Calvin Coolidge and Cuba

December 19, 2014

AP_calvin_coolidge_cuba_jt_141218_16x9_992By Rushad L. Thomas

Earlier this week President Obama announced a shift in America’s policy toward our neighbor Cuba. This decision is the first major change in our relationship with Cuba in more than fifty years. America’s association with the island is long and fraught with controversy. In the late 1890s American foreign policy was mobilized to pressure Spain into relinquishing its control of Cuba, which eventually led to the Spanish-American War.[1] That conflict ended with America directly influencing much of the former Spanish Empire, which included nations such as the Philippines.[2] The Platt Amendment, which governed our policy toward Cuba for much of the first half of the 20th century, gave the United States the authority to unilaterally intervene in Cuban domestic affairs (incidentally, the Platt Amendment also forms the basis for our continued lease of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base). [3]

This policy continued through the years of the Coolidge Presidency. The influence of the United States was felt throughout Latin America in the 1920s, with billions of dollars of American investments deeply tying the economies of many South and Central American countries to the United States. America also controlled the Panama Canal, and was deeply involved in shaping internal Cuban affairs.[4]

It was against this backdrop that President Coolidge boarded the battleship USS Texas in January 1928 en route to Havana. Coolidge undertook this singular visit abroad to assuage the feelings of bitterness that existed between America and the Spanish-speaking nations of the Western Hemisphere.[5] Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes paints a vivid portrait of the president’s entry into the Cuban capital, writing that “thousands climbed onto the Morro Castle and the roof-tops of buildings, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the battleship USS Texas as it moved into the harbor.”[6] Coolidge remains to this day the only American president to set foot on Cuban soil while in office.

President Coolidge opened the Pan-American Conference with a keynote speech that urged the nations of the Western Hemisphere to embrace peace and value the principles of freedom and democracy. The time had come to “beat our swords into plowshares,” the president said. He also emphasized the equality that existed between the independent republics of the Americas. “The smallest and the weakest speak here with the same authority as the largest and the most powerful,” he remarked. “You are continuing to strike a new note in international gatherings by maintaining a forum in which not the selfish interests of a few but the general welfare of all will be considered.”[7]

These remarks presaged the Coolidge Administration’s efforts to ensure peace and concord among the nations with the Kellogg-Briand Pact, in which the signatories promised to avoid war as a means of resolving their disputes.[8] It also nudged the United States in the direction that would culminate in 1933 with President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” of nonintervention in Latin America.[9]





[5] Robert Ferrell, The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (Lawrence: the University Press of Kansas, 1998), 140.

[6] Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 406.




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