Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940by Mary A. Renda
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The U.S. invasion of Haiti in July 1915 marked the start of a military occupation that lasted for nineteen years--and fed an American fascination with Haiti that flourished even longer. Exploring the cultural dimensions of U.S. contact with Haiti during the occupation and its aftermath, Mary Renda shows that what Americans thought and wrote about Haiti during those years contributed in crucial and unexpected ways to an emerging culture of U.S. imperialism.
At the heart of this emerging culture, Renda argues, was American paternalism, which saw Haitians as wards of the United States. She explores the ways in which diverse Americans--including activists, intellectuals, artists, missionaries, marines, and politicians--responded to paternalist constructs, shaping new versions of American culture along the way. Her analysis draws on a rich record of U.S. discourses on Haiti, including the writings of policymakers; the diaries, letters, songs, and memoirs of marines stationed in Haiti; and literary works by such writers as Eugene O'Neill, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Pathbreaking and provocative, Taking Haiti illuminates the complex interplay between culture and acts of violence in the making of the American empire.
Renda's interpretation of Haiti as 'America's Africa' combines an empathetic analysis of the American military presence with a provocative discussion of interventionist paternalism's impact on America's identity. (Dennis E. Showalter, Colorado College)
Taking Haiti provides a superb analysis of the complex cultural meanings of the Haitian occupation as well as its aftermath on the North American mainland. (Gail Bederman, University of Notre Dame)
Renda draws from a wide variety of textsmarines' memoirs, missionary reports, pulp fiction, official documents, African American and Haitian literatureto suggest the multiple meanings of the United States occupation of Haiti. (Emily S. Rosenberg, Macalester College)
Read an Excerpt
The United States invaded Haiti in July 1915 and subsequently held the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere under military occupation for nineteen years. While in Haiti, marines installed a puppet president, dissolved the legislature at gunpoint, denied freedom of speech, and forced a new constitution on the Caribbean nation one more favorable to foreign investment. With the help of the marines, U.S. officials seized the customshouses, took control of Haitian finances, and imposed their own standards of efficiency on the administration of Haitian debt. Meanwhile, marines waged war against insurgents (called Cacos) who for several years maintained an armed resistance in the countryside, and imposed a brutal system of forced labor that engendered even more fierce Haitian resistance. By official U.S. estimates, more than 3,000 Haitians were killed during this period; a more thorough accounting reveals that the death toll may have reached 11,500. The occupation also reorganized and strengthened the Haitian military. Now called the Gendarmerie, the new military organization was officered by marines and molded in the image of the Marine Corps.
An occupation is, in one sense, a temporary arm of the state created to carry out a series of specific tasks. In this case, those tasks were to bring about political stability in Haiti, to secure U.S. control over Haiti with regard to U.S. strategic interests in the Caribbean, and to integrate Haiti more effectively into the international capitalist economy. Of course, supporters of the occupation, and those responsible for it, proposed that these goals would also bring about specific gains for Haiti. They pointed, for example, to the work of the Navy Medical Corps and to the construction of roads, bridges, buildings, and telephone systems under the marines' supervision. With these changes, U.S. policy makers indeed sought to create an infrastructure to serve as the foundation for economic development and modernization. They also professed the hope that on this basis a new Haitian democracy would flourish.
On the ground, cross-cultural dynamics complicated Washington's script for the occupation. Some members of the Haitian elite initially cooperated with the U.S. military, even viewing their presence as potentially helpful, but other Haitians, long suspicious of foreign powers and of government in general, were less eager to play their parts. Many Haitians adopted a watchful stance in relation to the invading blan (or blancs, as foreigners were called), some engaging in varied forms of everyday resistance, while the Cacos, initially representing a small but significant sector of the population, mounted their armed rebellion. In time, the unabashed racism of many Marine Corps officers and enlisted men, and the outright brutality of the forced labor system implemented to carry out building projects, galvanized the population in opposition to the U.S. presence. Far from laying the groundwork for the hoped-for advent of democracy, material improvements in transportation and communication served to increase the efficiency of the occupation as a police state, with marines and gendarmes in command of every district of the country.
This extended breach of Haitian sovereignty constitutes an infamous but crucial chapter in Haitian history. In contrast, as an exercise of military power and imperial will, the occupation has earned little more than a footnote in standard accounts of U.S. history. On one level, the relative weight given to the occupation in these national historical narratives seems to reflect objective imbalances of size, power, and influence between the two nations. At first glance, it appears that the occupation had an obvious and far-reaching impact on Haiti, but little discernible effect on the United States. Whereas a relatively small number of marines fought, labored, and made themselves at home in Haiti beginning in 1915, much larger numbers of U.S. troops soon fought and died at Belleau Wood, Verdun, and Meuse-Argonne. In 1919, the year a few marines turned the tide against the Cacos by capturing and killing the rebel leader, Charlemagne P‚ralte, news was breaking elsewhere. Woodrow Wilson forged the League of Nations at Versailles, over 4 million U.S. workers went on strike, race riots racked the nation, and the U.S. Senate finally approved woman suffrage. In the 1920s, while in Haiti officers played polo and enlisted men baseball; stateside, business leaders pioneered the modern corporation, and mass media emerged as a new force in U.S. American culture. In short, it seems that the real stuff of U.S. history during those years was taking shape within U.S. borders and in Europe, not in a small Caribbean nation. How, then, should the first occupation of Haiti by the United States figure in the larger picture of U.S. history?
This book contends that the military occupation of Haiti that began in 1915 was no sideshow. It was one of several important arenas in which the United States was remade through overseas imperial ventures in the first third of the twentieth century. The transformations of imperialism were also effected in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Nicaragua, China, the Philippines, and dozens of other places around the globe. Foreign interventions and territorial seizures overlapped in time and personnel and built on one another to refine the techniques of imperial control and influence. Taken together, they formed a solid overseas foundation for new cultural departures in the United States. Each intervention also had its own particular character and thus contributed uniquely to the remaking of U.S. America. Like others who were the focus of U.S. imperial efforts, Haitians interacted with U.S. citizens and institutions in a manner that grew out of their own indigenous history and culture, thus contributing in unexpected ways to the matrix of an emerging U.S. imperial culture.
What People are Saying About This
This is a unique synergy of the historical and the mythic aspects of the quarter-century U.S. occupation of Haiti. Renda's interpretation of Haiti as 'America's Africa' combines an empathetic analysis of the American military presence with a provocative discussion of interventionist paternalism's impact on America's identity. The occupation simultaneously made U.S. imperialism more resilient and led to the destabilizing of central cultural forms, especially in the contexts of race and gender.--Dennis E. Showalter, Colorado College
[A] significant and exciting contribution to this growing interdisciplinary field. . . . Prodigiously researched and persuasively argued. . . . Without doubt, the research, analysis, and conclusions presented in this work will shape, enrich, and inspire scholarship in these and related fields for time to come.--Caribbean Studies
Renda makes a sterling contribution to this growing literature [on the U.S. occupation of Haiti] with a bold and provocative look at the interplay of race, gender, culture, and national identity in U.S.-Haitian relations.--Florida Historical Quarterly
Renda draws from a wide variety of texts--marines' memoirs, missionary reports, pulp fiction, official documents, African American and Haitian literature--to suggest the multiple meanings of the United States occupation of Haiti. She integrates cultural analysis related to gender, race, class, and nation into international history, producing a sophisticated and highly readable book suitable both for classrooms and for specialists.--Emily S. Rosenberg, Macalester College
Taking Haiti provides a superb analysis of the complex cultural meanings of the Haitian occupation as well as its aftermath on the North American mainland. Renda paints a nuanced panorama of gendered imperialism, from policymakers and enforcers in Haiti, to confused Marines, to writers, playwrights, and other intellectuals invoking Haiti as they threaded their ways through the maze of American gender, racial, and national identities. Renda delineates the complexities and ironies of these stories with great sensitivity and lucidity.--Gail Bederman, University of Notre Dame
[A] provocative and insightful interpretation of twentieth-century United States imperialism.--History
[Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism] does an excellent job of establishing a cultural and historical context for Haiti and the United States before the intervention.--Eurospan
Renda's examination of Haiti is a fine example of a second wave of scholarship that has emphasized cultural interaction, especially issues related to gender and race.--Choice
Renda uses a wide collection of materials from diaries, memoirs, letters, books, plays, and the arts to produce an excellent cultural study of the development of American imperialism. Recommended for all libraries.--Library Journal
Meet the Author
Mary A. Renda is associate professor of history and women's studies at Mount Holyoke College.
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