Leaders promised fast results in Haiti and Iraq—then met hard going

By Bernard Diederich & Don Bohning, The Miami Herald, 9 November 2003

Modern warfare changed dramatically between President Woodrow Wilson’s 1915 order to intervene in Haiti and President Bush’s decision in March to invade Iraq, but the U.S. experience that began in Port-au-Prince 88 years ago has eerie similarities.

First and foremost, as Wilson discovered and Bush is finding out, it is much easier to invade a country than to occupy and pacify it, as occupation itself breeds resentment. In both Haiti and Iraq, as well, the initial rationale for invasion became murkier as the situations evolved.

But unlike the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, widely debated, the U.S. occupation of Haiti was barely noted by the American public, in part because of World War I in Europe and the low casualty rate that spanned the 19-year U.S. Marine presence. Although Republicans denounced the occupation in the 1920 presidential campaign, most journalistic coverage was favorable—and sometimes nonexistent. The New York Times index for the years 1917 and 1918 omitted any reference to Haiti.

Although President Wilson didn’t officially invoke the Monroe Doctrine in ordering the invasion of Haiti, he acted in part under its rubric that warned European countries—in this case Germany—not to meddle in the Western Hemisphere, and to protect U.S. financial interests. The specific order by the Navy Department for Rear Adm. William Caperton, the invasion commander, as he landed 330 Marines and sailors in Port-au-Prince on July 28, 1915, was to protect American and foreign interests.

Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler—the first commandant of the new U.S.-created Haitian constabulary or Garde d’ Haiti—put it much more bluntly after retiring. The Marines in Haiti, he said, had been used as a glorified bill-collecting agency, declaring that he had been canned for refusing to cooperate with New York banking interests.

President Bush, in ordering the invasion of Iraq under his newly minted doctrine of preemption, cited the threat from weapons of mass destruction that he believed Saddam Hussein possessed. When none were discovered, the emphasis shifted to the global war on terrorism and ridding the country of a brutal dictatorship. Critics have hinted at less altruistic motives such as oil.

In the case of Haiti, it was not a Marine show but rather a closely controlled State Department operation, according to Garde d’Haiti, an official record of the occupation compiled by James McCrocklin and published by the U.S. Naval Institute in 1956. In Iraq, it has largely been a Defense Department, not a State Department, show.


Admiral Caperton promised the Haitians an occupation of short duration. But it lasted until 1934, through four U.S. administrations. During that time, Americans controlled Haiti’s finances, police force and public works, in addition to serving as government officials under a treaty imposed by Washington.

The ultimate outcome of the Iraq venture—less than eight months since its inception—is still undetermined. However, even Bush administration officials concede that the occupation of Iraq has become much tougher than anticipated when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations. It has become, in the words of one official, a long, hard slog.

In Haiti, as in Iraq, a U.S. occupation authority effectively ran the country through handpicked local leaders.

In Baghdad, the United States and its coalition partners established the Coalition Provisional Authority and a 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. More recently, Washington has sought a larger role for Iraqi police and other security forces.

In the Haiti occupation, the treaty forced on the country called for the dissolution of Haiti’s security units, with the United States to establish a new, American-controlled, indigenous security force, similar to those in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua and, earlier, in Puerto Rico and Cuba following U.S. interventions there.


Thus the Gendarmerie d’Haiti, later renamed Garde d’Haiti, was created as an administrative branch of the Haitian government, but led by U.S. Marine officers who simultaneously received commissions from Haiti while retaining their Marine Corps rank.

Despite recruitment difficulties among both Haitian rank-and-file and the American officer corps, the Gendarmerie soon became the main instrument of American authority in Haiti, with the Marine units in Port-au-Prince and Cap Hatien serving as backup in times of crisis.

Gendarmerie officers, said Hans Schmidt in his book about the occupation, exercised authority over most local government and military matters and, according to personal inclinations, dominated their respective regions completely. One, Sgt. Faustin Wirkus, even became the crowned king of La Gonve Island off Port-au-Prince.

In much the same fashion as the U.S. troops who rolled into Baghdad, the young U.S. Marines who went ashore in Haiti in 1915 faced culture shock, a language barrier (with most Haitians speaking only Creole) and an unfriendly society. While Haiti was the world’s first black republic, the occupying force, for the most part, was segregationist.


The American-nurtured Haitian constabulary, rationally and plausibly conceived as an efficient, nonpartisan peacekeeping force, observed Schmidt, was irrationally stunted in its development by the American racist dogma, as expressed by a commander of the occupation, that you can never trust a nigger with a gun.

It was that clash of racial and cultural prejudices that was to lead to a brutal guerrilla campaign against the American occupiers.

Poor farmers made up all but a small fraction of Haiti’s 2.5 million people in 1915, and they saw blan, or foreign, invaders as the enemy. They knew the role played by their ancestors in winning freedom from France in a long and bloody rebellion from 1791-1803. For decades after they were warned that the blan would return to try to seize their lands and enslave them.

Either not understanding Haiti, or not caring to understand, the Marine occupiers reinstituted the corvee, essentially a system of forced labor, to construct roads and other public works projects.


That move provoked a bloody guerrilla war, climaxing in 1919. It was reminiscent in some ways of Iraq today, as Haiti’s peasant farmers—known as Cacos—took up arms against the occupation. The Cacos—seen by U.S. authorities as bandits—promised to push the blans into the sea.

Unnerved Marine recruits often mistakenly fired on voodoos, as they called Haitians who practiced Vodou, equating the drumming with the drumming and blowing on conch shells by the Cacos.

On Oct. 11, 1917, the Cacos attacked the Marine garrison in the Central Plateau town of Hinche. Among those captured was Charlemagne Peralte, who had refused to surrender his command in Leogane, south of the capital, when the Marines first landed in Haiti. Peralte, an educated Haitian and a native of Hinche, was sentenced to five years hard labor for his part in the abortive attack.

Peralte escaped and became the most wanted of the Caco leaders, with a $2,000 reward offered for him, dead or alive. The reward was a huge sum at the time, but paltry compared to the $25 million offered by the Americans for Saddam Hussein.

Marines, tipped off to his whereabouts, sneaked into a Caco camp Oct. 31, 1919, and killed Peralte, only to face the same dilemma U.S. troops did in Iraq : proving to a skeptical populace that Saddam Hussein’s two sons were dead.

Peralte’s corpse was exhibited in Cap Hatien, where—clothed only in a loincloth—he was photographed upright and tied to a wooden door, giving the eerie appearance of a crucified Christ.

Thousands of leaflets with the picture were dropped over the countryside to prove to illiterate farmers that Peralte was dead. Still, skeptical Haitians did not believe the blan.

The U.S. death toll in Iraq, now exceeding those who died before President Bush’s May 1 declaration that major combat was over, has become a key element in the debate over U.S. policy. However, casualties in the Haiti occupation were low, with 10 to 16 Marines dying while battling the Cacos. No exact figures were kept on Cacos and peasants killed. Some Americans put the figure at 3,250 killed. Haitian historian Roger Gaillard estimated an incredible 15,000.