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The trouble with rhetoric is that people might believe you. Leading the United States into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson argued that the country would wage a war to end war. Democracy, self-determination, and decolonization would be the ultimate goals of American involvement. The age of empires, he seemed to suggest, was over.

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In the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, and other outposts of the American empire, Wilson’s words were heard, loudly and clearly.

The war did see the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. Defeated, Germany was stripped of its colonies, but not for purposes of colonial self-determination: former German colonies in Africa were parceled out to the Allies. Elsewhere, Britain and France consolidated their holdings and remapped the Middle East for their own benefit, setting the stage for a century of conflict.

And as for the American empire, well, that didn’t seem to be a part of Wilson’s vision, according to historian Emily S. Rosenberg.

“Wilson did not repudiate the U.S. empire that his predecessors had accumulated,” she writes. “Instead, he expanded its scope and style both before and during the war.” Rosenberg quotes Teddy Roosevelt, who said it was “hypocritical for us to lay down any universal rules about self-determination for all nations” while Wilson’s Marines were in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Rosenberg notes that Wilson’s imperial reach also included an invasion of Mexico, troops sent to China, and the continued occupation of the Philippines. Wilson expanded control over protectorates in Cuba and Panama, with Puerto Rico and Nicaragua also firmly in the American pocket. He sent Marines to Haiti in 1915 and the neighboring Dominican Republic in 1916 to make sure American financial interests were secure. As Rosenberg writes:

Wilson’s tightening grip on America’s colonies, protectorates, and dependences in the Caribbean and the Pacific, clashing as it did with the President’s own reputation as a champion of democracy, sparked a ‘Wilsonian moment’ in the American empire—one directed at Wilson’s own administration.

The “Wilsonian moment” was the immediate post-World War I period, in which hopes for self-determination and decolonization blossomed. All eyes turned to the Paris peace talks of 1919. The Pan-African Conference in Paris, happening simultaneously, put forth the concerns of what W.E.B. Du Bois described as “200 million people of color.” The Japanese came with an antiracism resolution. Haiti and the Dominican Republic both sent representatives seeking an end to the occupations.

Haitian Dantes Bellegarde would go on to the League of Nations to try to end the occupation of his homeland. He even got involved in the US presidential election of 1920, when Warren G. Harding campaigned against Wilson’s intervention. After Harding became president in 1921, Congress held hearings about the conditions on the binational island.

The Senate’s Committee on the Occupation of Haiti and Santo Domingo (using the old name of the Dominican Republic) detailed “torture, rape and indiscriminate killing” by American forces. Sensational, too, was the revelation of the use of corvée labor, “a system that looked akin to a revival of slavery.”

Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, would pull the Marines out of the Dominican Republic by the end of 1924. But in neighboring Haiti, the US occupation would last until 1934.

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Diplomatic History, Vol. 38, No. 4 (SEPTEMBER 2014), pp. 852-863
Oxford University Press