US Occupation of the Dominican Republic

The Flag of the United States waving over Ozama Fortress.
Richard from USA/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

From 1916 to 1924, the US government occupied the Dominican Republic, mostly because a chaotic and unstable political situation there was preventing the Dominican Republic from paying back debts owed to the USA and other foreign countries. The US military easily subdued any Dominican resistance and occupied the nation for eight years. The occupation was unpopular both with the Dominicans and Americans in the USA who felt it was a waste of money.

A History of Intervention

At the time, it was common for the USA to intervene in the affairs of other nations, particularly those in the Caribbean or Central America. The reason was the Panama Canal, completed in 1914 at a high cost to the United States. The Canal was (and still is) hugely important strategically and economically. The USA felt that any nations in the vicinity had to be closely watched and, if need be, controlled in order to protect their investment. In 1903, the United States created the "Santo Domingo Improvement Company" in charge of regulating customs at Dominican ports in an effort to recoup past debts. In 1915, the US had occupied Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic: they would stay until 1934.

The Dominican Republic in 1916

Like many Latin American nations, the Dominican Republic experienced great growing pains after independence. It became a country in 1844 when it broke from Haiti, splitting the island of Hispaniola roughly in half. Since independence, the Dominican Republic had seen over 50 presidents and nineteen different constitutions. Of those presidents, only three peacefully completed their designated terms in office. Revolutions and rebellions were common and the national debt kept piling up. By 1916 the debt had swollen to well over $30 million, which the poor island nation could never hope to pay.

Political Turmoil in the Dominican Republic

The USA controlled the customs houses in the major ports, collecting on their debt but strangling the Dominican economy. In 1911, Dominican President Ramón Cáceres was assassinated and the nation erupted once again into civil war. By 1916, Juan Isidro Jiménez was president, but his supporters were fighting openly with those loyal to his rival, General Desiderio Arías, former Minister of War. As the fighting got worse, the Americans sent marines to occupy the nation. President Jiménez did not appreciate the gesture, resigning his post rather than take orders from the occupiers.

The Pacification of the Dominican Republic

The US soldiers moved quickly to secure their hold on the Dominican Republic. In May, Rear Admiral William B. Caperton arrived in Santo Domingo and took over the operation. General Arias decided to oppose the occupation, ordering his men to contest the American landing at Puerto Plata on June 1. General Arias went to Santiago, which he vowed to defend. The Americans sent a concerted force and took the city. That wasn’t the end of the resistance: in November, Governor Juan Pérez of the city of San Francisco de Macorís refused to recognize the occupation government. Holed up in an old fort, he was eventually driven out by the marines.

The Occupation Government

The US worked hard to find a new President who would grant them whatever they wanted. The Dominican Congress selected Francisco Henriquez, but he refused to obey American commands, so he was removed as president. The US eventually simply decreed that they would place their own military government in charge. The Dominican army was disbanded and replaced with a national guard, the Guardia Nacional Dominicana. All of the high-ranking officers were initially Americans. During the occupation, the US military ruled the nation completely except for lawless parts of the city of Santo Domingo, where powerful warlords still held sway.

A Difficult Occupation

The US military occupied the Dominican Republic for eight years. The Dominicans never warmed to the occupying force, and instead resented the high-handed intruders. Although all-out attacks and resistance stopped, isolated ambushes of American soldiers were frequent. The Dominicans also organized themselves politically: they created the Unión Nacional Dominicana, (Dominican National Union) whose purpose was to drum up support in other parts of Latin America for the Dominicans and convince the Americans to withdraw. Prominent Dominicans generally refused to co-operate with the Americans, as their countrymen saw it as treason.

The US Withdrawal

With the occupation very unpopular both in the Dominican Republic and at home in the USA, President Warren Harding decided to get the troops out. The USA and the Dominican Republic agreed on a plan for an orderly withdrawal which guaranteed that customs duties would still be used to pay off long-standing debts. Starting in 1922, the US military began gradually moving out of the Dominican Republic. Elections were held and in July of 1924 a new government took over the country. The last US Marines left the Dominican Republic on September 18, 1924.

The Legacy of the US Occupation of the Dominican Republic

Not a whole lot of good came out of the US occupation of the Dominican Republic. It is true that the nation was stable for a period of eight years under the occupation and that there was a peaceful transition of power when the Americans left, but the democracy did not last. Rafael Trujillo, who would go on to become dictator of the country from 1930 to 1961, got his start in the US-trained Dominican National Guard. Like they did in Haiti at roughly the same time, the US did help build schools, roads, and other infrastructure improvements.

The occupation of the Dominican Republic, as well as other interventions in Latin America in the early part of the Twentieth Century, gave the US a bad reputation as a high-handed imperialist power. The best that can be said of the 1916-1924 occupation is that although the USA was protecting its own interests in the Panama Canal, they did try to leave the Dominican Republic a better place than they found it.


Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars: Washington D.C.: Brassey, Inc., 2003.the Age of the Professional Soldier, 1900-2001.

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Minster, Christopher. "US Occupation of the Dominican Republic." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 27). US Occupation of the Dominican Republic. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "US Occupation of the Dominican Republic." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).