle to exercise some kind of dominion, or at least protective supervision, over the western hemisphere in general. To cut a complex argument short, it didn’t last long because the largely coastal people of the United States quickly became hooked on the obvious benefits of foreign trade, and because they learned to build a new kind of empire that was free from the visible trappings of colonialism and was, crucially amid the idealistic rhetoric of US politics, deniable. In other words, US businesses learned to create an economic empire, taking over another country’s wealth without appearing to take away its independence.
By 1914, the US had already extended this convenient concept, geographically and ideologically, to include conquest of the Philippines at the very end of the 19th century. A controversial enterprise that began as a trade war against the Spanish colonial regime, but ended with war against independence fighters and a full-blown military occupation, it raised the bar for what constituted acceptable intervention in the minds of the US body politic, and primed opinion for ruthless exploitation of the overseas trading opportunities opened up by the outbreak of war in Europe.
The most glaring wartime trade opportunities beckoned in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. South America in general had been a favourite destination for pre-War German investment, and the sudden flight of European money (and personnel) left a vacuum that US corporations were more than ready to fill. Even closer to home, Central America and those Caribbean islands not controlled by friendly European states (like Britain, France or the Netherlands) were also ripe for expanded US economic infiltration, and the US government was anyway anxious to increase its influence over those regions by way of protecting its huge investment in the Panama Canal, which had opened on 15 August 1914.
So how did US adventures in economic imperialism work? As luck would have it, proclamation of a US military government in the Dominican Republic took place a hundred years ago today, on 28 November 1916, and that unfortunate little country provided a good example of the way Washington and big business went about their back-door wartime conquests.
The Dominican Republic was a mess in 1914, and had been for some time. Since the Spanish had finally given up trying to recolonise the place in 1865 – defeated by local insurrection, disease and the threat of intervention by the (post-civil war) US to enforce the Monroe Doctrine – the Republic had been ruled by corrupt governments that presided over almost constant political turmoil, economic crisis and social unrest. They also profited from selling or leasing parts of the country to foreign interests, often as security for loans from overseas, a policy (if that’s the word for it) that came home to roost at the turn of the century.
The most powerful and durable Dominican politician of the late 19th century, the dictator Ulises Heureaux, was assassinated in November 1899 and replaced by an elected government under President Juan Isidro Jimines Pereyra. Foreign creditors, led by the French, then started calling in the loans, and with no other resources to call upon the Jimines administration pledged 40% of its customs revenue to the repayment of foreign debt. This upset the US-owned San Domingo Improvement Company, which had received a substantial percentage of customs revenue and the right to administer the country’s customs in return for loans to the Heureaux regime – and which now protested to the US State Department.
The protest fell on receptive ears. On the grounds that European powers might convert debts into the right to build naval installations, menacing shipping lanes close to the planned Panama Canal, Washington chose to extend its influence over the Republic. Strongly encouraged by Theodore Roosevelt – US president for eight years from 1901, and a byword for interventionist enthusiasm – aggressive negotiations brought an agreement in 1905 by which the US government took over all Dominican debt and administration of its finances.
Freedom from debt provided by US administration enabled the Dominican regime of President Cáceres to instigate a series of political and socioeconomic reforms that soothed popular unrest but upset a lot of vested interests and quickly fell apart after the assassination of Cáceres in late 1911. As the country descended into civil war and military spending brought renewed debt, the US government, now headed by President Taft, sent a mediating ‘commission’ to the Republic in September 1912. Backed by 750 marines, the commission did impose two more changes of president in fifteen months, but the nearest it came to imposing any kind of order was a promise to supervise a free and fair election in 1914. A general truce followed, but it collapsed after a flagrantly rigged poll returned the incumbent Dominican president, José Bordas Valdés, to power in June.
New US president Wilson responded by threatening to foist an appointed government on the Republic, and a comparatively fair rerun of the election took place in August – but the new president was the same Jimines elected in 1899, and he dived straight back into the factionalism from which he came. Jimines clung to office until May 1916, when he resigned in the face of a determined bid for power by his war minister, Desidario Arias, at which point the United States government finally ran out patience with mediation.
The US was already in control of Haiti, which had endured a very similar history of internal corruption, political unrest and US strategic investment before its occupation in June 1915 (and which I think I forgot to talk about last year). A week after Jimines left office, US naval units from Haiti drove Arias from the capital, Santo Domingo, by threatening to bombard the city. Marines began going ashore three days later, on 16 May. They met some resistance – most notably on 3 July near the town of Santiago , where marines overcame Dominican troops in a skirmish known as the Battle of Guayacanas that killed two marines and 27 Dominicans – but had taken effective control of the country by mid-July. Concerned to avoid diplomatic controversy, even with much of the world at war elsewhere, Washington was careful to cement its control before making the announcement about the Republic’s future on 28 November.
US occupation undoubtedly did some good things for the Dominican Republic, bringing political and economic order, infrastructural development and rationalisation of the country’s chaotic armed forces. On the other hand, although the new regime left most Dominican laws and institutions unchanged, they were now controlled by a military governor, and though his appointed cabinet was in theory filled with native politicians, it in fact included a number of American officers in the absence of Dominicans willing to serve. Public speech, the press and radio broadcasts were meanwhile subject to censorship, and US administrators made little effort to cultivate affection from the population, ensuring that most Dominicans hated the occupation. Opposition was strongest in the east of the country, where US marines and aircraft fought a nasty, four-year war against guerilla fighters known as gavilleros.
By the time the gavilleros had been ground into inaction, resurgent isolationism in the US had crystallised in the person of Warren Harding, Wilson’s successor as president. A man who made Donald Trump look like Gandhi, Harding nevertheless kept his campaign promise to end the occupation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, making a first offer of withdrawal in 1921. It took another three years of negotiation to restrict the amount of US economic supervision (and the number of US personnel in the new National Guard) to levels a workable majority of Dominican politicians would accept, but elections eventually took place in March 1924 and the occupation was formally ended in July.
The means by which the US took control of the Dominican Republic, and the reasons behind them, were typical of a process taking place all over the southern part of the western hemisphere during the War. It has been an easy process for posterity to condemn, made easier by how much most of the world hates the United States, and how convenient it has been to blame the age of the dollar for all our global screw-ups – but that’s all a bit lazy.
Sure, US business interests were a ruthless, profit-driven, baleful influence over the economic and political development of small nations in the Caribbean and Latin America during the decades before 1914, but that didn’t make them any different to their counterparts in most western European countries. It was also generally the case that the economic and political landscapes infiltrated by the US had been left well and truly scrambled by their previous, European owners, and that US control provided more basic social benefits than most European colonial administrations.
As for the US government, it was clearly prepared to back its business interests with political and military intervention at any time after the end of its own civil war, but again this had long been normal behaviour for European empires. The Dominican story, right down to the recovery of its political sovereignty in 1924, also makes clear Washington’s preference for an economically pliant but independent client state, led by some kind of democratically elected government, over any traditional model of empire.
So yes, this was empire building by another name, and yes, the easy option of economic control without political responsibility was a blueprint for future geopolitics that proved globally divisive, not to mention unworkable without the dark machinations of bodies like the CIA and KGB – but that doesn’t mean the US created the mess we’re in today. Expansion of markets and protection of the Panama Canal were exactly the kind of strategic motives most Europeans regard as perfectly reasonable for their own histories, and the opportunism behind US wartime intervention was no different to British seizure of German colonies after 1914 or the behaviour of any other contemporary empire. History would have viewed failure to exploit such a clear invitation to score as some kind of saintly strangeness.
I realise this long rant hasn’t really been about the First World War, but it has been about one of the twentieth century’s definitive geopolitical developments. Bottom line, the march of US capital couldn’t have taken its expressway shortcut towards world domination if the competition hadn’t been so busy destroying itself. Europe left the gate wide open and US capital walked through it, the way human institutions do, so responsibility for what happened next shouldn’t be laid solely at Washington’s door.