The following is article is part of the United States Department of State’s “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations” series. It is reproduced here under the public domain.
Following the assassination of the Haitian President in July of 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent the United States Marines into Haiti to restore order and maintain political and economic stability in the Caribbean. This occupation continued until 1934.
The United States Government’s interests in Haiti existed for decades prior to its occupation. As a potential naval base for the United States, Haiti’s stability concerned U.S. diplomatic and defense officials who feared Haitian instability might result in foreign rule of Haiti. In 1868, President Andrew Johnsonsuggested the annexation of the island of Hispaniola, consisting of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to secure a U.S. defensive and economic stake in the West Indies. From 1889 to 1891, Secretary of State James Blaine unsuccessfully sought a lease of Mole-Saint Nicolas, a city on Haiti’s northern coast strategically located for a naval base. In 1910, President William Howard Taft granted Haiti a large loan in hopes that Haiti could pay off its international debt, thus lessening foreign influence. The attempt failed due to the enormity of the debt and the internal instability of the country.
France, as the former colonizer of Haiti, retained strong economic and diplomatic ties with the Haitian Government. In the 1824 Franco-Haitian Agreement, France agreed to recognize Haitian independence if Haiti paid a large indemnity. This kept Haiti in a constant state of debt and placed France in a position of power over Haiti’s trade and finances.
Although unhappy about the Haitians’ close connection to France, the United States became increasingly concerned with heightened German activity and influence in Haiti. At the start of the 20th century, German presence increased with German merchants establishing trading branches in Haiti that dominated commercial business in the area. German men married Haitian women to get around laws denying foreigners land ownership and established roots in the community. The United States considered Germany its chief rival in the Caribbean and feared German control of Haiti would give them a powerful advantage in the region.
As a result of increased instability in Haiti in the years before 1915, the United States heightened its activity to deter foreign influence. Between 1911 and 1915, seven presidents were assassinated or overthrown in Haiti, increasing U.S. policymakers’ fear of foreign intervention. In 1914, the Wilson administration sent U.S. Marines into Haiti. They removed $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank in December of 1914 for safe-keeping in New York, thus giving the United States control of the bank. In 1915, Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was assassinated and the situation in Haiti quickly became unstable. In response, President Wilson sent the U.S. Marines to Haiti to prevent anarchy. In actuality, the act protected U.S. assets in the area and prevented a possible German invasion.
The invasion ended with the Haitian-American Treaty of 1915. The articles of this agreement created the Haitian Gendarmerie, essentially a military force made up of U.S. citizens and Haitians and controlled by the U.S. Marines. The United States gained complete control over Haitian finances, and the right to intervene in Haiti whenever the U.S. Government deemed necessary. The U.S. Government also forced the election of a new pro-American President, Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, by the Haitian legislature in August 1915. The selection of a President that did not represent the choice of the Haitian populace increased unrest in Haiti.
Following the successful manipulation of the 1915 elections, the Wilson administration attempted to strong-arm the Haitian legislature into adopting a new constitution in 1917. This constitution allowed foreign land ownership, which had been outlawed since the Haitian Revolution as a way to prevent foreign control of the country. Extremely reluctant to change the long-standing law, the legislature rejected the new constitution. Law-makers began drafting a new anti-American constitution, but the United States forced President Dartiguenave dissolve the legislature, which did not meet again until 1929.
Some of the Gendarmerie’s more unpopular policies—including racial segregation, press censorship and forced labor—led to a peasant rebellion from 1919 to 1920. The U.S. Senate sent an investigative committee into Haiti in 1921 to examine claims of abuse, and subsequently the U.S. Senate reorganized and centralized power in Haiti. After the reorganization, Haiti remained fairly stable and a select group achieved economic prosperity, though most Haitians remained in poverty.
In 1929, a series of strikes and uprisings led the United States to begin withdrawal from Haiti. In 1930, U.S. officials began training Haitian officials to take control of the government. In 1934, the United States, in concert with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, officially withdrew from Haiti while retaining economic connections.