The Banana Wars Part II

Reasons for War

The reasons for the so-called Banana Wars varied, but they were largely economic in nature. The term Banana Wars came from the connection between these conflicts and the preservation of commercial interests in the region —specifically, the United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit. I think, however, that in order to understand this better, one has to look at the United Fruit Company in the same way as one would regard the British East India Company.

United Fruit 001United Fruit Company owned vast tracts of land in the Caribbean lowlands. It dominated regional transportation networks (Railways, steamships). It expanded into Radio and Telegraph interests. The company controlled primary and reserve plantations, maintained land rights, and it controlled the distribution and marketing of its products.

The ability of the company to manipulate land rights and maintain its market dominance meant that the company had to have considerable sway over local politics. A good case can be made that United Fruit Company used a heavy hand in local governments, created the corruption, which helped to defeat citizen’s rights, and became a de facto dictatorship in and of it self.

In owning and controlling railroads and shipping ports, the company provided employment and transportation services in nations where roads were barely adequate for horse drawn carts. The company also constructed schools for people who worked for United Fruit Company. But by manipulating land distribution, the company kept land out of the hands of peasants. In order to preserve its profits, the company discouraged the government from constructing roads.

Under the above circumstances, we should consider that it would be understandable that some people would resist foreign influences, as colonized people have done on every continent. One may recall that American colonists resisted, too.

In Latin America, we find that some individuals were motivated to resist foreigners for their own purposes: achieving wealth and power in their own right. Some of these were petty warlords, while others were part of the aristocracy … and in most cases, in every country involved, the country was struggling to find its way under the unhappiest circumstances. The underlying lesson we should learn from observing the machinations and effects of the Banana Wars is this: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Marines HaitiThe Troops

There is a good explanation why most of these interventions were handed to the Marines: their employment as naval infantry to safeguard American lives and property at sea and on foreign shore did not require an act of war by the Congress of the United States. As it turned out, the utilization of United States Marines was so frequent that Marine Corps headquarters developed an instruction manual as a guide to commanders of deployed troops. The Marines titled it The Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars, 1921. Marines today continue to consult the Small Wars Manual as it contains a wealth of useful information.

American Marines did not themselves decide whether to go to these Latin-American countries —they deployed to these countries at the direction of the President of the United States. If one were to make the argument that Marines pushed people around in their own country, then they would be setting forth a rather simplistic argument. It is true that two-time Medal of Honor recipient Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC (Retired) made that argument when he claimed, “War is a Racket.” It is also true that Butler made money from a nation-wide tour giving that same ad nauseam speech, and did so only after he qualified for a somewhat hefty retirement income from his years of military service. Rather than resigning his commission in protest of US policy in Latin America, Butler chose to fight in those wars for more than 30 years.

Life was not so complex for the individual Marines serving in these wars.  They were Marines who, with an assigned mission, completed that mission every single time. The lesson to be learned among individuals calling themselves Sandinistas, Cacos, or Dominicans was simply this: do not fire on the Marines; it will only piss them off.


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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

10 thoughts on “The Banana Wars Part II”

  1. This is a very interesting article especially in its portrayal of the influence of the fruit companies. Having visited Central America, I wonder if the local economies could have generated on their own the development capital that the fruit companies brought for better or worse.


    1. My understanding of this history is that without the fruit companies, Central American nations would have progressed much slower. Time and circumstances would force the caudillos, who were drawn to the corruption as a moth to the flame, to learn important lessons about governance, economic growth, and diversification. The Central Americans appeared to be a stubborn lot back then—or were not paying attention to the downturn in their economies when, during World War I, demand for fresh fruit declined. They had to re-learn those lessons during the global depression of the 1930s. Today it would appear that most of these countries have diversified economies —forced upon them, perhaps, by World War II.


    2. I absolutely agree with you… hence, the massive interstate and state roads construction programs that began in our country after World War II.

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  2. “do not fire on the Marines, it will only piss them off”…so good, Mustang! And hallelujah for THAT. I don’t care what the reasons were for the Marines having to leave weapons behind in Yemen, maybe some were good reasons, but the very thought of it pissed ME off 🙂


    1. Yes, I also liked his “Do not fire on the Marines, it will only piss them off.” On the Pacific islands during WWII, captured and interrogated Japanese soldiers uttered, “We were scared to fire a single mortar round at the Marines because ten rounds would come back,” or something to that effect.


  3. The scenario here – did this involve murdering of civilians and other violence? If so, the drug wars raging in Mexico may be a current version of the Banana Wars…sans the Marines?


    1. Yes, there was some intimidation, but I think for the most part, the revolutionaries (or banditos, as you prefer) needed the peasants to help hide them from the Marines or other lawful authority. I wrote about one of the great stories of these encounters involving Henry Hanneken (September 2014). Hanneken used native militia to infiltrate the camp of the bandit leader Charlemagne Péralte and when he confronted Péralte, promptly killed him.

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