Communications and Military Intervention in Historical Perspective: The United States and Latin America

By Britton, John A. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Communications and Military Intervention in Historical Perspective: The United States and Latin America


Britton, John A., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


The importance of communications in contemporary warfare is evident in the use of global positioning satellites and laser guided bombs in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq. Frederick Kagan encapsulates the priority given to electrical surveillance and rapid communications in the title of his book: Finding the Target. Kagan and other analysts may disagree on specific policy options, but there seems to be a broad consensus that the unimpeded flow of information is essential for military and naval operations. (1) While there are numerous and often voluminous general histories of modern warfare, we find relatively few specialized studies of the use of communications in military and naval operations before 1991. (2) This paper will examine in some depth the 1885 armed incursion by the United States into Panama that was the first intervention to rely on the international telegraph network built by British and U.S. cable companies from the 1860s to the early 1880s. In short, this event marked the first use of modern communications by armed forces intervening in a Latin American nation. We will then place this event in the long history of U.S. armed interventions in Latin America from 1885 to 1989.

The Colombian province of Panama experienced uprisings in April 1885 that threatened the properties of several US corporations. President Grover Cleveland's administration intervened to protect these properties--especially the transisthmian railroad and the international telegraph cable. The telegraph itself played a large role in the intervention. News of the uprisings reached Washington by cable. The telegraph made possible the mobilization and deployment of U.S. forces from several cities along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, and also facilitated continued contact between these forces on the isthmus and Washington. While the Panama intervention has received capable analysis in specialized studies, a close examination of the role of telegraphic communications will add a new dimension to these familiar stories. Furthermore, most textbooks and general studies marginalize or ignore this intervention and its implications for the use of communications in military operations, and emphasize instead more familiar events such as the Spanish American War and General John Pershing's 1916 expedition into Mexico. (3)

Historians have established at least three major functions or roles for military/naval communications that are of relevance for this study. The first involves basic intelligence or, at least, "news" about the crisis and the potential enemy. The second function concerns the use of the communications network to organize and deploy the forces to the designated region. The third relates to an area frequently the subject of debate among historians and actual participants--the issue of on-the-scene decision making versus centralization of command made possible by electric communications. One area of interest on the modern battlefield--the use of radio-connected or computerized weapons--is of relevance to interventions carried out after the first decade of the 20th century (4)

An important point to be considered here falls outside the domain of naval/military operations. As early as 1885 the international cable network supplied newspapers in the United States with information on these operations thereby attracting an audience for information about the intervention. An interested public, in turn, created an environment in which elected officials and naval/military officers were sensitive to the discussion of the intervention as a public issue. Panama itself also became an important factor in this international context. The Panamanian rebels had a local following that concerned the Marines and sailors and eventually captured the attention of the press and politicians in the United States and in other countries. This intertwining of Panamanian and United States histories through the international electric communications network and the mass circulation press created a relationship that was to expand over the decades. …

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