Year 501 Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter 8: The Tragedy of Haiti Segment 2/9
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2. "Unselfish Intervention"

Between 1849 and 1913, US Navy ships entered Haitian waters 24 times to "protect American lives and property." Haiti's independence was scarcely given even "token recognition," Schmidt observes in his standard history, and there was little consideration for the rights of its people. They are "an inferior people," unable "to maintain the degree of civilization left them by the French or to develop any capacity of self government entitling them to international respect and confidence," Assistant Secretary of State William Phillips wrote, recommending the policy of invasion and US military government that President Woodrow Wilson soon adopted. Few words need be wasted on the civilization left to 90 percent of the population by the French, who, as an ex-slave related, "hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars..., forced them to eat shit, ... cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitos, ...threw them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup" -- when not "flaying them with the lash" to extract the wealth that helped give France its entry ticket to the rich men's club.

Phillips captured prevailing attitudes with accuracy, though some, like Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, found the Haitian elite rather amusing: "Dear me, think of it, Niggers speaking French," he remarked. The effective ruler of Haiti, Marine Colonel L.W.T. Waller, who arrived fresh from appalling atrocities in the conquest of the Philippines, was not amused: "they are real nigger and no mistake...real nigs beneath the surface," he said, rejecting any negotiations or other "bowing and scraping to these coons," particularly the educated Haitians for whom this bloodthirsty lout had a special hatred. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while never approaching the racist fanaticism and thuggery of his distant relative Theodore Roosevelt, shared the feelings of his colleagues. On a visit to occupied Haiti in 1917, he recorded in his diary a comment by his travelling companion, who later became the Occupation's leading civilian official. Fascinated by the Haitian Minister of Agriculture, he "couldn't help saying to myself," he told FDR, "that man would have brought $1,500 at auction in New Orleans in 1860 for stud purposes." "Roosevelt appears to have relished the story," Schmidt notes, "and retold it to American Minister Norman Armour when he visited Haiti as President in 1934." The element of racism in policy formation should not be discounted, to the present day.

Such thoughts were not unusual at the time of Wilson's intervention, not only in the United States. We may recall that shortly after, Winston Churchill authorized the use of chemical weapons "against recalcitrant Arabs as experiment," denouncing the "squeamishness" of those who objected to "using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes," mainly Kurds, a policy that he strongly favored, expecting that it "would spread a lively terror." For England itself, he had somewhat different plans. As Home Secretary in 1910 he had secretly proposed sterilization of 100,000 "mental degenerates" and the dispatch of tens of thousands of others to state-run labor camps so as to save the "British race" from inevitable decline if its "inferior" members are allowed to breed -- ideas that were within the bounds of enlightened opinion of the day, but have been kept secret in Home Office files because of their sensitivity, particularly after they were taken up by Hitler.4

Given the cultural climate of the day, the character of Wilson's 1915 invasion comes as no great surprise. It was even more savage and destructive than his invasion of the Dominican Republic in the same years. Wilson's troops murdered, destroyed, reinstituted virtual slavery, and demolished the constitutional system. After ruling for 20 years, the US left "the inferior people" in the hands of the National Guard it had established and the traditional rulers. In the 1950s, the Duvalier dictatorship took over, running the show in Guatemalan style, always with firm US support.

The brutality and racism of the invaders, and the dispossession of peasants as US corporations took over the spoils, elicited resistance. The Marine response was savage, including the first recorded instance of coordinated air-ground combat: bombing of rebels (Cacos) who were surrounded by Marines in the bush. An in-house Marine inquiry, undertaken after atrocities were publicly revealed, found that 3250 rebels were killed, at least 400 executed, while the Marines and their locally recruited gendarmerie suffered 98 casualties (killed and wounded). Leaked Marine orders call for an end to "indiscriminate killing of natives" that "has gone on for some time." Haitian historian Roger Gaillard estimates total deaths at 15,000, counting victims "of repression and consequences of the war," which "resembled a massacre." Major Smedley Butler recalled that his troops "hunted the Cacos like pigs." His exploits impressed FDR, who ordered that he be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for an engagement in which 200 Cacos were killed and no prisoners taken, while one Marine was struck by a rock and lost two teeth.

The leader of the revolt, Charlemagne Péralte, was killed by Marines who sneaked into his camp at night in disguise. In an attempt at psywar that prefigured some of Colonel Edward Lansdale's later exploits in the Philippines, the Marines circulated photos of his body in the hope of demoralizing the guerrillas. The tactic backfired, however; the photo resembled Christ on the cross, and became a nationalist symbol. Péralte took his place in the nationalist Pantheon alongside of Toussaint.

The invaders "legalized" the Occupation with a unilateral declaration they called a "treaty," which the client regime was forced to accept; it was then cited as imposing on the US a solemn commitment to maintain the Occupation. While supervising the takeover of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Wilson built his reputation as a lofty idealist defending self-determination and the rights of small nations with impressive oratory. There is no contradiction. Wilsonian doctrine was restricted to people of the right sort: those "at a low stage of civilization" need not apply, though the civilized colonial powers should give them "friendly protection, guidance, and assistance," he explained. Wilson's Fourteen Points did not call for self-determination and national independence, but rather held that in questions of sovereignty, "the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined," the colonial ruler. The interests of the populations "would be ascertained by the advanced nations, who best comprehended the needs and welfare of the less advanced peoples," William Stivers comments, analyzing the actual import of Wilson's language and thinking. To mention one case with long-term consequences, a supplicant who sought Wilson's support for Vietnamese representation in the French Parliament was chased away from his doors with the appeal undelivered, later surfacing under the name Ho Chi Minh.5

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4 Ch. 1, n. 29. Sterilization, Churchill biographer Clive Ponting, Sunday Age (Australia), June 21, 1992. Racism-policymakers, DD, 52-3.

5 TTT, 46. Stivers, Supremacy, 66-73.