Dominicans on the Hill 2023 | Unfolding History (2023)

Ryan would like to thank his colleague, historian Meg McAleer, for her assistance in writing this post.

If one has ever attended the National Dominican Day Parade, held annually in New York every summer, then you know the vibrancy and centrality of Dominicans and Dominican-Americans to both the Empire State and nation. With that in mind, U.S. Representative Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), whose congressional district includes New York’s famed Washington Heights neighborhood, hosted his fifth annual “Dominicans on the Hill” event on February 8 in the Capitol Visitors Center (CVC). He invited the Library of Congress to present a display on Dominican baseball players and U.S. military interventions in the Dominican Republic.

Manuscript Division historians Meg McAleer and Ryan Reft provided facsimiles from the Manuscript Division to document U.S. interventions on the island during the 20th century, a knotty history that binds the two nations in complex and sometimes troubling ways. The display was mounted in an architecturally impressive space outside the CVC auditorium along one side of a series of tables. A display on Dominican baseball, deftly put together by Darren Jones and Peter Armenti, reference librarians from the Library’s Researcher and Reference Services Division, ran along the opposite side. The eventgoers’ smiles as they recognized famous players in the baseball display contrasted with their somber expressions while viewing the U.S. intervention display.

Perhaps it is unsurprising to discover that U.S. relations with the Dominican Republic have long been unequal. Since the late nineteenth century, and articulated more distinctly through rhetoric and action following President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 Roosevelt Corollary, the United States asserted having a right to intervene in Latin American nations in order to protect property and life. Under the guise of restoring order, the United States adopted policies regarding the Dominican Republic that privileged U.S. interests over those of Dominicans. Between 1905 and 1965, the United States intervened in Dominican affairs three times: 1905, 1916-1924, and 1965, with the latter two being military interventions.[1]

Dominicans on the Hill 2023 | Unfolding History (1)

U.S. officials constantly sought to exert control over regional governments while also trying to live up to the rhetoric of self-determination, a balancing act they often failed. The Woodrow Wilson administration arguably made this most apparent through repeated interventions in Latin America, first in Nicaragua, and then in Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

In 1905, the United States test drove the newly minted Roosevelt Corollary in the Dominican Republic to prevent the country from defaulting on its foreign debts. U.S. involvement in Dominican affairs deepened in 1915 when Woodrow Wilson appointed an advisor to oversee the Dominican Republic’s treasury disbursements and created a U.S.-organized and commanded constabulary, precipitating the collapse of President Emilia Pereyra Jimenes’s presidency the next year.

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As political instability spread across the country, Wilson ordered the U.S. military to intervene. Admiral William Caperton, who commanded the military intervention, reported that the Dominicans did not hail the Americans with praise, but rather cast “unfriendly looks” toward the interlopers. “The attitude of the inhabitants of Santo Domingo City is quiet, but very bitter towards Americans,” Caperton reported.[2] U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic continued for eight years, with U.S. forces controlling nearly all aspects of residents’ lives, including free speech with the arrests of journalists who violated U.S.-imposed censorship laws.[3]

Wilson’s intervention seems all the more ironic considering his famous declaration of “self-determination” for the world’s peoples made in his 1918 Fourteen Points speech. However, Wilson’s own opinions on race, many historians argue, aligned quite well with the imperialists he criticized.[4]

During its occupation of the Dominican Republic, U.S. forces both disarmed the population and tried to establish a “non-partisan constabulary responsible to the national civil government.”[5] The combination of the two facilitated Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina’s eventual ascension to president in 1931, a position he occupied until his assassination in 1961.[6] Though the United States expressed reservations about Trujillo, it still provided his administration with political and military aid on occasion, largely due to his opposition to the Axis powers and the political stability his authoritarian regime ensured.

Yet by the early 1960s, American officials had soured on him, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) even provided material aid to Trujillo’s eventual assassins.[7] Between 1960 and 1965, the United States spent more money on the Dominican Republic per capita than any other nation in the world. Following Trujillo’s death, the United States pressed the Dominican Republic for elections, which were held for the first time in over three decades in 1963.

Intellectual and writer Juan Bosch emerged victorious. President John F. Kennedy hoped to make Bosch and the Dominican Republic a “showcase” for the promise of his new Alliance for Progress, a developmental program begun in 1961 that funneled aid to Latin American governments for social reforms in an effort to support democracy and combat communism.[8]

Bosch was ousted six months later in a coup, a development that “fractured the Dominican Republic,” writes historian Patrick J. Iber. Within a few months, the U.S. government, never fully committed to Bosch, acknowledged the new ruling Triumvirate and its most critical leader, Donald J. Reid Cabral, but Bosch supporters never accepted the new government’s legitimacy, and Bosch himself only remained involved in Dominican affairs from exile in Puerto Rico. In April 1965, conflict erupted as Bosch’s supporters, referred to as Constitutionalists, sought to return the constitution—and to a lesser extent the former president himself—and squared off against the conservative, anti-communist faction known as the Loyalists.[9] As fighting escalated, President Lyndon Johnson, operating on dodgy intelligence and a robust fear of a “second Cuba,” ordered the U.S. military to intervene, sending over 20,000 troops.[10]

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Dominicans on the Hill 2023 | Unfolding History (2)

The Organization of American States (OAS) stepped in as well, creating the Inter-American force comprised of 6,800 troops from the United States, Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay in May 1965, which helped to restore order further and establish a provisional government in September.[11] By late June 1966, U.S. troops and the Inter-American force began withdrawal following the presidential election earlier that month in which Joaquín Antonio Balaguer Ricardo, a Trujillo protégé, defeated Juan Bosch in an election in which the CIA secretly funded Balaguer’s campaign, supplied him with inside political information and advice, and cultivated favorable media coverage. The agency also made sure to keep Bosch in the race believing Balaguer needed to be the winner in an election perceived to be legitimate. [12]

Historians continue to debate the election’s legitimacy. While some argue “ballot stuffing” among other forms of election fraud delivered the victory to Balaguer, it is also true that Bosch campaigned poorly and very little in the countryside, while his opponent moved about the nation far more widely. As a result, other historians maintain that although fraud occurred, it did not alter the outcome.[13]

Whatever the efficacy of the actual election, the results of its outcome were unmistakable. Balaguer re-instituted many of the power structures that had existed under his mentor, Trujillo, and civil liberties were one victim of his tenure. By the end of the 1960s, the government even violently suppressed the opposition party. Bosch commented ruefully during the 1966 election: “I have always seen that you cannot have democracy here without the U.S., but now I learn that you cannot have democracy here with the U.S.”[14] A New York Times story in late June hinted at discontent among Dominicans, as U.S. troops departed, “barely audible shouts floated across the muddy waters of the harbor from the country’s principal sugar factory, ‘Go home, go home, Yankees.’”[15]

Nearly three hundred people viewed the Library of Congress’s one-day exhibit. One young community leader from Washington Heights said that the display on U.S. military interventions filled him with conflicted emotions. He has been devouring histories of the Dominican Republic in recent years in order to teach younger Dominicans about their past. “It is important to know our history,” he added.

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[1] Abraham F. Lowenthal, “The United States and the Dominican Republic to 1965: Background to Intervention,” Caribbean Studies 10, no. 2 (July 1970): 41, 30, 31.

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[2] Carbon copy of report by Admiral William Caperton, May 18, 1916, Box 4, William Banks Caperton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Telegram, August 10, 1920, Reel 81 (Box 595), Josephus Daniels Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; John W. Blassingame, “The Press and American Intervention in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, 1904-1920,” Caribbean Studies 9, no. 2 (July 1969): 27-43.

[4] Constance Anthony, “American Democratic Interventionism: Romancing the Iconic Woodrow Wilson,” International Studies Perspectives 9, no. 3 (August 2008): 251.

[5] Lowenthal, “The United States and the Dominican Republic to 1965,” 46.

[6] Lowenthal, “The United States and the Dominican Republic to 1965,” 46.

[7] Nicholas M. Horrock, “C.I.A. is Reported to Have Helped in Trujillo Death,” New York Times, June 13, 1975.

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[8] Patrick J. Iber, “’Who Will Impose Democracy?’: Sacha Volman and the Contradictions of CIA Support for the Anticommunist Left in Latin America,” Diplomatic History 37, no. 5 (November 2013): 1012-1013.

[9] Iber, “’Who Will Impose Democracy?’,” 1022-1023.

[10] Alan McPherson, “Misled by Himself: What the Johnson Tapes Reveal about the Dominican Intervention of 1965,” Latin American Research Review 38, no. 2 (2003): 127-146.

[11] “O.A.S. Peace Force Starts Pullout,” New York Times, June 29, 1966.

[12] Iber, “‘Who Will Impose Democracy?’,” 1025-27.

[13] Iber, “‘Who Will Impose Democracy?’,” 1025-27.

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[14] Iber, “‘Who Will Impose Democracy?’,” 1027.

[15] “O.A.S. Peace Force Starts Pullout,” New York Times, June 29, 1966.

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