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America’s “Black Vietnam”: Haiti’s Cacos vs. The Marine Corps, 1915-22

America’s “Black Vietnam”: Haiti’s Cacos vs. The Marine Corps, 1915-22

Date: Fall 1981

Marines are back in Haiti nearly ten years since restoring President Aristide to office following his exile in the U.S. after the military coup which ousted him in 1991.

If that sentence alone is confusing, just compare it to the 200 year history of Haiti since it gained independence from France in 1804: of 47 presidents, only nine served out their terms. Eleven were removed by the army, nine by mobs, six were disposed by civilian rebellions, two killed in the streets by mobs, one killed by a palace bomb, one died of a stroke during a revolt, one committed suicide and one died of a mysterious poison.

U.S. Marines occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934, completely overhauling the country’s infrastructure but unable to dent the chaotic political culture which remains intact today.

More than twenty years ago, IWP Walter Kohler Professor John Tierney wrote the following account of the initial U.S. intervention into Haiti in 1915, which he entitled America’s “Black Vietnam.” The article appeared in the Fall 1981 edition of the Lincoln Review, a scholarly journal on African-American affairs. The article is republished here to provide perspective on the early 2004 crisis in comparison to what the U.S. had to do some eighty years ago to restore order and stability in Haiti.

“America’s ‘Black Vietnam’: Haiti’s Cacos vs. The Marine Corps, 1915-22”
Published in the Lincoln Review, Volume 2, Number 3, Fall 1981

Haiti Marines 1915For the vast majority of Americans, the Vietnam War was a social political era of protest and unrest at home. For the black community, the anti-war movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King pointed to the major concerns that the war had for blacks-the high proportion of black men in Vietnam duty and the relocation of social and economic concerns to the war effort and away from domestic and civil rights issues.

The media was at the center of Vietnam era protests, unlike any other war in history. Politicians, black and white, could use the readily available camera to reach millions of Americans in an instant. The harsh realities of the war itself-the bombing campaigns, napalm, body counts, Mylai, etc.- brought home to the American public the daily tragedies of Vietnam.

As the war unfolded year after year without the promised victory, black spokesmen became more vocal in protest. Vietnam was labeled a “racist” war; blacks joined with white liberals in demonstrations against “genocide”; and the war was linked with alleged American societal “oppression” in all walks of life. Black revolutionists like H. Rap Brown and the Black Panthers revealed great skill in organizing media campaigns in which Vietnam became symbolic of urban ghettos and a “sick” society.

Vietnam is more than five years behind us now and the protests provoked by the war are gone. The social issues themselves, of course, aren’t much closer to solution than before, but the war as a visible symbol is no longer able to rally public opposition. The nation, comparatively, is quiet. But the Vietnam era protests still ring in-our ears as a reminder that our domestic house is still not in perfect order.

War has a unique way of surfacing issues that otherwise would have been left dormant or postponed. World War II, as an example, is still probably the greatest social catalyst in modern history, with the possible exception of World War I. Both of these wars showhow profound the after-effects of prolonged conflict can be. Great wars change society permanently and lesser wars have their own social impact as well, Vietnam being no exception.

In order for war to impact upon society, of course, society must know about it. Wars that are unknown or forgotten remain lost in time, at best no more than footnotes to the passage of history. It is still too early to know whether or not Vietnam will be in this category, but it is not certain that the generation of the year 2000 will have anything more than a fleeting glimpse of a war which dominated the emotions of the 1960’s generation.

Does the reader recall the Philippine Insurrection, a conflict of eighty years ago that took a quarter million Philippine lives and engaged 125,000 American soldiers for over three years? This war split the U.S. society in ways similar to Vietnam, but it is doubtful that many contemporary Americans have even heard of it. Textbooks mention it in passing, some not at all.

It is equally doubtful that contemporary historians remember the American intervention in Haiti, 1915-1922. This was an early “Vietnam” against a black country right on the U.S. doorstep. If the same circumstances could be repeated today, the societal impact would be widespread, particularly in the vocal, articulate and aggressive black political climate of modern America. Since this took place before the modern revolution in newspaper and electronic reporting, it came and went practically unnoticed. At the time, however, it was an important domestic issue and a frustrating counterinsurgency.

Black “consciousness” was light-years behind what it is today, but even then the nascent black political voice tried to protest this conflict with the tiny resources at hand. Indeed, if one could close one’s eyes and recall the time and circumstances, the Haitian war against the U.S. military was a true “black Vietnam” in American history. Its importance has long since gone, but it still can serve as a reminder both of the timeless frustrations involved in guerrilla warfare and as a forgotten episode in the evolution of black history. The guerrilla war in Haiti is more significant today precisely because of history’s neglect rather than from any importance it had in American life. The fact that it had practically none is itself significant, and tells us more of the differences between yesterday and today than any other single fact of the intervention.

At the time, Haiti was practically ungoverned. Between 1908 and 1915, seven presidents were elected and deposed by violence. The economy was Iron Age. There were few passable roads and only three automobiles in the entire country. A population of about 2.5 million lived in an area the size of New York State in virtual anarchy.

The word “Haiti” means mountainous, and the geographic isolation of the country left ultimate political power in the hands of the 11 “cacos,” a large band of warlike ex-slaves that had established their own brand of “tribal” authority in the rugged and mountainous interior. Like the bird-of-prey with its red plume (wherein they derived their name) the cacos lived off the peasants and were recognized by a patch of red cloth worn on their sleeves.

A definition of the romantic-sounding rebels was given at the time by General L. W. T. Waller, USMC, whose troops had to fight them in Haiti’s mountains for nearly seven years: “It must be explained that the cacos have been the controlling element in all revolutions; they were purchased by first one candidate and then another. Finishing a contract with one man, they, having put him in power, would immediately sell their services to the next aspirant to unseat the first.”

The cacos had no military organization, no uniforms, no modern arm or supplies of their own, yet they fought the marines in guerrilla war from the first day of the intervention in 1915. They eventually lost, but not until 1922, not until they had succeeded in challenging the right of the U.S. to govern Haiti itself, and not until their stubborn resistance had voiced its protests right up to the halls of the U.S. Congress and to the White House.

U.S. intervention began in the summer of 1915 after a bloody revolution had torn apart the fabric of Haitian society and posed the possibility of foreign military intervention (including German) to collect overdue debts. World War I was already into its second year and Washington was extremely sensitive about possible European intrusions into the Caribbean. British, French and German warships had, in fact, already landed their forces in 1914. By July, 1915, with Haiti again in a condition of anarchy, the United States decided on full armed intervention with the intention of restoring law and order and of protecting American and foreign interests against mob rule. During August, a force of 2,000 officers and menoccupied Port au Prince andlesser towns of the country.

With the exception of the resistance they began to encounter in the caco areas, the marines were able to occupy Haiti without serious trouble. Since they knew little of caco history, the marine command expected little trouble from the north. But the fierce cacos refused to give up. Brave to the point of foolishness, they feared no outside army, not even the Marine Corps with its artillery and machine guns. They nearly surrounded a marine force in Cap Haitien on the northern coast, and were it not for reinforcements which arrived at the last minute, thev would probably have driven the marines out. Beaten back by the beefed-up Americans, the cacos left behind 40 dead.

But these Haitian warriors had a problem which becomes insurmountable when fighting a superior army: they had no place to go. With the seacoast to their back, and with the Dominican border sealed off by U.S. forces, the cacos found themselves captive in their own island. After a six-day recormaisance trip that covered 120 miles, the marines began a determined offensive against the caco stronghold, an eighteenth century brick and stone bastion named Fort Reviere. In their retreat to Fort Reviere, the cacos eluded marine patrols as much as possible, preferring to ambush their adversary if they could. Nevertheless, they could not run forever. Trapped in their stronghold, they had no choice but to fight it out, a usual disaster for even the best-equipped guerrillas. The’result was predictable. The marines stormed the fort, believed impregnable by the militarily ignorant ex-slaves, and killed 50 of them, including several of their leaders. A ton of dynamite demolished the fort and, for the time being, the caco resistance against American rule was broken.

This initial reaction to foreign occupation in Haiti offers a classic reminder of the vital requirement of a geographic sanctuary for guerrilla war. Even if the cacos had understood fully the tactics of guerrilla war-which they clearly did not-the geographic handicaps of Haiti probably would have strangled their rebellion anyway. They knew only how to fight their enemies head-on. They neither understood the subtleties of protracted action nor did they develop even a vaguely constructive program of social and political resistance. Consequently, the marines had a field-day chasing them into the type of trap that usually spells the end of irregular forces. In 1918, however, under different leadership and with the memories of 1915 still in their minds, the cacos rose once more, this time in a more planned and widespread action against U.S. authority.

In the meantime, the U.S. formed a national guard, the Gendarmerie D’ Haiti, which rapidly assumed police duties for the entire country. Led by 115 marine and naval officers, the Gendarmerie came to have 2,533 Haitian troops. In discipline, training and gear, it became a near-replica of the Marine Corps. Training was completely standard in both theory and practice, the gendarmes using the orthodox Infantry Drill Regulations right until the eventual end of American occupation in 1934.

The far more serious caco revolt in 1918 was triggered by the American enforcement of the corvee – an obligation for every Haitian to perform unpaid labor in the construction of public roads. As the country’s almost complete lack of passable highways attested, this system had been practically ignored in the past. But the U.S. insistence on its enforcement, however reasonable this may have been, opened a second caco revolt that, before it was over, involved the whole country in an insurrection against American rule.

Initial fighting occurred in June 1918 when a gendarme force, sent out to enforce the edict, was severely beaten by a group of cacos. During the summer and fall of 1918, the cacos developed a military force of 3,000 men, with the active assistance of about one-fifth of the entire Haitian people. Led by the charismatic personality of Charlemagne Peralte, they organized a fairly sophisticated system of intelligence and security, forcing peasants to join up whether they wanted to or not.

The cacos took the offensive to the gendarmerie, burning their barracks and, on occasion, administering severe defeats on the newly-formed outfit. The movement began to assume the proportions of a full-scale revolution, led by Charlemagne’s cry to “drive the invaders into the sea and free Haiti.” With the gendarmerie clearly on the defensive, the country tottered on the brink of disaster. In March, 1919, a belated call for another marine intervention was made by the government of Haiti.

In the campaign that followed, the combined marine-gendarme force faced a much superior enemy than the one that the marines bad so easily destroyed in 1915. Charlemagne and an equally formidable caco cheftain, Benoit Batraville, succeeded in organizing over one-quarter of the country in a formidable and sustained irregular military operation against the marine presence. Although the United States always insisted that the war was only against outlawed “bandits,” the essentially political character of the revolt was manifest in both caco propaganda against the U.S. as well as in the traditional political aims of caco history. The racial implications of the intervention were used to the fullest by the cacos; it became a war against white invaders.

Militarily, the cacos were careful to stay away from the main body of marine strength, although they still occasionally evidenced an overzealous taste for battle. Their successful ambush of a large marine patrol in April, 1919, amounted to a tactical victory of sorts and stimulated their hopes for eventual success. Nevertheless, between April and September the two sides engaged each other on over 100 occasions, sometimes in pitched battles but more normally in small skirmishes, usually ending with the retreat of the insurgents into the bush. Although the marines were able to find and rout the cacos from their encampment, they proved unable to eliminate the rebellion that was still in high gear after six months of hard campaigning. Growing bolder as a result of their swift evasions of marine patrols, both Charlemagne and Benoit, in October, 1919, “rode higher than ever.”

With a force of 300 men, Charlemagne launched an attack on Port au Prince itself on October 7, probably one of the more premature military moves in the annals of irregular war. Although this force was joined by clandestine insurgents inside the capitol, both the marines and the gendarmerie were ready. The raid was turned into a full-scale retreat. The next day, the gendarmerie followed the fleeing rebels into the bush, killing 30 and capturing most of their weapons.

The attack on Port au Prince set the rebellion back considerably did not end it. Charlemagne’s defeat in the capitol was typical of his lack of caution against the militarily superior Marines. But the very idea of the scheme itself – and the fact that it even got off the ground – (a Haitian “Tet offensive”?) awakened U.S. authorities to the extent of the problem in Haiti. The United States was not prepared to wage protracted counterinsurgency, which came as a complete surprise, and the close-call inside the capital city caused the marines to revise their estimate of the situation. Thus far, the combination of marine-gendarme activity had been poorly handled; nor did the U.S. fully understand the depths of the revolution they were facing. As a Marine Corps historian has written:

“In the operations in general there appears to have been considerable confusion and lack of coordination between the marines and the gendarmes. Through lack of knowledge of each other’s activities, gendarmerie patrols fired upon each other on more than one occasion; this resulted in the death of a number of marines and gendarmes. Apparently there had been a tendency to discount the seriousness of the caco revolt and to suppress information about it…. The fact remains that there was serious blame somewhere for the turn of events in Haiti. A great deal of criticism resulted.”

At this point, the U.S. tried to end the rebellion by the capture of Charlemagne, dead or alive. The marine commander of the gendarmerie, Colonel F. M. Wise, has related the problem as it was viewed in 1919:

“It was a pretty big order. It meant running down one Haitian out of several millions of Haitians in a country as big as the state of New York. And that one Haitian was surrounded by his friends, operating in a country which was almost entirely sympathedc to him, was protected by a fanatical body guard, never slept two nights in the same place, and must be run down in a tangled maze of mountains and valleys and jungles, of which there were no accurate maps.”

As the weary campaign dragged on, the murder of Charlemagne was accomplished by Sergeant H. H. Hanneken (USMC) in an adventure which must rank as one of the greatest deceptions in the history of warfare. In a planned series of moves that, sixty years later, still seems incredulous, Hanneken succeeded in planting a Haitian spy into Charlemagne’s ranks. Jean Conze, a wealthy Haitian who fooled the entire populace into believing that he was converted to the revolutionary cause, conspired with the Americans to kill Charlemagne.

Hanneken and Conze went so far as to simulate a mock battle be tween gendarmes and Conze’s men, a planned “defeat” of the gendarmes which further convinced all of Haiti that Conze was a committed rebel. Sergeant Hanneken, feigning a wounded arm supposedly injured in the “battle,” publicly travelled through Haiti for the next several weeks with a sling deliberately stained by red ink taken from a field desk. On the night of October 30, Conze provided Hanneken with details on Charlemagne’s whereabouts. With sixteen hand picked gendarmes, Hanneken and his second in command, Corporal William R. Button (USMC) , went through six caco outposts undetected. They were inspected by flashlight at each point, but incredibly enough, they were able to disguise their skin by the use of black cork coloring. They made it through each outpost undetected, white men “dressed” in caco skin.

When they arrived at the main rebel base, Conze silently pointed out Charlemagne hovering near the light of a small campfire. The American pumped two .45 caliber slugs into the betrayed leader, killing him instantly. The bodyguard was instantly felled by automatic rifle fire. The next morning, the marines returned with the body of Charlemagne slung over one of his own mules, done in by the stupidity of his own men and by the treachery of Jean Conze, Haiti’s black “Judas.”

After the loss of Charlemagne, insurgency in northern Haiti was hurt, but not defeated. Leadership of the cacos fell to Benoit Betraville, who still controlled about 2,500 irregulars in central Haiti.

In the meantime, the marine command revised its estimate of the black enemy which had lost its leader, but was still at-large. “It was clear,” a marine historian has written, “that, despite the windfall of Hanneken’s enormous success, the existing organization strength and efficiency of both the Brigade and the Gendarmerie had not been adequate to deal with the cacos uprising.”

Under a new Brigade Commander, Colonel John H. Russell, the U.S. took steps to improve gendarme-marine coordination and inaugurated an improved intelligence network. Russell divided the caco areas into squares of responsibility, wherein each marine patrol was instructed to systematically search out hostile cacos until the vicinity was rid of further resistance.

With over 1,300 officers and men, aided by 2,700 gendarmerie, the U.S. opened the year 1920 with a concerted effort to rid Haiti of the insurgent war that had torn it apart for nearly two years. For the next six months, the improved force of marines and gendarmes relentlessly drove the cacos back whenever they met. The marines were assisted by the innovation of coordinated air-ground attacks through the use of two airplanes, a Jenny and a De Havilland. In nearly 200 engagements, most of the remaining irregulars were either killed, captured or surrendered themselves under protection of the government’s new amnesty program. Another attempt on Port an Prince failed even more dramatically than the previous one.

By March, over 3,000 cacos had turned themselves in. In June, the war was effectively ended with the death of Benoit in a surprise attack on his main camp. The final tally was revealing: about 2,000 cacos, had been killed since the renewed fighting in 1918, compared to only 250 in the 1915 campaign. The marines lost only seven killed and ten wounded, the gendarmerie lost 27 with 45 wounded, despite the fact that themarines did most of the fighting.

The Haitian war was plagued from the start with political and racial problems, most of which were not anticipated by Washington. Most educated Haitians were opposed to the use of American troops. The peasants in the countryside actively aided the cacos, willingingly or not. The fact that the U.S. presence had deprived a number of prominent Haitians of their historic opportunities for power and profit was undoubtedly a factor in this general hostility. But the instinctive magnet of patriotism was a formidable barrier between occupier and occupied. “Disorganization and slowness of American action,” one expert on the intervention has maintained, “continuance of military rule and of domination by the United States, fear of exploitation and of loss of independence – these were either causes of hostility or provoked subject matter for propaganda.”

Haitian newspapers often attacked the U.S. openly in their editorials. In response, the United States slammed a tight censorship over these offenders, under conditions of martial law, that effectively ended the public disclosures of internal political opposition. U.S. censorship, for a time, was also extended to include telegram and postal correspondence. Very few Americans were aware of what was happening in Haiti during this war.

Back in the United States, criticism of the intervention still managed to surface among liberal and black opponents of “imperialism.” Many newspapers joined in the attack, and by 1920 U.S. officials, by one account, “were subjected to widespread criticism, and occasional vigorous opposition in the form of persistent agitation and systematic propaganda…” The newly-born NAACP raised its own protest against the intervention, as did a growing chorus of anti-U.S. voices from Latin America. During the 1920 presidential election in the United States, Republican candidate Warren G. Harding adopted a curiously anti-imperialist stance of his own, telling one audience, for example: “I will not empower an Assistant Secretary of the Navy to draft a constitution for helpless neighbors in the West Indies and jam it down their throats at the points of bayonets borne by United States Marines….”

While Haitian delegates to Washington brought public protests against U.S. occupation policies, a group of 24 American lawyers presented the Secretary of State a critical booklet, The Seizure of Haiti by the United States, which demanded an end to the intervention and critiqued American motivations and methods.

Much of the opposition to U.S. methods in Haiti centered on atrocities committed by the marines and gendamerie against Haitian peasants. Despite the military’s censorship, word still leaked out.

The protests against tactics like torture and the shooting of prisoners reached such proportions that the U.S. Senate Committee of Inquiry held a series of hearings on the matter from August to December, 1921. While the Senate report admitted that a number of such incidents had occurred in Haiti, the Marine Corps was officially exonerated, while overall U.S. occupation policies were instructed to become more efficient and coordinated and more “sensitive” to the needs of the Haitian society.

The war in Haiti ended quietly, and life went on as before, but with the U.S. in full control of Haitian politics until 1934. The cacos are no more today than a reminder of a distant past, a past when some in the U.S. felt that they could engineer the internal life of subject nations at will.

(Image: Detail from “Capture of Fort Riviere, 1915,” painting by Col. D. J. Neary USMCR, US Marine Corps Art Collection.)