Haitian-Building

By McGrath, Roger D. | The American Conservative, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Haitian-Building


McGrath, Roger D., The American Conservative


From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Port-au-Prince

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.

- George Washington, Farewell Address

THE MARINES HAVE LANDED in Haiti - again. They've been there many times before, not in the aftermath of an earthquake, but in the chaos caused by warring factions and rulers destroying infrastructure and terrorizing the population. These interventions cost American taxpayers millions and the Marines blood and Uves. In the long run, they proved entirely futile, though they did add to the heroic lore of the Corps. The three most decorated Marines in history all served tours in Haiti, with two of them earning the Medal of Honor there.

Born in revolutionary fervor, Haiti has traditionally called itself a republic, but its history has been marked by strongmen annointing themselves Emperor for Life or ruling like one while observing the title of president. Coups and assassinations have been the surest path to power. From 1908 to 1915, the Haitian government changed hands seven times, with four presidents dying violently and the other three fleeing the country. Men were tortured and mutilated and women raped. Voodoo incantations guided the masses. The country resembled nothing else in the Western Hemisphere.

During this period, American companies doing business in Haiti suffered losses, and their claims against the government mounted. Roger Farnham, a principal of the National Railway, tangled with the government over its refusal to pay for several sections of badly constructed track. Farnham was also vice president of the National City Bank of New York City and of the Banque Nationale in Haiti. Moreover, he was chief adviser to the Wilson administration on Haiti and influenced, if not determined, State Department policy toward the country.

The result: a graphic demonstration of gunboat diplomacy. In December 1914, the USS Machias steamed into the harbor at Port-au-Prince and landed a party of U.S. Marines. With 1903 Springfields slung over their shoulders and Colt .45 semi-automatic pistols on their hips, they removed $500,000 in Haitian government funds from the vault of the Banque Nationale and carried the cash to the Machias. The money was then transported to NYC and deposited at the National City Bank. Back in Haiti, the Banque Nationale lowered the French flag that had flown over its headquarters and raised the Stars and Stripes.

Early in 1915, the State Department sent two special commissions to Haiti in an attempt to negotiate an American receivership, which would include U.S. control of customs. Such an arrangement might have brought some measure of stability, but the Haitian government, which had a typically tenuous hold on power, knew it would be inviting a coup d'etat if it compromised national sovereignty. By the spring of 1915, the State Department ruled the situation in Haiti hopeless, deeming the Haitians incapable of governing themselves. President Wilson agreed. His advisers began laying the groundwork for military intervention

Meanwhile, the Haitians lived down to the State Department and President Wilson's low opinion of them. Late in February, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam ascended the presidency in a coup. He suppressed other aspirants to office, jailing and torturing hundreds of them. On July 27, he had nearly 200 political enemies executed, including former president Oreste Zamor.

As news of the executions spread, riots erupted. Sam fled to the French embassy and was given asylum. Undeterred by diplomatic niceties, a mob stormed the embassy, found Sam hiding in a bathroom, and beat him to death. His body was dragged into the street and dismembered and disemboweled. The various body parts were then paraded through the streets of Port-au-Prince while onlookers hooted and looted

The next day, the Marines landed The Wilson administration said they were needed to protect American lives in the wake of Sam's death and the collapse of his government. …

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