Taking Haiti
Military Occupation and the Culture of
U. S. Imperialism 1915 - 1940

Mary A. Renda
(Chapel Hill)
    In the land of sloth and vice
    Where they never heard of ice
    Where the donkeys and the women work all day
    Where the land is full of ants
    And the men don't wear their pants
    It is here the soldier sings his evening lay.
--- Marine song about service in Haiti

The U. S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. It all began under the ægis of Woodrow Wilson, when the President of Haiti --- Vibrun Guillaume Sam --- was assassinated. The marines disembarked on 28 July 1915, and what was to be a temporary effort to "stabilize" the country turned into a long-term operation. Our presence continued --- indeed, was obscured by --- the war in Europe, and then, went on and on, despite Congressional hearings, international opprobrium, and opposition from the American press. It was only finally terminated with the coming of Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy.

According to Professor Renda, it is not the purpose of Taking Haiti to present us with a study of the political events that brought us into that country. Rather, she is interested in the cultural artifacts. She concerns herself with the plays and novels that treated with the real or imagined Haitian culture (The Emperor Jones of Eugene O'Neill being the prime example). She spends a goodly amount of time on what she refers to as "interventionist paternalism:" America as a white, imperial power, moving in to care for those we saw as inferior "children." She is also concerned with the effect of the occupation on the American military --- who they were, what their self-image was, what years of violence and fear created, and how the "imperialist state" spread in subsequent decades over into other Caribbean and Latin American states.

She quotes extensively from correspondence of members of the U. S. military, along with writings that reflected what transpired in the hearts and minds of the Haitians who had to deal with our continuing presence.

§     §     §

It's a rather limited and peculiar focus --- but it's an interesting one. Despite Woodrow Wilson's post WWI rhetoric about respecting national sovereignty, he was the one who sent in the Marines. And despite growing criticism --- mostly in The Nation magazine, and the black press of the day --- he refused to call off the dogs. There was, Renda points out, a lack of regard for the citizens and traditions of that country --- despite the fact that "Haiti was the second independent nation of the Western Hemisphere, founded only twenty-nine years after the United States." One of the high Marine officials --- Col. Littleton W. T. Waller --- wrote, "I know the nigger and how to handle him." His superior, Smedley Butler --- yes, Smedley Butler --- wrote to his wife Bunny (he called himself "Daddie Piddie"),

    For the past two weeks I have been working along hard with my little black Army and am beginning to like the little fellows.

He also referred to the Haitian men as his "little chocolate soldiers."

Anyone familiar with American history would expect such language. The cruel side of it is that many of our military actions against the "cacos," the insurgents, became what we would later call "police riots:" violence, random murders, beatings, and attempts to disrupt a whole culture (Vodou ceremonies --- the heart of Haitian religion --- were specifically banned.)

Renda also spends a fair amount of space to describing the world of a Marine from eighty years ago:

    That a marine headed for Haiti should have fancied himself an Indian fighter or a latter-day colonial soldier-adventurer was, then, no mere coincidence. Indeed, young white men arrived at Marine Corps recruit depots and naval bases in the 1910s and 1920s with their heads full of images gathered from the culture of rough boyhood and imperial masculinity.

With paternal insouciance, the Marines not only lorded over the country for almost two decades, but, with their prostitutes --- and in some cases, Haitian mistresses (referred to as "sleeping dictionaries") --- the American military became part of an exotic culture, one that was, in gringo eyes, for sale:

    Americans viewed Haitian servants and prostitutes as commodities insofar as the latter could be bought and sold and insofar as they could confer upon the buyer a sense of status and identity linked to class, race, gender, and sexuality.

The very banning of Vodou meant that the Marines could involve themselves in the ownership of exotic artifacts. The anthropologist Alfred Métraux suggested that

    the ban on Vodou was largely observed in the breach, and that the main enforcement activity was, indeed, the confiscation of drums. In this way, military power facilitated the production of Haitian cultural objects as exotic commodities for circulation and exchange in the United States.

Despite occasional lapses into trendy neo-revolutionary language ("By explicitly linking race and gender hierarchies in fiction, film, travel narratives and the like, imperialist discourses surrounding the occupation intervened in domestic cultural and political struggles . . . ") Professor Renda has produced a workmanlike study of a time in American history, where --- by invoking the usual rhetoric of the need to protect the peoples against themselves --- we subsumed a whole culture, a culture that inadvertently may have contributed to the radical changes we saw in the United States forty years down the line.

--- Françoise Beaupont
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