STACATTO MESSAGES crackled across the Caribbean airwaves. You could literally feel and smell the tension of taut bodies aboard the warships and troop carriers circling off the island's coast. The Marines were first to go in, followed by advance units of the 82nd Airborne Division headed for the airfield. The president said: "Clear in my mind were the words of President Kennedy less than a week before his death: 'We in this hemisphere must . . . use every resource at our command to prevent the establishment of another Cuba in this hemisphere.' "
Grenada, October, 1983? No, the Dominican Republic, April, 1965.
History never repeats itself exactly. There are innumerable dissimilarities between the American invasiona of Grenada, and of the Dominican Republic two decades ago. One notable difference was that a civil war was underway in the Dominican Republic with undisputed danger to Americans and everyone else on that island, supplying more than the usual rationale for breaching the first commandment in the dogma of the Organization of American States: "Thou shalt not intervene."
It was not difficult, therefore, for President Lyndon B. Johnson to convince a majority of Americans that lives were in jeopardy in the Dominican Republic.
Johnson said in the immediate aftermath of the Marine-Army landing, "99 per cent of our reason for going in there was to try to provide protection for these American lives and the lives of other nationals."
But that 99-to-l ratio that Johnson and other senior officials of his administration publicly assigned to his decision at the time was not, in fact, true.
Indeed, Johnson himself corrected it in his autobiography, "The Vantage Point," published in 1971. The first wave of intervention, sending in 500 Marines on April 28, 1965, was indeed a life-saving mission to evacuate Americans and other foreigners. Official records show that 1,176 of them were evacuated that first day.
The next day, however, April 29, U.S. strategy leaped to another dimension, when l,500 more Marines landed, plus two army battalions -- 1,800 troops -- all in the name of "protecting American (and foreign nationals') lives." The intervention force expanded to 2l,900 Americans before phased withdrawals of American forces began on May 18.
An "Inter-American Peace Force" was hastily assembled to try to mute the outcries of "Yankee imperialism" and thereby enable "El Coloso del Norte" to disengage. Eventually there were 1,129 Brazilians; 250 troops from Honduras; 180 from Paraguay, and a contribution of 159 men from Anastasio Somoza's Nicaragua.
(It bears notation that the Dominican intervention evoked, in private, some of the first senatorial apprehensions about where the United States was then headed in Vietnam. Appearing at a secret session of the Senate Foreign Relations Commiittee on April 30, 1965, the third day of the Dominican operation, Secretary of State Dean Rusk said that in Vietnam "we have there now about 34,000 troops." Chairman J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) and other subsequent defectors from U.S. policy on Vietnam were deeply disquieted when Rusk added: "It is very much under contemplation that it might be necessary to add to those (Marines in Vietnam) . . . additional forces of the type that are involved in Danang." Fulbright told Rusk he never contemplated anything of that dimension when he rushed the Tonkin Gulf resolution through the Senate the previous August.)
LBJ in his 197l retrospective on the Dominican Republic acknowledged his real priorities in converting the American operation on that island from a rescue mission to an outright (but initially unadmitted) anti- Communist mission. He wrote:
"The decisions I made on April 29 were as follows:
"First, that the danger of a communist takeover in the Dominican Republic was a real and present one; second, that a communist regime in the Dominican Republic would be dangerous to the peace and safety of the hemisphere and the United States; third, that danger still existed, in the disintegrating situation, for both American and foreign civilians in Santo Domingo; fourth, that the United States would put in sufficient force to achieve two purposes: to create the international security zone recommended by the OAS and to separate the rebels in the downtown area from the regular military forces; fifth, that we would seek a ceasefire, some kind of interim government, and the scheduling of orderly free elections in which all Dominican citizens, not just a minority with guns in their hands, would decide their political destiny."
But such an ambitious commitment, the Johnson administration believed, had to be concealed, at least initially, from the American public. It knew that there were divided views among its own experts as to the extent of communist influence among the anti-junta forces. Therefore, the administration's strategy had to be revealed in stages, to innoculate both public and Congress against an uproar over double involvement on opposite sides of the globe: in Vietnam, and in the Caribbean.
Johnson Administration strategists decided, therefore, not to reveal how the sequence began which brought American troops to the Dominican Republic.
The actual request for American intervention did not even mention saving lives when it first came from the military junta ruling the Dominican Republic. (The junta was fighting against opponents of its decision to oust the democratically elected president, Juan Bosch -- rebels who had communist support as well as considerable strength from defecting military units.)
Records now in the National Archives, recently declassified but noticed only by a few scholars, show that the then undersecretary of state, Thomas C. Mann, acknowledged in closed session before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 15, 1965, that when the Johnson Administration made its decision to move on April 28:
"...We were not yet prepared tst dayo intervene on the ground that the communist menace made this necessary . . . We knew that we would intervene later on, in my opinion, although this was not explicitly said in councils, but our collective judgment was that the immediate problem was to evacuate about one thousand Americans on the beach who were, in our opinion, in clear and present danger.
"So we sent back an instruction to Bennett (W. Tapley Bennett, Jr., U.S. ambassador in Santo Domingo) consistent with this thinking and said to our ambassador, "see if Benoit (Francois Benoit, representing the floundering military junta) will be willing to give us an additional message which places the request squarely on the need to save American lives."
The junta, convinced it was facing military disaster unless the United States swiftly intervened, readily complied, through Ambassador Bennett.
"This message was given to us orally, not in writing, and Benoit said, "I will be happy to make this as a second, additional request."
Said Mann: "All we requested was whether he would be willing to change the basis for this from one of fighting communism to one of protecting American lives"
Johnson had reasoned that he could never be reelected if he permitted a "second Cuba" in the Caribbean, especially when he was also engaged in Vietnam. (As it turned out, in fact, the Dominican operation did keep anticommunists in power in Santo Domingo.) In Johnson's judgment, the Dominican operation also sent a message to North Vietnam, to Cuba, and to the Soviet Union, that the United States -- as President Nixon would later phrase it -- was no "pitiful, helpless giant."
There is an epigram, which appears with various phrasing, to the effect that "All great historic facts recur twice, once as tragedy, and the next time as farce." The repercussions of what is now unfolding in the Caribbean, however, are certain to transcend farce.