Caribbean Problems and Projects

The close of the War with Spain brought no satisfactory solution for the Cuban problem. As a result of years of misrule and fighting, conditions on the island were deplorable when the war ended. Under provisions of the Teller amendment, the United States was pledged to turn over the rule of Cuba to its people. American forces, however, stayed on to assist the Cubans in achieving at least a modicum of eco- nomic and political stability. The first step was to set up a provisional government, headed in the beginning by Maj. Gen. John R. Brooke and later by General Wood. This government promptly undertook a program of rehabilitation and reform. An outstanding achievement was eliminating yellow fever, which had decimated Army troops during the war. Research and experiments carried out by the Army Medical Department culminated in the discovery that a specific type of mosquito transmitted the dread disease. When a concerted effort was generated to control the places where that mosquito bred, the disease was dramatically reduced and the overall improvement in troop health in the tropics was significant.
When order had been restored in Cuba, a constituent assembly met. Under the chairmanship of General Wood, it drew up an organic law for the island patterned after the American Constitution. At the insistence of the United States, this law included several clauses known as the Platt amendment, which also appeared in the subsequent treaty concluded in 1903 by the two countries. The amendment limited the amount of debt Cuba could contract, granted the United States naval bases at Guantanamo and Bahia Honda, and gave the United States the right to intervene to preserve “Cuban independence” and maintain a government “adequate to the protection of life, property and individual liberty.” In 1902, after a general election and the inauguration of the republic’s first president, the Americans ended their occupation. But events soon demonstrated that the period of tutelage in self- government had been too short. In late 1906, when the Cuban government proved unable to cope with a new rebellion, the United States intervened to maintain law and order. On the advice of Secretary Taft, President Roosevelt dispatched more than 5,000 troops to Havana, the so-called Army of Cuban Pacification that remained in Cuba until early 1909. Again in 1912 and 1917, the United States found it necessary to intervene but each time withdrew its occupying forces as soon as order was restored. Not until 1934 did the United States, consistent with its new Good Neighbor Policy, give up the right of intervention embodied in the Platt amendment.
The emergence of the United States as a world power with a primary concern for developments in the Caribbean Sea increased the long-time American interest in an isthmian canal. Discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the rapid growth of the West Coast states had underlined the importance of developing a shorter sea route from Atlantic ports to the Pacific. The strategic need for a canal was dramatized for the Ameri- can people during the Spanish-American War by the 66-day voyage of the battleship Oregon from Puget Sound around Cape Horn to Santiago, where it joined the American Fleet barely in time to participate in the destruction of Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s ships, who earlier had played an important role in administering the sanitation program in Cuba, the Army carried through measures to control malaria and virtually wipe out yellow fever, ultimately converting the Canal Zone into a healthy and attractive place to live and work.
The completed Panama Canal stood as a magnificent engineering achievement and an outstanding example of the Army’s fulfillment of a peacetime mission, but its opening and operation under American administration were also highly significant from the point of view of military strategy. For the Navy, the Canal achieved economy of force by eliminating the necessity for maintaining large fleets in both the Atlan- tic and Pacific. For the Army, it created a new strategic point in the continental defense system that had to be strongly protected by the most modern fortifications manned by a large and well-trained garrison.

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