In the opening hours of Tuesday, April 27th, 1965, a small team of United States marines landed ashore on the western outskirts of Santo Domingo. They were en route to the Hotel Embajador, a makeshift sanctuary for thousands of foreign nationals caught in the middle of the Dominican Republic’s civil war.
Just three nights earlier, a band of military officers toppled the country’s president and declared a state of rebellion. The officers initially sought to restore Juan Bosch, an ousted president whose régime had fallen to a rightist coup d’état in 1963. But the self-styled “constitutionalists” soon lost control as radical militias steered the country toward socialist revolution.
The April ‘65 unrest seemed to be just the latest chapter in the Dominican Republic’s long and troubled history. Since gaining independence in 1821, the Dominican Republic faced an endless run of civil war, foreign occupation, dictatorship, and occasional re-colonization. Even before the April crisis, the Dominican Republic witnessed four changes in power between 1961 and ‘65. If ever there was a nation that appeared politically hopeless, the Dominican Republic was it.
But the latest unrest was especially worrying to the Western Hemisphere’s reigning superpower, the United States. President Lyndon Johnson feared that the Dominican unrest was a staging point for what he termed a “Second Cuba.” Cuba’s fall to Fidel Castro’s Marxist revolutionaries had given the Soviet Union a satellite from which to aid socialist movements-moderate and militant alike-throughout the Americas. Another Marxist republic in the Caribbean would only add momentum to the Cuban/Soviet cause.
The trigger for decisive US action came on the morning of Wednesday, April 28th. Rebels under the command of Colonel Francisco Caamaño shattered state forces with a massive assault. The few remaining loyalists hunkered down in two bases near the capital, pleading with US officials to intervene before the rebels launched a final offensive. In an evening address to the American people, Johnson gave the green light for the US military to take action:
“The United States Government has been informed by military authorities in the Dominican Republic that American lives are in danger. These authorities are no longer able to guarantee their safety, and they have reported that the assistance of military personnel is now needed for that purpose.”[ref]Buhite, Russell D. “Document 64: President Johnson’s Statement on U.S. Intervention in the Dominican Republic. April 28, 1965.” Calls to Arms: Presidential Speeches, Messages, and Declarations of War. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003. 244. Print.[/ref]
As he issued that statement, hundreds of marines arrived in the southwestern corner of Santo Domingo. By midnight, they had re-occupied the Embajador and secured the US embassy. Hundreds more reinforcements arrived the next day. By Saturday, the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade and 82nd Airborne Division were mobilized east and west of Santo Domingo.
On the night of May 2nd, Johnson made another televised address ahead of the impending US advance:
“Our goal is a simple one. We are there to save the lives of our citizens and to save the lives of all people. Our goal, in keeping with the great principles of the inter-American system, is to help prevent another Communist state in this hemisphere.”[ref]Buhite, Russell D. “Document 66: President Johnson’s Televised Speech to the Nation on U.S. Intervention in the Dominican Republic. May 2, 1965.” Calls to Arms: Presidential Speeches, Messages, and Declarations of War. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003. 244. Print.[/ref]
US troops struck just past midnight on Sunday, May 3rd. In the west, marines first established a corridor between the Embajador and the US embassy, then formed a perimeter around the city’s diplomatic quarter. On the other side of the city, paratroopers secured the west bank of the Ozama River, Santo Domingo’s eastern boundary. Over the next two days, US troops formed a second corridor that ran through the middle of the city and linked the 4th MEB with the 82nd Airborne.
That central corridor, not incidentally, severed the rebel leadership in the city’s north from the bulk of its forces in the south. It was a decisive blow to Caamaño’s revolt: US forces not only split the rebel army, they also provided a buffer that enabled loyalists to regroup and move into the rebel enclaves.
Fortunately for the United States, the Dominican unrest was restricted to the capital, allowing US forces to encircle and isolate the rebellion before it could become a nationwide insurgency.
The greatest obstacle for US forces wasn’t the rebellion, but political interference from Washington. Johnson’s insistence on micromanagement, as well as his mistrust of leaders in the field, led to sudden and frequent changes in command. Johnson added, and sometimes replaced, diplomats and generals at a whim. This is evidenced in the four ambassadors, two generals, and one admiral who, at one time or another, directed the US effort in the first month of the operation.[ref]Yates, Lawrence A. “Ch. 5: Stability Operations I – Confusion and Cross-Purpose.” Power Pack: U.S. Intervention in the Dominican Republic, 1965-1966. Fort Leavenworth, Kan.: Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1988. Print.[/ref]
Johnson ultimately sought an aura of international accord for the military endeavor, handing over operational control to the Organization of American States. The OAS formed a small peacekeeping force that entered Santo Domingo in late May, then forged an armistice between Dominican factions, and established a provisional government ahead of a general election set for the following year.
The June 1st, 1966 election pitted two former presidents against each other: Juaquín Balaguer on the right and Juan Bosch on the left. Balaguer emerged as the more dynamic candidate, touring the country and hosting large rallies with a vow towards stability. Bosch, by contrast, stayed confined to his home, taking an apathetic view of the election. Publicly, he considered the election rigged; privately, as CIA documents report, he felt he could not accommodate a radicalized left nor a paranoid right.
Balaguer won in a landslide, going on to serve as president for a grand total of 22 years. Bosch would try (and fail) to win back the presidency five more times, each defeat more bitter than the last. The United States succeeded in restoring stability to the island nation, but Bosch-the living symbol for the constitutionalist uprising-would serve as a lingering casualty of that success.
By the time the last US troops left the island nation on September 21st, 1966, the Dominican Republic had fallen from public radar as Vietnam became front and center. In total, 27 Americans were killed in action during the 16-month occupation.[ref]Yates, Lawrence A. “Ch. 9: Conclusions.” Power Pack: U.S. Intervention in the Dominican Republic, 1965-1966. Fort Leavenworth, Kan.: Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1988.176. Print.[/ref] At the same time, and in great contrast, American losses in Vietnam were on track to hit 9,000 by year’s end. It wasn’t long before an intervention that worked was eclipsed by one that didn’t.[ref]”Statistical Information about Casualties of the Vietnam War.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, 29 Apr. 2008. Web. 25 Aug. 2015.[/ref]