Liberal Imperialism


The U.S. legacy in the Caribbean and Central America was more fleeting. It is not true, as some critics later charged, that the United States deliberately installed dictators such as Duvalier, Batista, and Somoza. The governments left in power by American troops were usually democratic and decent. But they were also too weak to survive on their own. In the past the United States might have intervened to support democratically elected regimes. In the 1930s, however, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt renounced the interventionist policies of his predecessors, stretching back to the days of his cousin Theodore and beyond. Henceforth, FDR said, U.S. relations with Latin America would be governed by the Good Neighbor policy, which meant in essence that Washington would work with whoever came to power, no matter how.

The U.S. ambassador to Managua, Arthur Bliss Lane, was shocked and upset when Anastasio (“Tacho”) Somoza, the commander of the Nicaraguan National Guard, murdered the former rebel leader Augusto Sandino and deposed the democratically elected president (who was also his uncle), Dr. Juan Bautista Sacasa. Lane wanted to intervene, as the United States had in the past, but Roosevelt refused. Of Somoza, FDR famously (if perhaps apocryphally) said, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” But make no mistake: Somoza did not attain power because of U.S. support; he attained power because of its indifference. The same might be said of François Duvalier in Haiti, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and other dictators who took over after U.S. withdrawal.


Although its effects often wore off, U.S. rule looks pretty good by comparison with what came before and after in most countries. Haiti offers a particularly dramatic example. Prior to the U.S. occupation in 1915, seven presidents were overthrown in seven years. After the last U.S. Marines left, in 1934, the country lapsed back into instability, until, in 1957, the black nationalist Papa Doc Duvalier assumed power. He and “Baby Doc,” his son Jean Claude, ruled continuously until 1986, presiding over a reign of terror undertaken by their savage secret police, the Tontons Macoutes. After Baby Doc’s overthrow it was back to chaos, leavened only by despotism. In 1994 the United States was driven to intervene once again to oust a military junta and restore to power President Jean Bertrand Aristide. But no matter who’s in charge, the Haitian people continue to suffer horrifying levels of poverty, crime, disease, and violence; their country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the poorest on earth.

By contrast, the almost two decades of American occupation stand out as an oasis of prosperity and stability. While not exactly democratic (the United States ruled for a time through an appointed president, Louis-Eustache-Antoine-François Borno) the American occupation was undertaken with minimal force. There were fewer than 800 Marines in the country, and life was freer than just about any time before or since. The Americans made no attempt to exploit Haiti economically; in fact, the U.S. authorities actively discouraged large American companies from setting up shop, for fear that they would take advantage of the people. The American administrators ran this government fairly and efficiently, and by the time they left they could tick off a long list of achievements: 1,000 miles of roads and 210 bridges constructed, 9 major airfields, 1,250 miles of telephone lines, 82 miles of irrigation canals, 11 modern hospitals, 147 rural clinics, and on and on.


Unfortunately, most of the physical manifestations of the American empire—roads, hospitals, telephone systems—began to crumble not long after the Marines pulled out. This should be no surprise; it has been true whenever more technologically advanced imperialists leave a less sophisticated area, whether they be the Romans pulling out of Britain or the British out of India. The two most lasting legacies of American interventions in the Caribbean may be a resentment of the Yanquis, now perhaps fading, and a love of baseball, still passionately felt.

That does not mean, however, that U.S. occupation is entirely futile. American troops can stop the killing, end the chaos, create a breathing space, establish the rule of law. What the inhabitants do then is up to them. If the American goal is to re-create Ohio in Kosovo or Haiti, then the occupiers are doomed to disappointment. But if the goals are more modest, American rule can serve the interests of occupiers and occupied alike. Put another way, nation building is generally too ambitious a task, but state building is not; the apparatus of a functioning state can be developed much more quickly than a national consciousness.

Most successful examples of state building start by imposing the rule of law—as the United States did in the Philippines, and Britain in India—as a prerequisite for economic development and the eventual emergence of democracy. Merely holding an election and leaving will likely achieve little, as the United States discovered in Haiti in 1994. For American occupation to have a meaningful impact, it should be fairly lengthy; if Americans are intent on a quick “exit strategy,” they might as well stay home.