Fifty years ago today, four hundred United States Marines landed on the shores of the Dominican Republic, beginning a fourteen-month occupation of the country.
Dubbing it “Operation Powerpack,” President Johnson’s administration sold the invasion with gruesome lies that played off mid-sixties anticommunist hysteria and a manufactured national security risk. On April 28, 1965, Johnson alerted the American public of the operation as it was happening in a brazen White House press conference, saying it was necessary to “protect American lives.”
The US had long viewed Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s brutal dictator, as an ally who helped offset the political influence of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. But after Trujillo’s assassination, Juan Bosch, a liberal reformer and one-time political prisoner, was elected president.
Bosch supported labor unions and peasant movements, endorsed agrarian reform laws, and encouraged the education of all Dominicans. The military elite left over from Trujilo’s rule grew unnerved by the increasing democratization of the country and their loss of control over the country’s resources (particularly its sugar and mineral deposits).
Bosch presided over the country for only seven months before he was overthrown in a coup. Donald Reid Cabral — an attorney, businessman, former Dominican ambassador to the United Nations and Israel, and friend of the Johnson administration — was his replacement.
Again, revolution bubbled up in Santo Domingo. The US embassy in Santo Domingo warned the White House of the possibility of “another Cuba” should Cabral be deposed. Cabral encouraged these narratives, realizing the strategic importance of the Dominican Republic for the United States. He knew that for a Johnson administration eager to intervene, the difference between Bosch’s reformist movement and one led by communist forces was hardly significant.
After all, the US was accustomed to dictating policy in the Dominican Republic for conservative ends. As early as 1893, US financial firms were imposing loans on the cash-strapped country, restructuring its economy in the process. In 1911, Eladio Victoria, then the country’s president, questioned the fact that the US was sucking up Dominican custom revenues under the guise of loan repayment.
The Taft administration answered by sending a hit squad of 750 Marines to the country to carry out a regime change. For the first time, Dominicans rose up to contest American control over their country. William H. Taft’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, sent more troops to the Caribbean island. Then in 1916, the US declared martial law and began an eight-year occupation. A tight leash kept the Dominican Republic under US control until Bosch was elected in 1963.
In June 1965, Johnson turned up the flourish of his increasingly pathological media campaign to justify the invasion. “1,500 innocent people were murdered and shot, and their heads cut off, and six Latin American embassies were violated and fired upon over a period of four days before we went in.” Johnson said, “As we talked to our ambassador to the confirm the horror and the tragedy and the unbelievable fact that they were firing on Americans and the American Embassy, he was talking to us from under a desk while bullets were going through his windows.” He claimed that a “thousand American men, women, and children” had pleaded for intervention.
William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat, segregationist, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — a person better aquatinted with the situation in Dominican Republic than probably anyone in the US at the time — called out Johnson’s lies on the Senate floor:
[Johnson’s intervention] was marred by a lack of candor and by misinformation. The former is illustrated by official assertions that U.S. military intervention was primarily for the Purpose of saving American lives; the latter is illustrated by exaggerated reports of massacres and atrocities by the rebels — reports which no one has been able to verify.
Following the statement, Fulbright was taken off Johnson’s personal invitation list to the White House, and, henceforth, referred to by Johnson as Senator Halfbright. Despite Fulbright’s remarks, 69 percent of American people approved of the decision to send in troops.
Johnson was becoming well-accustomed to lying to the American public, particularly in the lead-up to war. Only a few months prior, he claimed that North Vietnamese patrol boats had twice attacked an American destroyer to justify an attempt to declare formal war on Vietnam. Johnson himself later suggested that the incident might even have involved shooting at “flying fish” or “whales.”
Back in the Dominican Republic, left-leaning forces were being repressed and violently attacked ahead of the June 1, 1966 elections. Cabral was receiving more than $100 million in aid from the Johnson administration in addition to the support of more than 40,000 US Marines. The forces guided bombing missions over villages, forbade public political meetings, and oversaw the deaths of 2,500 Dominicans during the occupation.
On Election Day, Bosch lost by eighteen points to the US-backed Joaquín Belaguer, largely as a result of the external intimidation. Upon taking power, Balaguer began funneling nearly all of Dominican Republic’s minerals and sugar into the warehouses of US businesses. His three-decade rule was marked by corruption and fraud. Wages plummeted, unions were dismantled, inflation soared, and unemployment hovered around 30 percent.
Understanding what happened in the Dominican Republic fifty years ago not only allows us to reflect on the country’s asphyxiated strive for self-determination and the untold numbers people whose lives were destroyed by the Johnson administration and America’s puppet regimes across the world; it also demonstrates the true motivations of US war-makers over the years. These are impulses that serve the interests of only the American ruling class, who drum up fear and spread falsehoods to rally others to fight their wars.
The lies that led us into Iraq and the lies that have kept us in Afghanistan are hardly anomalies; they are part of larger pattern within US imperial policy. These lies are necessary to keep the taxpayers who fund, and the kids who fight them motivated. An honest accounting of American wars — even the smaller scale operations like the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, or the near carbon-copied US incursion into Grenada eighteen years later, schemed up by the no less duplicitous Reagan administration — reveal a sordid continuity in American history.
Recognizing these patterns will hopefully go a long toward discouraging would-be soldiers from signing up to fight in future wars — wars that will undoubtedly depend on still more lies.