Banana Wars

War is a Racket

The Banana Wars were a series of occupations, police actions, and interventions involving the United States in Central America and the Caribbean. This period started with the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the subsequent Treaty of Paris, which gave the United States control of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Between the time of the war with Spain and 1934, the US conducted military operations and occupations in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The series of conflicts ended with the withdrawal of troops from Haiti and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in 1934. Reasons for these conflicts were varied but were largely economic in nature.

The term ‘Banana Wars’ arises from the connections between these interventions and the preservation of American commercial interests in the region. Most prominently, the United Fruit Company had significant financial stakes in production of bananas, tobacco, sugar cane, and various other products throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Northern South America. The U.S. was also advancing its political interests, maintaining a sphere of influence and controlling the Panama Canal which it had recently built, critically important to global trade and naval power.

These military interventions were most often carried out by the United States Marine Corps. The Marines were called in so often that they developed a ‘Small Wars Manual, The Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars’ in 1921. On occasion, U.S. Naval gunfire and U.S. Army troops were also used. Perhaps the single most active military officer in the Banana Wars was U.S. Marine Corps Major General, Smedley Butler, who saw action in Honduras in 1903, served in Nicaragua enforcing American policy from 1909–1912, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in Veracruz in 1914, and a second Medal of Honor for bravery while ‘crush(ing) the Caco resistance’ in Haiti in 1915.

In 1935, Butler wrote in his famous book ‘War Is a Racket’: ‘I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.’

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