- Historic Sites
At a time when it can offer answers to urgent questions, we have forgotten America’s long history of “nation building.”
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
AMERICA WAS LEAST LIKELY TO INTERVENE IN NATIONS (ARGENTINA. COSTA RICA) WHERE INVESTORS HELD THE BIGGEST STAKES.
Having established its rule, the United States would set up a constabulary, a quasi-military police force led by Americans and made up of local enlisted men. Then the Americans worked with local officials to administer a variety of public services, from vaccinations to schools to tax collection. American officials, though often resented, usually proved more efficient and less venal than their native predecessors.
A priority was improving public health, partly out of altruism and partly out of a desire to keep U.S. troops healthy in a tropical clime. The pattern was set in Cuba, where Walter Reed, an Army doctor, proved that yellow fever was spread by a particular variety of mosquito. A mosquito-eradication campaign undertaken at gunpoint drastically reduced the incidence of malaria and yellow fever, which had been ravaging the island for centuries. In Veracruz in 1914 the Army general Frederick Funston cleaned up the water supply, improved sewage, and even imported 2,500 garbage cans from the United States. The death rate among city residents plummeted.
American imperialists usually moved much more quickly than their European counterparts to transfer power to democratically elected local rulers. In 1907, under U.S. rule, the Philippines became the first Asian state to establish a national legislature. In 1935 the archipelago became a domestically autonomous commonwealth headed by President Manuel Quezon, a former insurrectionist who once complained of the difficulty of fostering nationalism under this particular colonial regime: “Damn the Americans! Why don’t they tyrannize us more?” (Total independence came in 1946, after Filipinos had fought side by side with GIs against the Japanese.)
In many of the countries the United States occupied, holding fair elections became a top priority, because once a democratically elected government was installed, the Americans felt they could withdraw. In 1925 the Coolidge administration refused to recognize the results of a stolen election in Nicaragua and the following year sent in the Marines, even though the strongman who had stuffed the ballot boxes, Gen. Emiliano Chamorro Vargas, was ardently pro-American. The United States went on to administer two elections in Nicaragua, in 1928 and 1932, that even the losers acknowledged were the fairest in the country’s history. “The interventions by U.S. Marines in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in those years,” writes the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, “often bore striking resemblances to the interventions by Federal marshals in the conduct of elections in the American South in the 1960s: registering voters, protecting against electoral violence, ensuring a free vote and an honest count.”
That is certainly not the popular impression. The interventions in Central America and the Caribbean have become infamous as “gunboat diplomacy” and as “banana wars” undertaken at the behest of powerful Wall Street interests. Smedley Butler helped solidify this myth when, after his retirement from the Marine Corps, he became an ardent isolationist and antiimperialist. He spent the 1930s denouncing his own career, claiming he had been “a racketeer for capitalism” and a “highclass muscle man for Big Business.”
In fact, in the early years of the twentieth century, the United States was least likely to intervene in those nations (such as Argentina and Costa Rica) where American investors held the biggest stakes. The longest occupations were undertaken in precisely those countries —Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic—where the United States had the smallest economic stakes. Moreover, two of the most interventionist Presidents in U.S. history, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were united in their contempt for what TR called “malefactors of great wealth.” Wilson was probably the most imperialist President of all, and his interventions had a decidedly idealistic tinge. His goal, as he proclaimed at the start of his administration, was “to teach the South American republics to elect good men.”
How well did the United States achieve this aim? The record is mixed. Its greatest success (outside those territories that remain under the Stars and Stripes to this day) was in the Philippines, which was (no coincidence) the site of one of its longest occupations. Among the institutions Americans bequeathed to the Filipinos were public schools, a free press, an independent judiciary, a modern bureaucracy, democratic government, and separation of church and state. Unlike the Dutch in the East Indies, the British in Malaya, or the French in Indochina, the Americans left virtually no legacy of economic exploitation; Congress was so concerned about protecting the Filipinos that it barred large landholdings by American individuals or corporations. The U.S. legacy was also a lasting one: The Philippines have been for the most part free and democratic save for the 1972–86 period, when Ferdinand Marcos ruled by fiat. That’s more than most other Asian countries can say.