HANS R. SCHMIDT is a historian and the author of the classic account of the first United States military intervention and administration of Haiti, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934 (1971) as well as of Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History (1998), a biography of the legendary US Marine turned anti-imperialist. Currently retired, Schmidt taught at the Hong Kong University, the University of Zambia and SUNY New Paltz.
Could you tell us what led to the research and writing of The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934? How did you come to the US occupation as a research project? What archives did you draw on and what difficulties did you have writing the book?
I got into the U.S. occupation as a grad student doing a seminar research project at Rutgers. I had recently spent some months studying French at the Alliance Francaise in Paris, and I wanted to build on this. Also I had done my national service and attended Naval Justice School, so I was familiar with navy and Marine Corps bureaucracy and idioms. I turned out that although there were several studies of the occupation, these mostly avoided issues of American imperialism, racism and atrocities. So I wrote the seminar paper and subsequently developed this into a PhD thesis.
At the time I was researching, many Navy, Marine Corps and State Department documents on Haiti in the National Archives had only recently been opened. Haiti was, of course, a most interesting situation and the marines involved in the occupation were often more outspoken and unguarded in their reports and letters home than the diplomats and civil servants. Also marine documents in the archives were largely unorganized and uncensored — just papers stuffed into boxes, so that one might find important high-level policy critiques in the same file as traffic accident reports.
Eventually I used overseas archives to try and get French and German diplomats’ takes on the American occupation. These were often highly critical of the marines ineptness and inability to get along with Haitians. And it was really interesting using the French Foreign Ministry Archive in Paris and the German archives in Bonn, both being working archives for the respective foreign ministries. I also used British archives in London and at Kew.
As usual, I had to rework and expand my occupation thesis to get it published. Since my material was largely fresh, I didn’t have to worry much about disputing other scholars interpretations. Probably my effort would have been more critical and circumspect if I had.
You interviewed a number of people who were directly involved in the occupation and the resistance to it – namely, Ernest Gruening, of the Nation, the State Department’s Dana Munro, and Ernest Angell, counsel for the Haiti-Santo Domingo Independence Society and the NAACP. What are your recollections of your encounter with these three gentlemen? And can you share anything concerning their memory of the Occupation years?
I interviewed Ernest Gruening when he was U.S. senator for Alaska. He was most forthcoming about his 1920s anti-occupation campaign, which he compared to his vanguard 1960s opposition to the Vietnam War. But when I pressed him to tell what had happened aboard the ship taking the Haitian and American delegations to the Montevideo Conference in December 1933, where the Haitians did not try to exploit the prevalent anti-imperialist sentiment to pressure the United States into making more end-of-occupation concessions, Gruening declined to discuss behind the scenes American maneuvers.
I interviewed Dana Munro when he was retired from decades of writing and lecturing as a Princeton professor about his experiences as a State Department officer in Haiti and Latin America. When I mentioned that the Americans had stopped Haiti’s client president’s salary, Munro was incredulous. I gave him an unimpeachable source, and he confessed that when he himself was doing research on the occupation and had come across a document detailing coercion of Haitian politicians, he couldn’t believe it, but when he looked at the bottom of the page he found his own signature! He had spent so many years reciting the official line that he had internalized it. I admired him for his honesty and candor.
For memories of the occupation, my interview with Harry R. Long, comptroller of the Haitian-American Sugar Company, turned into a nostalgia fest when I was able to tell him the names of his neighbors in Port-au-Prince. They had good lives in Haiti during the late teens.
You wrote about the US Occupation in the midst of the Vietnam War. How did the conditions of the present shape the questions you asked of the past? Given subsequent developments in Haiti and in the United States, would you ask different questions of this history?
The Vietnam War prompted me and many of my grad school colleagues to look at U.S. history as an ongoing saga of imperialism and racism. And to see American cant about democracy and freedom as similar to other nations self-righteous justifications for their imperial and colonial exploits. Personally my own views were somewhat changed by teaching five years in Zambia, where the post-colonial era was turning out to be less bountiful than expected. Many Zambians were less well off than under the British, and those who worked on white farms were often better fed than the rest of the population. Peoples attitudes regarding colonialism were starting to change, although academics, myself included, generally stuck to the anti-colonial line.
James Weldon Johnson famously indicted the National City Bank and its Vice President Roger Leslie Farnham for their role in the occupation and you expand on Johnson’s claims. However, you also write that you were twice denied access to the bank’s archives. Could you say something about your attempts to access their archives? What did you think you might find there?
I don’t remember dealing with First National City Bank, other than giving it a try. It may be that they didn’t have Haiti records that old or that it was inconvenient for them to access them. I didn’t take this as anything particularly devious. I think it unlikely that the bank would furnish information regarding its internal disputes or problems with shady characters like Roger L. Farnham. But if they maintained a historical archive, with archivists employed to make records available to the public, that might have been worthwhile. Apropos, I had a colleague in Hong Kong who was paid by Hongkong Shanghai Bank to write an official history of the bank. He alone was given privileged access to company records, and was obviously trusted not to reveal anything embarrassing.
You’ve written a fine biography of the legendary marine, Smedley Darlington Butler, a figure responsible for one of the most-quoted critiques on the question of dollar diplomacy. How do you think Butler would assess the past ten years of US interventionism?
Smedley Butler had different attitudes toward American military interventions at different stages of his career, so its not clear how he would react to the last decade. Certainly his spectacular recantation in the 1930s, when he said he had spent 33 years in the Marine Corps, attaining the rank of major general, “and during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.” Referring to his stint protecting Standard Oil in China, he said “why don’t those damned oil companies fly their flags on their personal property–maybe a flag with a gas pump on it.” But his role commanding the 1927-29 marine intervention in China was mostly a diplomatic and pubic relations exercise, with the marines playing an interstitial and mediatory role, keeping Chinese warlord armies apart and blocking the Japanese from taking over. He was quite successful and thoroughly committed to this peace-keeping role, and perhaps would have seen recent U.S. interventions partly in the same light.
Haiti has been referred to as the Republic of NGOs. What are your thoughts on this new form of foreign intervention and the prospects of post-earthquake reconstruction?
The NGOs are there because the Haitian government is unable to cope. Hopefully NGO monies, and governmental, are not being bled by corruption and mismanagement. UN military intervention seems to be more than just stop-gap at this point. Personally, I remember visiting Victor Wynne’s terracing projects in 1978, and thinking that this was a viable model for countering deforestation and soil erosion. Thirty years later things are worse, and terracing is no longer considered viable. But projects like Wynne Farm, led by Jane Wynne, are still coming up with new ideas for involving farmers and marketeers in agricultural development. Good luck to them.
Image: “We’ve fought in every clime and place”:: Stamping out the Caco Insurrection in the Republic of Haiti.” The Leatherneck (September 1930).