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Ellen D. Tillman

Woodrow Wilson entered the presidency in 1913, when the United States was already deeply involved in Caribbean interests and European nations were moving almost irrevocably toward war. Wilson’s 1912 election shifted domestic and international policy, though not always in the ways that people expected. Mired in his own ideas about constitutionalism and the progressive course of history toward some ultimate end goal, Wilson inherited an empire that complicated US strategic goals. Caribbean countries and territories, meanwhile, were undergoing massive changes in internal markets and shifts toward the global economy. As industrialization and rapid improvements in communications technology picked up pace, foreign investment reoriented Caribbean economies; the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal deepened US strategic interest in the region. During the years of World War I, from August 1914, Wilson’s administration proclaimed neutrality but increasingly became more interventionist in the Caribbean to protect the canal and to allow the United States to dominate trade in the absence of European powers. From the Mexican Revolution to World War I and the postwar peace process, Wilson’s presidency was largely dominated by the exigencies of foreign affairs—exactly what he had feared at his election. When Wilson became president, he and his secretary of state decried the willingness of the previous presidential administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft to use military force in policing the Western Hemisphere, and yet within a short time Wilson’s administration became the most likely to use force and even military occupation. He decried unequal financial relationships and tax burdens as detrimental to hemispheric solidarity and national sovereignty but expected Latin American nations to follow a particular “Anglo-Saxon” path under US tutelage. When the realities of Caribbean nations did not match his expectations, or when he and his appointees found certain populations unready for democratic government, he was willing in an unprecedented way to use military force to impose the US standard as he saw it. The Wilson presidency (1913–1920) tightened US control over the Caribbean, with the administration intervening intrusively and placing heavy foreign burdens upon Caribbean countries. The occupations in countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic worsened US–Latin America relations. Occupations failed in their stated goals as popular opposition forced withdrawals, although they left US-friendly militaries that guaranteed long-term support for US interests, often under militarily backed dictatorships.