Bookcase Favorites: Taking Haiti

In Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940Mary Renda explores the interplay between culture and foreign policy through the lens of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. This impressive work of scholarship offers insight into how national consciousness was shaped during the interwar period and the ways in which identity has historically been used as a tool of empire. In placing domestic cultural attitudes and ideas at the center of U.S. foreign relations, Renda prompts important discussion about the complex relationship between the center and peripheries of empire.

Divided into two parts, Taking Haiti examines the 1915-1945 U.S. occupation of Haiti through the experiences of Marines and the American public. Analyzing the occupation from a cultural framework, Renda illuminates how paternalist narratives legitimized the invasion and transformed Americans’ self-image. By depicting Haiti as a child-like nation in need of parental authority, U.S. policymakers were able to disguise violence and domination as altruism. Inextricably connected to this narrative, Renda demonstrates, were ideas of racial superiority. Drawing from a rich array of primary sources, including diaries, letters, memoirs, media, and art from the period, Renda poignantly demonstrates how popular representations of the occupation contributed to an emerging culture of imperialism in the United States.

Prospective readers should note that Renda’s work is not a story about Haitians or the occupation of Haiti itself. Rather, it seeks to understand the occupation as part of the cultural history of the United States, examining the domestic social dimensions of American imperialism. In highlighting how social constructions of race and gender contributed to the invasion of Haiti and shaped subsequent understandings of Americanness, this book sheds light on the symbiotic relationship between culture and policy — indeed, paternalism and racism were just as much instruments of empire as military force was. 

Taking Haiti illuminates the value of incorporating cultural analysis into the study of U.S. diplomatic history. Renda’s approach offers a unique opportunity to examine the influence of cultural attitudes on policy and how Americans understood themselves in relation to the world. This framework brings a sensitivity and cultural awareness to foreign policy discourse that is all too often lacking, to a policy detriment. Like any interpretive lens, Renda’s is not all-encompassing, but it brings forth thoughtful perspectives in an area where cultural insensitivity and ignorance often overshadow important truths. This book thus remains an especially important contribution to U.S. diplomatic historiography. 

As the United States maintains unprecedented influence globally, Renda prompts reflection on our own contemporary discourse surrounding the U.S. and the world. In an era of American dominance, the ways in which American policymakers and prominent narratives frame and inform U.S. foreign policy especially warrant consideration. Renda offers readers a mirror from which to critically examine how contemporary cultural institutions imbue our national consciousness, our relationship to policy decisions, and our perception of the international sphere.