The High Commissioner in Haiti (Russell) to the Acting Secretary of State

No. 60

Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the Department’s No. 67, of August 29th, 3 p.m.15

The trials of the three provost court cases mentioned therein were completed before the receipt of the Department’s telegram. In accordance, however, with the Department’s views, as expressed [Page 556] in the cable, although in each case the finding was “guilty” of violation of the lawful proclamation of May 26, 1921, and at the request of the President of Haiti, the sentences were remitted and the men at once released. A full report of the circumstances leading up to the trial of these men was made in my despatch No. 57 of August 28, 1922.16

Regarding the employment of provost courts in the past and my views on the necessity for such courts, I have to submit, in accordance with the Department’s instructions, the following remarks:

Martial law in Haiti, with its attendant military tribunals, was proclaimed in September, 1915.17 During the two years following it was freely employed and resulted in many trials and convictions by provost courts and a few military commissions. From 1917 until 1919 there was but little necessity for the exercise of its powers and consequently there were comparatively few trials. During the years 1919 and 1920 from five to six thousand bandits were operating in the interior of Haiti while in the large coast cities certain groups were formed to assist the bandits. As a result the use of provost courts greatly increased. With the end of banditism and the reestablishment of law and order in the country provost courts were used most sparingly and solely as a means of maintaining tranquillity. The mere fact that such court could be employed had, as a rule, the necessary effect. The power was there but lying mostly dormant, to be employed only on special occasions.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Prior to May 26, 1921, the mushroom papers that sprang up overnight were daily publishing personal and false attacks against officers and men of the United States Forces on duty in Haiti, Treaty Officials and members of the Haitian Government. The attacks of these irresponsible papers and the speeches made by their directors soon became such a menace to the continued tranquillity of the country, as well as to the future development and progress of Haiti, that it became imperative to take prompt and drastic action. The authority for such action was received on May 25, 1921, by the Brigade Commander, First Brigade, U. S. Marines, in the following telegram from the Secretary of the Navy:

“The proclamation of martial law as proclaimed on Sept. 3, 1915, and ratified by Haitien Constitution18 reserved from the jurisdiction of civil courts of Haiti those things which affect the military operations or the authority of the Government of the United States [Page 557] of America. Agitation against United States officials who are aiding and supporting constitutional government tends to undermine their authority and coupled with political agitation looks to destruction of the constitutional government, will lead to revolution and anarchy with consequent destruction of property and life and prolonged misery for Haitian people. Not only in self-defense of American forces but in self-defense of Haitian Government and therefore such measures must be taken as will suppress such agitation and prevent return of violent disorder. From the information before you, you will determine what action under martial law the crisis demands and act accordingly, keeping in mind the idea of acting only in self-defense of your command and Haitian Government and employing processes of martial law only where your conservative judgment admits the situation demands it. Cease exercise and then restrict penalties to serving the purposes of preventing rather than punishment. In respect to those who attack the Haitian President and Government direct rather than through the American forces it would be advisable to have the Haitian President request you or direct the Chief of Gendarmerie to proceed against them through the agency of martial law which is maintained for and in behalf of the constitutional government of Haiti. You would thereby have on record a statement of what the Haitian State construes the crisis demands in the way of prevention in order to preclude the engineering of domestic disorder and attempting to overthrow the constitutional government by violence. In cases of trial before Military Commission or Provost Court the charges should cite the offense against the military forces, the violation of a lawful regulation adopted to make martial law effective. Should there be insufficient regulations to cover the existing situation such should be promulgated. In the absence of approximate regulations on which to base a trial, those whom from the information before you, you have reasonable grounds to believe are concerned in unlawful opposition and the encouragement of domestic violence may be arrested and held in confinement until the exigency has passed, and the constituted authorities are able to execute the laws.”

On May 26, 1921, a proclamation covering this telegram was issued by the Brigade Commander (copy attached). One or two offenders against this proclamation were tried by provost court, found “guilty,” sentenced and served their sentences. The proclamation had a most excellent effect and was thoroughly welcomed by all intelligent and law-abiding Haitians, whose only comment was that they thought it had been issued too late.

Immediately following the election of President Borno and his occupancy of the chair of state, his enemies, consisting mostly of those who had been affected by his election, seized upon the opportunity to plot against him and repeatedly reports were received of plots endangering the life not only of President Borno but of his Secretaries of States and even of members of the Council of State. All of them received threatening letters.

[Page 558]

In view, more particularly, of speeches that were being made by certain Haitians tending to incite the people against the existing government and the continued reports of plots against the members of that government, it became necessary, on August 4, 1922, to issue a proclamation reminding the people of the proclamation of May 26, 1921. The issuance of this proclamation had an excellent effect and it was hoped that it would be sufficient. Unfortunately one newspaper of Port-au-Prince, the Nouvellite, which had been very bitter and personal against President Borno and his administration, although warned by me in answer to an inquiry on the part of the Editor as to the meaning of my proclamation, continued its attacks. Another paper, the Courrier Haitien, had repeatedly denied the existing government and refused to recognize it. This was in truth anarchy on its part and incited others to anarchy. …

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In the protection of members of the United States Forces in Haiti, Treaty Officials and members of the Haitian Government, it is my opinion that, at the present time, provost courts should be used at the discretion of the American High Commissioner, who should carefully and personally examine each case and employ such power most sparingly, in self-defense and only with a modicum of penalties, sufficient to prevent repetition.

It is my policy, as High Commissioner, to see that provost courts are used most sparingly and my orders have gradually reduced the frequency of them until now they are employed only on rare occasions.

I have [etc.]

John H. Russell

Proclamation of May 26, 1921, by the Commander of the United States Forces in Haiti (Russell)

To All Inhabitants:

The United States Forces in Haiti are engaged in aiding and supporting the Constitutional Government of Haiti and are your friends.

By their efforts and those of the Gendarmerie of Haiti, Peace and tranquility have been established throughout your land permitting you again to cultivate your gardens, conduct your business and earn an honest living.

The only agitation that is being carried on in all Haiti is that undertaken by a few newspapers in the large cities and by a few persons in so called political speeches.

This agitation, however, is a menace to the condition of Law and Order that has been given you and consequently it becomes necessary [Page 559] to issue the following order under the Power and Authority of Martial Law.


While the freedom of the press and of speech are practically unrestricted, articles or speeches that are of an incendiary nature or reflect adversely upon the United States Forces in Haiti, or tend to stir up an agitation against the United States Officials who are aiding and supporting the constitutional Governement [sic] of Haiti, or articles or speeches attacking the President of Haiti or the Haitien Governement are prohibited and offenders against this order will be brought to trial before a Military Tribunal.

John H. Russell
  1. Not printed.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Proclamation of Sept. 3, 1915, by Admiral Caperton, commanding the United States Forces in Haiti and Haitian Waters, Foreign Relations, 1915, p. 484.
  4. Special article following title VII of the Constitution of June 12, 1918, Ibid., 1918, p. 502.