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Hearing the Truth About Haiti

By Helena Hill Weed, The Nation, No. 114, 9 November 1921

How Haiti was reduced to the state of a conquered province; how the process was prepared in Washington long before intervention began; how little excuse there was for American intervention, and how little America has accomplished there apart from killing Haitians—these things have become a matter of public record, as told by the men responsible for the intervention and as revealed in the United States Navy’s secret dispatch-book, in the hearings before the Senate Commission on Haiti and Santo Domingo, Medill McCormick, chairman, these past weeks. The newspapers for some reason have been silent, but here are the facts as they have become part of the record:

Roger L. Farnham, vice-president of the National City Bank of New York, which controls the National Bank of Haiti—the man whom many Haitians regard as the responsible author of their troubles with the United States—testified of the American Occupation:

I know of nothing that has been undertaken to develop with the natives the agricultural resources of the island or seriously to develop schools or educational methods. The only schools are those which existed before the Occupation maintained by the Jesuit priests. I never knew of any policy for the development of Haiti. I think that is the trouble with Haiti. In 1918 Haiti was as quiet as a graveyard. Pacification had been completed and the relations between the natives and the Occupation were good. One and all awaited some plan of development. Many programs were suggested but all in Haiti were powerless. Individuals and groups of Haitians appealed to the United States Government officials in Haiti, the Financial Adviser, and the American Minister. I personally came to Washington and called on the Secretary of State and suggested that something be done and be done promptly, but nothing was done. Then the military leaders began to talk to the people and tell them that they were worse off than before the Occupation, which had brought them nothing but the death of their relatives and friends in the early days of the Occupation. Out of that situation grew conditions worse than those that prevailed when we first went in.... The Occupation was always drifting in the absence of any policy in Washington. As far as I know nothing was ever done for the economic rehabilitation of the country, the establishment of schools generally, the development of agriculture, or the development of the capacity of the Haitian people for self-government. The Occupation was a failure and, when I say a failure, I mean the failure of the United States Government. Washington, not Port au Prince, was to blame.

Admiral Caperton, the commanding officer of the American naval forces in Haiti from 1916 to 1917, said to members of the committee in a dazed way:

What I cannot understand is why has not the treaty been put into operation. We were sent down there to pacify the island and put through the treaty. We did our work and the treaty was ratified September 16, 1915, exactly as the United States demanded it. Now we are in complete power and the Haitians are powerless to do anything for themselves. Yet we do not keep our agreements made with them in this treaty. I cannot understand it. I like the Haitians and I am sorry for them, and I hope that something can be done for them.

Rev. L. Ton Evans, for 28 years a Baptist missionary in Haiti, testified that there was no condition which justified the intervention; that the Occupation was accomplished in direct violation of public pledges made in both America and Haiti when the landings were made; that the Occupation in many parts of the country was carried on in a lawless, inhuman manner; that Haitian independence was deliberately destroyed and their land alienated in violation of the most solemn pledges made to the Haitian people by the United States Government; that an unwanted President was forced on the people by military coercion; that a treaty legalizing these acts of political and international violence was imposed by military force, and a new constitution, putting the stamp of legality upon this illegal treaty, was obtained by unconstitutional methods, and that finally all efforts at criticism or resistance, moral or physical, were suppressed by military coercion and compulsion.

The insertion in the record of the Navy’s hitherto secret dispatch-book disclosed that American intervention in Haiti had long been planned and that the assassination of President Guillaume Sam in 1915 was only a plausible excuse. A treaty giving the United States certain rights over Haiti was drafted in Washington at least as early as July 2,1914. Four months later—almost a year before actual intervention—a series of letters between Mr. Bryan, Secretary of State, President Wilson, and Mr. Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, disclosed that a naval demonstration in Haitian waters was already planned to support the United States policy because a renewal of negotiations seems probable. Landing of troops was already contemplated. The Haitian Government, however, then and again early in 1915, refused to yield and maintained its independence. Then came the revolution of July, 1915. American troops were landed forthwith.

Haitians say that this revolution was an almost unanimous political uprising against the President because he was believed to be ready to agree to the treaty which the United States had been demanding for more than a year, giving the United States control of the Haitian custom houses. Since the income from the customs receipts was almost the sole source of government revenue, such control, they say, was sure to mean the loss of political independence. The lives and property of foreigners, or indeed of Haitians themselves not directly involved in the revolutionary activities, were never in danger. Admiral Caperton himself, on cross examination by Ernest Angell, attorney for the Haiti-Santo Domingo Independence Society, admitted that no foreigners or their property were molested in this revolution; he said his landings were made as a precautionary measure. He stated that he could remember no instances in earlier revolutions when the lives or property of foreigners had been attacked. Mr. Farnham corroborated this testimony, saying:

Before the American Occupation there has never been any danger to any white man who traveled through the country. I have been through while revolutions were on and a white man was never molested. If he kept out of the mess himself and minded his own business he was perfectly safe. After the American Occupation many of the Haitians seemed to turn against the whites and all white men looked alike. The natives were aroused by the talk of the chiefs and generals that the whites were going to make slaves of them again. That was the usual cry, and that the Haitians would have to resist the marines if they wanted to get rid of them. Otherwise they would be made slaves. That is the fear uppermost in the minds of all Haitians, ignorant as they are.... They observed their foreign obligations always.

Mr. Evans in his testimony confirmed this statement, adding:

After American commercial investments began in Haiti in 1910, the Germans who had heretofore controlled 95 percent of the commercial life, fearing American competition, began to tell the Haitians to beware of the Americans, that they were coming to steal their land and reenslave them. When the Americans finally did come and by military force compelled them to sign a treaty that deprived them of their political independence and alienated their land, and when they were reduced to actual physical slavery and its accompanying cruel treatment under the illegal application of the old corvée law, they believed that what the Germans had told them of the Americans was true. It became a matter of loyalty to their country, their independence, and their human liberties to fight the Americans with every weapon at their command.

Much propaganda has been devoted to defining Cacos and revolutionists as bandits. Admiral Caperton defined Caco as a mountaineer of northern Haiti who would fight for pay in the ranks of the revolutionary leader who offered him the most pay. The Cacos after the Occupation were the backbone of the opposition to the Occupation. All the Cacos were opposed to the Occupation, he said, and all those who opposed the Occupation joined the ranks of the revolution under the standard of the Cacos. He made it clear that the term Caco as used in the naval orders and messages meant an opponent of the Occupation, and that a revolution was any organized movement against the Occupation or its policies.

The revolution which gave excuse for the landing of troops was led by Bobo, who with his followers claimed that President Guillaume Sam was about to agree to the treaty submitted by the United States in 1914, giving the United States absolute control of the custom houses of Haiti. The revolution was successful. The victorious troops entered Port au Prince and demanded the abdication of Sam. On the night of July 27 Sam ordered the summary execution of seventy political prisoners, whose only crime had been to oppose his political administration. He then fled, through a secret door in the wall which separated the palace from the French Legation, into technical French soil. In the morning the executions became known and the enraged relatives and friends of the murdered men, knowing Sam’s hiding place, broke into the French Legation and, without touching the person or property of other occupants, hunted out the fugitive, dragged him outside the wall, and killed him in the city streets. When their revenge was satisfied quiet was restored, and no further rioting occurred. A Committee of Safety, which Admiral Caperton testified was composed of responsible citizens who did not participate in party strife and always acted in this capacity when governments fell by revolution or violence, then took over the governmental functions of the city. They were in control when the marines landed.

The Haitian Congress was then in session and the next day it was about to elect a President to succeed Sam, but this was postponed by the request of Admiral Caperton. The Admiral reported to the Navy Department on August 2 that he had put off the election because if he had allowed it Bobo would surely have been elected. He said he believed he could control the Congress but that he would need another regiment of marines if U.S. desires to negotiate treaty for financial control Haiti. He earnestly requested to be informed fully of the policy of the United States. Apparently he was not yet perfectly sure why he had been ordered to land troops. Dispatches flew back and forth between Caperton and Washington. Caperton told the Department that as long as there was no President he had everything in his complete control. Washington directed him to assume full military control of the capital and not to permit an election. Haiti was ready, willing, and anxious to restore constitutional government but was not permitted to do so by the American forces until a candidate for President had been found who would pledge himself in advance to the ratification of a treaty with the United States embodying any demands that the United States might make.

Among the candidates sought was J. N. Legere, former Haitian Minister to the United States. He sent word to Admiral Caperton: Tell the Admiral that I cannot become a candidate until I know what demands the United States will make. I must be in a position to defend my country. I am for Haiti, not for the United States. In Dartiguenave the Admiral finally found a candidate who would agree in advance to any terms the United States demanded and professed to believe that any terms the United States might demand would be for Haiti’s benefit.

On August 8 Admiral Caperton telegraphed the Department as follows:

Senators, deputies, and citizens clamoring for an election. Today was fixed for election but postponed by my request;... Request be informed immediately earliest date Department willing for an election to take place for purpose allaying excitement. Will use every effort delay election but cannot guarantee delay later than Thursday unless use force....

All this time Washington was giving out statements to the effect that the absence of a President and constitutional government in Haiti necessitated the troops remaining there. On the following day the Navy Department sent this dispatch to Admiral Caperton:

Whenever the Haitians wish you may permit the election of a President to take place. The election of Dartiguenave is preferred by the United States. You will assure the Haitians that the United States has no other motive than the establishing of a firm and lasting government by the Haitian people and wishes to assist them now, and at all times in the future, to maintain both their political independence and their territorial integrity unimpaired.

Admiral Caperton so assured them in a public proclamation. In view of the negotiations which preceded, and the acts which followed that proclamation, can one conclude otherwise than that the Navy Department instructed Admiral Caperton to lie?

Admiral Caperton reported to Washington on August 11 that he had caused the presidential candidates and the Congress which was to elect the President to be assembled before him and the American Charge d’Affaires the previous evening and had informed them of the intentions and policies of the United States Government, and that on account of the hostile and disturbing influence of the Bobo and Zamor factions he had informed them that they would be considered public enemies of the United States if they attempted to further menace the policies of the United States. The following day, with the hall of Congress policed by American marines, with Captain Beach, the Admiral’s diplomatic and political representative, on the floor of the assembly as the voting progressed, Dartiguenave was almost unanimously elected.

Admiral Caperton was then instructed by Secretary Daniels to push the treaty through:

You will please prepare a draft of treaty as outlined in this cablegram and without delay submit it informally to the President-elect and advise him that this Department believes that, as a guaranty of sincerity and interest of the Haitians in orderly peaceful development of their country, the Haitian Congress will be pleased to pass forthwith a resolution authorizing the President-elect to conclude, without modification, the treaty submitted to you....

The constitution of Haiti at that time—we later had it changed—contained the following words:

The Republic of Haiti is one and indivisible, essentially free, sovereign, and independent. Its territory and dependent islands are inviolable, and cannot be alienated by any treaty or convention.

Secretary Daniels’s instructions to Admiral Caperton required insertion in the treaty of a provision ceding Mole Saint Nicolas to the United States. The method of ratification proposed was as unconstitutional as the treaty itself. Our officials, however, continued to proclaim to the world that we had intervened in Haiti to maintain law and order and to teach the Haitians constitutional government!

The Congress refused to accede to the puppet President’s request for ratification. Immediately under orders from Washington the custom houses and with them the financial resources of the Government were seized. Secretary Daniels instructed Admiral Caperton to have the American Charge d’Affaires confer with Dartiguenave in order to have him solicit American occupation of the custom houses—but whether President so requests or not proceed to carry out State Department’s desire. Even Dartiguenave balked at such hypocrisy. The orders further directed Caperton to take over all the receipts (regardless of the fact that much of them was pledged, and had been for years, for the interest on Haiti’s foreign debt) and to deposit them in the local branches of the National City Bank’s Haiti connection, and to draw against this account for expenses of the Occupation, the administration of the custom houses, and such public works as local military administrators saw fit. (These works, the Admiral testifies, were instituted primarily for military advantage.) The balance was to be held in trust for Haiti by the Navy Department. It was this arbitrary act of the American forces which caused Haiti to pass the interest payments on her foreign debt for the first time in her history.

The adoption of a new constitution was forced upon Haiti by similar methods.

When Admiral Caperton was asked how he justified the difference between his proclamation to Haiti on August 9, 1915, declaring that the United States had no designs on the political independence or the territorial integrity of Haiti, and his proclamation declaring martial law on September 3 and the series of acts which destroyed the political independence of Haiti, he replied that he did it under orders. He said he had to do it to protect the forces, that they were in danger of their lives so great was the opposition to the intervention. General Smedley Butler advised against lifting martial law during the coming visit of the Senate Committee of Investigation in Haiti, because he feared that if martial law was lifted it would mean death to the marines because of the bitterness against the Occupation. When the flag is ordered into a foreign country there goes with it the absolute right of protection of their lives to the officers and men who carry the flag, he said.

Thus far, then, the hearings at Washington have disclosed that the intervention was prepared by Messrs. Bryan, Wilson, and Daniels—under whose inspiration is not yet clear—a year before it began; that no danger threatened foreigners’ lives or property until after American Occupation was complete; that American military force was used to obtain, first, the election of a puppet President pledged to act under our orders, then to force acceptance of an unconstitutional and bitterly hated treaty, and finally illegally to revise the Haitian constitution so that foreigners—in particular the National City Bank of New York—might hold land; and that in six years of Occupation we have done nothing for Haiti and have not even been able to establish order, so bitter is the patriotic hostility of the Haitians to foreign intervention. The hearings continue.