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President Obama is Going to Cuba. Find Out What Happened the Last Time an American President Visited the Island

February 18, 2016

On February 18, 2016 it was announced that President Barack Obama will visit Cuba. This trip will make him the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island since President Calvin Coolidge went in January 1928. This lecture about Coolidge’s Cuba excursion was given by Coolidge Foundation program associate Rushad Thomas on Presidents’ Day Weekend 2015.

Back in December 2014, when President Obama announced a major overhaul in America’s policy toward communist Cuba, I was very surprised. As a native Floridian (though not myself a Cuban) I am well-versed in the deeply-held views of the Cuban expatriate community in my home state. My college roommates were both grandchildren of Cuban exiles who came to Miami after the Castro regime came to power, and, like most Cuban Americans, there was no love lost between them and the Castro brothers. The President’s new policy is the boldest, most marked shift in our approach to Cuba in that last half century. Presidents, both Republican and Democrat, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama (until last December) had maintained our hard-nosed policy against the Castro regime, and with no major breakthroughs in that time I can understand the President’s decision to take a different approach. The main thing Obama’s announcement did for me was to bring to light the long, fraught, tenuous relationship the United States has had with the island nation of Cuba not just in the last 50 years, but for the last century and more! Cuba has long been a difficult nut to crack in the grand scheme of U.S.-Latin America relationships.

This was no less the case 87 years ago when Silent Cal, the President from Plymouth Notch, boarded the U.S.S. Texas in Key West to begin the trip that would make him, to-date, the only sitting president to set foot on the island of Cuba. As Amity Shlaes notes in her biography Coolidge, “Coolidge’s disembarkation point at Capitania del Puerto sat only a few hundred yards from where the great battleship Maine had sunk three decades before.”

To set the stage for Coolidge’s trip to Cuba we must briefly recall what happened thirty years before when the Maine went to the bottom of the harbor. For many years prior to the sinking, Cubans had been engaged in an ongoing battle for independence from the Kingdom of Spain. Certain American media luminaries such as William Randolph Hearst worked hard to turn American public opinion against Spain, and when the battleship mysteriously sank in the Havana Harbor on the evening of February 15th, 1898, killing almost three-quarters of the crew, the drumbeat for war against Spain was deafening.

Spain knew they had no prayer of defeating the United States in war, so they sued for peace. Sadly, America was not interested in peace, and gave Spain an ultimatum, which Spain could not endorse, so war was declared. The conflict was brief and decisive, with Spain thoroughly crushed by American forces. As a result of the war the Kingdom of Spain lost not only its colony in Cuba, but also possessions around the world, such as the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, first lady Grace Coolidge are shown with the President of Cuba General Gerardo Machado y Morales and his wife, Elvira Machado, walk on the estate of President Machado in Havana, Cuba, Jan. 19, 1928. (AP Photo)

Prior to the war, the U.S. Congress passed the Teller Amendment, which promised the Cuban people that the war would not be a pretext for American annexation of Cuba. Later the Congress passed the Platt Amendment, which modified the hands-off approach of Teller by stating it was the policy of the United States to intervene unilaterally in internal Cuban affairs, and also created conditions for the lease of military bases in Cuba such as the installation at Guantanamo Bay. The Platt Amendment was incorporated into the Cuban Constitution on June 12, 1901.

For the next 30 plus years the United States would intervene in Cuban affairs on many, many occasions. We established the naval base at Guantanamo Bay (which, of course, we still own to this day), we implemented a tariff that gave Cuban sugar preference in the U.S. market and protection to select U.S. products in the Cuban market, and we restricted Cuba in the conduct of foreign policy.

These strongly aggressive policies reflected a wider policy of domination which the United States projected vis-à-vis our Latin American neighbors. America was the undisputed superpower in the western hemisphere long before it became the undisputed superpower in the entire world. This posture went all the way back to the Monroe Doctrine, which greatly reduced the influence of European powers in North and South America. Markers during the 19th century such as the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the confederation of Canada in the same year, and the expulsion of a Habsburg prince from the Imperial throne of Mexico, also in the same year, further served to weaken European influence in the hemisphere.

As you can imagine, the aggressive Latin America policy employed by our country rubbed many of our hemispheric neighbors the wrong way. During the Coolidge presidency (1923 – 1929), the economies of most Latin American countries were heavily reliant on direct American investment, which had risen from $1.26 billion in 1920 to $3.52 billion in 1928. We controlled the Panama Canal and we were not reticent to use troops in the region to protect American interests. For instance, the U.S. military maintained a pro-America National Guard in the Dominican Republic and we had troops in Nicaragua and Haiti on peacekeeping missions throughout the decade of the 1920s. We also had a tense dispute with Mexico regarding the ownership of Mexican oil fields by American companies.

It was with the background of all these ongoing policies that Coolidge landed with the U.S.S. Texas on the shores of Havana in January 1928. In fact, just days earlier, Coolidge had ordered marines into Nicaragua. This trip could have been a very tense encounter with leaders of the other American nations. Fortunately, the tone of the trip turned out to be nothing short of felicitous.

I think the words Amity Shlaes wrote to describe the scene in her biography Coolidge paint the most vivid picture of what happened on the day when Coolidge arrived in Havana:

“…the people of Cuba gathered at Havana harbor to mount the greatest welcome they had ever given a foreign leader. Thousands climbed onto the Morro Castle and the rooftops of buildings, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the battleship USS Texas as it moved into the harbor. Every balcony near the harbor was packed with cheering families. Overhead, six Cuban army planes circled to protect the Texas and her long convoy, which included three destroyers and the cruiser Memphis. Whistles shrieked; the Texas fired her sixteen-pounders in salute. Cannons at Fort La Cabana saluted back.”

Saturday Evening Post reporter Beverly Smith Jr. recalled the trip a 1958 article, “To Cuba With Cal.”

After the boat arrived, “The crowds were tremendous and enthusiastic,” Smith wrote. “They cheered themselves hoarse for Presidente Coolidge. They pushed close to his car, blowing kisses and throwing flowers. Cal, seemingly touched by this unaccustomed Latin warmth, showed more animation than usual. He bowed, he smiled, he took off his silk hat.”

Coolidge’s entourage included many of the great officers of state, including Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, Ambassador Dwight Morrow as well as journalist/writer H.L. Mencken and humorist Will Rogers.

Momentary detour to provide background on two key figures in the delegation

Kellogg began his career as an attorney in Minnesota, but during the Theodore Roosevelt Administration he became a trust-busting prosecutor, and later president of the American Bar Association. He served one term in the United States Senate representing Minnesota from 1917 to 1923. He lost re-election in 1922, but was appointed shortly thereafter as U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (the official name of the Royal Court of the United Kingdom, to which all foreign ambassadors are named), and then served during Coolidge’s full term as U.S. Secretary of State from 1925 to 1929.

Charles Evans Hughes was a noted anti-corruption attorney in New York before being elected Governor of that state in 1906. He was then appointed to the Supreme Court by President William Howard Taft, a position from which he resigned in the summer of 1916 to run for President against incumbent Woodrow Wilson as the Republican nominee.

After losing the 1916 presidential election, Hughes re-entered public life as President Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of State. After Harding’s death and Calvin Coolidge’s election, Hughes resigned from the post in favor of Frank B. Kellogg, but continued to lead a productive public life. Among his other projects, he served on the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague from 1928 until 1930. Newly elected President Herbert Hoover reappointed Hughes to the Supreme Court in 1930 as Chief Justice. Hughes served on the Court until 1941. He died in 1948.

President and Mrs. Coolidge was received at the presidential palace by General Gerardo Machado y Morales, President of Cuba from 1925 to 1933, who had served at a very young age as a general in the Cuban War of Independence that preceded the Spanish-American War in the middle part of the 1890s.

At Machado’s estate, reporter Beverly Smith watched whether Coolidge would accept alcohol, publicly offered by a waiter with “a big tray of delicate, crystal cocktail glasses, each sparkling to the brim with a daiquiri — rum, fresh lime juice and sugar, well shaken.”

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, second from left, and his wife, first lady Grace Coolidge, third from left, are shown with the President of Cuba General Gerardo Machado y Morales, right, and his wife, Elvira Machado, left, on the estate of President Machado in Havana, Cuba, Jan. 19, 1928. (AP Photo).

“Cal himself, of course, was the cynosure of the drama,” Smith wrote. “As the tray approached from his left, he wheeled artfully to the right, seeming to admire a portrait on the wall. The tray came closer. Mr. Coolidge wheeled right another 90 degrees, pointing out to Machado the beauties of the tropical verdure. By the time he completed his 360-degree turn, the incriminating tray had passed safely beyond him. Apparently he had never seen it. His maneuver was a masterpiece of evasive action.”

Machado invited Coolidge not simply as a gesture of goodwill, but for the singularly important task of delivering the opening address to the 6th International Conference of American States, also known as the Pan-American Conference. The Pan-American Conference was essentially a precursor to the group we know today as the OAS, the Organization of American States, which is essentially a collaborative organization for all of the countries in the Western Hemisphere. The great majority of those countries, then as now, were Latin American.

President Coolidge opened the Pan-American Conference with a keynote speech that urged the nations of the Western Hemisphere to embrace peace and 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.”

With respect to Cuba, Coolidge said “Thirty years ago Cuba ranked as a foreign possession…. Today Cuba is her own sovereign. Her people are independent, free, prosperous and peaceful, enjoying the advantages of self-government…. What Cuba has done, others have done and are doing…. Among our republics… people have taken charge of their own affairs… an attitude of peace and goodwill prevails among our nations.”

Commenting on the visit in his press conference the following day, President Coolidge summarized his impressions, “There is nothing I can say about the Pan American Conference that occurs to me, that has not already been said. Naturally our Government is pleased with my reception at Havana. One of the most pleasant opportunities that I had there was going out to the country place of the President, which gave me an opportunity to drive through quite a number of miles of Cuban territory where I had a chance to observe the people and see something of the progress they are making. As I left there it seemed to me that the conference was in a position to do very much excellent work” — January 20, 1928 (The Talkative President, Quint and Ferrell, p.251).

Coolidge’s speech should be considered a marker for shift in relations with our Latin American brethren. For the preceding century the countries of Latin America had been treated not exactly as inferior states, but certainly as subjects to the supreme interests of the United States. America did not always respect the equal dignity those countries deserved in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coolidge decided that this arrangement had to change, in the interest of fostering peace and concord throughout the Hemisphere.

After giving his speech Coolidge returned to the United States and left the delegates at the conference to do their work. Instead of taking the USS Texas, Coolidge embarked on his return voyage via the USS Memphis, a faster cruiser. On the trip back Coolidge was plagued by seasickness. He was happy to reach American soil the next day, and he rode through the streets of Key West in a car so that the people could get a good glimpse of him. On his way back to D.C. he met with the Florida Governor John W. Martin up in Jacksonville. When he got back to the nation’s capital he heard that the City Council of Havana voted to name 17th Street in the city “President Coolidge Street.” I’d be interested to see if it still remains as President Coolidge Street!

The day after Coolidge’s speech former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, who had served during the Harding administration and in the first two years of the Coolidge administration and was serving as America’s envoy to the Pan-American conference, gave a tremendously well-received speech that turned the conference against approving an anti-U.S. resolution.

Frank Kellogg later had Undersecretary of State J. Reuben Clark (for whom the BYU Law School is named) draft a white paper, known as the Clark Memorandum, which made the case against U.S. military involvement in Central and South America, modifying the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

Brief word about the Roosevelt Corollary: In the early 1900s Roosevelt grew concerned that a crisis between Venezuela and its creditors could spark an invasion of that nation by European powers. The Roosevelt Corollary of December 1904 stated that the United States would intervene as a last resort to ensure that other nations in the Western Hemisphere fulfilled their obligations to international creditors, and did not violate the rights of the United States or invite “foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations.” As the corollary worked out in practice, the United States increasingly used military force to restore internal stability to nations in the region. Roosevelt declared that the United States might “exercise international police power in ‘flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence.’” Over the long term the corollary had little to do with relations between the Western Hemisphere and Europe, but it did serve as justification for U.S. intervention in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

This posture was very much in concert with Coolidge’s other foreign policy initiatives, such as the Kellogg-Briand pact, which outlawed war as a means of resolving international disputes. This was indeed a lofty aim, but signaled the fact that it was the foreign policy aim of the United States Government to sue for peace whenever possible. The experience of the First World War, and the evidence it provided that modern warfare meant bloodier, more efficient, more brutal, more total warfare, convinced not only Coolidge, but many other world leaders, that “beating our swords into plowshares” was the best way to go in trying to settle our differences. Frank Kellogg earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929 for his work on the Peace Pact.

These efforts, of course, would not prove entirely successful given the terrible Second World War, but in the discrete area of Latin America policy Coolidge’s posture would be emulated by future presidents as well, and culminate in 1933 with Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” Policy, which stated that “No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another,” a huge departure from our earlier policy. In 1934 Roosevelt abandoned the 1903 Treaty with Cuba that ratified the Platt Amendment.

So why does Coolidge’s trip to Cuba matter? Well, it shows the broader context of America in an age of imperialism. We wanted to build our own empire, but we quickly realized all the problems that entails. However, America still has a military empire, and the overall benefits for the global order of this reality are manifest in a variety of ways. Coolidge’s trip demonstrates the importance of sovereign nations respecting each other as equals. It also shows how a policy of rapprochement often leads to positive outcomes. It was the first major shift toward re-imagining our relationship with Latin America, which culminated in Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, and it might hopefully provide a blueprint for future U.S.-Cuba Relations, as the United States shifts to a policy of using soft influence to change the current state of affairs on the island.


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