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Banana Wars

Banana Wars

United States Marines and a Haitian guide patrolling the jungle in 1915 during the Battle of Fort Dipitie
Objective Protect United States interests in Central America
Date 1898–1934
Executed by United States
Outcome Spanish-American War
Occupation of Nicaragua
Occupation of Haiti
Occupation of the Dominican Republic

The Banana Wars were a series of occupations, police actions, and interventions involving the United States in Central America and the Caribbean between the Spanish–American War (1898) and the inception of the Good Neighbor Policy (1934).[1] These military interventions were most often carried out by the United States Marine Corps. The Marines were involved so often that they developed a manual, The Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars, in 1921. On occasion, the Navy provided gunfire support and Army troops were also used.

With the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States. Thereafter, the United States conducted military interventions in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The series of conflicts only ended with the withdrawal of troops from Haiti in 1934 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


  • Origins 1
  • Interventions 2
  • American fruit companies 3
  • Criticism 4
  • Notable veterans 5
  • Footnotes 6
  • References 7


United States Marines with the captured flag of Augusto César Sandino of Nicaragua in 1932

Reasons for these conflicts were varied but largely economic in nature. The conflicts were called "Banana Wars", a term that arose from the connections between these interventions and the preservation of American commercial interests in the region.

Most prominently, the United Fruit Company had significant financial stakes in production of bananas, tobacco, sugar cane, and various other products throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Northern South America. The U.S. was also advancing its political interests, maintaining a sphere of influence and controlling the Panama Canal which it had recently built, critically important to global trade and naval power.


American warships off Veracruz in 1914
  • Cuba and Puerto Rico, U.S. intervention in Cuba and invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898.
  • Panama, U.S. interventions in the isthmus go back to the 1846 Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty and intensified after the so-called Watermelon War of 1856. In 1903, Panama seceded from the Republic of Colombia, backed by the U.S. government,[2] amidst the Thousand Days' War. The Panama Canal was under construction by then, and the Panama Canal Zone, under United States sovereignty, was then created (it was handed down to Panama as of 2000).
  • Nicaragua, which, after intermittent landings and naval bombardments in the previous decades, was occupied by the U.S. almost continuously from 1912-1933.
  • Cuba, occupied by the U.S. from 1898-1902 under military governor Leonard Wood, and again from 1906 to 1909, 1912 and 1917 to 1922; governed by the terms of the Platt Amendment through 1934.
  • Haiti, occupied by the U.S. from 1915-1934, which led to the creation of a new Haitian constitution in 1917 that instituted changes that included an end to the prior ban on land ownership by non-Haitians. Including the First and Second Caco Wars.[3]
  • Dominican Republic, action in 1903, 1904 (the Santo Domingo Affair), and 1914; occupied by the U.S. from 1916 to 1924.
  • Honduras, where the United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit Company dominated the country's key banana export sector and associated land holdings and railways, saw insertion of American troops in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924 and 1925.[4] Writer O. Henry coined the term "Banana republic" in 1904 to describe Honduras.
  • Mexico, The U.S. military involvements with Mexico in this period are related to the same general commercial and political causes, but stand as a special case. The Americans conducted the Border War with Mexico from 1910-1919 for additional reasons: to control the flow of immigrants and refugees from revolutionary Mexico (pacificos), and to counter rebel raids into U.S. territory. The 1914 U.S. occupation of Veracruz, however, was an exercise of armed influence, not an issue of border integrity; it was aimed at cutting off the supplies of German munitions to the government of Mexican leader Victoriano Huerta,[5] whom US President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize.[5] In the years prior to World War I, the U.S. was also alert to the regional balance of power against Germany. The Germans were actively arming and advising the Mexicans, as shown by the 1914 SS Ypiranga arms-shipping incident, German saboteur Lothar Witzke's base in Mexico City, the 1917 Zimmermann Telegram and German advisors present during the 1918 Battle of Ambos Nogales. Only twice during the Mexican Revolution did the US military occupy Mexico;[6] during the temporary occupation of Veracruz in 1914 and between the years 1916 and 1917, when US General John Pershing and his army came to Mexico to lead a nationwide search for Pancho Villa.

Other Latin American nations were influenced or dominated by American economic policies and/or commercial interests to the point of coercion. Theodore Roosevelt declared the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904, asserting the right of the United States to intervene to stabilize the economic affairs of states in the Caribbean and Central America if they were unable to pay their international debts. From 1909-1913, President William Howard Taft and his Secretary of State Philander C. Knox asserted a more "peaceful and economic" Dollar Diplomacy foreign policy, although that too was backed by force, as in Nicaragua.

American fruit companies

The first decades of Honduras history were marked by instability in terms of politics and economy. Indeed, the political context gave way to 210 armed conflicts between independence and the rise to power of the Carias government.[7] According to Miguel Cáceres Rivera and Sucelinda Zelaya Carranza, this instability was due in part to the American involvement in the country.[7]

The first company that concluded an agreement with the Honduras government was the Vaccaro Brothers Company (Standard Fruit Company).[7] The Cuyamel Fruit Company then followed the lead. Furthermore, the United Fruit Company also agreed to a contract with the government, which contract was attained through its subsidies (Tela Rail Road Company and Truxillo Rail Road Company).[7]

There were different avenues that led to the signature of a contract between the Honduras government and the American companies. The most popular avenue would be to obtain a grab on a piece of land in exchange of the completion of railroads in Honduras.[7] It is, thus, the reason why it is a railroad company that conducted the agreement between the United Fruit Company and Honduras.

However, according to Mark Moberg, most banana producers in Central America (including Honduras) “were scourged by Panama disease, a soil-borne fungus (…) that decimated production over large regions”.[8] Therefore, when a plantation would be decimated, the companies would leave the plantation as is, and destroyed the railroads (and other utilities) that they had been using along with the plantation.[8] Therefore, one might argue that the exchange of services between the government and the companies was not always respected.

The ultimate goal in the acquisition of a contract was to control the process from production to distribution of the bananas. Therefore, the companies would finance guerrilla fighters, presidential campaigns and governments.[7] According to Rivera and Carranza, the indirect participation of American companies in the country’s armed conflicts worsened the situation.[7] They argued that the presence of more dangerous and modern weapons gave place to more dangerous warfare amongst the different factions.[7]

In British Honduras (modern-day Belize), the situation was slightly different. According to Mark Moberg, despite the fact that the United Fruit Company was the sole-exporter of bananas in British Honduras, and that the company was also manipulating the government, the country escaped itself from the term "banana republics" that had been coined to other Central American countries at the time.[8]


Perhaps the single most active military officer in the Banana Wars was U.S. Marine Corps Major General, Smedley Butler, who saw action in Honduras in 1903, served in Nicaragua enforcing American policy from 1909–1912, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in Veracruz in 1914, and a second Medal of Honor for bravery while "crush(ing) the Caco resistance" in Haiti in 1915. In 1935, Butler wrote in his famous book War Is a Racket:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Notable veterans

Notable U.S. veterans of the Banana Wars include:


  1. ^ Lester D. Langley, The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898–1934, p. 3.
  2. ^ In a state speech in December 1903, President Roosevelt put the number of "revolutions, rebellions, insurrections, riots, and other outbreaks" in Panama at 53, within the space of 57 years. in "Theodore Roosevelt's third state of the union address":
  4. ^ Marc Becker (1995-01-01). "History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America". Retrieved 2014-03-15. 
  5. ^ a b "Battle of Veracruz - Mexican Revolution Battle of Veracruz". Retrieved 2014-03-15. 
  6. ^ "Gaming Unplugged Since 2000". BoardGameGeek. Retrieved 2014-03-15. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Miguel Cáceres Rivera and Sucelinda Zelaya Carranza, “Honduras. Seguridad Productiva y Crecimiento Econoómico: La Función Económica Del Cariato,” Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos, Vol. 31 (2005), pp. 49-91.
  8. ^ a b c Mark Moberg, “Crown Colony as Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company in British Honduras, 1900-1920,” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 357-381.


  • Langley, Lester D. (1983). The Banana Wars: An Inner History of American Empire, 1900-1934. Lexington:  
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