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Lyndon Johnson and the Dominican Intervention of 1965

By David Coleman

US troops patrol the streets near a food line in Santo Domingo on 5 May 1965 during the Dominican Crisis.
US troops patrol the streets near a food line in Santo Domingo
on 5 May 1965 during the Dominican Crisis.

LBJ Regretted Ordering U.S. Troops into Dominican Republic in 1965, White House Tapes Confirm; Yet He Insisted, “I’d do the same thing right this second.”

Dominican Intervention 50 Years Ago Sparked Mainly by Fear of Communists: “I Sure Don’t Want to Wake Up … and Find Out Castro’s in Charge,” President Said

New Transcripts of Key White House Tapes Clarify and Illuminate LBJ’s Personal Role in Decision-Making during the Crisis

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 513

Posted – April 28, 2015
Edited by David Coleman
For more information, contact:
David Coleman, david@historyinpieces.com, 703/942-9245
or nsarchiv@gwu.edu, 202/994-7000

Washington, D.C., April 28, 2015 – President Lyndon Johnson regretted sending U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic in 1965, telling aides less than a month later, “I don’t want to be an intervenor,” according to new transcripts of White House tapes published today (along with the tapes themselves) for the first time by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).

Johnson ordered U.S. Marines into Santo Domingo 50 years ago today. Three weeks later, he lamented both that the crisis had cost American lives and that it had turned out badly on the ground as well as for the United States’ – and Johnson’s own – political standing. Nevertheless, he insisted he would “do the same thing right this second.”

In conversations with aides captured on the White House taping system, Johnson expressed sharp frustrations, including with the group surrounding exiled President Juan Bosch, whom the United States was supporting. Speaking in late May 1965, Johnson told an adviser, “they have to clean themselves up, as I see it, where we can live with them. Put enough perfume on to kill the odor of killing 20 Americans and wounding 100.”

Johnson’s public explanation for sending the Marines into Santo Domingo was to rescue Americans endangered by civil war conditions in the Dominican Republic. But his main motivation, the tapes and transcripts confirm, was to prevent a Communist takeover. Basing his decision largely on assertions by the CIA and others in the U.S. government that Cuba’s Fidel Castro had been behind the recent uprising, Johnson confided to his national security advisor, “I sure don’t want to wake up … and find out Castro’s in charge.”

That intelligence, along with other information Johnson received during the crisis, turned out to be erroneous – a possibility LBJ himself worried about at the time.

The tapes, transcript and introductory material presented in this posting were provided by David Coleman, former chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and a Fellow at the National Security Archive. As Coleman notes, the materials are revelatory about Johnson’s personal conduct of the crisis and his decision-making style as president. The transcripts, in several cases newly created by Coleman, are crucial to understanding the material on the tapes, which can be hard to decipher and are therefore often of limited usefulness on their own to researchers.

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Lyndon Johnson and the Dominican Intervention of 1965

By David Coleman

Fifty years ago today, some 400 U.S. Marines landed in the Dominican Republic. By the end of the following day, over 1,000 more had landed. In the coming weeks, they were joined by U.S. Army forces. Eventually, tens of thousands of U.S. troops would be engaged in what became known as the Dominican Intervention, first as part of a U.S. unilateral military action and then under the auspices of an international force compiled by the Organization of American States.

President Johnson huddles with advisers in the Cabinet Room of the White House on April 28, 1965, just before delivering his televised speech announcing the deployment of U.S. Marines into Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. L-R: George Ball, Sec. Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Jack Valenti, Richard Goodwin, unidentified, George Reedy, McGeorge Bundy, unidentified. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Library.

Four days earlier, the Dominican Republic had begun a spiral into civil war when members of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (Dominican Revolutionary Party) and their allies stormed the National Palace and installed a provisional president. Resistance from Loyalist forces led to escalating levels of violence.

A series of increasingly dire reports from the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, William Tapley “Tap” Bennett, Jr., warning that the situation was getting dangerous for American citizens in the country and that outside influences were likely playing an influential role in the revolution convinced Johnson that he had to act and that he did not have the luxury of time to assemble an international coalition through the Organization of American States.

Against the advice of many of his senior advisers, Johnson personally decided to send in the Marines. Their declared mission was to protect and evacuate U.S. citizens from the island. As he explained it to a national television audience on the evening of April 28, it was “in order to give protection to hundreds of Americans who are still in the Dominican Republic and to escort them safely back to this country.”[1]

There was no mention of a communist threat in his public statement; nor had there been in his news conference comments the previous afternoon. Indeed, Johnson himself had specifically removed any such references from the drafts of his statement to encourage an emphasis on the peace-keeping and humanitarian aspects of the intervention. But there was a second important part of the military mission. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler put it in orders to General Bruce Palmer Jr., the commander of U.S. forces, the mission had two objectives, one announced and one unannounced.

Your announced mission is to save US lives. Your unannounced mission is to prevent the Dominican Republic from going Communist. The President has stated that he will not allow another Cuba—you are to take all necessary measures to accomplish this mission. You will be given sufficient forces to do the job.[2]

Johnson feared that Castro-ite and Communist forces were threatening to establish a Communist regime in the Dominican Republic. But there was little hard evidence of such influence—something Johnson suspected at the time and which prompted later private expressions of regret.

LBJ’s secretly recorded White House tapes provide a deeply textured and intimate view of his decision making during the crisis.[3]

The telephone had long been one of Johnson’s essential work tools, allowing him to neutralize geography and compress time in reaching out beyond the bubble of the Oval Office. During the Dominican crisis, he employed it extensively, connecting directly with Tap Bennet in Santo Domingo, and with Puerto Rico where Abe Fortas (the future Supreme Court justice) had volunteered his services as a line of communication with exiled president Juan Bosch. He was also able to get status reports at all hours directly from the duty officers in the White House Situation Room and the Pentagon Military Command Center.

President Lyndon Johnson on the telephone in the Oval Office on July 17, 1965. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Library.

But it did not always go smoothly. The lack of secure communications equipment meant that the President and his representatives in the Caribbean typically had to speak over open lines that were prone to interception or just the more mundane problem of crossed lines. In some cases, that led to absurdly convoluted codes being improvised that often created more confusion than clarity. In one call presented below, Johnson tells Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to call Bennett in Santo Domingo to ask his opinion on whether to send in an additional 500 Marines. “Listen for him to cough right loud, and if he doesn’t, why, let’s move,” Johnson instructs.[4]

Reflecting Johnson’s own heavy personal involvement in directing the intervention, the crisis is represented on hundreds of tapes in the Johnson collection of secretly recorded White House telephone conversations. Below is only a small sampling taken mainly from the first days when the important decisions were being made about sending U.S. Marines into harm’s way and whether to escalate U.S. military involvement.

The transcripts presented here provide a cross-section illustrating Johnson’s personal management of the crisis. Some of them are entirely new; others are improved versions of transcripts that have been published elsewhere previously. Together they reveal the kind of information that the President was hearing, including when, how, and from whom. They reveal, strikingly and often jarringly, the kind of incomplete and often flawed information that was being used to make important decisions. And they show the gap between what was being said in public and what was being said in private, a phenomenon that had troubled the administration less than a year earlier in the Tonkin Gulf episode and would become increasingly important as the Vietnam War raged on.

* * * * *

Links to Tapes and Transcripts

[Note: The following tapes are available at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, White House (WH) and Situation Room (SR) Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings.]

(See http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/Dictabelt.hom/content.asp.)

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The democratically-elected Arbenz government hoped for economic prosperity through economic reform and a highway to the Atlantic.

United States Interventions What For?

By John H. Coatsworth 

Revista Harvard Review of Latin America 

Spring/ Summer 2005

In the slightly less than a hundred years from 1898 to 1994, the U.S. government has intervened successfully to change governments in Latin America a total of at least 41 times. That amounts to once every 28 months for an entire century (see table).

Direct intervention occurred in 17 of the 41 cases. These incidents involved the use of U.S. military forces, intelligence agents or local citizens employed by U.S. government agencies. In another 24 cases, the U.S. government played an indirect role. That is, local actors played the principal roles, but either would not have acted or would not have succeeded without encouragement from the U.S. government.

While direct interventions are easily identified and copiously documented, identifying indirect interventions requires an exercise in historical judgment. The list of 41 includes only cases where, in the author’s judgment, the incumbent government would likely have survived in the absence of U.S. hostility. The list ranges from obvious cases to close calls. An example of an obvious case is the decision, made in the Oval Office in January 1963, to incite the Guatemalan army to overthrow the (dubiously) elected government of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes in order to prevent an open competitive election that might have been won by left-leaning former President Juan José Arévalo. A less obvious case is that of the Chilean military coup against the government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. The Allende government had plenty of domestic opponents eager to see it deposed. It is included in this list because U.S. opposition to a coup (rather than encouragement) would most likely have enabled Allende to continue in office until new elections.

The 41 cases do not include incidents in which the United States sought to depose a Latin American government, but failed in the attempt. The most famous such case was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. Allvadorso absent from the list are numerous cases in which the U.S. government acted decisively to forestall a coup d’etat or otherwise protect an incumbent regime from being overthrown.

Overthrowing governments in Latin America has never been exactly routine for the United States. However, the option to depose a sitting government has appeared on the U.S. president’s desk with remarkable frequency over the past century. It is no doubt still there, though the frequency with which the U.S. president has used this option has fallen rapidly since the end of the Cold War.

Though one may quibble about cases, the big debates—both in the public and among historians and social scientists—have centered on motives and causes. In nearly every case, U.S. officials cited U.S. security interests, either as determinative or as a principal motivation. With hindsight, it is now possible to dismiss most these claims as implausible. In many cases, they were understood as necessary for generating public and congressional support, but not taken seriously by the key decision makers. The United States did not face a significant military threat from Latin America at any time in the 20th century. Even in the October 1962 missile crisis, the Pentagon did not believe that the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba altered the global balance of nuclear terror. It is unlikely that any significant threat would have materialized if the 41 governments deposed by the United States had remained in office until voted out or overturned without U.S. help.

In both the United States and Latin America, economic interests are often seen as the underlying cause of U.S. interventions. This hypothesis has two variants. One cites corruption and the other blames capitalism. The corruption hypothesis contends that U.S. officials order interventions to protect U.S. corporations. The best evidence for this version comes from the decision to depose the elected government of Guatemala in 1954. Except for President Dwight Eisenhower, every significant decision maker in this case had a family, business or professional tie to the United Fruit Company, whose interests were adversely affected by an agrarian reform and other policies of the incumbent government. Nonetheless, in this as in every other case involving U.S. corporate interests, the U.S. government would probably not have resorted to intervention in the absence of other concerns.

The capitalism hypothesis is a bit more sophisticated. It holds that the United States intervened not to save individual companies but to save the private enterprise system, thus benefiting all U.S. (and Latin American) companies with a stake in the region. This is a more plausible argument, based on repeated declarations by U.S. officials who seldom missed an opportunity to praise free enterprise. However, capitalism was not at risk in the overwhelming majority of U.S. interventions, perhaps even in none of them. So this ideological preference, while real, does not help explain why the United States intervened. U.S. officials have also expressed a preference for democratic regimes, but ordered interventions to overthrow elected governments more often than to restore democracy in Latin America. Thus, this preference also fails to carry much explanatory power.

An economist might approach the thorny question of causality not by asking what consumers or investors say about their preferences, but what their actions can help us to infer about them. An economist’s approach might also help in another way, by distinguishing between supply and demand. A look at the supply side suggests that interventions will occur more often where they do not cost much, either directly in terms of decision makers’ time and resources, or in terms of damage to significant interests. On the demand side, two factors seem to have been crucial in tipping decision makers toward intervention: domestic politics and global strategy.

Domestic politics seems to be a key factor in most of these cases. For example, internal documents show that President Lyndon Johnson ordered U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 not because of any plausible threat to the United States, but because he felt threatened by Republicans in Congress. Political competition within the United States accounts for the disposition of many U.S. presidentions

nts to order interventions.

The second key demand-side factor could be called the global strategy effect. The United States in the 20th century defined its strategic interests in global terms. This was particularly true after World War II when the United States moved rapidly to project its power into regions of the earth on the periphery of the Communist states where it had never had a presence before. In the case of Latin America, where the United States faced no foreseeable military threat, policy planners did nonetheless identify potential future threats. This was especially true in the 1960s, after the Cuban Revolution. The United States helped to depose nine of the governments that fell to military rulers in the 1960s, about one every 13 months and more than in any other decade. Curiously, however, we now know that U.S. decision makers were repeatedly assured by experts in the CIA and other intelligence gathering agencies that, in the words of a 1968 National Intelligence Estimate, “In no case do insurgencies pose a serious short run threat…revolution seems unlikely in most Latin American countries within the next few years.” Few challenged the idea that leftist regimes would pose a secutiry threat to the United States. threat…revolution seems unlikely in most Latin American countries

Thus, in a region where intervention was not very costly, and even major failures unlikely to damage U.S. interests, the combination of domestic political competition and potential future threats—even those with a low probability of ever materializing—appear to explain most of the 20th century US interventions.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that U.S. interventions did not serve U.S. national interests well. They generated needless resentment in the region and called into question the U.S. commitment to democracy and rule of law in international affairs. The downward trend in the past decade and half is a positive development much to be encouraged.

CHRONICLING INTERVENTIONS

U.S. DIRECT INTERVENTIONS 
Military/CIA activity that changed governments

COUNTRY YEAR EVENT SUMMARY
Cuba 1898-1902 Spanish-American War
1906-09 Ousts elected Pres. Palma; occupation regime
1917-23 U.S. reoccupation, gradual withdrawal
Dominican Rep 1916-24 U.S. occupation
1961 Assassination of Pres. Trujillo
1965 U.S. Armed Forces occupy Sto Domingo
Grenada 1983 U.S. Armed Forces occupy island; oust government
Guatemala 1954 C.I.A.-organized armed force ousts Pres. Arbenz
Haiti 1915-34 U.S. occupation
1994 U.S. troops restore constitutional government
Mexico 1914 Veracuz occupied; US allows rebels to buy arms
Nicaragua 1910 Troops to Corinto, Bluefields during revolt
1912-25 U.S. occupation
1926-33 U.S. occupation
1981-90 Contra war; then support for opposition in election
Panama 1903-14 U.S. Troops secure protectorate, canal
1989 U.S. Armed Forces occupy nation

U.S. INDIRECT INTERVENTION
Government/regime changes in which U.S. is decisive

COUNTRY YEAR EVENT SUMMARY
Bolivia 1944 Coup uprising overthrow Pres. Villaroel
1963 Military coup ousts elected Pres. Paz Estenssoro
1971 Military coup ousts Gen. Torres
Brazil 1964 Military coup ousts elected Pres. Goulart
Chile 1973 Coup ousts elected Pres. Allende.
1989-90 Aid to anti-Pinochet opposition
Cuba 1933 U.S. abandons support for Pres. Machado
1934 U.S. sponsors coup by Col. Batista to oust Pres. Grau
Dominican Rep. 1914 U.S. secures ouster of Gen. José Bordas
1963 Coup ousts elected Pres. Bosch
El Salvador 1961 Coup ousts reformist civil-military junta
1979 Coup ousts Gen. Humberto Romero
1980 U.S. creates and aids new Christian Demo junta
Guatemala 1963 U.S. supports coup vs elected Pres. Ydígoras
1982 U.S. supports coup vs Gen. Lucas García
1983 U.S. supports coup vs Gen. Rios Montt
Guyana 1953 CIA aids strikes; Govt. is ousted
Honduras 1963 Military coups ousts elected Pres. Morales
Mexico 1913 U.S. Amb. H. L. Wilson organizes coup v Madero
Nicaragua 1909 Support for rebels vs Zelaya govt
1979 U.S. pressures Pres. Somoza to leave
Panama 1941 U.S supports coup ousting elected Pres. Arias
1949 U.S. supports coup ousting constitutional govt of VP Chanís
1969 U.S. supports coup by Gen. Torrijos
John H. Coatsworth is Monroe Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs. Coatsworth’s most recent book is “The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America,” a two-volume reference work, edited with Victor Bulmer-Thomas and Roberto Cortes Conde – See more at: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157958#sthash.I6nAx9Oq.dpuf

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