By Charles T. Williamson
17 Jan 2001
The U.S. Naval Mission to Haiti, 1959-1963. CHARLES T. WILLIAMSON. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999. xv + 395 pp. (Cloth US$38.95)
Reviewed by Robert Lawless
Department of Anthropology
Wichita State University
Wichita, Kansas 67260-0052, U.S.A.
As I began reading this book, the images of the brutal occupation of Haiti by its own army from September 1991 to September 1994 kept creeping into my mind and producing this nagging question: What were U.S. policy makers, members of this Mission, and in particular Col. Robert D. Heinl (head of the mission for most of its existence) think they were doing by trying to improve the performance of the Haitian army when the very probable use of an army in a country like Haiti would eventually be to suppress its own people? And I don't think I'm guilt of hindsight; the history and role of armies worldwide was quite clear at the time of the Mission.
Williamson finally faces this question only on almost the last page of the book when he writes, "Finally, there is the oft-asked question, 'Why did Haiti need an army?' The answer is simple. Haiti did not need an army" (p. 355). The Mission was, therefore, not only a failure in terms of its own defined goals but was also simply a bad idea. The Mission came from a Duvalier request for military assistance, and the members of the Mission initially and erroneously thought they would "provide the Haitian army with mobile tactical units, trained to use light modern weapons, and capable of being integrated into a hemispheric defense force" (p. 356).
Williamson makes clear in Chapter One that the Mission was often unable to discern what Duvalier really wanted. It is certain that he didn't want any competition to his power, but this is exactly what Heinl came to see as his mission. Williamson quotes a 1962 memo from Heinl saying, "Our policy of 1959, of trying to sustain and build up the Haitian Armed Forces while Duvalier distrusts and downgrades them, is highly realistic and is premised on the sound, long-term considerations that, however troublesome Duvalier may be, he is mortal and therefore a short-term problem, while the Haitian Armed Forces will remain as a central focus of internal power in Haiti as long as the country exists.... They will dominate the selection of the junta or provisional president that succeeds Duvalier" (p. 198). Heinl was incorrect in both of his predications; in 1971 Duvalier's son succeeded him with no opposition from the army, and under President JeanBertrand Aristide the Haitian army was effectively abolished in 1995. And most of the top officers in the several incompetent and brutal regimes that ran the country in the years subsequent to the fall of Duvalier in 1986 were in the Mission training program.
In this same memo Heinl writes, "The overriding requirement for civil stability and freedom from disorder in Haiti can only be met through the Haitian Armed Forces. At this time the symbolic presence of even a handful of Marines is a major prop to this stability, frail though it may be" (p. 215). Ironically Haitians were able to get rid of the Duvaliers only through civil disorder. And the instability that Haiti experienced after 1986 was created largely by its own army and the allies of this army.
A major theme of United States for policy in the Caribbean is the craving for sociopolitical stability. U.S. policy-makers often disconcertingly equate stability with the suppression of popular discontent, reflecting their distrust of mobs. Instructively the year after the end of the Mission the United States with the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson implemented the so-called Mann Doctrine, which virtually lifted all sanctions on military regimes. By 1969 President Richard Nixon had restored military assistance to the unsavory Duvalier regime. After the end of the Duvalier era and after the U.S.-trained general Henri Namphy became chief of state the Reagan administration almost doubled aid dollars to Haiti, including about $500,000 of riot equipment. The poor and powerless all suffered from the military's use of that equipment. The United States under the Bush administration continued the strange notion of the Reagan administration that democracy could flourish under a military dictatorship and viewed the simple mechanism of an election as an elixir-as long as the "right" person was elected. Unfortunately, in the view of U.S. policy-makers, the wrong person was eventually elected and took office in 1991 in the person of Aristide, the fiery priest and advocate for the poor. He was, of course, overthrown by the military.
Williamson's story, however, is simply a straightforward, chronological, detailed, abundantly readable account of the Mission. A retired Marine Corps officer, Williamson is well qualified to write this history; he was a member of the Mission in the early years and "privy to most of the meetings between Colonel Heinl and the Haitian General Staff" (p. xi). He makes excellent use of official documents and also of the memoirs, diaries, and private papers, as well as magazine and newspapers articles and the published works on Haiti. He also interviewed many members of the Mission. Most of the book is an account of the obstructions and frustrations met by the Mission, especially evident in dealing with an unpredictable Haitian general staff that changed personnel quite often.
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