Santo Domingo: The Politics of Terror

Barrios in Arms: Revolution in Santo Domingo

by José A. Moreno
University of Pittsburgh, 226 pp., $8.95

We know that many who are now in revolt do not seek a Communist tyranny. We think it’s tragic indeed that their high motives have been misused by a small band of conspirators, who receive their directions from abroad. To those who fight only for liberty and justice and progress, I want to join in…appealing to you tonight to lay down your arms and to assure you that there is nothing to fear. The road is open to you to share in building a Dominican Democracy and we in America are ready and anxious and willing to help you.

—Lyndon B. Johnson
May 2, 1965

President Johnson’s military intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 was as momentous as it was cruel and politically mistaken. We can see it, along with our enlargement of the Vietnam war in the same year, as part of a disastrous expansion of the powers of the American Presidency and of its sense of “global responsibilities.” When a force of 23,000 US troops landed in Santo Domingo in May to reverse the course of the Santo Domingo civil war they served to rescue a repressive military establishment from an apparently successful popular revolt that was trying to restore constitutional rule. We can now see that the high priority the US gave to social progress in Latin America, an idea implicit in the Alliance for Progress, has been replaced by what appears to be an expanding and recurrent pattern of control by terror.

Professor Jerome Slater’s political study of the 1965 intervention and the eighteen-month US military occupation that followed is derived from his use, on a not-for-attribution basis, of “a great number of papers, memoirs, and documents which are not now in the public domain,” as well as off-the-record interviews with US and OAS officials. However, all this new material adds little or no support to the official rationale for the intervention—that the Dominican Republic was at the brink of a possible Communist takeover. Instead it provides further evidence of double-dealing and cruelty after the US troops were sent in.

Because he relies so much on classified official documents, and because of his otherwise limited knowledge of Dominican affairs, Slater tends at times to bend over backward to give credence and legitimacy to the official US view in a number of, at best, highly doubtful instances. Nevertheless, he concludes that although “there was some risk that out of an uncontrollable revolutionary upheaval Castroite forces might emerge victorious…the risk was not yet sufficiently great to justify the predictably enormous political and moral costs that the intervention entailed.”

The effect of the intervention was to restore to power in Santo Domingo the political apparatchiks of the long and brutal dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (1930-61). Of the costs Slater writes at the end of his book:

…the steadily worsening political terrorism…has recently [1970] reached crisis proportions. Scarcely a day goes by without a political murder, a “suicide” of a jailed political…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.