The U.S. Occupation of Haiti From 1915 to 1934

Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America.
Wikimedia Commons

The United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. During this time, they installed puppet governments, ran the economy, military and police, terrorized citizens, and established economic control over Haiti that would continue after they withdrew in the 1940s. It was unpopular with both the Haitians and the citizens of the United States, and American troops and personnel were withdrawn in 1934.


Since gaining independence from France in a bloody rebellion in 1804, Haiti had gone through a succession of dictators. By the early twentieth century, the population was uneducated, poor and hungry. In 1908, the country totally broke down. Regional warlords and militias known as cacos fought in the streets. Between 1908 and 1915 no less than seven men seized the presidency and most of them met some sort of gruesome end: one was hacked to pieces in the street, another killed by a bomb and yet another was probably poisoned.

The United States and the Caribbean

Meanwhile, the United States was expanding its sphere of influence in the Caribbean. In 1898, it had won Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain in the Spanish-American War: Cuba was granted freedom but Puerto Rico was not. The Panama Canal opened in 1914. The United States had invested heavily in building it and had even gone to great pains to separate Panama from Colombia in order to be able to administer it. The strategic value of the canal, both economically and militarily, was enormous. In 1914, the United States had also been meddling in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Haiti in 1915

Europe was at war and Germany was faring well. President Woodrow Wilson feared that Germany might invade Haiti in order to establish a military base there: a base that would be very close to the precious Canal. He had a right to worry: there were many German settlers in Haiti who had financed the rampaging ​cacos with loans that would never be repaid and they were begging Germany to invade and restore order. In February of 1915, pro-US strongman Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam seized power and for a while, it seemed that he would be able to look after US military and economic interests.

The US Seizes Control

In July of 1915, however, Sam ordered a massacre of 167 political prisoners and he was himself lynched by an angry mob that broke into the French Embassy to get at him. Fearing that anti-US caco leader Rosalvo Bobo might take over, Wilson ordered an invasion. The invasion came as no surprise: American warships had been in Haitian waters for most of 1914 and 1915 and American Admiral William B. Caperton had been surveilling the country ahead of the invasion.

Haiti Under US Control

Americans were put in charge of public works, agriculture, health, customs, and the police. General Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave was made president in spite of popular support for Bobo. A new Constitution, prepared in the United States, was pushed through a reluctant Congress: according to a debated report, the author of the document was none other than a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One of the most racist inclusions in the constitution was the right of whites to own land in a Black country, which had not been permitted since the days of French colonial rule.

Unhappy Haiti

Most Haitians did not approve of the occupation. They wanted Bobo as president and resented white Americans for imposing their will on Black Haitian citizens. The Americans managed to irk every social class in Haiti, given that Haitians didn't fight for independence from France a century earlier just to end up back under white control.

The Americans Depart

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the Great Depression hit, and Haitian occupation was no longer fiscally or strategically advantageous for the United States. In 1930, President Hoover sent a delegation to meet with President Louis Borno (who had succeeded Sudre Dartiguenave in 1922). It was decided to hold new elections and begin the process of withdrawing American forces and administrators. Sténio Vincent was elected president and the removal of the Americans began. Americans maintained a presence in Haiti until 1941.

Legacy of the American Occupation

For a while, the order established by the Americans lasted in Haiti. The capable Vincent remained in power until 1941 when he resigned and left Elie Lescot in power. By 1946 Lescot was overthrown. In 1957, François Duvalier took over and began a decades-long dictatorship that was not under American control.

During their 19 year occupation, Americans greatly influenced Haitian schools, infrastructure, and finances. There were also a number instances of where American marines killed Haitian citizens; during the occupation, 15,000 Haitians were killed. They also trained the Garde D'Haiti, a national police force that became an important political force once the Americans left.

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Minster, Christopher. "The U.S. Occupation of Haiti From 1915 to 1934." ThoughtCo, Apr. 13, 2021, Minster, Christopher. (2021, April 13). The U.S. Occupation of Haiti From 1915 to 1934. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The U.S. Occupation of Haiti From 1915 to 1934." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 20, 2021).