The Caribbean Theater?: Haiti and the First World War
Part of what separated World War I from all the previous conflicts in human history was its global scope. Though nearly all the significant battles of the war were fought in Europe, the process of imperialism and colonialism, begun long before the cataclysm of 1914, ensured that Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas would participate in the conflict in one way or another. In terms of understanding the impact of WWI in the Americas, most of the focus has traditionally been on the events that led to the entry of the United States into the war, and how this impacted the conflict in the Allies’ favor. However, the war in Europe directly impacted policies and sparked conflicts in the wider Western Hemisphere years before U.S. President Wilson made his declaration of war in 1917. Based on fears of German activities and influence in the politically unstable nation of Haiti, in 1915 the United States carried out an invasion of that nation to curtail the perceived spread of German power into America’s sphere of influence. Beyond how the threat of German expansion into the Western Hemisphere shaped U.S. foreign policy and activity in the region, German activities in and around Haiti before and after the U.S. invasion shaped the course in which Haiti would also declare war on Germany by 1918. This article explores the relationship between the American occupation of Haiti and WWI as an example of a small war that served as a neglected component of the much larger, global war.
While Haiti was not the only Caribbean or Latin American nation to be eventually drawn into the conflict, Haiti is worth closer examination as a major flashpoint in the region between Germany and the United States in order to better understand how the fighting in Europe spilled over into other parts of the globe. Haiti, as a nation, had endured chronic political instability since its founding in 1804, however, the early twentieth century saw this instability escalate to levels that threatened to collide the expanding spheres of American and German influence. Just between the years of 1911 and 1915 alone, seven Haitian presidents were either assassinated or overthrown, and it was in this environment that a community of German merchants were able to gain increasing influence over local affairs.[i] While there is no evidence that Germany had designs to take direct political control of Haiti, there is evidence that other forms of influence and control were available to Germans engaged in business there. In the years preceding the 1915 invasion, the United States became increasingly alarmed as the Haitian government became less and less stable, and a growing presence of German merchants established trading branches in Haiti that allowed them to effectively dominate commercial business there.[ii]
That German businessmen had gone to certain lengths to gain an economic advantage in Haiti is revealed by the difficulties that Haitian laws provided for foreign investors, as well as how they managed to circumvent those laws. Over a hundred years after their bitter struggle against slavery, Haitians were known for their distrust towards foreigners, and whites in particular. This is best exemplified in the Haitian Constitution of 1805, in which Article 12 of the Preliminary Declaration states that “No whiteman of whatever nation he may be, shall put his foot on this territory with the title of master or proprietor, neither shall he in the future acquire any property therein.”[iii] The intended goal of this was a protectionary measure to ensure that Haiti would never again fall under either direct or indirect foreign control, however, German merchants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century found a clever means to get around the law. Because foreigners were prohibited from owning property in Haiti, German merchants would marry Haitian women who could legally own land and were thus able to establish networks within the community.[iv]
German-American tensions over Haiti continued to grow in response to increasing German commercial control there, as this process directly challenged the principles of the Monroe Doctrine: The guiding philosophy of American foreign policy in the western hemisphere. In a 1914 address to the American Academy of Political and Social Science, then former Governor of West Virginia, William Alexander MacCorkle, made a case for how the Monroe Doctrine demanded U.S. intervention in Haiti. Though it is unlikely that MacCorkle had any role in the Wilson Administration’s decision to invade the following year, his treatise on how the Monroe Doctrine applied to the destabilizing situation in Haiti provides an insight into the views of U.S. government officials of the time who were concerned by what was happening there. In MacCorkle’s estimation, Haiti’s financial instability as much as its political instability had created an unacceptable situation in which the European powers had already begun to exert their influence in the region. Because Haiti was bankrupt with a debt of over $35 million, its multiple defaults prompted several European interventions in 1914, including the French impounding of the Haitian navy, and the use of ships by both Germany and Britain at separate incidents to threaten war if payment was not received.[v]
Not only had European incursions, or threats of incursions, already taken place and excited American concerns over their impact on strategic positioning and trade, but MacCorkle continues to describe an emerging threat in which he believed a German takeover of Haiti was imminent. In exchange for a $2 million loan by the German Government, Germany was attempting to acquire greater control over Haiti, which would include greater rights in Haitian ports, control over customs receipts, and a coaling station at Mole St. Nicholas; actions which MacCorkle says the German government denied.[vi] The northern port of Mole St. Nicholas frequently appears as a point of motivation for American intervention, or at least concern, due to its geographical position along the Windward Passage. As a key trade route through the Caribbean into the Gulf of Mexico and the recently constructed Panama Canal, the port of Mole St. Nicholas was of particular interest to the respective governments of the United States and possibly Germany since whoever controlled this port would be in a position to open and cut off the flow of ships and trade into the region at will. Whether Germany actually had plans in place to acquire the port in 1914 remains in question, but what is clear from MacCorkle and Wilson Administration correspondence is that the United States was unwilling to let Germany, or any other European power for that matter, control it.
Correspondence between President Wilson and Secretary of State Bryan reveal the importance of Mole St. Nicholas to U.S. interests, as it was frequently a point of conversation as early as 1913. In a letter addressed to Wilson on June 14, 1913, Bryan appears to be following up with a previous conversation concerning Mole St. Nicholas by recommending negotiations with Haiti to either acquire it upon the merits of its position and port depth, or to at least to “take it out of the market so that no other nation will attempt to secure a foothold there”.[vii] As the correspondence continued, Bryan suggested a proposal to be negotiated with the Haitian Government in which the United States would gain twenty miles of Haitian territory consisting of Mole St. Nicholas (ten miles from the center of the mouth to the harbor and ten miles east inland from the shoreline), that all persons who presently resided within this territory be granted American citizenship upon application, that all persons within that territory who do not wish to become American citizens were to be compensated for their land at market value, and to negotiate a price for which the Haitian Government would be willing to sell this territory.[viii] On July 23, 1913, Wilson responded to Bryan’s proposal with an approval of each of the terms outlined in his plan.[ix] Though the Haitian Government did not agree to these terms, this exchange does reveal a genuine interest by the United States to secure a foothold in Haiti, or to at least prevent others from gaining one.
As chronic financial default continued to threaten some form of European intervention in Haiti, it was clear that Germany, though the principle threat to American interests in the region, was not the only cause for concern. Even as war between France and Germany was already in motion, the majority of the Haitian debt being owed to both nations resulted in a proposed tripartite agreement by the German Government between France, the United States, and themselves, in which France and Germany would share a degree of control over Haiti.[x] Such an agreement never came into being, however, the suggestion of it by Germany was not well received by the U.S. MacCorkle at least seems to have viewed this proposal as a warning by the German Government threatening intervention if the financial situation were not resolved.[xi] No more willing to allow a friendly European nation to assert control in the Caribbean than a rival, there were concerns over allowing France or even Britain from expanding their influence into Haiti as well. Aside from the philosophy of the Monroe Doctrine prohibiting any European power, whether a current ally or enemy, from gaining further control in the hemisphere, the emerging war between these nations brought its own considerations. One such consideration looked to possible outcomes of the war, in which even Allied nations such as Britain and France, if either were to gain control of a Caribbean nation such as Haiti, could potentially forfeit their overseas territories to Germany if they were to lose the war.[xii]
MacCorkle’s treatise on the Monroe Doctrine’s relationship with Haiti goes even further in his predictions of potential consequences of the First World War to assert that Haiti could function as a flashpoint for a wider conflict. Making a comparison with Serbia and how the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand there triggered a full-scale war between the various European powers, his statement, “The events of the day show how causelessly a great war may arise and of what deadly importance to a great nation may be a small island or an obscure country”, indicates that he believed the situation in Haiti was capable of expanding the conflict to include the United States. Recognizing the growing friction between the United States and Germany over the issue of Haiti, Bryan sent a message to the German Government stating the position that the issue of Haiti’s defaults was to be settled by the United States. In a letter addressed to Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff on September 16, 1914, Bryan addresses the German request to obtain customs control in Haiti and, while recognizing the role of German merchants in the Haitian economy and the money owed to them by the Haitian Republic, he also reminds them that “neither foreign mercantile influences and interests, nor any other foreign influence or interest proceeding from outside the American hemisphere, could with the consent of the United States be so broadened or extended as to control, either wholly or in part, of the government or administration of any independent American state”.[xiii] A convention between Haiti and Germany was suggested as a compromise, but it is made very clear that the United States was unwilling to allow Germany to gain any further control over the country.
Even greater cause for alarm on the part of the United States were reports that suggested that the German population in Haiti was not only gaining financial control in the political vacuum there but had also helped back certain sides in the Haitian conflicts in order to increase their influence there. The State Department under William Jennings Bryan had received reports from the Vice President of National City Bank of New York, Roger Farnham, that Germans were dominating Haitian finance and commerce and that American business interests in Haiti would be unable to hold out against German and French encroachments without State Department assistance.[xiv] Accounts by an American missionary to Haiti in the years preceding and proceeding the 1915 invasion support Farnham’s claims of German efforts to gain greater control over Haiti and undercut American interests there. According to Reverend L. Ton Evans, within the timeframe of 1910 to 1911, $350,000 of German money had been spent to prevent the confirmation and ratification of land contracts and concessions for American railroad businessman J.P. McDonald under the Simon government.[xv] Evans goes so far as to say that Leconte, Simon’s successor, confessed to him that he had been put in a position to become the next President of Haiti by German financiers who even threatened him to take the position and pursue their interests.[xvi] Perhaps the most damning evidence Evans provided was from a German banker who admitted his role in the Haitian revolutions of 1910 and 1911. While making conversation with said banker at the National Baptist Alliance concerning these revolutions, Evans claims the man boasted, “I financed them from Berlin, as well as previous revolutions, and furnished ammunition, and have been staying in Germany several years arranging these matters”.[xvii] Whether or not these claims verify a conscious German effort is subject to debate, but what is certain is that Haiti was becoming increasingly unstable and, as it did, Washington took the potential threat of Germany taking advantage of the situation more and more seriously.
By the beginning of 1915, the correspondence between Wilson and Bryan indicates that their anxiety over the situation in Haiti and the threat of Germany expanding its control over the nation was reaching critical mass. As early as January 7, Bryan was advising President Wilson concerning reports by the morning paper, which he describes as not having been confirmed by their Minister to Haiti, that Germany had already begun using Mole St. Nicholas as a supply base.[xviii] While these reports appear to have been unsubstantiated, the fact that the Administration was alarmed by the possibility of Germany obtaining the port remained evident, culminating in April of that year with the decision to intervene. As the government of Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam showed the familiar signs of destabilization, by April 5, 1915, Secretary Bryan received word from the White House that the Haitian situation could no longer be tolerated. Beginning by stating that “The time to act is now”, President Wilson laid out two demands that the U.S. be granted “use and control of Mole Saint Nicholas, or, at the least, the exclusion there of foreign control”, and that an advisor be appointed who would act as a spokesperson for the United States to the Haitian Government.[xix] With the assassination of President Sam on June 27, any remaining hopes for a stable Haiti capable of resisting German influence evaporated and the American invasion of Haiti began the following day.
While the tensions between the U.S. and Germany resulted in a military invasion and occupation of Haiti to deny the latter a Caribbean foothold, it is important to acknowledge Haiti as more than just a passive victim of two foreign powers’ struggle for regional supremacy. Prior to the American invasion, in spite of increasing German influence, several Haitians demonstrated their support of the Allied cause, and of France in particular. Some Haitians served as volunteers in the French army in Europe, however, an incident in 1914 in which 200 Haitian volunteers were turned away from the French Legation in Port-au-Prince on the grounds that President Oreste Zamor had accepted money from Berlin shows the complexity of Haiti’s position in the war.[xx] On its surface, it would seem odd that Haitians would be supportive of France given the historical animosity between the two countries over the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath. In reality, we may never know what the prevailing opinion of the overall Haitian population was regarding the war and its belligerents. What we do know is that, among the elite members of Haitian society, the prevailing sympathy was for France. The small but highly educated class of Haitians held French cultural ties as wealthy Haitians tended to complete their education in Paris, the Haitian clergy were largely recruited from France, and French rather than Creole remained their language of choice.[xxi]
Just as German control and influence in Haiti did not necessarily dictate how Haitians responded to the war, neither did the American occupation. While, for all intents and purposes, Haiti after 1915 was under the control of the United States, this did not mean that the American declaration of war on Germany automatically included Haiti’s declaration. Such a declaration would come months later and, though there was pressure from the U.S. for Haiti to follow suit, Haiti had its own reasons for entering the war. Reasons which paralleled what brought the U.S. into the war. Much as Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare had triggered hostilities with the U.S. over events such as the sinking of the Lusitania, and the American lives lost, Haiti too experienced its “Lusitania moment” after German submarines in 1916 targeted and sank two French passenger ships, the S.S. Karmac and S.S. Montreal, killing eight Haitian citizens and destroying valuable cargo consigned to Haitians.[xxii]
Much like the Lusitania incident had with the United States, the sinking of the Karmac and Montreal escalated tensions between Haiti and Germany but did not immediately result in open hostilities. In an effort to align Haitian foreign policy with that of the United States, President Dartiguenave, whom the U.S. had picked to lead occupied Haiti, had pressed the National Assembly to declare war on May 4, 1917, but disagreements between the executive and the legislature resulted in a compromise that formally protested the German submarine campaign, placed full responsibility on Germany for the loss of Haitian life and property as a result, and demanded indemnities for those losses or else all diplomatic relations would be severed.[xxiii] This disagreement between the two branches of the Haitian Government would continue to drag on, and were symptomatic of the struggle of Haitian identity while under American military occupation. The legislature, having become increasingly antagonistic towards the American-picked president, resisted falling in line with U.S. foreign policy even once the German refusal of indemnity severed diplomatic relations, and it would not be until mid-1918 when the legislature was dissolved and replaced with members picked directly by Dartiguenave himself that war would officially be declared.[xxiv]
That Haiti’s role in the war was subject to external pressures by both the U.S. and Germany before 1915, and by the U.S. after 1915, cannot be denied. However, as we have seen here, to view Haiti as merely a pawn between the two powers would inaccurately diminish the nation’s complex role as both a participant in the conflict as well as a flashpoint in a region seldom discussed in reference to WWI. Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare on the open seas meant that civilians from around the world could become victims of the war, and each civilian causality brought with it to opportunity to turn a neutral or disinterested nation into a belligerent. To that effect, Haiti, while an important story to bring regions such as the Caribbean and Latin America into our understanding of the First World War, is by no means alone. In this region alone, between 1917 to 1918, the nations of Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama all declared war either on the Central Powers, or on Germany specifically. Little work has been done to present a comprehensive history of this region, and to the extent that it impacted the war in Europe. While each of these nations, and the circumstances that lead to their declarations of war, deserve further exploration, the conclusion of this study is that Haiti provides us with an example of how a nation that is rarely mentioned among the significant points of conflict during the war was both a hotbed of tension and military activity between two future enemies as well as a belligerent in its own right. This study also provides a glimpse of how Caribbean and Latin American nations during the war had to navigate their role in a conflict in which they fought militarily against a powerful enemy while at the same fighting to preserve their national identity and interests while under the pressure and influence of a powerful ally.
"MILESTONES 1914-1920 – The U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934," U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, accessed March 25, 2016, .
“The 1805 Constitution of Haiti”, transcribed online by Bob Corbett on April 4, 1999, accessed February 27, 2016. faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/history/earlyhaiti/1805-const.htm
MacCorkle, William Alexander. The Monroe Doctrine in Its Relation to the Republic of Haiti. New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1915.
Martin, Percy Alvin. Latin America and the War. Gloucester: P. Smith, 1967.
Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934. 2nd Printing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Streeter, Michael. Makers of the Modern World: Central America and the Treaty of Versailles: The Peace Conferences of 1919-23 and their Aftermath. New York: Haus Publishing, 2011.
The Papers of Woodrow Wilson: Volume 27, 30, 31. Edited by Arthur S. Link, David W. Hirst, John E. Little, Edith James, Sylvia Elvin, and Phyllis Marchand. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.
The Papers of Woodrow Wilson: Volume 32-34. Edited by Arthur S. Link, David W. Hirst, John E. Little, Ann Dexter Gordon, Phyllis Marchand, and Margaret D. Link. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.
United States Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Haiti and Santo Domingo. Inquiry into Occupation and Administration of Haiti and Santo Domingo: Hearings Before a Select Committee on Haiti and Santo Domingo, United States Senate, Sixty-Seventh Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. RES. 112 Authorizing a Special Committee to Inquire Into the Occupation and Administration of the Territories of the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1922.
[i] "MILESTONES 1914-1920 – The U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934," U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, accessed March 25, 2016, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/haiti.
[ii] U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, “MILESTONES 1914-1920 – The U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.”
[iii] “The 1805 Constitution of Haiti”, transcribed online by Bob Corbett on April 4, 1999, accessed February 27, 2016. faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/history/earlyhaiti/1805-const.htm.
[iv] U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, “MILESTONES 1914-1920 – The U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.”
[v] William Alexander MacCorkle. The Monroe Doctrine in Its Relation to the Republic of Haiti. (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1915), 92.
[vi] MacCorkle, The Monroe Doctrine in Its Relation to the Republic of Haiti, 92-93.
[vii] Woodrow Wilson, and Arthur S. Link. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Volume 27:1913. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), 519.
[viii] Woodrow Wilson, and Arthur S. Link. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Volume 27:1913, 519
[ix] Woodrow Wilson, and Arthur S. Link. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Volume 27:1913, 557-558.
[x] MacCorkle, The Monroe Doctrine in Its Relation to the Republic of Haiti, 93.
[xi] MacCorkle, The Monroe Doctrine in Its Relation to the Republic of Haiti, 94.
[xii] MacCorkle, The Moy67uu7ynroe Doctrine in Its Relation to the Republic of Haiti, 36.
[xiii] Woodrow Wilson, and Arthur S. Link. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Volume 31: September 6 – December 31, 1914. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), 35.
[xiv] Hans Schmidt. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 52.
[xv] United States Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Haiti and Santo Domingo. Inquiry into Occupation and Administration of Haiti and Santo Domingo: Hearings Before a Select Committee on Haiti and Santo Domingo, United States Senate, Sixty-Seventh Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. RES. 112 Authorizing a Special Committee to Inquire Into the Occupation and Administration of the Territories of the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1922), 158.
[xvi] United States Congress. Senate. Inquiry into Occupation and Administration of Haiti and Santo Domingo, 159.
[xvii] United States Congress. Senate. Inquiry into Occupation and Administration of Haiti and Santo Domingo, 156.
[xviii] Woodrow Wilson, and Arthur S. Link. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Volume 32: January 1 – April 16, 1915. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), 28.
[xix] Woodrow Wilson, and Arthur S. Link. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Volume 32: January 1 – April 16, 1915, 479.
[xx] Michael Streeter. Makers of the Modern World: Central America and the Treaty of Versailles: The Peace Conferences of 1919-23 and their Aftermath. (New York: Haus Publishing, 2011), 51.
[xxi] Percy Alvin Martin. Latin America and the War. (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1967), 516.
[xxii] Percy, Latin America and the War, 517.
[xxiii] Percy, Latin America and the War, 517-518.
[xxiv] Percy, Latin America and the War, 518.