The Perils of Interventionism; It Was Once a Matter of Course for Washington to Intervene Forcibly to Change Regimes, Collect Debts, Restore Order and Preach Democracy

Newsweek International, April 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Perils of Interventionism; It Was Once a Matter of Course for Washington to Intervene Forcibly to Change Regimes, Collect Debts, Restore Order and Preach Democracy


Byline: Karl E. Meyer, Meyer is editor of the World Policy Journal and author, most recently, of "The Dust of Empire."

The greatest difference between European and American imperialism is that Europeans are used to imperialism and that Americans are rather new at it." The latest taunt from a French heckler? Not at all; it was the olympian journalist Walter Lippmann, writing in 1926 to decry Washington's unilateral use of force ostensibly to promote democracy in Haiti, Nicaragua and elsewhere in

Latin America. It happens that Lippmann's protest in the New York World echoed the feelings of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had ample experience with imperious wars yet managed to turn the region's anti-American nationalist rage into respect.

We forget it was once a matter of course for Washington to intervene forcibly in the Western Hemisphere to change regimes, collect debts, restore order and preach democracy. FDR learned how it was done as Woodrow Wilson's assistant secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920. He was in charge when U.S. Marines occupied Haiti in 1915 (they were to remain for 19 years). The following year they occupied the Dominican Republic as well. At first FDR was an enthusiastic interventionist. As the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1920, Roosevelt even boasted in Butte, Montana: "You know, I had something to do with running a couple of little republics. The facts are that I wrote Haiti's Constitution myself, and I think it a pretty good Constitution."

What's interesting is the sequel to Roosevelt's somewhat foolish boast. Years later a soberer FDR, disabled by polio, re-emerged as a Democratic candidate for governor of New York. He had second thoughts not just about Haiti but about unilateral U.S. intervention, about inglorious "little wars" and especially about the arrogant risks of scorning allies and neighbors. He now believed that "single-handed intervention by us in the internal affairs of other nations must end; with the cooperation of others we shall have more order in this hemisphere and less dislike."

Those words were written in 1928 but are as applicable today. The article in which they appeared was published in Foreign Affairs and was, above all, an appeal to the world to create practical machinery for eliminating international conflict. What prompted America's intervention in Haiti, he recalled, was the prospect of chaos. "Presidents were murdered, governments fled, several times a year. We landed our marines and sailors only when the unfortunate Chief Magistrate of the moment was dragged out of the French Legation, cut into six pieces and thrown to the mob. …

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