Sincronía Spring1997

The US Invasion of the Dominican Republic: 1965

Salvador E. Gomez, University of Pittsburgh

On 28 April 1965, U.S. military forces found themselves in the Dominican Republic protecting U.S. interests for the fourth time in 58 years. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy and the actions of three U.S. administrations (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson respectively) resulted in the eruption of hostilities in the Dominican Republic in April 1965.

The Johnson Administration's unilateral decision to invade the Dominican Republic was based on erroneous information and the President's own concerns over the possibility of "another Cuba" in the hemisphere and the residual effect that it would have on U.S. efforts in Vietnam.

U.S. military forces deployed to the Dominican Republic under the false pretense of "protecting American lives." Eventually the true reason for this invasion, fear of Communism was uncovered. The consequences of this deceit were a rift between the Administration, the American media as well as the American people. Furthermore, the Johnson Administration managed to agitate Latin American leaders and reinforce the notion of U.S. imperialism by disregarding the Good Neighbor Policy and reverting to the Roosevelt Corollary.

Despite the costs, the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic did produce some benefits. The Organization of American States (OAS) illustrated its ability to function as a multi-national body and democratic rule was eventually attained.


Since the end of the Spanish - American War at the turn of the century, the U.S. has expressed interest in the Caribbean and its islands.

Local political stability in order to exclude possible opportunities for the introduction or extracontinental power- has been the keystone of U.S. policy in the Dominican Republic and the rest of the Caribbean throughout this century.

However, until the end of the Spanish - American War, the U.S. really did not possess the stature or wherewithal to pursue its interests.

In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt began to flex the United States' newfound muscle. He "asserted that the [Monroe] doctrine carried 'the exercise of an international police power' in the Western Hemisphere." This assertion was quickly recognized as the Roosevelt Corollary and was often cited to exonerate intervention throughout the Caribbean. The Caribbean Basin would become known as "an American lake." If the Caribbean was an American lake, the Dominican Republic was beachfront property.

Concern over European intervention stemming from debt to a number of countries resulted in the U.S.' first intervention in the Dominican Republic. Eventually "a 50-year treaty with the United States in 1906, turning over to the United States the administration and control of its customs department" was negotiated. To many Dominicans this agreement was offensive and smacked of American imperialism. "Imposing order provoked nationalist resentment from Dominicans who, as one naval officer reported in 1906, 'are quieting their children the threat 'There comes an American. Quite or he will kill you.'"

Dominican opposition to intervention did not sway the U.S. In 1912, internal conflict in the Dominican Republic captured President Taft's attention when customs houses were forced to close. In order to resolve the crisis, a U.S. "commission backed by 750 marines…redefined the Haitian - Dominican border forced the corrupt Dominican president to resign and avoided interference in a new election." Unfortunately, this effort failed to provide the long-term stability that the U.S. desired leaving the possibility for future interventions.

Four years after President Taft's attempt to establish stability in the Dominican Republic, it was President Woodrow Wilson's turn. Instability and conflict again enticed the U.S. to intervene in the Dominican Republic. President Wilson's decision to deploy the U.S. Navy in 1916 was based on his personal principles and growing uncertainty in world affairs.

President Wilson strongly advocated the notion of a nation's right to self-determination. However, he also believed that although "all people might want freedom…whether they could gain and preserve it depended on race." This racist view undoubtedly extended to Latin America resulting in Wilson's "moralistic concern for teaching Latin Americans how to govern themselves."

The Wilson Administration's decision to intervene was also spurred by the growing concern over Germany and the "Great War' being fought in Europe. Stability in the Caribbean was contingent upon the absence of extracontinental influence. The political future in the Dominican Republic greatly concerned the Administration particularly when it appeared that "Desiderio Arias, a caudillo reported by American officials to have pro-German sympathies," was emerging as a national leader.

President Wilson's concern for democracy and fear of German influence yielded an eight year occupation and rule of the Dominican Republic by the U.S. Navy. Once again, the Dominican people expressed their opposition to U.S. intervention. "The peasants and caudillos in the mountainous eastern regions waged an increasingly bloody guerilla war." Marines engaged in these hostilities harshly retaliated against the Dominicans causing greater animosity towards the Americans.

Despite the hostilities during this period, the U.S. made various efforts at improving the Dominican Republic's infrastructure, agricultural production, as well as it education and legal system including "a nonpartisan constabulary responsible to the national civil government." The U.S. invested in many of these projects believing that they would foster political stability. Ironically, the constabulary responsible to the civil government was the vehicle used by Rafael Trujillo to establish control of the country.

Opposition to the occupation of the Dominican Republic grew in the United States, and it quickly became a political issue. As criticism mounted, the decision to withdraw became inevitable. Furthermore, the war was over and the U.S. no longer feared German influence in the Caribbean.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt embraced a new approach toward U.S. - Latin American relations by implementing the notion of the Good Neighbor Policy. Through this policy, "American statesmen formally renounced the 'right' to intervene militarily in the affairs of Latin American countries." This policy did not imply the absence of a U.S. role in the future of Latin America; simply that other means of influence would be exploited. "The Good Neighbor Policy meant new tactics, not new goals."

Although President Roosevelt shared many of President Wilson's philosophy regarding democracy, it is safe to suggest that aside from personal principles, various international and domestic circumstances allowed for this new approach. It is important to recognize that at this point in history, U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere was unquestionable. "The dominant position the United States had built up in the Caribbean region enabled the president to eschew gunboat diplomacy and inaugurate the Good Neighbor Policy." U.S. decision-makers could now afford to explore non-military means of sustaining security in the Caribbean.

Pressure from the U.S. Government leaders and diplomats also contributed to this policy. After years of witnessing opposition and its ensuing bloodshed, the U.S. diplomatic corps came to the realization that intervention was counter-productive to the U.S. goal of political stability in the region. Furthermore, government officials found it harder to criticize countries like Japan for its policies in China while U.S. forces roamed throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.

The Anti-imperialist wing of American society was also becoming more vocal. Senators George Norris and William Borah, both Anti-imperialists "citing the Wilsonian ideal of self-determination, demanded it for Latin Americans." Other members of Congress also started questioning U.S. policy in the region and "increasingly resented the cost of military interventions as well as the president's usurpation of their powers to declare war."

Business and economics also played a crucial role in the implementation of the Good Neighbor Policy. Executives of multi-national corporations with operations throughout the region echoed the sentiments of the diplomatic corps. They claimed that intervention fostered an environment of resentment towards the U.S. increasing the possibility of hostile action against their properties and investments.

Although hegemony in the region significantly contributed to the Good Neighbor Policy, it is also important to acknowledge the impact of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt understood the fiscal limitations of the U.S. during this period of international economic crisis. Embracing this new approach towards Latin America allowed him to focus on domestic concerns. "Roosevelt decided that the United States had to devote its resources to combating the effects of the Great Depression rather than financing interventions as had previous administrations."

The United States explored and executed various means to sustain its control over the Caribbean while maintaining this non-military interventionist philosophy. The list of tools available to the U.S. ranged from export quotas and economic dependency to supporting caudillos and dictators.


The security apparatus organized and implemented by the United States in countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean quickly became instruments of authoritarian rule. The U.S.' new found non-interventionist philosophy tended to condone or disregard the behavior of such individuals as Rafael Trujillo.

Trujillo, a known criminal involved in a variety of illegal activities ranging from prostitution to theft received a commission in the Dominican Republic constabulary in 1919. Through the years, U.S. officials observed Trujillo rise through the ranks and eventually expressed concern over his ambition to rule the country.

When Trujillo decided to seek political office, U.S. officials in Santo Domingo requested that Washington publicly state its opposition to a Trujillo government. Unfortunately, "Washington did not wish to involve itself in Dominican affairs to the extent necessary to prevent the accession of the admittedly distasteful General Trujillo." Shortly thereafter, General Trujillo won the 1930 elections the results of which were highly suspect. Despite early ambivalence and distrust towards Trujillo, the U.S. soon accepted his authoritarian style appreciating his ability to enforce stability and preclude U.S. intervention.

Trujillo's reign over the Dominican Republic had all the trappings of a Third World dictator. Historians describe his thirty-one year rule as one full of "political corruption, military muscle, torture, murder, nepotism, commercial monopolies and raids on the national treasury." Despite these attributes Washington fostered a relationship with the Trujillo Regime at times providing him with military and economic aid. President Roosevelt once stated "Trujillo is an SOB, but at least he's our SOB."

As the world quickly moved towards bi-polarity at the conclusion of World War Two, Latin America and the rest of the Third World became a battleground of ideology. The United States placed their confidence in men like Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua to keep the Soviet influence out of the Western Hemisphere. Trujillo proved to be a good investment in the U.S'. effort to contain Communism. Eventually however, he became a political nightmare and lost favor with both Democratic and Republican leaders in the U.S.


Trujillo falls from grace did not occur overnight. The U.S.' divorce from Trujillo was slow and came at the behest of various staffers and embassy personnel. James Brynes, President Truman's Secretary of State, claimed that Trujillo was the "most ruthless unprincipled, and efficient dictator in the hemisphere" adding that Trujillo was "the head of 'completely unsavory' regime." Secretary Brynes recommend that President Truman "avoid even the appearance of lending him any support."

The 1952 elections ushered in American war hero and professional soldier Dwight D. Eisenhower. Trujillo's stock continued to fall and the perception was that his days were now numbered. The Eisenhower received a report from the embassy in Santo Domingo urging the President to make "greater efforts to prevent the identification of the United States with Trujillo." Trujillo continued participating in nefarious activities furthering his alienation from the United States.

Trujillo orders to kidnap and murder a writer in the U.S. in addition to his support for Fulgencio Batista in Cuba greatly upset the Eisenhower Administration. However, "Trujillo's intrigues against the Betancourt government including an attempt to assassinate the Venezuelan president" outraged President Eisenhower and the Organization of American States. Trujillo allegedly even repulsed the assassin he hired to kill Betancourt. When the assassin offered to demonstrate with mannequins how an explosion would kill President Betancourt, Trujillo objected and ordered the use of live prisoners instead of the mannequins.

Trujillo "had become too much of an international embarrassment for Washington to tolerate." Our SOB needed to be neutralized. The U.S. formally ended all economic aid. To insure that Trujillo would cease being a problem for the U.S. and the rest of region, President Eisenhower "turned to the CIA…authorizing it to assist Dominican opposition groups conspiring to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship."


Latin America and the Caribbean region felt the full brunt of the Cold War as the U.S. and Soviets maneuvered for position. The U.S. found itself responding to the threat of Communist-Castro like revolutions throughout the hemisphere. Resentment resulting from "indirect" U.S. intervention was mounting throughout the region, particularly after the CIA sponsored coup in Guatemala. President Eisenhower recognized that there must have been deeper reasons for such resentment and sent his brother Milton on a fact-finding mission to the region. The President charged his brother to provide "specific recommendations for improvement in Latin American-United States relations."

An outcome of Milton Eisenhower’s trip to Latin America was the establishment of Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The IDB went into operation in 1959 with $1 billion available for development projects. Perhaps without intent, Milton Eisenhower contributed not only to development efforts in Latin America but to new policy towards the region. "United States foreign policy thus took on a more complex character with concern for development issues now begging to compete with containment as the official response to revolutionary change in Latin America."

President John F. Kennedy also expressed concern over Communist expansion and took no comfort in Nikita Khrushchev's claim that the Soviet's advocated "'wars of national liberation' in Asia, Africa and Latin America. President Kennedy quickly acknowledged the potential development policies in the fight against Communism and understood that Latin America was ripe for Castro like revolutions.

The Kennedy Administration was perhaps the first administration to establish a two tracked approach to containment. Economic and social development, The Alliance for Progress traveled on the first track while military assistance and counterinsurgency training traveled on the second track. The "Alliance" was based on the simple philosophy that if the quality of life was better and life itself more enjoyable, there would be no need for revolutions. This initiative was intended to assist Latin American countries to develop economically and thereby eliminate the need for revolutions. The Dominican Republic was a top priority.

While speaking about the Dominican Republic President Kennedy noted,

"There are three possibilities in descending order of preference, a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can't renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third."

Sometime later President Kennedy expressed confidence in the prospects of turning the Dominican Republic into a 'showcase of democracy' under the Alliance for Progress.

The assassination of President Kennedy brought Vice-president Johnson, who was not sympathetic to Latin Americans, to the Oval Office. This was evident by his decision to turn over management of the Alliance for Progress to Thomas Mann. Mann strongly advocated U.S. business interests in Latin America and did not hold Latin Americans in high esteem. He stated "I know my Latinos. They understand only two things, a buck in the pocket and a kick in the ass."

Under the Johnson Administration the Alliance for Progress soon withered away. Johnson was consumed with the Vietnam War and did not want to concentrate on Latin America. The Johnson Administration "never fully shared this idealism with respect to Latin America, and U.S. officials ceased to press for it during his administration." President Johnson went beyond simply bridling the United States’ commitment to the "Alliance"; he increased the use of military forces in suppressing "communist" revolutions and would shortly nullify the Good Neighbor Policy.


General Trujillo was assassinated in May of 1961. Over the next four years the Dominican Republic would have three leaders, only one, Juan Bosch being democratically elected. The Dominican Republic's revolving door of national leaders began with Joaquin Balaguer.

Concerned over the possibility of conflict and instability, President Kennedy pressured Balaguer and other elements of the Dominican Republic's society including the Trujillo family to pursue elections. President Kennedy deployed U.S. military forces off the coast of the Dominican Republic expressing his determination to see reforms implemented. Tension between the two administrations rose significantly when the Trujillo family attempted to re-take control of the country. Again the U.S. Navy sailed into Dominican waters showing the U.S. resolve. The Trujillo family shortly thereafter departed the country.

Balaguer did not last much longer either. The Kennedy Administration quickly tired of his unwillingness to embrace democratic values and implement reform. "Washington helped to force his resignation and then blocked a military attempt to restore him to power." Balaguer's removal opened the way for elections in 1962.

U.S. officials quickly realized that General Trujillo had all but extinguished any semblance of the political opposition. Eight organizations emerged to participate in the electoral process but not one had any significant history. "The parties spanned the political spectrum from conservative to Communist." The left of center Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD) and its candidate Juan Bosch were able to garner considerable support.

In December of 1962, the Organization of American States (OAS) monitored the Dominican Republic's elections. To the surprise of many and particularly the United States, Juan Bosch was the undisputed winner. Despite his left of center leanings and the U.S.' growing concern over Communism, the Kennedy Administration supported the Bosch Government.

Juan Bosch's tenure and democracy in the Dominican Republic was very short. Bosch, a poet, failed to develop the political skills needed to survive in post-Trujillo country. He "alienated one Dominican group after another by his statements and actions." Perhaps one of Bosch's greatest mistakes was miscalculating the U.S.' concern over Communism. When Bosch legalized the Communist party, he went too far for the conservative wing of the Dominican Republic's military establishment.

In September of 1963, the military overthrew Bosch. He went into exile in Puerto Rico. When news of the coup reached Washington, President Kennedy was highly disturbed. The President "stopped all U.S. aid and withdrew his ambassador." After several months of U.S. pressure, military leaders in the Dominican Republic decided to establish a civilian Triumvirate. Kennedy "disillusioned with the prospects for democracy and the progress of the Alliance...decided to recognize the new government." Unfortunately, the President was assassinated before he followed through on his decision.

Sometime passed before the Johnson Administration recognized the Triumvirate. "The decision to recognize the latest Dominican regime might have been Kennedy's but whereas JFK had acted out of disillusionment, LBJ acted more out of indifference." President Johnson was obsessed with three issues: domestically, the Great Society, and internationally avoiding a "second Cuba" and the U.S. growing involvement in Vietnam. The two latter issues significantly contributed the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965.


American educated businessman, Donald Reid Cabral emerged as the head of the Triumvirate. Reid faced many of the same challenges that Bosch encountered and would eventually suffer a similar fate. "With the military holding power behind the scenes, the new triumvirate found itself trapped between the political extremes."

Hostility erupted when the Communist party and other left wing organizations were outlawed. Reid also faced controversy when he attempted to restrain corruption in the military. Senior officers who had profited under Trujillo felt that they were being threatened while junior officers welcomed the reforms believing that they meant promotions. The Dominican Republic quickly began to fragment. Some senior military officers support the return of Balaguer, others within the military and leftist groups sought the return of Bosch, other military leaders and the U.S. supported Reid, while others in the military desired the establishment of a military junta.

It would only be a matter of time for war to broke-out. On April 24, a coup to overthrow Reid was discovered. While attempting to arrest those officers plotting the coup, General Rivera, the Army Chief of Staff, was arrested and the coup went into full swing.

Elements supporting the return of Juan Bosch and his constitutional government labeled themselves "Constitutionalists." This group was a mix of political leftist, military members and civilians. Those supporting Reid referred to themselves as "Loyalist." This group consisted of those military members supporting Reid.


The situation on the ground was difficult to assess. Adding to the confusion and diminishing the reliability of reports being generated from the U.S. Embassy back to Washington was the fact that most of the staff was out of town. The Embassy quickly labeled the coup a left-wing attack. "The Embassy raised the ideological issue that would dominate the deliberations of the U.S. policymakers in the days to come and the public controversy over American intervention for years thereafter."

President Johnson ordered U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic under the pretext of protecting American lives. Limited events in Santo Domingo offered credence to this premise of protection. "Rebel paramilitary groups entered the grounds of the Hotel Embajador and harassed U.S. Citizens gathering there in anticipation of being evacuated."

However, there is no doubt that the real reason for the invasion was prevent another Cuba. "Having seen Eisenhower criticized for 'losing' Cuba and Kennedy humiliated by the Bay of Pigs failure, Johnson was determined that no similar disaster would befall him: there would be no 'second Cuba.'" Johnson also confronted managing the growing U.S. intervention in Vietnam, another battleground of the Cold War. Johnson realized that American credibility was on the line. If he could not demonstrate U.S. resolve to curtail Communist expansion of "the American Lake," how would be the result in Vietnam?

President Johnson was convinced that Fidel Castro was behind this revolt in the Dominican Republic. Johnson once stated "'Castro had his eye on the Dominican Republic' and in Cuba, was training Dominican Leftist in guerrilla warfare and sabotage." Embassy officials in Santo Domingo exploited Johnson's fear of another Cuba. One of the many telegrams sent from the Embassy illustrates this point. The telegram stated the need for "'unlimited and immediate military assistance' from the United States to keep the Dominican Republic from becoming another Cuba."

President Johnson's assertions about Cuba however were incorrect. Although there were Communist involved in the revolt, it is important to note that they were only one faction in a large group of organizations determined to reinstate Jaun Bosch. It is also important to recognize that of the three Communist groups in the Dominican Republic only the 14 June (1J4) movement was Castro oriented.

The Johnson Administration allowed Castro's history to inappropriately influence its perception of the situation and invasion. It is true that as a law student, Castro did volunteer for "an invasion of the Dominican Republic to oust the Trujillo dictatorship…organized by a group of Dominican exiles led by Juan Rodriguez Garcia…and Juan Bosch." Years later, Castro executed what might be labeled a pre-emptive strike against Trujillo when he sponsored an invasion of the Dominican Republic on 14 June 1959. The attack failed miserably.

U.S. policymakers were so determined to substantiate their interpretation of events that they failed to recognize other possibilities. It appears that culprits other than Communist were not taken into account. "The leaders and most of the participants in the Dominican Revolt were anti-Communist or non-Communist. The Johnson Administration never proved that Communists actually took control, and the extent to which they posed a threat of doing so is a matter of judgment."


Johnson's decision to invade the Dominican Republic to stop Communism cost him significantly domestically and internationally. Perhaps the biggest winner in all this was Fidel Castro.

President Lyndon Johnson had ordered the invasion to stem what he claimed to be a Communist threat, probably inspired from Cuba, but in this instance it was Castro who derived most political profit. He had nothing to do with the civil war…yet the spectacle of American troops fighting the Dominican had superb propaganda value for Fidel's 'anti-imperialist' strategies at home and abroad.

In an effort to minimize controversy over the invasion, the President's staff determined that it was best to omit from public statements that the casus belli was a Communist threat. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson argued that the President should not go beyond the need to protect American lives in explaining his decision. To present it as an "…intervention 'to restore order' and prevent a Communist victory" would most likely be condemned throughout the hemisphere as a return to gunboat diplomacy.

The word went forward that the U.S. was simply conducting operations to protect Americans. However, as reporters started to cover the story, they became aware of the real reason behind the conflict. "When the reporters went aboard the [USS] Boxer to be briefed by Dare, the commodore told them that marines would stay ashore as long as necessary to 'keep this a non-Communist government.'" The decision to cover-up the truth resulted in the media's distrust of the administration for the rest of the crisis. There has also been speculation that it was this breaking of trust that caused the media to report on Vietnam so aggressively.

Ambassador Stevenson accurately predicted that Latin Americans tired of U.S. interventions would oppose this intervention. "At this time, in early May 1965, large anti-American crowds in many Latin American capitals were demonstrating against the intervention." Ironically, when the truth was uncovered, the OAS decided to participate in the peacekeeping force officially known as the Inter-American Peace Force (IAPF).

Although some members of the OAS strongly objected to the intervention and chose not to participate in IAPF, six countries volunteered. The IAPF consisted of Brazil, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Paraguay and Costa Rica. The significance of these countries participating and the official participation of the OAS were critical. Although skeptics would argue that the OAS was simply responding to the U.S. and legitimizing the invasion, it should be interpreted differently.

The OAS appropriately stepped forward and asserted itself as the multi-national hemispheric body responsible for pursuing democracy and settling disputes peacefully when possible. If the OAS had not chosen to participate, the U.S. would surely have had a freer hand at molding the future of the Dominican Republic. The OAS made its presence's known and proved to many skeptics that it could function as an international body.

The most important outcome that clearly falls in the winner column is the return of democracy to the Dominican Republic. Perhaps it was democracy through default but nonetheless the Dominican people were able to elect their leader on 1June 1966. Balaguer and Bosch both returned home and faced each other off at the ballot box. It seems that exile adversely affect Bosch in that "confined himself to his home, where he spent most of the campaign, earning the epithet Juan de la cueva." Balaguer was the undisputed winner with 57% of the vote.


The 1965 U.S. intervention of the Dominican Republic was more than just one more intervention in the Caribbean. President Johnson repudiated the Good Neighbor Policy and overreacted to a threat that did not exist. The Johnson Administration paid a price for this unilateral decision to invade a sovereign country.

The administration lost the faith of the American media which dogged it throughout the war in Vietnam and raised the suspicion of the American people. President Johnson made it clear to the people of Latin America that he was not concerned with their welfare or interests if they infringed his goals and interests.

Fortunately, not all was lost. The OAS managed to establish its credentials and participate in securing democracy for the Dominican Republic. Most importantly, the people of the Dominican Republic had once again the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. Perhaps just as important this was the U.S.' last intervention in the Dominican Republic to date.

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