Experiments that go wrong

Dollar Diplomacy by Force: Nation-building and Resistance in the Dominican Republic
Ellen D Tillman
2016, University of North Carolina Press
288 pages, paperback

THE Dominican Republic may not at first pause seem like a state whose history can offer global lessons, but as Ellen Tillman’s study of this small, under-researched country reveals its past can tell us more than a few important truths about our present. It can tell us for one thing how the US almost certainly developed and refined familiar patterns of military intervention followed by failed attempts at nation-building based primarily on a sense of racial superiority in the small states of Latin America and the Caribbean before it graduated to applying these to larger specimens elsewhere in the world in later years. Indeed, reading this history of recurrent US interventions in the Dominican Republic in the early decades of the 20th century followed by full-scale occupation from 1916–24 seems eerily like reading in the newspapers about Afghanistan and Iraq over the last few decades. The basic elements are all the same: long periods of muscular engagement in which overwhelming political and economic pressure is exerted to secure US aims; followed by the changing priorities and styles of different administrations, but according to the same underlying theme; exasperation at the client state’s backwardness leading to an easy invasion; ill-conceived efforts by military proconsuls to restructure government and, to a limited extent, society entirely along US lines; the parallel creation of an effcient repressive apparatus that can then draw upon the insult to nationalist pride of the occupation itself; concluding in failure, withdrawal and finally the cynical acceptance of a brutal military dictatorship that acts largely in US interests. Indeed, if there were a formula for US intervention in the same way that there is a formula for a detective novel, this would be the Dick Tracy of American history. Tillman’s book explores how early 20th-century US involvement in the Dominican Republic fundamentally changed the country’s history but also the conduct of US foreign policy. It was an experiment from which Washington learned practical lessons that it would then (try to) apply elsewhere. But as with all experiments on living creatures, the pain was endured by the subjects: the subsequent dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo from 1930–61 inflicted a Dark Age on the people of this earthly paradise in one of the bloodiest eras ever in the Americas. It would be comforting to think that the US has learned lessons about the nature of imperialism from its experience in small, defenceless countries like the Dominican Republic but, sadly, it is clear that it has not. – EC