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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.1 (2001) 140-143

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Book Review

The U.S. Naval Mission to Haiti, 1959-1963

Charles T. Williamson, The U.S. Naval Mission to Haiti, 1959-1963. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999. 358 pp. $38.95.

Between the two American occupations of Haiti at the beginning and end of the twentieth century, a small group of U.S. military advisers attempted to rescue Haiti from Soviet Communism and from itself. [End Page 140]

The U.S. naval mission to Haiti was a minute aspect of Washington's Cold War strategy in the Third World, but this book draws wider conclusions from the nature and consequences of the mission. It provides a military perspective on American diplomacy in the Caribbean from 1959 to 1963, after Fidel Castro's success in Cuba. It recounts the agonies of attempted reform of the Haitian armed forces and sheds light on the mindset of the U.S. military at the peak of its confidence shortly before the debacle in Vietnam.

The author, Charles Williamson, was an Ivy League graduate, a Marine Corps captain in the naval mission, and a witness to the book's events. He tells the story chronologically and includes a primer on Haiti's tradition of brutal dictatorships. He adds his own recollections to the declassified messages, diaries, and letters he analyzes in his account. He also interviewed many of his fellow advisers, who seemed to him to be mere "pawns in a political chess match" (p. 344) sent on a mission that was bound to fail.

Almost 25 years after the first U.S. occupation ended in 1934, the Haitian General Staff asked the United States to send military advisers. Several senior U.S. Marine officers were anxious to resurrect the Garde d'Haïti (Gd'H). The U.S. government hoped to use Haiti to stem further Communist advances in the Caribbean Basin, and the United States therefore was committed to the success of Haiti's democratically elected president, Dr. François ("Papa Doc") Duvalier.

This strategy initially seemed to work well, but it ran into complications after "Papa Doc" narrowly survived an attempted military coup. From then on, Duvalier was unwilling to strengthen the Haitian military that had almost deposed him. Before the arrival of the 67-man U.S. naval mission in Port-au-Prince, Duvalier purged his high command of the last of the veterans of the Marine-trained Gd'H, who had invited the American advisers. He promoted younger officers who were less experienced and influential and were personally obliged to him for their new ranks and stations. The Presidential Guard became a counterpoise to the military, rather than a component. The Haitian militia--the unaccountable Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale--and the murderous secret police, known as the Tonton Macoutes (from the Haitian folktale of "Uncle Knapsack," who snatched children from their beds at night), also were completely independent of the regular armed forces.

The chief of the naval mission, Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl, saw his priorities as the unification and depoliticization of the Forces Armées d'Haïti (FAd'H). He did not realize that his goals were completely antithetical to Duvalier's. Over the next several years, Heinl and his staff were repeatedly confounded by Haitian resistance to almost every suggestion for change or innovation unless it was accompanied by material aid. Haitian junior officers who performed well at U.S. Marine Corps and Coast Guard schools were subsequently ostracized by their seniors as "pro-American" and politically unreliable. The U.S. advisers who resisted Duvalier's corruption of his military were accused by his opponents and the press of supporting the increasingly repressive regime with equipment and training.

Duvalier encouraged the U.S. perception of Haiti as a struggling democracy endangered by Communist expansion. Duvalier had his own reasons, however, for opposing [End Page 141] the Cuban Communist leader, Fidel Castro, who was supporting Duvalier's political challengers. The Haitian leader also bore a long-standing grudge against the...