U.S. Occupies Haiti

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 195th installment in the series. 

July 28, 1915: U.S. Occupies Haiti 

When the First World War began there was already a long history of American interference in the internal affairs of Latin American and Caribbean countries, including the Spanish-American War, which brought the U.S. control of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898, as well as numerous minor interventions characterized as “gunboat diplomacy” or “dollar diplomacy,” like the occupation of Nicaragua from 1912-1933. These actions were generally intended to protect American lives and property, prop up pro-U.S. regimes, and prevent European powers from gaining a foothold in the New World by taking control of bankrupt states that defaulted on European loans. 

The outbreak of hostilities in Europe did nothing to change this pattern, and may even have encouraged a more muscular foreign policy in “America’s backyard,” prompted by fears that the continental struggle might spill over into the Western Hemisphere. These concerns weren’t unfounded: in 1917 U.S. public opinion was enraged by the Zimmerman Telegram incident, in which Germany tried to distract the U.S. by stirring up war with Mexico (poisoning an already troubled relationship). A bit less plausibly, in 1917 the U.S. also bought the western Virgin Islands from Denmark – giving the Danes little choice in the matter – in part because of fears they could serve as a German U-boat base. 

Germany also had a large historical presence in Haiti, where German merchants and landowners controlled the majority of the island republic’s foreign trade and much of its agricultural production. After the country descended into chaos in 1908, the small but powerful group of German settlers funded rural rebel groups (cacos), leading to a succession of short-lived dictatorships from 1908-1915. Fearing Germany might use the disorder as a pretext to establish a military presence on the island, in March 1915 the U.S. helped install a new dictator, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, to limit German influence and protect U.S. interests in Haiti. 

However Sam was a bad choice of strongman, completely lacking political sense not to mention any sort of conscience. On July 27, 1915 he ordered the summary execution of 167 political prisoners without even a pretense of a trial, then tried to take refuge from the enraged public in the French Embassy. To no avail: disregarding diplomatic protocol, the next day an angry mob stormed the building, beat him unconscious, and then tore his body apart in the street. 

Once again citing the threat of German invasion, as well as Haiti’s strategic position on the approach to the Panama Canal, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson responded swiftly by sending several hundred U.S. Marines from U.S. Navy ships in Port-au-Prince harbor to restore order that same day. The Marines met with virtually no resistance in the capital, but would soon be given responsibility for crushing the cacos concentrated in Haiti’s mountainous, rural north, where they ultimately killed anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 rebels. Over the course of the occupation about 20,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Haiti at various times (top, U.S. Marines fight Haitian rebels; below, more Marines embark on the USS Connecticut in Philadelphia, bound for Haiti).

Most ordinary Haitians resented the U.S. occupation and agreed with Dantes Bellegarde, a nationalist politician, who argued it was “in violation of the right of the people and in contempt of Haiti’s sovereignty.” Unfortunately for them this was just the beginning of a long-term engagement, as America ended up maintaining a presence in Haiti for 19 years. 

In the weeks following the landings U.S. officials took control of most of the government’s basic functions, including public works and customs administration, and soon disbanded the army, which was replaced with a U.S.-trained police force known as the Garde D’Haiti.  On August 12, under the watchful gaze of U.S. Marines, Haitian parliamentarians elected a U.S.-backed politician, Phillipe Sudre Dartiguenave, as the new president. The U.S. Marine commander, Smedley Butler, reported: “His Excellency Phillipe Sudre Dartiguenave was put in office in September. I won’t say we put him in. The State department might object. Anyway, he was put in.” In November 1915 Dartiguenave signed a comprehensive treaty that affirmed American control of Haiti, administered through a High Commissioner and Financial Advisor, as well as U.S. aid obligations. 

At the Americans’ behest Dartiguenave dissolved the Haitian Senate in April 1916, ending any pretense of self-rule – a bitter pill for a country established by a successful slave rebellion against French rule in 1804. Indeed, in an age of endemic racism there was little doubt that white American administrators viewed black Haitians as unfit for self-rule, and the mixed-race Creole elite as a questionable quantity at best. Press censorship and the use of forced labor to build roads, with white overseers directing black laborers, further reinforced Haitians’ resentment of the American occupation.

Adding insult to injury, in 1917 Haiti’s puppet government approved a new Constitution that opened the economy up to foreign investors, raising the prospect of Haiti becoming another “banana republic.” The constitution was written by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy, an ambitious Democratic politician named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ironically almost two decades later FDR, now president, would also be responsible for withdrawing the U.S. occupation force. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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