The classic work on the 1916 invasion of the Dominican Republic, “The Americans in Santo Domingo” (1928), was written by an American economist and historian named Melvin Moses Knight. He was given the task of carrying out this study by the American Fund for Public Service as part of a series of studies on the role of U.S. extraterritorial military interventions. The same excellent program would also become the source of the works of Leland Jenks – “Our Colony in Cuba” – and of Margaret Marsh – “Our Banks in Bolivia.” These would be the first monographs written on what would come to be known as “economic imperialism.”
For many years, Knight’s book stood brilliantly but alone in the academic world. Near the end of the 20th century, historian Bruce J. Calder completed his doctoral dissertation on the U.S. military’s presence in the Dominican Republic and its consequences on Dominican society. The book, entitled “The Impact of Intervention” (1984) was published by the University of Texas, and in it, the author presents a more balanced view of the military government’s activities. The main thesis is that a large part of the military’s administrators was inspired by the progressive ideology that was then fashionable in the U.S., an ideology that extolled the introduction of economic and social reform along with a sense of equality.
Calder’s contribution tended to relativize the “black legend” of the occupation, which over the years has been spread by the radical focus of Melvin Knight’s work, by the nationalism of the Dominican elite in the 1920s, and by the Marxist or neo-Marxist Manichaeism of the young students of social sciences who have a proclivity to see a perverse Machiavellian intentionality in every aspect of recorded imperialism.
There are three Spanish editions of Calder’s book, the last published in 2014 by the Dominican History Academy. This latest is entitled “The Impact of the Intervention. The Dominican Republic during the U.S. Occupation of 1916-1924.”
We must add to these works another classic, “Naboth’s Vineyard. The Dominican Republic 1844-1924” (1928), written by Benjamin Sumner Welles, who was head of the Latin American division of the State Department, with a special commission in the Dominican Republic from 1922-1925 and later under-secretary of state. Sumner Welles’s work is key to understanding the minutiae of U.S. diplomacy in the first decades of the 20th century. Another important book that covers some of the same time period is the work of Dana G. Munro, “Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean 1900-1921” (1964). As an official in the State Department starting in 1919, Munro was a part of U.S. policy formation in the region.
At the same time that Munro’s book was published, an ex-officer of the U.S. Marine Corps, David Charles MacMichael, presented his excellent doctoral dissertation called “The United States and the Dominican Republic, 1871-1940: A Cycle in Caribbean Diplomacy.”
To complete a vision of the fascinating history of diplomatic relations between the two countries, all these texts can be connected to the works of Charles C. Tansill – “The United States and Santo Domingo, 1798-1873” – and of William R. Tansill – “Diplomatic Relations between the United States and the Dominican Republic, 1874-1899.”
To understand what happened in the first decades of the 20th century, especially in the 1920s, two works stand out. The first, written in 1944, is called “De Lilís a Trujillo,” by Luis Felipe Mejía, a politician from the Horacista Party and one of the first anti-Trujillo exiles. His book was recently edited by the Dominican Bibliophile Society in 2014. The second, written in 1973, is called “Los Responsables. Fracaso de la Tercera República,” by Víctor M. Medina Benet, a Puerto Rican who was involved with U.S. diplomacy in the Dominican Republic. His book, too, was reedited by the Bibliophiles in 2013.
But it isn’t only diplomats and scholars from the north who wrote about our relations. The Marines who landed in unknown territories lived new experiences. Their contact with the sizzling tropical climate, with the jungle wildlife, with a strange language and customs, in rudimentary living conditions in rural areas: all this, along with the governmental functions they were to perform, provided raw material for writing.
There are official reports about all sorts of topics, there are descriptions of the construction that the Marines were undertaking, there are stories about trips and skirmishes, narratives about customs, works of literary fiction – these are some of the materials that were produced as a result of the American military occupation.
To provide a reference, here are some titles: “Santo Domingo, its Past and its Present Condition” (1920), an official publication of the military government; “Civil Government in Santo Domingo in the Early Days of the Military Occupation,” submitted by Coronel Rufus H. Lane to the Marine Corps Gazette; “Indoctrination in Santo Domingo,” a text for Marines to read, penned by the legal officer, First Lieutenant Robert C. Kilmartin, and “Some Forced Plane Landings in Santo Domingo,” in which Second Lieutenant Hayne D. Boyden tells about his flights over Dominican territory. The literary works of the naval officials include the book by Arthur J. Burks, “Land of Checkerboard Families,” published in 1932 and edited by the Dominican Bibliophile Society in 1990 under the title, “The Country of Multi-colored Families.”
Other bibliographic materials include Samuel G. Inman’s “Through Santo Domingo and Haiti. A Cruise with the Marines.” Also, “Report of a Visit to the Island,” ed. Committee on Cooperation in Latin America, New York City, 1919. Another is Stephen M. Fuller and Graham A. Cosmas’s “Marines in the Dominican Republic 1916-1924,” a work based on the study of official sources from the History and Museums Division of the U.S. Marine Corps, published in 1974 by the Government Printing Office in Washington.
The case of the aforementioned Arthur J. Burks is very illustrative of the spirit of adventure that motivated some of those in the military. According to the lieutenant of the Marine Infantry Corps of the United States, Burks arrived in Santo Domingo in 1922 seeking action, after having spent World War I serving as a training officer in California and having worked in the Census Office in Washington. Tired of being away from the front, working in training and offices, he came to Santo Domingo with his wife and first child, with the goal of living experiences that would later serve him in his vocation as a writer.
Some 35 books and more than 1,200 stories would become the products of a life filled with emotion which would take him also to China in 1927, as assistant to the legendary Smedley D. Butler, who later would take him to the Amazon jungle to live with the Munduruku tribe to collect medicinal plants that he used for oncological research. Burks later would become involved in the film industry during the golden years of Hollywood, writing scripts and helping with film production.
Burks alternated between military life and the life of a writer. Between 1917 and 1928, he dressed for work in military boots. Between 1928 and 1941, he worked from New York writing for different magazines, newspapers, radio and film. When his country proposed entry into World War II, he reentered the Marine Corps as a captain, acting as training supervisor for more than 17,000 soldiers on Parris Island, South Carolina. He also trained troops in amphibian warfare and personal attack in Cuba, training for the U.S. landing in Japan. By the end of the war, he would reach the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Burks died in 1974 at the age of 76 after having rerouted his interest – as often happens for men of action as they enter old age – toward metaphysical concerns. He toured the U.S. presenting at conferences and was ordained minister of the Christian Spiritual Alliance and the Church of Ageless Wisdom. Politically, if it is of interest, he was a Democrat.
In “Land of Checkboard Families,” the author talks about his experiences according to the different functions he exercised during his two and a half years in Santo Domingo. Reading the book is exciting from the start: Burks captures and maintains the reader’s interest through a series of stories dominated by action. It’s not by chance that the work begins with the story of the point-blank assassination of President Ramon Cáceres, situating the reader in the center of the Dominican drama, and providing the motive used by the U.S. to justify U.S. intervention in the country. “It’s difficult to deny,” says Burks, “that the chaos that followed the death of Mon Cáceres...led to the necessity of the American intervention.”
In twenty chapters charged with emotion – in a style and pace similar to the stories about Indiana Jones – Burks writes about the experiences that stand out most in his mind, experiences derived from his work as a Marine. He worked in various capacities: as commander of the regiment in Barahona where he was also provost marshal and head of the jail, as head of improvised topography that made maps of various provinces, and as head of the Office of the Intelligence Brigade, seated in Santo Domingo with national jurisdiction. In this last post he traveled throughout the country, following illegal arms traffickers and those labeled as “bandits.” He also ensured that the gossip mills of Dominican politics were kept to an inaudible mumble, through a well-informed network of informants.