The U.S. Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934

CRS Report for Congress
The U.S. Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934
Richard A. Best, Jr.
Analyst in National Defense
Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division
In 1915, the United States undertook a military occupation of Haiti to preempt any
European intervention, to establish order out of civil strife, and to stabilize Haitian
finances. During the nineteen-year occupation, U.S. military and civilian officials,
numbering less than 2500 for the most part, supervised the collection of taxes and the
disbursement of revenues, maintained public order, and initiated a program of public
works. The Haitian government remained in place, but was subject to U.S. guidance.
The Haitian people benefitted from the end of endemic political violence and from the
construction of roads, bridges, and ports as well as from improved access to health care.
The U.S. occupation was, nonetheless, deeply resented throughout Haitian society, and
many of its accomplishments did not long endure its termination in 1934.
In the early twentieth century, Haiti suffered from a tumultuous political life and
from chronic financial mismanagement. Eighty percent of the Haitian budget went to
debt service, and U.S. government officials were concerned that financial obligations to
its own citizens might not be met. There was greater fear, also, that one among the
warring European countries — especially France or Germany — might establish a
position of influence in the country, leading to naval bases that could endanger access to
the newly constructed Panama Canal. These concerns were heightened after the outbreak
of World War I, when Haitian authority collapsed into bloody factional struggles in the
summer of 1915; the Administration of Woodrow Wilson determined to take action. In
July 1915, Admiral William B. Caperton, then embarked on the battleship Washington,
was directed to land forces to establish order and assume responsibility for administering
the customhouses.
With virtually no resistance, a landing party of some 330 sailors and marines took
control of the capital within a few hours. (There were only two U.S. fatalities, and these
may have resulted from friendly fire; Haitian fatalities were also minimal.) Admiral
Caperton called upon additional U.S. forces to take control of other coastal areas;
resistance by guerrilla bands in the more mountainous areas of the country was
temporarily put down, ending with the capture of Fort Rivière in mid-November. By the
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
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end of 1915, the marine presence was reduced to 100 officers and some 1,600 enlisted
men. Although the Marine Brigade was extensively deployed to help put down resurgent
guerrilla activity in 1918-1920, for most of the rest of the occupation, the 1,200-1,400
marines were assigned garrison duty, with some patrolling of the countryside.
Establishing Control
Once firmly established in the major population centers, U.S. officials quickly
ensured the election by the Haitian National Assembly of an amenable president, Philippe
Sudre Dartiguenave, who had served as the president of the Haitian Senate. As a result
of continuing unrest, Admiral Caperton also established censorship and promulgated
martial law. These emergency measures were not rescinded for over ten years. In another
move to ensure an orderly government, the United States presented the Haitians with a
treaty that permitted a U.S.-nominated official to collect taxes and make debt repayments
and other disbursements. The treaty,1 ratified by Haiti in November 1915 and by the U.S.
Senate the following February, also created a constabulary (or gendarmerie) composed
of native Haitians under American direction to serve both as Haiti’s military and police
force. The treaty was to remain in force for ten years and could be extended for another
ten “if the purpose of this treaty has not been fully accomplished.” In March 1917, the
duration of the 1915 treaty was officially extended to twenty years.
Despite the treaty, the Haitian National Assembly was uncooperative in its
relationship with U.S. officials. The State Department drafted a new Haitian Constitution
which would have validated the occupation and allowed foreigners to own property in
Haiti. The assembly, unwilling to ratify the document, was dissolved when Lt.Col.
Smedley D. Butler, a U.S. Marine officer serving with the Haitian Gendarmerie, entered
the capitol in June 1917, to read a dissolution order that Dartiguenave had been pressured
to sign. Unwilling to risk the election of another Assembly, U.S. authorities effected the
approval of the new constitution by plebiscite (only 769 votes out of 100,000 were
negative) in June, 1918. The new constitution created a Council of State, whose members
were appointed by the Haitian president, to perform all legislative functions until an
Assembly could be reconstituted at a time to be determined.
Although the United States occupied the principal towns of the country, guerrilla
bands remained in the mountainous interior of the country. Known as cacos (named after
a Haitian bird of prey), these bands had long played a significant role in Haitian politics,
fighting at times on behalf of one or more factions within the dominant francophone elite.
Renewed attacks by guerrillas commenced in October 1918, and persisted for a number
of months (including a raid on Port-au-Prince in October 1919), until the marines and the
Gendarmerie were able to neutralize them by frequent patrolling, paying bounties for
weapons turned in, and by eliminating their leaders. After 1920, there were only
occasional outbreaks of caco violence.
1 Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Haiti, signed September 16, 1915 (39
Stat. 1654), reprinted in Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of
America, 1776-1949, comp. Charles I. Bevans (Washington: Department of State, 1971) Vol. 8,
pp. 660-664.
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The Gendarmerie, whose name was changed in 1928 to the Garde d’Haiti, became
an essential part of the administrative structure of the country. Officered at first by
Americans — largely enlisted marines — who were paid both by the U.S. Marine Corps
and by Haiti, the Gendarmerie, numbering 2,000-2,600 members, was deployed
throughout the country and became largely responsible for maintaining law and order,
settling disputes, and supporting public works projects. It also served as Haiti’s military
force. Gradually, U.S. officers were replaced by Haitians, a process that was accelerated
after 1929. Historians, otherwise critical of the occupation, acknowledge that Haitians
had more security in their persons and property than they had ever previously known and
that the Gendarmerie, during the occupation, functioned as an effective and impartial
agency. (After U.S. forces departed in 1934, Haitian officers would become much more
involved in political activities.)
Throughout the occupation, U.S. forces suffered minimal casualties, totaling 10
killed and 26 wounded (with 172 other casualties). Complaints of brutality against native
Haitians led the U.S. Congress to conduct hearings on Haiti and the Dominican Republic
in 1922.2 The special committee rejected the more serious charges and concluded that
most of the abuses occurred during the effort to put down the caco insurrection in 1918-
1919. The counterinsurgency effort resulted in the deaths, by some estimates, of over
2,000 cacos.3 Although affirming that cruelty was not officially countenanced, the
committee noted that there were at least ten instances of illegal executions by Americans.
Once the caco rebellion was suppressed, there were virtually no physical attacks by
Haitians on U.S. marines or civilians.
After the 1922 congressional investigation criticized lack of coordination among
U.S. officials in Haiti, U.S. civilian and military authority was consolidated. The senior
U.S. representative from 1922 to 1930, General John H. Russell, USMC, served both as
the senior marine in Haiti and as the U.S. High Commissioner, responsible to the State
Department. Reporting to him were U.S. officials (technically appointed by the President
of Haiti) dealing with finance, public works, sanitation, and agriculture, as well as the
chief of the Gendarmerie. General Russell, described as a conscientious and somewhat
imperious officer, became the most powerful figure in the country. He was later
appointed Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.
End of the Occupation
The onset of the Great Depression and declining markets for Haitian products,
especially coffee, produced economic hardships and contributed to increased unrest
among a population long denied a political role. December 1929 riots in Les Cayes
threatened to spread throughout the country. A detachment from the Marine Brigade in
Port-au-Prince was sent to restore order, but a confrontation led to the deaths of at least
12 Haitians. Subsequent incidents were ended without loss of life, but the Hoover
Administration was concerned that it might become involved in hostilities that U.S. public
opinion would not support.
2 Conducted by the Select Committee on Haiti and the Dominican Republic, chaired by Senator
Medill McCormick of Illinois.
3 U.S. Congress, Senate, 67th Congress, 2d session, Select Committee on Haiti and the
Dominican Republic, Report, S. Rep. 794, April 20, 1922.
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In early 1930, President Hoover appointed a bipartisan commission headed by W.
Cameron Forbes, formerly the Governor General of the Philippines, to investigate
conditions in Haiti.4 After several weeks in the country during which testimony was taken
from all sectors of the society, the commission submitted a report that argued that the
United States could not relinquish its responsibilities for ensuring the financial stability
of Haiti, but made several proposals for changes, especially the separation of civil and
military responsibilities, increasing the number of Haitians in the government, and, in
general, for less intervention in Haitian domestic affairs.5 In November, General Russell
was replaced by a State Department official, Dana G. Munro, who was appointed Minister
rather than High Commissioner. An Executive Agreement was negotiated in 1932
providing for the complete Haitianization of the Garde by October 1934 and for the
withdrawal of the Marine Brigade, two years prior to the expiration of the extended 1915
Washington was nonetheless determined to pull out of Haiti at an earlier date.
Arrangements were made for the election of a temporary Haitian president and the
subsequent holding of national elections in October 1930 that returned a strongly
nationalistic majority. The complete Haitianization of the Garde was completed.
President Franklin Roosevelt paid an official visit to Cap-Haitien in July 1934 and the last
marines departed the following month. Nonetheless, a U.S. financial adviser would
remain until 1941 to oversee payments on the Haitian debt.
Accomplishments and Shortcomings of the Occupation
The U.S. occupation in large measure accomplished its goals of stabilizing Haitian
finances. Security for investors was a key concern of the U.S. Government and to a large
extent became the justification for the occupation once the potential threat of European
intervention disappeared with the conclusion of World War I. A $16-million U.S. loan
was negotiated in 1922 to consolidate Haiti’s outstanding foreign debts. Efficient
collection of duties and prompt, even advance, payment of debts owed to U.S. banks soon
restored the country’s financial standing.
Eventually, some 60% of Haitian revenues were expended under U.S. supervision,
the greatest percentage going to debt repayment. Some critics, including the Forbes
Commission, argued that monies used for advance repayment of debts could have been
more usefully allocated to domestic projects. There is consensus, however, that Haitian
finances were honestly handled during the occupation and that steps were taken to insure
4 The President’s Commission for the Study and Review of Conditions in the Republic of Haiti,
appointed by President Hoover in February 1930, included, in addition to Forbes, Henry P.
Fletcher, an experienced diplomat; Elie Vezina, a prominent Roman Catholic layman who spoke
French; James Kerney, a New Jersey editor and an adviser to Woodrow Wilson; and William
Allen White, a widely respected liberal Republican known to be sympathetic to the Haitian
5 The report of the Forbes Commission was reprinted in U.S., Department of State, Foreign
Relations of the United States 1930, Vol. III, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1945),
pp. 217-237.
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that foreign interests did not take advantage of the country.6 In the 1920s, annual Haitian
government revenues of $8-10 million were double that of the pre-occupation period;
coffee production and small businesses grew significantly, but little progress was made
in establishing a sound permanently economic base for the country.
The occupation also resulted in the completion of a significant number of public
works projects, mostly after 1920. Most important was the construction of roads and
bridges throughout the country (some of which was completed through a highly unpopular
system of forced labor or corvée). Although most of the 800 miles of roads were not
hard-surfaced, they greatly facilitated transportation between coastal areas and the rural
uplands at a time when automobiles and trucks were being introduced into Haiti in
significant numbers. A number of port facilities were erected, lighthouses were
constructed, and a number of harbors were dredged. Efforts to improve agricultural
productivity were complicated by the small size of land holdings and a lack of accurate
legal titles.
The United States undertook a major effort to provide access to modern health care
to the mass of the Haitian population that in some cases had never come into contact with
trained doctors and nurses. A National Public Health Service was created with a network
of some 153 rural clinics and 11 hospitals supervised by U.S. Navy doctors, and efforts
were made to provide basic medical instruction to the population. This effort was
financed by the Haitian government at U.S. encouragement.
The United States did not assume a responsibility to “build democracy,” and U.S.
officials did not devote significant efforts towards the encouragement of local self-
government. Prior to the occupation, the Haitian government had been largely the
province of a narrow elite consisting of about 5 percent of the population. The Haitian
presidents who served during most of the occupation, Dartiguenave (1915-1922), Louis
Borno (1922-1930), and Eugene Roy, who served as temporary President from May-
November 1930, were elected by the Council of State at the instigation of U.S. authorities.
They, in turn, appointed members of the Council of State. There were no national
elections held until October 1930, and local elections that produced unsuitable winners
were invalidated. Newspapers were censored, and offending editors jailed.
Inattention to efforts to promote democracy stemmed, in part, from a knowledge that
any election might produce results hostile to U.S. interests and probably from racial
attitudes that considered Haitians unsuited for self-government. The years of the Haitian
occupation coincided with widespread racial segregation in the United States and
opposition by a majority of U.S. whites to a political role for blacks. These attitudes,
brought to Haiti by the occupation, led to social as well as political discrimination against
Haitians, even the educated and politically active elite, that was bitterly resented and
undercut well-intentioned development projects. To a large extent, U.S. racial attitudes
6 The 1930 Forbes Commission noted that financial transactions had been described in reports
published annually in English and French and that the U.S. Comptroller’s Office had made a
thorough analysis of financial transactions without finding significant problems. Foreign
Relations, 1930, III, p. 228.
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ensured that there was no significant element of the Haitian populace that supported the
U.S. presence.7
Education was also largely neglected during the occupation. Schooling in Haiti had
been traditionally divided between francophone instruction for the elite and a very few
rudimentary elementary schools for others. Little effort to change this situation was
undertaken. The mass of the population remained illiterate, and the elite continued to
seek an education that did not lead to careers in commerce and industry. Efforts to
provide technical training to develop the agricultural and industrial potential of the
country (the Service Technique) were not warmly received and did not reach a large
number of students.
7 A modern reader is struck by the derogatory terms used in correspondence by senior American
officials in describing Haitian people for whose government and welfare they had responsibility.
See Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934 (New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press, 1971), pp. 79, 135-153.
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