Down To The Banana Republics

Published July 30, 2021
Down To The Banana Republics

Occupations by the U.S. Military are Nothing New

On this date, March 21, 1907, the United States Marines invaded the country of Honduras – yes, you read that correctly, Honduras. It was just one of the many countries in which we found ourselves during what came to be called “The Banana Wars,” a series of occupations, police actions, and interventions involving the United States in Central America and the Caribbean. It was during the Honduras occupation that journalist O. Henry dubbed the region the “Banana Republics,” a moniker that stuck.

The Banana Wars began with our invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War and lasted until 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally pulled us out of Haiti with his “Good Neighbor Policy.” Up until that time, we’d been anything but good neighbors, using military might to enforce America’s business interests in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

Of course, the U.S. would never do anything like that today….. Right? So, for anyone who thinks playing policeman to the world is something new, take a look at the history of the early twentieth century.

US Marines with the captured flag of Augusto César Sandino in Nicaragua in 1932
The Banana Wars of the early twentieth century were fought almost entirely because of money, which explained the name that were given to the various conflicts. The military was preserving the American commercial interests in the region. The United Fruit Company, one of the largest companies in the U.S. at the time, had significant financial stakes in production of bananas, tobacco, sugar cane, and various other products throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Northern South America. The U.S. was also advancing its political interests, maintaining a sphere of influence and controlling the Panama Canal which it had recently built, which was critically important to global trade and naval power.

The conflicts that made up the Banana Wars included:

·        *  The Spanish-American War, which saw our invasions of Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1898.

·         * Panama: U.S. intervention in Panama dated back to the Watermelon War of 1856 but in 1903, Panama seceded from the Republic of Colombia, backed by the U.S. government, during what was called the Thousand Days War. The Panama Canal was under construction by then, and the Panama Canal Zone, under United States sovereignty, was then created.

·         * Nicaragua: After intermittent landings and naval bombardments in the previous decades, was occupied by the U.S. almost continuously from 1912 through 1933.

·         * Haiti: Occupied by the U.S. from 1915 to 1934. This period led to the creation of a new Haitian constitution in 1917. It instituted some interesting changes for the country, including an end to the ban that prohibited land ownership by non-Haitians – which was, of course, important to the fruit companies who wanted to snatch up prime real estate.

·         * Dominican Republic: Action began in this country in 1903 and 1904 and resulted in a U.S. occupation from 1916 to 1924.

·         * Mexico: In this country, military operations were of a different nature. While some of them were commercial incursions, we conducted the Border War with Mexico from 1910-1919 for additional reasons: to control the flow of immigrants and refugees from revolutionary Mexico, and to counter rebel raids into U.S. territory. The 1914 U.S. occupation of Veracruz, however, was aimed at cutting off the supplies of German munitions to the government of Mexican leader Victoriano Huerta, whom US President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize. In the years prior to World War I, the U.S. discovered that the Germans were actively arming and advising the Mexicans. Only twice during the Mexican Revolution did the U.S. military occupy Mexico; during the temporary occupation of Veracruz in 1914 and between the years 1916 and 1917, when General John Pershing and his army came to Mexico to lead a nationwide search for Pancho Villa.

While Mexico was a different situation, Honduras was another situation altogether. The first decades of Honduras history were marked by instability in terms of politics and economy. In fact, there were 210 armed conflicts between independence and the rise of a stable government – conflicts all attributed to American involvement in the country.

The conflicts began after the Standard Fruit Company signed an agreement with the Honduran government. The Cuyamel Fruit Company followed their lead, followed by the United Fruit Company, which also owned the two major railroads in the country. This was a standard way of doing business in a “Banana Republic.” It meant grabbing a piece of land in exchange for the operation of the railroads – in other words, extorting them into a business exchange. The goal of a contract was to control the process from production to distribution of the bananas. Therefore, the companies would finance war guerrillas, presidential campaigns and governments. When the American companies got into trouble, the U.S. Marines were called, which made the country’s armed conflicts even worse.

All of the Banana War military interventions were carried out by the United States Marine Corps. The Marines were called in so often that they developed a Small Wars Manual, The Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars in 1921.

Perhaps the single most active military officer in the Banana Wars was U.S. Marine Corps Major General, Smedley Butler, who saw action in Honduras in 1903, served in Nicaragua enforcing American policy from 1909–1912, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in Veracruz in 1914, and a second Medal of Honor for bravery in Haiti in 1915. In 1935, Butler wrote in his famous book War Is a Racket:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927, I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.


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