'Want to be careful with this word'

On the perils of writing about the empire

I published a new piece yesterday about the crisis surrounding the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. In it, I argue that a U.S. invasion of Haiti would be a colossally bad idea given the destructive history of the unending U.S. interventions in the Black Republic. You can read it here.

The publication in which the piece appears was not where it was originally supposed to run. It was originally commissioned by a different, well-known national outlet. They contacted me last week, within hours of Moïse’s death, and asked me to choose the angle that seemed right to me. The editors seemed strangely hesitant when I suggested the framing, but contracted me anyway to write the piece, so long as I included what they called “nuance.” I had my suspicions about what that meant, but a writer’s got to write (and eat), so I pressed on.

I realized I was in trouble right away when I got back the comments on my first draft. Right off the bat, the editor cast doubt on my use of the “occupation” as a way of describing what the United States did in Haiti between 1915 and 1934. They commented:

“Want to be careful with this word – what was the nature of the occupation? How many troops did we send and what exactly did they do? Eg was it more of a peacekeeping/security assistance force, or what?”

If anyone should have been prepared for that question, it was me, the guy who just spent five years writing a book that is focused in part on how woefully ignorant Americans are of what our country has done in the world, especially in the decades leading up to World War II. But I was somehow not ready to get a comment like that from a senior editor at a major U.S. publication.

In any case, what the Americans were doing in Haiti from 1915 to 1934 was literally called the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. That’s what the White House, State, Army, and Navy Departments formally called it. It was a euphemism, in fact (as I was convinced to add in the final piece), to soften what it really was: a de facto colonization in service of the U.S.’s growing global power, corporations, and banks. It was a massive undertaking involving thousands of troops (mostly Marines) and other personnel. Many big names passed through Haiti in the period: Franklin Delano Roosevelt went down at one point to personally supervise in his charge as assistant secretary of the Navy. (FDR later bragged, falsely, about having personally written Haiti’s new U.S.-investment-friendly constitution in the process.) It was also extremely violent. Along the way, Marine aviators invented dive-bombing and barrel bombs to terrorize the Haitian population into submission.

Many Americans knew the occupation was wrong at the time. W.E.B. Du Bois and the N.A.A.C.P. were early and fervent critics of the U.S. invasion of Haiti. National leaders including the influential Senator William Borah and (eventually) Marine General Smedley Butler decried American abuses there as well. (It was part of what Butler was talking about when he wrote that he had “helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.”) Warren G. Harding won the 1920 election in part by tarring his Democratic opponents (FDR was the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in that race) as the party of the Haiti occupation.

The nineteen-year occupation ended up being one of the longest in U.S. history, edged out slightly by the contemporaneous 1912-1933 U.S. occupation of Nicaragua. Its mark was just also passed in recent months by the now-ending U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.

(Can you imagine an editor in eighty years not knowing the U.S. military was ever in control of Afghanistan? I can. If there is still a U.S. empire in the year 2100, it will likely be because that and other such uncomfortable truths were similarly pushed down the memory hole.)

That word was by no means not the editors’ only complaint. They also asked whether it was right to refer to the 1994 U.S. invasion of Haiti as an “invasion.” In another spot, they called my summary statement that Haiti’s government had been “consistently and intentionally weakened” by the U.S. and its allies’ propensity to funnel assistance to their own aid groups and non-governmental organizations, “a big allegation to make in just a sentence.” (Which is why I gave extensive evidence for and explained that claim in detail in an award-winning book.)

Drafts are drafts, and mine was in no way perfect. I tried to answer the editors’ queries, do needed rewrites, and provide evidence to their editors’ doubts. But ultimately, our points of view were irreconcilable. I thought I had delivered a straightforward take on the last century of U.S. involvement in Haiti—an urgent, newsworthy topic as debate ramps up on whether to engage in yet another round. They thought I “veer[ed] into a sharp, critical tone that makes this feel a bit too much like a hot take rather than a thoughtful historical analysis.” I can imagine where they were coming from. If you don’t know these things happened—if they aren’t worked into your fundamental understanding of U.S. history and “who we are”—their bare recitation can seem shocking, aggressive, simplistic, or wrong.

The editor I was working with directly signaled multiple times that they did not “disagree at all” with my analysis. In refusing to publish the piece over the weekend they said, “given your deep expertise with the country, I think we can get a little deeper than we do here.” They said I could take another crack at it this week. But I have had enough experience with this topic, and had been through enough rounds of edits on this piece, that I recognized what lay beneath that. It wasn’t really ultimately depth or nuance they were looking for. It was absolution. It was to rescue from the narrative some sense that the things we did could not have possibly been as bad as I portrayed them, or that they had not really been our fault, or that the very at least they were the product of good intentions gone awry.

As you keen-eyed readers have surely noticed, I’m not including the name of the publication who commissioned and killed the piece. My intent here is not to embarrass them (nor burn my bridges any more than I already have). But more than that, I think this is a much bigger problem than one outlet. All of us are blocked by our assumptions, driven not by the stories we hear over and over again, and often unable to comprehend those we’ve never been taught. But these particular sets of historical silences, and the fraught attempts to fill them in, are fueling debates all over our society. As long-suppressed narratives rise up, those who most jealously guard their wealth and power, are fighting back: banning speech and moving to make the teaching of entire subjects, starting with those deemed “critical race theory,” illegal.

I can understand the reticence of a publication to jump into such debates. It can be uncomfortable—even dangerous—to tell stories Americans don’t know about what our country has done, and continues to do, in places like Haiti and beyond. But as I see it, it will be more dangerous in the long run not to.

Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of the upcoming Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. You can preorder it now at your local bookstore, Amazon, etc., via this link. You can also follow me on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.