Tuesday, January 26, 2010

History Lesson

I awoke this morning to the sounds of the on-air radio personalities complaining about a "certain boot-shaped country in the Mediterranean" protesting the American military presence in Haiti. Why can't they see that our motives are purely humanitarian?, they wondered.

Good question. I decided to do a little research on America's history in the Caribbean and Haiti in particular, and came across the following:

Nothing struck deeper fear into the hearts of southerners, whether they held slaves or not, than the idea of a slave revolt. Contrary to the popular image of docile slaves working in peaceful servitude, there had been numerous small rebellions and uprisings of slaves, often in union with Indians or disaffected whites, as far back as slavery in the New World under the Spanish. These were not limited to the South, as murderous uprisings took place in colonial Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. One of the bloodiest of these uprisings occurred in South Carolina in 1739, when slaves killed some twenty-five whites under the leadership of a slave named Jemmy.

But the greatest horror for young America came from the Caribbean, where Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former carriage driver and a natural military genius, led the slaves of St. Domingue (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in a successful rebellion during the 1790s. Inspired by the revolutions of America and France, Toussaint's rebellion resulted in some 60,000 deaths and a republic of freed slaves on the island. . . In 1800, Napoleon sent troops to retake the island with little success until Toussaint was lured to the French headquarters under a truce flag, arrested, and jailed in the Alps, where he died in a jail cell (Don't Know Much About History, Kenneth C. Davis).

The [Grover] Cleveland administration said a Cuban victory might lead to "the establishment of a white and a black republic," since Cuba had a mixture of the two races. And the black republic might be dominant. This idea was expressed in 1896 in an article in The Saturday Review by a young and eloquent imperialist, whose mother was American and whose father was English - Winston Churchill. He wrote that while Spanish rule was bad the the rebels had the support of the people, it would be better for Spain to keep control:
"A grave danger represents itself. Two-fifths of the insurgents in the field are negroes. These men. . . would, in the event of success, demand a predominant share in the government of the country. . . the result being, after years of fighting, another black republic."
The reference to "another" black republic meant Haiti, whose revolution against France in 1803 had led to the first nation run by blacks in the New World (A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn).

Under Woodrow Wilson, America went from "big stick" to Big Brother when it came to Latin America. With the nearly completed Panama Canal to defend, Wilson was going to ensure that American power in the hemisphere would not be threatened. Local unrest in the Caribbean left American troops controlling Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. All were pushovers for American military might (Don't Know Much About History, Kenneth C. Davis).

For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless countries matched its image in American history textbooks, but not its record in world affairs. It had opposed the Haitian revolution for independence from France at the start of the nineteenth century. It had instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It had pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain, and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base, investments, and rights of intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had "opened" Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared an Open Door Policy in China as a means of assuring that the United States would have opportunities equal to other imperial powers in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations to assert Western supremacy in China, and kept them there for over thirty years (A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn).

Sadly, Howard Zinn passed away on January 27, 2010.

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