Never a force for good

April 5, 2011

No struggle for liberation and democracy has ever benefited from U.S. military intervention--because Washington's wars come at the price of perverting those aims.

THE UNITED States has a history of presenting its motives for military intervention in a good light--spreading democracy, fighting terrorism, deposing unpopular tyrants, protecting civilians and saving lives.

In each case, the reasons the U.S. has concocted for public consumption to explain its decision to take military action differ substantially from the real aims of the operation.

Much can be learned from the way the U.S. behaved toward the Cuban independence movement against Spain in the late 1890s--which culminated in 1898 in the "splendid little war" that made the Philippines and Puerto Rico colonies of the U.S., and Cuba a protectorate.


AFTER THE Civil War, the U.S. emerged as a world economic powerhouse--though as a latecomer, its military power, political clout and colonial interests lagged far behind that of the European powers, particularly Britain and France.

As the end of the 19th century approached, the European powers were busy carving up the world into colonies and spheres of influence in an effort to secure sources of raw materials, cheap labor and protected markets. U.S. officials, politicians and business interests began clamoring for a foreign policy that would assert American naval and military power, particularly in the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific.

"It makes the water come to my mouth when I think of the state of Cuba as one in our family," wrote Frederick R. Coudert, a leading Wall Street figure, in 1895.

A number of American investors were coming to dominate the lucrative Cuban sugar industry, and Cuba was seen as a strategically important island for controlling the Caribbean.

The famed Cuban revolutionary, José Martí, who had spent some time in the U.S. organizing a movement in exile against Spanish domination, welcomed the political and financial support of U.S. citizens for the Cuban cause.

But he was suspicious of U.S. designs on the island, writing in his last letter, not long before his death at the hands of his Spanish enemies in 1895: "It is my duty, inasmuch as I realize it and have the spirit to fulfill it--to prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies and falling, with that added weight, upon other lands of our America. All I have done up to now, and shall do hereafter, is to that end."

U.S. soldiers during the Spanish American War
U.S. soldiers during the Spanish American War

"I have lived inside the monster," he continued, referring to the U.S., "and know its insides--and my weapon is only the slingshot of David."

The revolutionary war for Cuban independence begun by Martí and his cohorts in 1895 had widespread support in the U.S., fanned in part by the "yellow press" owned by media moguls like William Randolph Hearst, who supported U.S. intervention in Cuba and used his newspapers to press for it.

No doubt, the press had much to work with in making the case against Spain. After the triumphal march of the revolutionary armies through Cuba, Spain put Gen. Valeriano Wyler in charge: he immediately implemented his now infamous reconcentration plan. This decree gave eight days for all inhabitants of Cuba to move into towns occupied by Spanish troops and forbade the transfer of food from one place to another. The policy led to the deaths by disease and starvation of as many as half, and possibly more, of the 500,000 to 600,000 people affected by the transfer policy.

Throughout the war, however, the U.S. under President Grover Cleveland refused to recognize the Cuban revolutionary armies, and used its powers to prevent the flow of men, arms and supplies to them--in effect, aiding the Spanish. Many commentators at the time wrote of the fact that the revolutionaries could have easily defeated the Spanish before the U.S. invasion if they had been able to purchase munitions, food and medical supplies from America.

Nevertheless, these under-equipped, half-starving armies of guerrilla fighters, never totaling more than 30,000, but ably led by the likes of Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo, ran the Spanish ragged and seized control of dozens of towns and most of the countryside. By the time the U.S. made its decision to intervene, it was widely believed that it was only a matter of time before the Spanish were defeated anyway.

There was a minority in the Cuban independence movement, such as Tómas Estrada Palma, the delegate of the Cuban Revolutionary Party stationed in the U.S., who supported some kind of American intervention on the grounds that only the U.S. could establish the conditions for stability and "law and order" necessary for Cuban business interests on the island. In the words of historian Philip Foner, Estrada "came to favor American intervention to prevent the revolution from becoming too revolutionary."

This argument that independence would produce chaos--and in particular, a "race war," which was a code phrase for the dominance of Blacks--was one of the reasons the U.S. justified both non-intervention, and then later, its right to assert control over Cuba.

"There are...strong reasons to fear," wrote Cleveland's Secretary of State Richard Olney, "that, once Spain were withdrawn from the island, the sold bond of union between the different factions of the insurgents would disappear [and] that a war of races would be precipitated."

But Estrada's support for U.S. intervention was not the position of the majority, especially those on the ground fighting in Cuba.

"We do not need any intervention to obtain victory in more or less time," Antonio Maceo wrote eight months before he was killed, in December 1896, by Wyler's troops. "Bring Cuba 25,000 to 35,000 rifles and a million bullets...We Cubans do not need any other help."


MACEO'S WORDS were prophetic. President William McKinley, who replaced Cleveland, began planning a war against Spain, not to aid the Cuban independence movement, but to gain hold of Cuba before independence could be achieved.

The U.S. government was willing to let Spain rule so long as it guaranteed U.S. business interests on the island. When it became clear that Spain was no longer able to do so, that was when the U.S. decided to intervene.

The invasion was presented publicly as a humanitarian effort--"for the purposes of extending succor," in McKinley's words--though the explosion of the USS Maine off the coast of Havana was also milked to arouse pro-war sentiment.

But as Foner notes, everything known about Cuba at the time pointed to the fact that the rebels' victory was only delayed by lack of arms. If McKinley was so concerned about the interests of humanity, he need only allow weapons to get to the rebels. However, "such a policy would mean that Cuba would be truly independent--independent of the United States as well as Spain--and this was something that the administration would under no circumstances countenance," Foner wrote.

McKinley's April 11 speech to congress announcing war with Spain was fairly explicit in its opposition to Cuban independence: "To commit this country now to the recognition of any particular government in Cuba may subject us to embarrassing conditions of international obligations toward the organization so recognized. In case of intervention, our conduct would be subjected to the approval or disapproval of that government."

Even the way McKinley framed the issue of humanitarian intervention indicated a desire to cut out the revolutionaries from any say in the outcome: "The forcible intervention of the United States as a neutral to stop the war, according to the large dictates of humanity and following many historical precedents where neighboring states have interfered to check the hopeless sacrifices of life by internecine conflicts beyond their borders, is justifiable on rational grounds. It involves, however, hostile constraint upon both the parties to the contest as well to enforce a truce as to guide the eventual settlement."

The Cubans insisted that without any recognition by the U.S. of Cuba's independence, they would consider any American invasion a "declaration of war by the United States against Cuban revolutionists."

But the revolutionaries were somewhat mollified by the Teller amendment, which stated that the U.S. "hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island, except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination when that is accomplished to leave the government and control of the island to its people."

This statement proved meaningless when it came to the subsequent invasion and occupation of Cuba.

The U.S. was able to land its forces in the southeastern part of Cuba in large part with the help of Cuban revolutionary troops under Gen. Calixto Garcia, which prevented Spanish reinforcements from being able to move toward the area.

Despite the indispensable role played by Cuban troops in the U.S. victory, the U.S. press, aided by military officials, began a campaign of slander against the rebels, saying that they were lazy, ineffective and unhelpful--all in attempt to elevate the role of the U.S. as the sole victor in the war.

Adding salt to the wound, Gen. William Shafter, the head of the expeditionary forces, did not invite Gen. Garcia or any rebel officers to the official celebration after the city of Santiago de Cuba fell. Indeed, the U.S. allowed the Spanish administrators to continue at their posts, and forbid any Cuban rebels from entering into the town. Garcia was so incensed that he resigned.

The same thing happened in December when the Spanish handed power over to the Americans in Havana. The Cuban popular committees planned a five-day celebration to congratulate the joint Cuban-American victory, complete with a parade of Cuban revolutionary troops. The celebration was canceled by the American general in charge, and Cuban troops were forbidden from entering the city.


THE U.S. army stayed in Cuba. Under Gen. Leonard Wood, the island was divided up into military districts, each ruled by an officer and policed by a contingent of U.S. troops.

As a condition for withdrawal (which took place in 1902), Wood insisted that an amendment--known as the Platt Amendment--be written into the Cuban constitution stipulating that the "the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States."

In short, the amendment gave the U.S. the right to invade Cuba whenever it wasn't pleased with developments there. U.S. troops occupied Cuba in 1906, 1909, 1912 and between 1917 and 1923. After that, the U.S. largely protected its interests by backing friendly dictators.

There are many important lessons to be drawn from this experience. While no historical parallels are exact, the story of the U.S. in Cuba provides a useful framework for understanding its intervention more than 100 years later in Libya--and stopping us from the facile and historically unjustifiable belief that the world's biggest, most violent, imperialist powers are capable of exerting military force for the good of humanity.

No revolutionary movement has ever benefited from accepting military intervention from an imperialist power--because such "support" comes at the price of perverting the aims of the movement itself. In the words of Antonio Maceo, "It is better to rise or fall without help than to contract debts of gratitude to a neighbor so powerful."

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