Category Archives: History

What Goes on in Santo Domingo?

This is Juan Pérez Terrero’s photograph of Jacobo Rincón about to fight a fully armed U.S. soldier. The photo was taken in 1965 during the U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republic.

This is Juan Pérez Terrero’s photograph of Jacobo Rincón about to fight a fully armed U.S. soldier. The photo was taken in 1965 during the U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republic.

Not since 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson in a televised address justified the deployment of 40,000 U.S. troops to Santo Domingo under the pretext that a “popular democratic revolution, committed to democracy and social justice,” had fallen “into the hands of a ban of Communist conspirators” have events in the Dominican Republic garner as much international attention as the denationalization and deportation of Haitian workers and Dominicans of Haitian descent.[1] The late New Left intellectual and polyglot Fred Halliday, writing back in 2009, wondered how the country had been “forgotten by the world after the attention of the Rafael Trujillo years and the 1965 events,” which in his mind was “a paradox, indeed, that this country, the centrepiece of the original Spanish colonisation of the Americas, and scene of one of the most tumultuous confrontations of the cold war, should have slipped so easily from international attention.” Halliday concluded with the hope that it was time for the “Dominican Republic” to contribute “another page” to history.[2] The Dominican Republic has written that page, and what appears on it doesn’t recall the anti-imperialist and populist events of 1965 but Rafael Trujillo’s 1937 massacre of Dominicans and Haitians living in the borderlands of Hispaniola. Much has been written about the Trujillo regime and its ruthless exercise in state formation and authoritarian rule, something that will be covered on this blog at a later point. But for the moment, the April Uprising, imbued with a comparable mythic quality and historical exceptionalism as U.S. radicals from the Sixties attribute to their movements for reform, will be the focus of this post.

The April Uprising of 1965 to restore the deposed Juan Bosch to the Dominican presidency was a watershed moment not only because of the mythical status the rebellion still holds over the Dominican popular imagination but also because the occupation of the island happened in the polarizing atmosphere of the Cold War. Like other countries across Latin America, Asia and Africa at this time, the Dominican Republic served as a battleground in the U.S.’s war against Soviet Communism. In the Dominican Republic, President Johnson saw an insignificant country where he could rehabilitate the Democrats’ hawkish credentials in dealing with Communism. “I have just taken action,” Johnson said to Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, “that will prove that Democratic presidents can deal with Communists as strongly as Republicans.”[3]

At the level of protest politics, the April Uprising became a cause célèbre among Black Power and Puerto Rican nationalists, New Left activists and New Communist Movement militants.[4] Stokely Carmichael, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer, provided another reason why events in the Dominican Republic gained so much traction in the U.S. press. During his 1966 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, Carmichael indicated the trajectory the antiwar movement was to take from peace movement to Third World anti-imperialist politics: “One of the problems with the peace movement is that it’s just too caught up in Vietnam, and that if we pulled out the troops from Vietnam this week, next week you’d have to get another peace movement for Santo Domingo[5].” One year later, at the First Conference of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), Carmichael further defined his position from “the problems” to “a common struggle” against “our enemy,” “white Western imperialist society.”[6] Because of these ideological and political conditions, the invasion of the Dominican Republic became another prominent albeit symbolic struggle in the anti-imperialist politics of the Sixties.

Judging by young Dominicans, Haitians and other allies’ participation in recent protests against the Dominican government’s racist denationalization and deportation efforts and extensive media coverage in the New York Times, The Nation and Harper’s among other publications, the Dominican Republic still holds pride of place among Latin American countries in the U.S. If in the Sixties the Cold War rivalries between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and Third World anti-imperialism furnished the conditions for U.S.-based leftists to be receptive to the going-ons in Santo Domingo, what explains the U.S. interest in Dominican affairs these days? And how did this come about? To answer these questions and better understand the intimately intertwined history of the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, it is important to take a broad view of the historical procession of events that have made these two country’s destinies forever bound to the other. For that reason, I am introducing a series of essay I would like to call “What Goes-on in Santo Domingo?” These essays will appear bi-weekly on this blog. Below is the list of topics covered. (There is a Dominican proverb that goes– el que mucho abarca, poco aprieta– that I hope to disprove. The proverb translates to “he who tries to do it all does just a little.”)

  • When the U.S. Almost Annexed the Dominican Republic
  • Characteristics and Peculiarities of French and Spanish Colonialism
  •  Building the Dominican State: From Caudillismo to Dictatorship
  • Everyday Trujullismo: Peasants and Authoritarian Rule
  • America Libre: The Cuban Revolution in the Caribbean Context
  • In the Belly of the Beast: The Making of the Dominican Diaspora
  • The Diaspora Strikes Back

[1] Alan McPherson, “Misled by Himself: What the Johnson Tapes Reveal about the Dominican Intervention of 1965,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 38, 2 (2003): 142.

[2] Fred Halliday, “The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts,” openDemocracy, April 23, 2009, (accessed February 15, 2013).

[3] McPherson, “Misled by Himself,” 129.

[4] The North American Congress of Latin America’s (NACLA) inaugural issue covered the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. See Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York After 1950 (Princeton University Press, 2008), 123. Also see Marcelo Bermudez, ‘“We Will Win’ Vows a Dominican Patriot,” The Partison, 1 no. 3 (October 1965): 1.

[5] Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), “Berkeley Speech,” in Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism (Chicago, Ill.: Lawrence Hill Books, 1971), 56. The historian David Steigerwald identifies what he labels the five branches of the antiwar movement as follows: 1) moderate antinuclear activists from the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and social democrats 2) traditional pacifists 3) campus radicals represented by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) 4) the Old Left and 5) hippies influenced by cultural radicalism. See David Steigerwald, The Sixties and the End of Modern America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 105-6.

[6] Carmichael (Kwame Ture), “Solidarity,” in Stokely Speaks, 101.

E.H. Carr’s What Is History?

What is HistoryE.H. Carr’s 1961 book What is History? offers an excellent introduction to the philosophy of history, outlining some of its central debates and concerns. The method Carr deployed takes the reader through a series of trends in the writing of history and engages with the key intellectual exponents of these various schools of thought with the ultimate aim of arriving, through a process of negation, at a synthesis to the beguilingly simple question: What is history?

Carr’s first interlocutor, the German historian Leopold von Ranke, enjoined other scholars to “simply to show how it really was.” Responding to the moralizing trend of medieval and Enlightenment histories, Ranke developed a scientific approach to historical scholarship based on the careful study of primary documents and a focus on understanding events in the past as the people who lived in those times might have made sense of them. More importantly, Ranke’s true claim to renown rests on establishing history as a discipline separate from literature and philosophy.[1] Carr argued against Ranke’s conception of history on the grounds that historians work within a definite social context from which they cannot extricate themselves as they please and become mere value-free compilers in the Positivist “cult of facts.”[2] The answer historians give to –what is history? — “consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answers to the broader question, what view we take of the society in which we live.”[3] Neither the historian nor the subjects of her investigation can stand outside history, or what’s more, apart from the society in which men and women make their mark on the historical unfolding of human experience.[4]

Carr rejected the separation of subject and object in the empiricist tradition of his own country. He argued instead that facts gain their meaning from the interpretation historians develop and shape from the careful “processing” of the available evidence. “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”[5] Writing history involves selecting the facts and organizing them in a cogent fashion and thereby rendering a judgment that can pass muster as a sound interpretation.[6] History is not the belief that “facts speak for themselves” unmediated by a human consciousness. [7]

History, although written on the empirical evidence at hand, is “always refracted” through the mind of the historian and therefore its meanings never come to readers as “pure,” “self-evident” or “implicit.”[8] To drive home the point, Carr used the intellectual formation of the Whig historian George Macaulay Trevelyan as evidence of an inescapable general truth: a historian’s political disposition or standpoint leaves an indelible mark on the historical narrative that emerges through the drafting process and sifting of evidence. In what is one the most memorable an d quotable passages in the book, Carr wrote, “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts […] The facts are really not at all like fish in the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use–these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.”[9] Carr elaborated on this claim further in chapter two, “Society and the Individual,” in which he provided compelling examples to support the claim that depending on where the historian finds herself in the course of history will “determine” her “angel of vision over the past.”[10]

Arguing that through the interpretation of the sources, the historian brings her intellectual and political disposition to bear on her subject, Carr made the first of three claims drawing on both Benedetto Croce’s work and R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History. In the second claim, Carr argued that the historian must possess an “imaginative understanding” for the social agents she is analyzing in her work, and in the third, that she can only come to comprehend the past through the eyes of the present.[11] For the second claim, Carr offered as examples the difficulty of reading historians on Soviet Russia and Medieval Europe because of their inability to practice an “imaginative understanding” of the people they studied; and for the third, he provided the examples of the German historian Theodor Mommsen, who, according to Carr, writing about ancient Rome in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848, longed for a modern-day Julius Caesar, “the strong man to save Germany from ruin.”[12] Along with Trevelyan, he also included the renown Polish-born historian Sir Lewis Namier, who, similarly frightened by 1848, retreated to study the accession of George III, during an age before the French Revolution when the world was “immune from the fanaticism of ideas, and of that passionate belief in progress.”[13]

After outlining these three propositions, Carr qualified them in two regards for fear that they might give credence to total skepticism and subjectivity on the one hand and a vulgar pragmatism on the other. In response to the dangers of complete skepticism and subjectivity, Carr recognized that if history has an “infinity of meanings, none more right than any other,” then it follows that there couldn’t be any objective history whatsoever.[14] The second danger, because of the emphasis Collingwood placed on the present, rendered historical inquiry a pragmatic enterprise veering towards presentism by making the criterion for a valid interpretation its utility to the current social moment. To reconcile the contradiction of either giving too much weight to “the theory of history as a compilation of facts” or “the theory of history as the subjective product” of the historian’s mind, Carr offered his writing process as a solution, which he characterized as “reciprocal action” “between the historian and his facts” and “between the present and the past.”[15] More concretely, Carr shared that he read and wrote simultaneously when he worked on a project to do otherwise made one liable to run into one of two problems: copy-and-paste history or propaganda.[16]

As we began, we end: What is history? Carr’s answer: history “is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”[17] I can’t think of a better way to describe what historians do.

[1] Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1999), ch.1, esp., 14-15.

[2] E.H. Carr, What is History? (Vintage Books: New York, 1961), 5, 18, 20. The historian Richard J. Evans translates the German phrase Ranke used –wie es eigentlich gewesen–as “how it essentially was.” Evans offers a fuller explanation of Ranke’s contribution to history as a discipline, by for example clarifying the religious dimension behind the German historian’s thinking. Carr states that Ranke believed that all the historian had to do was compile the facts and “divine providence” would take care of the meaning behind these facts. Evans, however, argues that Ranke’s contribution to history as a field lay in universalizing all states, not just Prussia, as “spiritual substances…thoughts of God” and thereby “stripp[ing] away the veneer of posthumous condescension applied to the past.” See Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History, 14-15.

[3] Carr, What is History?, 5.

[4] Ibid., 36-37. Throughout the book, Carr referred exclusively to historians using masculine pronouns. As a corrective to unacceptable bias of his generation, I will refer to historians using the feminine pronouns. I also find it stylistically ugly to use he/she.

[5] Ibid., 9, 16.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid.,15.

[8] Ibid., 21 and 24.

[9] Ibid., 26.

[10] Ibid., 43

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Ibid., 43-4.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Ibid., 39

[15] Ibid., 34-35

[16] Ibid., 33.

[17] Ibid., 35.

Quotable: James Baldwin on History


History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.

But obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it, and finally accept it, in order to bring myself out of it. My point of view certainly is formed by my history, and it is probable that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter. On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.

—James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt,” Ebony, August 1965, pages 47-48. Read it here. H/t to the blog Ordinary History for originally posting the quote and link.