Remembering the Alamo, and the Maine, and the Coloniality: U.S. Interventions in Latin America, Part I

Prologue: The Monroe Doctrine

A long, long time ago, when our country was very new, a Doctrine was born. The world was, it seems, innocent then, but I think it unlikely that the Doctrine was ever entirely innocent itself. The Doctrine’s origins sink back even further, to a speech given by James Monroe while he was Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state; the Doctrine itself would be penned by John Quincy Adams, our future president, while he was secretary of state to James Monroe. We began to put that Doctrine to use long before its ink was dry: the fledgling U.S. consumed South Florida, and then, soon enough, all of Florida (never mind that the Spaniards had helped us win the Revolution).1 We had Manifest Destiny, after all. The World was well and truly Ours, and the Monroe Doctrine was elucidated to Keep Those Europeans the Hell Outta the Americas.2

Remember the Alamo: The Mexican-American War

Remember the Alamo? It’s almost an American tradition, to (mis)remember: a building, a space, a stance, a whole lot of dead people: a nation born in blood. American heroes, American martyrs. A horrible lot of people died at the Alamo, people who should have lived another day. It was a horrible slaughter, and it was a horrible thing our Alamo martyrs sought to defend,3 for they were fighting for slavery. The Alamo has now been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The thought makes me rather queasy: will anyone remember, when they go, that on this ground men fought and died in the name of slavery? Texas is already erasing slavery from its textbooks.4 I don’t really trust it–or, for that matter, much of anywhere–to remember the ugliness beneath the Alamo’s history of courage and martyrdom.

Nineteenth-century tourist-trap Alamo. Image first printed in 1854 in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room CompanionWikimedia Commons.

After the Alamo, of course, we returned to our lovely little Doctrine, and we marched onward. We went on a tasty, tasty land grab in the new country of Mexico, gobbling up nearly half the territory of the Mexican state, once the jewel of the Spanish Empire.5 We occupied Distrito Federal (what we know as Mexico City) and slaughtered our merry way through the country. For years I thought I’d escaped at least some of the shame of that war: surely my ancestors, at least, did not participate. But, as I’ve always known, my ancestors were a brutal and war-like group of people, particularly down in the South; my great-great-great grandfather signed right up, leaving his wife and two small sons at home. Knowing what I do of this particular relation, and of the son (my great-great grandfather) to whom I am related, I cringe to think of what he must have done in his time in Mexico. He must have loved it: after all, he really was fighting for slavery.6 Not so much later his son would follow in his footsteps.

General Scott’s entrance into Mexico, from George Wilkins Kendall & Carl Nebel’s 1851 The War between the United States and Mexico Illustrated, Embracing Pictorial Drawings of all the Principal Conflicts. Lithograph by Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot, based on a drawing by Carl Nebel. Wikimedia Commons.

Who, other than the nameless hundreds of pacifists in the U.S., spoke against the War? Well, in a twist of brutal irony, John Quincy Adams, who originated the Monroe Doctrine, was vehemently against the war. Thoreau, an original at civil disobedience, refused to pay war taxes, went to the clink, and later wrote Civil Disobedience, helpfully providing a blueprint for future conscientious disobedience. Frederick Douglass, the most photographed American of the nineteenth century, spoke forcefully against the war. A fellow Illinoisan, one Abraham Lincoln, joined many of his partymates and also spoke against the war; early in its course he proposed the Spot Resolutions, and a speech he gave near the end of the it is available both in hand-written scans and in exact transcription of those scans. (Among other concerns, Lincoln noted that there was, as it were, no exit plan for this war–an issue that appears to be ongoing across our political spectrum.)

Blonde Manifest Destiny floats manifestly through the air as pioneers deforest and disposses in her wake. John Gast’s 1872 American Progress, a striking example of American expansionism and coloniality in art (by a Prussian immigrant, nonetheless). Wikimedia Commons.

But, despite an anti-war effort, and likely thanks to people such as my slavery-defendin’, war-lovin’ great-great-great grandfather, to Mexico we went, and Mexican land we ripped off. From California7 to Oregon, New Mexico to Oklahoma (and beyond), the first European language on the land was Spanish, not English, and if fair were fair–well, we’d already be legally bi-, if not tri-,8 lingual. One has to wonder what John Quincy thought, when the Monroe Doctrine began to be used in ways that he had, perhaps, been too innocent, or too idealistic, to anticipate. We were no longer helping defend North America from coloniality. Instead, we were the coloniality, and we surely weren’t very nice about it.

Not everyone was thrilled with the War, or with its generals running for president. Here, N. Currier’s 1848 take on the Whig presidential candidates, Generals Scott and Taylor. Wikimedia Commons.

So, we gained ourselves a whole bunch more land–tasty, tasty land, filled with people! But never mind the people already there: it was our Manifest Destiny™ to take over North America, so everyone else would have to be packed off, somewhere. (Hence such atrocities as smallpox blankets, Wounded Knee, and the Trail of Tears.) The war eventually ended, and my charming ancestor returned home, to raise future defenders of the indefensible. A whole lot of Mexicans suddenly found themselves American, after a fashion. A very, very awkward, and racist, fashion.

We bided our time then, for a little–though we found plenty with which to occupy ourselves. We fought a terrible, cruel Civil War, over whether or not humans should be held in chattel slavery, and whether or not the union should stand divided. (My ancestors tried their level best to blow each other off the face of the earth and one still ended up surrendering to another.) President Lincoln was assassinated–the first American President to die in such a way, further devastating a ravaged land, and, one assumes, laying the foundation for the wreck that would be Reconstruction. We weaponized Manifest Destiny a little more, attacking American Indians anywhere and everywhere, slaughtering everyone from great warriors to children and the eldery. And we left Mexico and the rest of Latin America alone, sort of, at least for a time.

Remembering the Maine: The Spanish-American War

A young revolutionary and a cute baby: José Martí and his son José Francisco Martí Zayas Bazán  in New York, 1880. Wikimedia Commons.

Remember the Maine, sunk in Havana Harbor? Well, long before the Maine blew, senselessly killing so many American sailors, Cuba had been struggling for its independence. In 1812 José Aponte,9 free Cuban of color, carpenter, soldier, and revolutionary, was executed, along with his lieutenants, among them free men and slaves alike. Their crime? They had risen up, against Spain and against slavery, taking a stand for a new, free land. For it they died, horribly, early martyrs of independence. Later, the great poet of modernismo, José Martí, was exiled repeated from Cuba, yet he did not stop fighting for liberty until he fell on the battlefield against Spain.10

José Martí and the revolutionaries of the Comité de Key West. Members include Genaro Hernández, Serafín Bello, Aurelio C. Rodríguez, José G. Pompez, Frank G. Bolio, Francisco María González, Gualterio García, José Martí and Angel Peláez. 1891. Wikimedia Commons.

One can well and truly say that Martí gave his life for the cause of Cuban liberty. He lived, during his various exiles, in New York City–but he did not trust the United States at all, which may perhaps have something to do with earlier applications of the Monroe Doctrine. (We hadn’t even added the Roosevelt Corollary quite yet, which makes the Doctrine even worse.) In fact, he went so far as to liken us to a great, ravening beast, and himself to a David who happens to know that beast well–it has, after all, lived within the beast for quite some time.11 (Rather differently than José Vasconcelos, Martí actually approved of our industriousness and energeticness.) In the end, of course, José Martí was quite right not to trust our honeyed words: thanks to the Spanish-American War, the U.S. managed to gobble up Cuba, at least for a time–and, at least until the contract is somehow broken, Guantánamo Bay, for all time. Delicious Caribbean land, m’dears–just think of all that sugar.12 And the Maine, that senseless loss of life that helped carry us to another war? To this day it is apparently a mystery–but there is a good chance that the Maine blew because of an internal coal fire, not an external mine.

Fidel Vélez and his men fly the Puerto Rican flag at the Intentona de Yauco, 1897. Wikimedia Commons.

But we had our sights set on so much more than Cuba in the Spanish-American War. We wanted Puerto Rico and Guam and the Philippines, too, and we got them. Much like Cuba, the Philippines already had a history of revolts by the time the U.S. showed up. In fact, they declared themselves independent, evidently thinking that they stood a chance–and, the day after their declaration, President McKinley and his government elected to annex them, instead. (As often seems to be the case, the decision was driven by commercial interests.) Guam, about which I know shamefully little, fell quickly to Henry Glass and the sailors of the U.S.S. Charleston. At war’s end, Spain would give up Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico; the United States paid all of twenty million dollars for the privilege of becoming the Philippines’ newest colonial overlord.

And what was Puerto Rico doing? Well, it wasn’t simply awaiting our forces, though I don’t doubt that many a young soldier and sailor truly believed he was freeing the waiting people of the Islands–such is, and always has been, the rhetoric of empire. The Grito de Lares started September 23, 1868, and ended nearly as soon as it began. Survivors fled, some to New York, some to Cuba. The Intentona de Yauco, where Fidel Vélez would first fly something close to today’s Puerto Rican flag, began and ended in early 1897. Though it, too, ultimately failed, and Vélez, among others, would be driven into exile (he did not go to New York), Spain finally caved: they gave the island more autonomy…right in time for the United States to invade. I’ve always wondered what people thought, of being given “independence” in the form of yet more coloniality.13

Peace and new government: French ambassador Jules Cambon, acting for Spain, signs the peace treaty marking an end to war. Image from a Harper’s Bazaar published April 11, 1899. Wikimedia Commons.

The Spanish-American War was, in many ways, devastating. Spain lost an empire–although, to be fair, it had pretty much lost that well before Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines left (or were taken from) the fold. On the bright side, Spain gained what we now call the Generación del ’98. (I’m pretty sure I’ve read things by every single one of the guys of the Generación del ’98–but I read them back when I was reading a thousand pages a day, and I have pretty much no recollection of Valle-Inclán beyond his name. I guess they didn’t stick like the Generación del ’27,14 those frequently martyred geniuses of the early twentieth century.) We lost relatively few men in combat–if one doesn’t count the Maine, it was under a thousand (still far too many, but I am also a pacifist). But we lost a lot of guys to tropical disease: yellow fever and malaria took more than 5,000 men.15 Five thousand men, in the name of a Doctrine that John Quincy Adams probably never intended to be used for coloniality at all.

We’re bringing a boatload of Orientalist fantasies with our imperialism, guys! An 1898 newspaper cartoon (unknown paper, unknown cartoonist) depicting Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty blasting out the eardrums of a bunch of women evidently representing Cuba and Puerto Rico. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

We got Puerto Rico! And perpetual rights to Guantánamo, which we later turned into the setting of a real-life horror story! And we got to bring freedom to other countries! As evidenced by the anonymous 1898 cartoon, above, we were really big on that latter thing. After all, we still like to believe we’re bringing freedom and democracy to the world, so I guess it makes sense that we thought we were doing it in 1898, too. Hey, we even stole Hawaii16 from the people who were already living there! (I’m incredibly glad to say that my forebears did not fight this one: the Johnny Rebs were licking their wounds, the tragicly cursed flower children were presumably pretending it wasn’t happening, the Germans were working the breweries in Milwaukee, and the Irish were ranching and gunslinging.) In fact, the cartoon would be a great analytical tool for a history class: let’s count the instantiations of empire, coloniality, and Orientalism present, guys! ¡Adelante!

Aaah, delicious new land. (One wonders if the people were also delicious.) President McKinley waits on Uncle Sam in this May 28, 1898 cartoon from the Boston GlobeWikimedia Commons.

1898 is more the beginning of our excursions into Latin America than the end, or even the middle. For soon Teddy Roosevelt, who’d fought in Cuba with his Rough Riders and who believed in quiet voices and big sticks, would add a damaging corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and set us up for even more interference. The sun was setting on the Spanish Empire as it rose  on the burgeoning American Empire, which soon would come to challenge, and surpass, even the (newly) mighty British Empire.

But the Roosevelt Corollary, and the United Fruit Company, and the mafia in Cuba, and the start of the overthrown governments–that’s a story for another time.

1898 political cartoon, atributed to the Philadelphia Press. Wikimedia Commons.

NOTES

1 See the following:

  • “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited: The Madison Administration, the West Florida Revolt, and the No Transfer Policy,” William S. Belko. The Florida Historical Quaterly 90.2 (2011). JSTOR.
  • “Rumors of Wars: Presidential and Congressional War Powers, 1809-1829,” David P. Currie. The University of Chicago Law Review, 2000 (67.1). JSTOR.
  • “Boundary Disputes in the Republic of West Florida in 1810,” Henry S. Marks. Louisiana Historical Society, 1971. JSTOR.
  • “Buying West Florida from the Indians: The Forbes Purchase and Mitchell v. United States (1835),” Blake A. Watson. 9 FIU L. Rev. 361 (2014). FIU Law Review.

Additionally, it is worth noting that, while Flordia remained under Spanish rule, an enslaved African-American had only to make it to Saint Agustín and convert to Catholicism to be freed. This was, one assumes, another powerful incentive for local slaveowners to take the state over.

2 According to Stanley L. Flack’s 1955 article “Some Contemporary Views of the Monroe Doctrine: The United States Press in 1893” (JSTOR), people were fairly pleased with the Doctrine; Wikipedia adds that nobody–not even Europe–was terribly concerned, possibly because we were young, overconfident, and inept (or seen as such, wrongly). It is also worth pointing out that Flack’s article comes from the height of the Cold War and was researched and published in the heat of the McCarthy Era.
3 For more on the history behind the Alamo, see:

4 While a Texas woman took the state and the textbook makers to court and won, the incorrect textbooks are still in use. For more, see NPR and The Christian Science Monitor.
5 Notes from Fabrício Prado’s Colonial Latin America (fall 2010) and Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates (spring 2010), Roosevelt University. See also:
6 For an interesting (and depressing) look at Mexico and the Mexican-American War in Southern conciousness (eg, what my great-great-great grandfather likely thought, and what he taught his son), see Michael Fuhlhage’s “The Mexican Image Through Southern Eyes: De Bow’s Review in the Era of Manifest Destiny,” American Journalism, 30.2. DOI: 10.1080/08821127.2013.788440.
7 It is worth noting that California decided to round up its Spanish officials and declare itself a republic before American troops marched in.
8 The first European languages in North America were Spanish in the south and southwest and Frech in the north (and beyond). Both are still spoken in the U.S., with French most frequent in Louisiana, parts of Texas, and the Northeast.
9 All information on Aponte and the Aponte Rebellion is based on notes from Fabrício Prado’s Colonial Latin America and Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates, as well as Matt Childs’ excellent (but depressing) The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle Against Atlantic SlaveryIt is also worth noting that, as Childs discusses, and as mentioned in this 1998 Atlantic article, Cuba hung out longer than many other colonial posessions because it was terrified that it would become Haiti Junior.
10 It is difficult to pin down places where I learned about Martí’s activism (and his poetry and journalism), not least because I have read his poems in nearly every Spanish course I have taken, beginning, if I recall correctly, with 202 or a similar course. José Martí the rebel really is common knowledge, I think.
11 I’m pretty sure I’ve read the letter where he states this a few times over, although I tend to remember Versos Sencillos better. Cliff Welch discusses Martí and his foresight in his 1997 article “‘In the Belly of the Beast’: Latin American Studies and U.S. Interests Abroad.” In his “Nuestra América,” Martí wrote of similar sentiments (less virulent than Vasconcelos, although in a way similar); that is available in the original Spanish here (pdf) and in English translation here. Finally, the unfinished letter in which Martí describes himself as David and we Americans as a pack of Goliaths is available in Spanish here (and a ton of other places) and in English here. It was to have been sent to Manuel Mercado, a Mexican politian and close friend of Martí’s.
12 For more discussion of the role sugar has played in our various early expeditions into Latin America, see the Library of Congress’s Introduction to the world of 1898 and its brief essay on Cuba.
13 Evidently, when the U.S. first came marching in, many believed that Puerto Rico’s fortunes would change for the better, though, as Mark Rice writes in “Colonial Photography Across Empires and Islands,” the United States didn’t even believe that Puerto Ricans had the ability to govern themselves. Further, as Nirmal Trivedi points out in a note on page 19 of “Staging Unincorporated Power: Richard Harding Davis and the Critique of Imperial News,” the court case Downes v. Bidewell would leave Puerto Ricans (and others in U.S. territories) in the unenviable position of never being quite a citizen anywhere.
14 The Generación del ’27 included poets such as Federico García-Lorca, who was likely murdered by the Franco regime either for his politics, his poetry, or his sexual orientation. He was a terrible loss to us all.
15 To compound the awfulness of the yellow fever epidemic, there was a bizarre belief that African-Americans weren’t susceptible to the disease. Not surprisingly, but horrifying nonetheless, when the U.S. sent African-American troops in to nurse the sick large numbers of the men died, adding another layer of ugliness to an already rather sordid chapter.


Additional sources of information

Much of this feels like common knowledge to me, although that is perhaps much like the Monadnock Building and its massive walls: common knowledge only to those of us in the discipline. Hence, some additional resources for those wishing to learn more. (Be warned, however, that this is an extremely partial list.) And, for those who’d like to see everything laid out nice and clearly, I’ve made this marvelous timeline, using Northwestern University’s excellent Timeline JS software. (Which, in truth, I can’t recommend highly enough, for those who might be interested in creating timelines themselves.)

José Martí: Writer, poet, journalist, Cuban revolutionary.

  • Biography from Biography.com.
  • José Martí over at Amazon. (I do recommend Versos sencillos.)
  • Extra-brief bio at the Library of Congress website.

José Antonio Aponte and colleagues

Mexican-American War

Spanish-American War

  • The war itself
    • Chronology of the Spanish-American War from the Library of Congress.
    • Platform of the American Anti-Imperialist League.
    • Anti-Imperialist League from the Library of Congress (look, they held at least one meeting in Chicago!)
  • Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines
    • “Después de la guerra: Una república azucarera en auge,” Alejandro García Álvarez. Studia histórica. Historia contemporánea, 15 (1997). Available open-access via DialNet.
    • “Sociedad civil, política y dominio colonial en Cuba, 1878-1895,” José Antonio Piqueras Arenas. Studia histórica. Historia contemporánea1997. Available open-access via DialNet.
  • The Generación del ’98

Coloniality and Manifest Destiny

  • Coloniality at Large, a collection of theoretical essays edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dussel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui.
  • “Isolationism, internationalism and the Monroe Doctrine,” Marco Mariano. Journal of Transatlantic Studies 9.1 (2011). DOI: 10.1080/14794012.2011.550776
  • “Benevolent Imperialism: George Catlin and the Practice of Jeffersonian Geography,” Gareth E. John. Journal of Historical Geography, 30 (2004). DOI: 10.1016/j.jhg.2003.09.001. Available full-text on Academia.edu.
  • “The Shaping of the American Empire,” Peter J. Hugill. Journal of Historical Geography 36.3 (2011). DOI: 10.1016/j.jhg.2009.12.005
  • “Circa 1898: Overseas Empire and Transnational American Studies,” Hsuan L. Hsu. The Journal of Transnational American Studies, 2011. Available full-text from eScholarship at the University of California.
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