The United States and the Caribbean, 1900-1970 Analysis

Lester D. Langley

The United States and the Caribbean, 1900-1970

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In 1979, and again in 1980, the Caribbean area was wracked by unrest. A revolution overthrew the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua; a bloody civil war erupted in El Salvador; and a long-running guerrilla insurgency in Guatemala threatened to grow even worse. This renewed turmoil spurred talk among many Americans about the possibility that the United States might be forced to intervene militarily to prevent the countries in the area from being taken over by Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba. If such American armed intervention ever does take place, it will certainly not be greeted with unalloyed enthusiasm by America’s non-Communist neighbors to the South. For history has taught many of them to be wary of a country whose history, they believe, is marred by imperialism and colonialism.

This is the message that can clearly be inferred from Lester D. Langley’s new book, The United States and the Caribbean, 1900-1970. Langley, a Professor of History at the University of Georgia, has previously written about the United States drive for supremacy in the Caribbean from 1776 to 1904. In his new work, he continues that story, carrying it up to the present day. This book contains little that is new or original in its interpretations; it does, however, give a good, brief survey of American policy in this region. Although awkwardly written at times, The United States and the Caribbean, 1900-1970 does provide some badly needed historical perspective on our current troubles in the Caribbean and Central America.

Langley’s definition of the Caribbean area is, as it must be, a somewhat arbitrary one. Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala are included within the area, as are Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Mexico, however, is not included; and Colombia is discussed only briefly, in connection with American acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone. Venezuela appears only briefly as the stimulus to President Theodore Roosevelt’s enunciation of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Yet, Venezuela does have a Caribbean coastline; the activities of American oil corporations played a major role in its development; and it is today one of the leading members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). There is also relatively little in Langley’s book about the countries of the English-speaking Caribbean: the Bahamas, Jamaica, or even the American dependency of the Virgin Islands.

The United States, Langley shows, achieved hegemony in the region as the result of the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which Spain was expelled from her last island possessions in the New World, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Langley divides American policy into three main phases: (1) the Protectorate era, lasting from about 1900 to 1921, during which the United States Federal government intervened at will in the affairs of the region; (2) the interwar era, from 1921 to 1945, during which the United States shifted from a reliance on armed force in dealing with the Caribbean states toward the use of subtler means of carrying out its policies in the area; and (3) the Cold War era, lasting from 1945 to 1970, which witnessed the first real break in the traditional American hegemony over the region: the appearance of the Communist regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba.

The book is organized in a traditional sequential narrative fashion. Each chapter deals with American policy toward several countries of the area within the same chronological period. To follow the thread of the narrative about any one country, therefore, the reader must wind his way through the labyrinth of successive chapters. The strict adherence to the chronological approach sometimes makes the work rather dull and textbookish. There are provocative interpretations found at the beginning and the end of each of the three sections of the book; one would only wish for more such interpretive material.

In the first section, Langley shows how, following the defeat of Spain, the United States, guided by the same sense of national mission that animated British imperialists, established an empire of her own. With the exception of Puerto Rico, this empire would consist, not of colonies, but of “small politically unstable republics with fragile economies.”

It was, Langley implies, President Theodore Roosevelt who first began the practice of interfering in the affairs of nominally independent Caribbean countries. Through subterfuge and guile, Roosevelt encouraged a Panamanian revolt against Colombia, paving the way for both American acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone and the building of the Panama Canal. When the newly independent Republic of Cuba fell into political chaos, Roosevelt also intervened forcefully there, setting up a military government which supplanted native rule for three years (1906-1909).

Langley is, however, not quite as harsh in his judgment of Theodore Roosevelt as some other American historians have been. The author does not believe that the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, establishing fiscal solvency as the basis for a state’s right to freedom from foreign intervention, was really meant as a pretext for the establishment of American protectorates over independent Latin American republics. Roosevelt’s establishment of a customs receivership in the debt-plagued Dominican Republic, Langley argues, was meant simply to “stave off calamity and allow the Republic to repay its European creditors.” Thus, the author contends, the man of the Big Stick was actually much more cautious about intervention than were his two immediate successors, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

President Taft is said by many historians to have attempted, as part of his new policy of Dollar Diplomacy, to manipulate the internal politics of Caribbean states with the aid of the big New York City banks. Although Langley does agree that Taft was an interventionist, he demonstrates that his policy was, in the end, forced to rely more on bullets than on dollars. In 1909, Taft and his Secretary of State, Philander Knox, aided and abetted a successful revolt against the outspokenly nationalistic dictator of Nicaragua, Jose Santos Zelaya. In 1912, Taft had the Marines sent to Nicaragua to help put down a revolt against Adolfo Diaz, the pro-American politician who had become President of that country in 1911.

It was, Langley makes clear, under Woodrow Wilson, who was President from 1913 to 1921, that American interference in the politics of its Caribbean neighbors reached its height. In July, 1915, Wilson had the Marines sent to Haiti, and in May, 1916, he had them sent to the Dominican Republic. The United States then proceeded to subject both these countries to a prolonged occupation, under which, despite their nominal sovereignty, they were deprived of all rights to self-government. Wilson was determined to impose American notions of political order and economic progress on the politically unstable nations of the Caribbean.

After Wilson had left office, Americans began to reevaluate their Caribbean policies. The occupation regimes in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, marked by brutality, atrocities, and the high expenses of suppressing native rebels, provoked dissent within the United States among perceptive members of the political, journalistic, and intellectual elites. Partly as a result of such criticism, aired in the United States Senate, the United States government withdrew its forces from the Dominican Republic in 1924; ten years later, the last Marine would leave Haiti as well. During the years 1926 to 1933, there was renewed armed intervention in the strife-torn republic of Nicaragua, where United States Marines became locked in a frustrating combat with the intrepid...

(The entire section is 3179 words.)