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Conversations among Gentlemen: Elites Frame the US-Cuban Agenda, 1920s-1940s, in Foreign Affairs

Conversaciones entre caballeros: Las élites delimitan la agenda EEUU-Cuba, 1920s-1940s, en Foreign Affairs
Jorge I. Domínguez


During the second quarter of the twentieth century, Cuba was independent enough to undertake international initiatives, yet dependent enough to need US approval. Founded in 1921 as the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs became the venue for polite exchanges among elites regarding the US-Cuban relations agenda. This article examines how “influentials” from both countries addressed that agenda. The authors include Franklin Delano Roosevelt (before his election to the presidency), Walter Lippman (leading journalist of his times), and ambassadors to Cuba Harry Guggenheim and Sumner Welles. Cuba’s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington Cosme de la Torriente, Ramiro Guerra y Sánchez, Secretary to the President and a leading historian, and Jorge Mañach, prominent intellectual and activist are the Cuban authors. They discuss the Platt Amendment to Cuba’s Constitution, the repatriation of the Isle of Pines, the 1933 revolution, the US base near Guantánamo, Cuba’s role during the World Wars, and its vigorous multilateralism. Cuban authors deployed arguments drawn from US political and strategic discourse, as well as large doses of flattery, to persuade their US readers to go along with a string of successes for Cuban foreign policy, despite entrenched ongoing constraints, in some instances as explicit quid pro quo bargains.

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1“Those of us who remember well the war with Spain”, wrote Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “will agree that… the country’s deep-seated approval of the war grew out of a desire for the liberation of the people of Cuba from a stupid and antiquated Spanish yoke. It was not a war of revenge, but the offer of a helping hand” (Roosevelt, 1928: 474). Benign noblesse oblige was dominant among elite US authors in the journal Foreign Affairs. Its corollaries were disappointment or condescension regarding the perceived foibles of Cuba, its rulers, and its people.

2Founded in 1922 as the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations, itself founded the year before (Gavrilis, 2021), Foreign Affairs became a venue for US-Cuban polite elite exchanges regarding bilateral relations. This article examines how “influentials” from both countries addressed that agenda, highlighting Cuba’s salience for the United States in the years between the two World Wars. They discussed the Platt Amendment to Cuba’s Constitution, the repatriation of the Isle of Pines, the 1933 revolution, the US base near Guantánamo, Cuba’s role during the World Wars, and its vigorous multilateralism. How, then, did elite US and Cuban authors address bilateral relations issues in this same journal from the 1920s to the 1940s, and how did the Cuban authors seek to persuade their US counterparts to advance Cuba’s interests?

3The Cuban authors deployed the “weapons of the weak” in international relations (phrase from Scott, 1985). Flatter the imperial power, deeming its motivations admirable. Use the language that authors in the imperial power employ to make arguments: hard-headed “realist” arguments about international system structure, strategic geography, and the sea lanes of communication (see Desch, 1993). Remind the imperial power that meddling in your domestic politics is a costly distraction from which neither side will benefit. Look for allies through membership in multiple multilateral organizations. Know your top priority and stay on message, maneuvering the imperial power to engage with your priority. Deploy your comparative advantage. Mobilize the implications of your domestic-politics constraints (Putnam, 1988): revolution at home makes it “impossible” for you to make concessions. Be ready to make bargains: you will not win everything you want.

4These Cuban authors sought to persuade their US counterparts to go along with a string of successes for Cuban foreign policy, despite entrenched ongoing constraints, in some instances as explicit quid pro quo bargains. During the second quarter of the twentieth century, the record of Cuban foreign policy success and US acquiescence contrasts with the years of US occupations, interventions, and interference before 1925 and the relentless confrontation after 1960. It was the golden age of gentlemanly relations between US and Cuban elites, with the latter evoking US noblesse to elicit support to obligate US policies toward Cuba.

1. Approach

5The references list every article that mentioned Cuba and its relations with the United States published in Foreign Affairs between the 1920s and the 1950s. Some were brief but touched on themes that warrant inclusion or came from prominent US authors, such as future president Franklin Roosevelt, leading journalist Walter Lippmann, and former US Ambassador to Cuba Sumner Welles, an architect of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policies. These three as well as former US ambassador to Cuba Harry Guggenheim highlight Cuba also as an issue in hemispheric relations.

6Foreign Affairs published four Cuban authors during these years, all of whom represented mostly the views of Cuban elites. However, their critiques of US policy – especially regarding their opposition to the Platt Amendment – highlighted a broad Cuban consensus, from conservatives to communists, in advancing shared broad nationalist objectives.

7Cosme de la Torriente authored two. A veteran of Cuba’s war of independence, he served as Cuba’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States as well as a Senator. He also served as president of the Assembly of the League of Nations for a year and Judge of the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague.

8Jorge Mañach was one of Cuba’s most distinguished and influential public intellectuals from the 1920s to the 1950s. Through newspapers, essays, and books, he anchored the political center-right. A 1920 graduate of Harvard College, he served as minister of education, foreign minister, and Senator. Mañach was also a revolutionary activist during 1931-1933 and had to seek political exile at various moments. At the time of his article in Foreign Affairs, he was in the opposition to a government that Colonel Fulgencio Batista had installed.

9Ramiro Guerra was one of Cuba’s most foremost historians. His main book on sugar (the focus of his article in Foreign Affairs) was translated into English and reached a wide audience. He served as general editor of the authoritative ten-volume Historia de la nación cubana. In public life, he served as Secretary to the Presidency and national superintendent of schools. He also had to go into political exile.

10The journal did not publish on Cuban topics during the rebellion that led to the overthrow of President Fulgencio Batista in late 1958. From the mid-1940s to the late 1950s, Foreign Affairs focused on the Cold War, of which Cuba would become a prominent part but only after 1959.

11One recurring topic that the authors discuss in their articles across those years is the Platt Amendment. Following the US defeat of Spain in 1898, it occupied Cuba until 1902. As a condition for Cuban “independence,” the United States insisted on Cuba’s acceptance of an amendment proposed by Senator Orville Platt to the 1901 Army Appropriation Bill, to be incorporated into Cuba’s 1901 Constitution and further secured by the 1903 US-Cuban Treaty. A US-Cuban Reciprocity Treaty was also signed in 1903 to govern economic relations. A new US-Cuban treaty repealed the Platt Amendment in 1934, Cuba’s 1940 Constitution made no reference to it, and a new Reciprocity Treaty was signed in 1934. The Platt Amendment:

  1. Prohibited Cuba from entering into a treaty that would impair its independence or permit foreign powers to set up military bases in Cuba;

  2. Prohibited Cuba from incurring public debts beyond the capacity of the country’s ordinary revenue to service them;

  3. Permitted US intervention in Cuba at the discretion of the US government;

  4. Compelled Cuba to ratify all US actions during its 1898-1902 intervention;

  5. Obligated Cuba to improve sanitary conditions;

  6. Required Cuba to relinquish its claims over the Isle of Pines;

  7. Sell or lease to the United States any land it might require for naval bases; and

  8. Incorporate the Platt Amendment into Cuba’s new Constitution.

2. The US View of the Bilateral Agenda, 1925-1934

12In the view of most US authors, Cuba was a sugar bowl whose government was mostly annoying and often deplorable. Economic stakes were paramount in US-Cuban relations; displacing them from the top of the bilateral agenda would become a Cuban objective in order to accord priority to regaining full sovereignty.

13“O” – likely a high US government official responsible for Cuba policy – provided the most systematic overview in 1928. He indicted Cuba’s presidents. President Tomás Estrada Palma’s efforts were “noble,” but he had to request US intervention. Otherwise, “none of Cuba’s own national leaders before President [Gerardo] Machado deserves so much gratitude from the nation” as did the US military governor of Cuba (1898-1902) or the intrusive US imperial intervenor in the early 1920s (O, 1928: 234-235). Revealing his flawed knowledge of Cuba on the eve of its rebellion against Machado, which would culminate in his overthrow in 1933, O opined that Machado made “very considerable progress toward political stability.” (O, 1928: 243).

14Nevertheless, O highlighted why Cuba mattered: “Cuba’s propinquity and its highly strategic position in the Caribbean,” plus “the Platt Amendment, the Reciprocity Treaty of 1903, and the large American investments in the Island.” The Platt Amendment “provided for intervention by the United States,” among constraints that Cubans “find irksome.” The Reciprocity Treaty bound bilateral trade, making Cuba the top US trading partner in Latin America, while US investments in Cuba were “our largest holdings in any foreign country except Canada,” mainly in sugar, concluding, “The economic structure of few other independent countries is controlled to such an extent by a foreign people” (O, 1928: 231-232, 234).

15Echoing Franklin Roosevelt’s benign interpretation of US-Cuban history, O noted that during US occupations and other forms of intervention, “every solicitude was shown by those in charge of American affairs in the Island for the rights and feelings of the native Cubans,” while “incalculable benefits of a very positive nature were conferred on a yet undisciplined nation, which was gravely in need for disinterested guidance” (O, 1928: 234). O saw no conflict of interest between this “disinterested guidance” and the massive US economic stake.

16“Reduced to the simplest terms,” O averred, “Cuba’s foreign policy must be a matter of finding markets for her sugar…” while “everything else is but the frills and fireworks of diplomacy;” in the “sentimental phase of her international policy,” Cuba sought to abrogate the Platt Amendment (O, 1928: 236). O defended the Platt Amendment’s continuation. He claimed that “many Cubans are willing in their frank moments” to acknowledge its “guarantee of public order” and the “salutary value of the financial control” implied in its vesting on the United States the right to limit Cuba’s power to contract debts (O, 1928: 243-244). Consistent with his view that sugar was at the heart of Cuban foreign policy, O endorsed amending the Reciprocity Treaty to make it more favorable to Cuba’s interests.

17Other US Foreign Affairs authors concurred that economic stakes were at the core of US-Cuban relations, characteristically making no mention of the Platt Amendment or other topics of interest to Cuba. F. Schneider, Jr., dissected US sugar policies, concluding “Cuba has indeed become our sugar bowl – and a very capacious one” (Schneider, 1926: 318). Herbert Feis (1925) highlighted US investments in Cuba, worldwide second only to those in Canada.

18This single-minded focus on the economic stakes persisted even as revolution overwhelmed Cuba in 1932-1933. William Scroggs emphasized that Cuba ranked at the top of the list of US investment locations in Latin America. He noted the decline in US investment in Mexico because of what he called “unsettled political conditions,” which others might call the Mexican Revolution, but he made no reference to anything unsettling in Cuba in 1932 (Scroggs, 1932). Benjamin Wallace discussed US worldwide tariff policies the month before Machado’s overthrow, making no reference to revolution in Cuba. He pointed out, however, that the US-Cuban Reciprocity Treaty was unusual because it granted “exclusive concessions,” the only US trade treaty that embodied the “universal percentage [tariff] reductions” that Cuba had to provide (Wallace, 1933: 623, 631).

19There were exceptions to such a laser-like focus on economic stakes. Some worried about the wider implications of US policies toward Latin America, while preferring multilateral over unilateral instruments to conduct such policies. The July 1928 issue of Foreign Affairs articulated this view forcefully. Previewing what would be the US Good Neighbor policy in the hemisphere, Franklin Roosevelt argued that the United States should “for all time renounce the practice of arbitrary intervention in the home affairs of our neighbors” because the other republics of the Americas “disapprove our intervention almost unanimously.” Roosevelt was ready for the United States to participate in an intervention but only if it “associate[d] itself with other American Republics” (Roosevelt, 1928: 584-586). Renouncing US unilateral intervention, of course, would abrogate the Platt Amendment.

20Similarly, Walter Lippmann reported on his on-site observation of the Sixth Pan American Conference held in Havana in 1928. Dripping with condescension toward the Latin American governments, Lippmann claimed that there was widespread opposition to US policies of intervention in the Caribbean and Central America, but that lead US envoy Charles Evans Hughes successfully muffled its expression. Lippmann thought, however, that there was a larger failure: the United States was incapable of enlisting the Latin Americans to “share the moral responsibility of intervention,” thus agreeing with Roosevelt’s preference for multilateralizing intervention. Lippmann also assessed the conference’s host, the Machado government. Dissenting from O’s views two months earlier, Lippmann called it a “thoroughgoing dictatorship, with a generous capacity to spend public money… having suppressed all semblance of political opposition at home, its ultimate protection against the otherwise inevitable revolution lies in the Platt Amendment” (Lippmann, 1928: 543). Abrogating the Platt Amendment would liberate the United States from having to salvage a dictatorship.

21The second exception was Cuba’s first victory during its republican era in the context of US-Cuban relations: the US Senate ratification of the Isle of Pines treaty. The Platt Amendment and the US-Cuban May-1903 treaty had excluded the Isle of Pines from the bilateral settlement, requiring a separate treaty. In July 1903, the two governments drafted paired treaties. In one, Cuba leased two coaling and naval stations to the United States (in the end, just one near the Cuban city of Guantánamo). In the second, the United States relinquished its claim of title to the Isle of Pines. The latter treaty was conditional on Cuba’s ratification of the first. However, while the United States took possession of its base near Guantánamo, the US Senate failed to ratify the Isle of Pines treaty. Such ratification took place only in March 1925.

22Between 1903 and 1925, ten thousand US citizens owned property on the Isle of Pines and seven hundred had settled there. Many US firms had made significant investments. In Foreign Affairs, Benjamin Williams argued that “certain material interests were staked against Latin American goodwill.” US Senate ratification required setting aside those economic stakes in order for the United States to act “as it should act” – ratifying the treaty, gaining support elsewhere in Latin America (Williams, 1925: 689, 691).

23In conclusion, economic stakes were paramount for US authors who wrote about Cuba in Foreign Affairs. Implicitly for all, explicitly for O, the Platt Amendment seemed an apt guarantee of property rights and trade. Only those concerned with the broader political, military, and reputational costs of ongoing US military and other forms of intervention in the circum-Caribbean argued against unilateral interventions; among these, Lippmann seemed ready to repeal the Platt Amendment to avoid a US intervention to save dictator Machado. And only those with a wider hemispheric perspective set aside material interests to ratify the Isle of Pines treaty.

24Thinking about Cuba alone flashed dollar signs. Thinking about the Americas highlighted the worth of prudence and restraint, opening a window for Cuban argumentation.

3. The Cuban View of the Bilateral Agenda, 1925-1934

25Cosme de la Torriente was the Cuban ambassador to Washington who worked to secure the US Senate’s ratification of the Isle of Pines treaty. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he differed with O’s characterization of Cuba’s interest in the repeal of the Platt Amendment as merely “sentimental.” Instead, de la Torriente made Platt’s repeal the central focus of his article because it was a prerequisite for Cuba to regain its sovereignty. He scrutinized each Platt Amendment article, deploying arguments from a wide-ranging intellectual tool-kit.

26He tried flattery. US Admirals who defeated the Spanish navy, circling Cuba in 1898, were “names immortal in Cuban history!” Theodore Roosevelt, the US president who ordered Cuba’s military occupation in 1906, was “our great friend.” The US Senate ratification of the Isle of Pines treaty, notwithstanding a twenty-two-year delay, was creditable because for years “nearly everybody had predicted that the transfer of the island to Cuba would never take place.” Senator Platt and other “persons responsible” for the Platt Amendment had acted disinterestedly in establishing it “in the interests of Cuba” (de la Torriente, 1930: 365, 372, 374).

27De la Torriente appealed to principle, still clothed in flattery. The compulsion to intervene in Cuba under the Platt Amendment’s Article III weighs “so heavy upon de conscience of every good American.” He invoked thrice presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan’s prayer regarding Cuba: “God made us neighbors. May Justice keep us friends.” Thus, de la Torriente argued, “Only through the American sense of justice can a little nation like Cuba hope that a mighty nation like the United States may be brought to put an end to the injustice implied in the Platt Amendment.” Indeed, “Nothing would more greatly enhance the glory of the United States … [and] her high sense of international justice” than to agree to abrogate the Platt Amendment (de la Torriente, 1930: 374, 377-378). These appeals resembled Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts to secure India’s independence from the United Kingdom.

28Cuba was not incompetent, immature, and reckless, de la Torriente argued. Its Constitution provided the means for a “government capable of fulfilling its international obligations.” Cuba had fulfilled its obligations under the Platt Amendment’s Fifth Article regarding public health. It eradicated yellow fever. “On its own initiative … [it acted] against contagious or infectious diseases,” which made “the Cuban death rate lower than that of most states in the American Union, and one of the lowest in the world,” at times having to “take measures of protection against epidemics originating in the United States.” Moreover, Cuba “had never contracted public debts not covered by the normal national income” because its Constitution prohibited it and its government had honored it. Thus, the Platt Amendment’s Article II, prohibiting incurring crippling debts, was unnecessary and inferior to the effective lawful restraints that Cubans had imposed upon themselves (de la Torriente, 1930: 365, 366, 372, 373).

29De la Torriente claimed that Cuba had concluded many treaties with foreign powers, never “violating her Constitution or her international obligations.” It joined World War I as a US ally of its own volition “without any semblance of a pact but from a simple desire to contribute her modest help to the United States.” After the war, “Cuba ratified the Treaties of Peace, while the United States refused ratification. Cuba entered the League, while the United States kept out. Cuba subscribed to the Stature of the Permanent Tribunal of International Justice, and actually furnished a judge to that Court, while the United States was still holding off… Cuba successfully asserted her own rights against three of the greatest powers of Europe, which were pressing ruinous claims for damages arising during the wars of independence. Cuba successfully held her ground against tendencies in Washington to use the revolution of 1912 [in Cuba] as a pretext for establishing a naval station in the bay of Havana itself. Cuba similarly held her ground against temptations to meddle in her fiscal affairs during the great panics of 1920-21. Cuba successfully asserted her right to the Isle of Pines… in the face of a long and acrimonious campaign by land speculators and newspapers of imperialistic tendencies” (de la Torriente, 1930: 376). Competent to exercise untrammeled sovereignty and more internationally responsible than the United States, Cuba was ready to shed the Platt Amendment.

30Alluding to the multilateral milieu, Cuba -- unlike the United States -- had joined the League of Nations and the International Court. It hosted in Havana the Sixth Pan American conference. It won election to the Council of the League of Nations, with two-thirds of the votes. Represented by a permanent ambassador to the League, it had been one of only two (along with Uruguay) Latin American states most faithful in attending League meetings and conferences, ratifying its conventions and paying its quotas. Cuba had developed an international network and presence, staffed by able diplomats, and was not to be bullied (Duggan, 1934: 287-288, 293).

31The Platt Amendment, de la Torriente claimed, was contrary to US interests. The possibility of US intervention “has been exploited by unscrupulous politicians for selfish purposes” who “appeal to the foreign power” to advance their schemes. US interventions in the preceding quarter century weakened the occasional good government and instead strengthened Cuban governments that “violate the Constitution and the laws in order to keep in power” – echoes of Lippmann’s implied argument against the Platt Amendment. Such interventions cost the United States money, time, and personnel, while incurring audience costs, making it easier to “insult Americans as intriguers and treaty-breakers” (de la Torriente, 1930: 374-375).

32Finally, de la Torriente appealed to the analytical “realism” known to Foreign Affairs readers. A treaty of alliance should replace the Platt Amendment’s Article III, which bestowed upon the United States “a right of intervention in defense of Cuban independence.” Instead, the United States would support Cuba’s defense against foreign attack. Cuba would support the defense of the United States and the Panama Canal, as it did during World War I, and it would renew the US right to occupy the base near Guantánamo. Cuba would also commit not to enter into a treaty with another foreign power that might impair its independence or authorize their military or naval occupation of any part of its territory.

33Cuba mattered for the defense of the United States – for what O had called its “highly strategic position in the Caribbean.” And here was Cuba’s premier international unofficial voice arguing about international issues just as US “realist” authors may, signaling Cuba’s readiness to pre-commit to an alliance, constrain its future treaty-making powers, and yield to the United States indefinite control over the base it already occupied near Guantánamo.

34Repealing the authorization for US intervention in Cuban affairs, unrelated to external defense, would free the United States from costs it should not assume (echoing the language of Roosevelt and Lippmann). The new bilateral treaty would also commit Cuba to assume “each and all of the obligations devolving on the United States under the [1898 US-Spain] Treaty of Paris.” And Cuba’s demonstrated competence would permit repealing the Platt Amendment clauses regarding sanitation or external debts (de la Torriente, 1930: 378).

35De la Torriente’s realist arguments were not mere hypotheticals. Germany sought base rights in the circum-Caribbean and Mexico during the early years of the twentieth century; the US purchase of the Danish West Indies in 1917 was a response to such a threat. The 1917 German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare sharpened the US concern about securing the Caribbean’s sea lanes of communication, which mattered during the two world wars and for which Cuba was strategic indeed (Desch, 1993: 19-45). Realist, too, was de la Torriente’s argument that meddling in domestic Cuban politics was against US interests, dragging it into conflicts not of its concern and often yielding counterproductive results.

  • 1 For scholarly support for Mañach’s characterization of Welles’ role, see Wood, 1961: 59-69.

36In later years much changed. Franklin Roosevelt became president and, in Cuba, a “revolution was produced as the consequence of the activities of a foreign diplomat” – Roosevelt’s appointee, US Ambassador Sumner Welles. His actions culminated in the overthrow of President Machado. So argued in Foreign Affairs Jorge Mañach (1933:46), the gentleman-revolutionary explaining the outburst of radicalism, violence, and the flowering of anti-Americanism in Cuba in order to make the case for the abrogation of the Platt Amendment.1

37Mañach picked up and echoed Lippmann’s argument. The Platt Amendment’s Article III required the United States to look after “the protection of life, property and individual liberty” in Cuba, even during dictatorship and revolution. Mañach explained Ambassador Welles’ meddling in Cuban politics as an attempt to reconcile Roosevelt’s new “Good Neighbor” policy with the Platt Amendment and the desire not to land US troops in Cuba. The dictatorship-revolution combination, however, “represented a chronic threat to foreign interests established in Cuba, and the responsibilities contracted by virtue of the Platt Amendment implicitly obliged the United States to end” that threat (Mañach, 1933: 48).

38The Platt Amendment placed the United States at sustained, inherent, and undesired risk: “Feeling the threat of potential intervention, the Cuban’s sense of responsibility was undermined… Tutelage favored the growth of general civic indolence… Should the nation be threatened, the intervention of Washington was always there as a last resource, or a last hope.” The Amendment left Cuba in “a semi-subject political independence” and “dependent on those who held the island’s wealth” – Spaniards against whom Cubans had fought for independence. The Platt Amendment also opened the door for massive US investments. These combined processes, wrote Mañach, “damaged [Cubans] psychologically,” with the population “divided into a small, privileged class” and others “cut off from all wealth.” By the 1920s, Cubans “were economically a servant people.” The economy’s collapse, sliding into the Great Depression, and Machado’s despotism lit the fuse of the revolution (Mañach, 1930: 51. 53. 55).

39“Cuba needs to feel itself independent,” Mañach claimed, looking for a solution. “The best service which the United States could render Cuba would be to consent to the abrogation of the Platt Amendment, which is the fundamental cause for the psychological semi-subjection of the Cuban people.” It would require “the simultaneous [US] renunciation, for both present and future, of the privileges which power and proximity give.” Moreover, Cuba also required “a policy of economic restoration which necessarily would put a check, legally though none the less effectively, to foreign interests exercising an excessive domination” (Mañach, 0933, 56).

  • 2 For elaboration regarding Mañach’s views of US-Cuban relations, see Segreo and Segura, 2012: 50-75.

40Mañach also deployed generous flattery for US intentions and actions over the years, but the recommended outcome was, in the spirit of the 1933 revolution, more confrontational than de la Torriente’s. Mañach did not offer an alliance in case of war, did not comment on the US base near Guantánamo, and proclaimed that foreign interests, predominantly US and Spanish, would have to accept new regulatory constraints.2

41Instead, Mañach turned the Cuban revolution of 1933 into a foreign policy bargaining chip: no Cuban government could fail to insist on the Platt Amendment’s repeal and on new limits on foreign investments because, otherwise, it would fall: my hands are tied, beloved empire, therefore you must yield. This was a two-level game (Putnam, 1988): two governments negotiated while each had to cope also with its own society. Mañach did not say, but his analysis implied, that the US would gain from its release from meddling in Cuba’s domestic politics.

42De la Torriente asked for reform of the relationship and offered alliance as a substitute for the Platt Amendment. Mañach articulated the demands of revolution indicating why Cuba could no longer yield, albeit pointing out that the United States should welcome its extrication from Cuba’s revolutionary morass.

4. The Good Neighbor Era: US Views, 1934-1942

43Harry Guggenheim, US ambassador to Cuba during the revolution (1929-1933), was the first US author to make the case in Foreign Affairs for repealing the Platt Amendment. A wealthy business executive, he interpreted the US motivation behind the enactment of the Platt Amendment principally as an investment protection scheme. He thought that successive US administrations had applied the Amendment inconsistently, generating “confusion” about it in both countries. During his years as ambassador, he “felt a steadily strengthening conviction that the real difficulty was not with any particular policy, but with the Treaty itself.” Cuban politicians “publicly denounced, secretly utilized” the Amendment, which had become counterproductive, generating incentives for Cuban politicians to provoke a crisis to win US favor to one side, without resolving the domestic issues that faced the nation – echoing without acknowledging Mañach’s political-psychological argument. The Amendment’s “obligation,” wrote Guggenheim, is “both irksome to Cuba and useless, if not actually harmful, to the United States,” quoting from his once classified message to the State Department (Guggenheim, 1934, 448-450, 452). Especially in a revolutionary situation, the ambassador wrote, a US military occupation of Cuba would be unwise.

44Guggenheim approvingly cited Cosme de la Torriente’s 1930 Foreign Affairs article to frame his proposal to repeal Articles II (on Cuba’s international debts -- unenforceable), III (US right of intervention -- counterproductive), IV (affirming Cuba’s obligation to honor US 1898-1902 military occupation decisions – lost importance), V (public health – outlived its usefulness), and VI (Isle of Pines – settled by treaty). Guggenheim differed with de la Torriente only regarding Cuban debts; the clause was unenforceable not because of Cuba’s competence but because the United States did not wish to become Cuba’s banker of last resort, given its shenanigans in floating debt. Guggenheim concurred with de la Torriente that a US-Cuba treaty should guarantee the US base near Guantánamo (Guggenheim, 1934: 454-456). Guggenheim also called for updating the Reciprocity Treaty to ensure preferential treatment for Cuban sugar in the United States, US exports to Cuba, and the protection of US investments – thus disagreeing with Mañach.

45The new May 1934 US-Cuban treaty abrogated the Platt Amendment. Quaintly, it differed with Guggenheim and de la Torriente by insisting that Cuba must honor the US occupation decisions (1898-1902), while also incorporating a public health clause. It retained the US base lease right “so long as the United States of America shall not abandon the said naval station of Guantanamo or the two Governments shall not agree to a modification of its present limits” (Treaty, 1934). Cuba had succeeded precisely along the lines that de la Torriente had articulated: a full repeal of the Platt Amendment’s intervention authorization but yielding the base near Guantánamo for an indefinite time.

46US Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles explained the new Good Neighbor policy. He blamed the previous challenges in US-Latin American relations on the US “numerous interventions” in the Caribbean “in disregard of the inherent sovereignty and independent rights of those nations,” and the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff for dealing “a staggering blow” to Latin American economies. Roosevelt withdrew the US military from Haiti, renounced the right to intervene in Panama and in Cuba, and “rescued Cuba from commercial and financial ruin, and from actual starvation.” The US was seeking better relations in the hemisphere, but it was also conscious that “the world horizon was darkening.” To ready the United States for a troubled worldwide context, the United States, Welles the realist believed, required allies in the Americas (Welles, 1937: 443-446). In the intervening years, US-Cuban trade had also boomed, well exceeding the trade growth of each country with the rest of the world (Grady, 1936: 294).

5. The Good Neighbor Era: Cuban Views, 1934-1942

47With the Platt Amendment gone, the base near Guantánamo yielded, and the Isle of Pines repatriated, Cubans focused on other concerns. World War II provided an opportunity to reshape bilateral relations. Cosme de la Torriente sketched Cuba’s new agenda. Again, he peppered his Foreign Affairs article with flattery for past US policies toward Cuba, though lamenting the Platt Amendment and its nefarious interventions. He noted past US inattention to its obligations – the delay in ratifying the Isle of Pines treaty, among other reasons, because “it had been mislaid and several weeks were required to find it” (de la Torriente, 1940: 148).

48De la Torriente recalled Cuba’s entry into World War I and declared it “would immediately follow the United States if it were to enter the new and terrible war.” Cuba dominated entrances to the Gulf of Mexico, sat astride Caribbean sea lanes of communication, and helped to guard the southern coast of the United States and the Panama Canal. It would join the US alliance also because of a shared commitment to democracy (had just held free elections) and (in a country heir to slavery) opposition to racist Nazism (de la Torriente, 1940: 149).

49Three months before this article’s publication, Cuba hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Americas, demonstrating its utility as a US diplomatic partner. The resulting Declaration of Havana proclaimed that “any attempt on the part of a non-American state against the integrity or inviolability of the territory, the sovereignty or political independence of an American state shall be considered as an act of aggression against the states which sign this declaration” (Mecham 1960: 187-190). On December 11, 1941, Cuba declared war on Germany, Italy, and Japan.

50Cuba’s navy was “only large enough to patrol our coast and our army sufficient merely to maintain internal order.” De la Torriente thus welcomed the continuation of the US base near Guantánamo because of what defense analysts call tripwire effects: If a US-German war were to lead to a German invasion of Cuba, given fears that Germany might invade the French and Dutch Caribbean, the base near Guantánamo “would insure our receiving prompt help from the US Army and Navy.” If the United States were to decide to abandon the base, “Cuba might have to ask the United States to stay” for its own and their shared defense (de la Torriente, 1940: 150).

51During the war, Cuba granted the United States new facilities for operation against German submarines active in the Caribbean and coordinated closely with the United States all pertinent military and naval measures. These new Cuban bases along with the base near Guantánamo became keys to the Caribbean defense system (Mecham, 1960: 216-219; see also Desch, 1993).

52These close bilateral security interests should lead the United States, de la Torriente argued, to commit to trade and investment policies to foster Cuba’s economic growth – a key objective of his article – to arrange “for disposing of the surplus products” for export, given the disappearance of European markets; failure to act would trigger “serious disturbances.” As Mañach first wrote, de la Torriente redeployed the threat of revolution in Cuba as a constraint on its government. A new economic treaty with the United States “implies an agreement concerning wages and salaries for every class of worker and employee.”

53In sum, the US-Cuban “unwritten alliance” demanded Cuba’s strategic collaboration with the United States during a future war and a US rescue of its weak ally from the residue of the Great Depression (de la Torriente, 1940: 151, 154-155). There was room for new priorities. Cuba’s new foreign policy goals focused on economic issues, just as US authors did in the 1920s.

54Ramiro Guerra’s 1942 article was a logical follow up. It echoed US authors from the 1920s through its title, “Sugar: Index of Cuban-American Cooperation.” Having settled the high-politics sovereignty issues, Cuba could foreground the economic stakes. Guerra opened with a cheer: the United States had just agreed to buy Cuba’s entire 1942 sugar output (Guerra, 1942). He reviewed past US policies favoring US sugar producers; he hailed the war emergency that highlighted the strategic priority of Cuba’s full economic recovery from the Depression. The US government had committed to higher prices for Cuban sugar, with its salutary effect on domestic social peace. Guerra showed how officials from both countries worked out the complex details of sugar investment, production, and trade. He closed by raising the alarm that, after World War II as after World War I, the United States would look away, with a consequent breakdown of US-Cuban cooperation and ruinous economic results in Cuba. “It would be terrible if [the post-World War I experience] repeated itself by giving birth to a new and frightful crisis in Cuba in the future” (Guerra, 1942: 756).

55Guerra and de la Torriente highlighted the link between war and economics, employing one of the weapons of a weak state: in the midst of a world war, absent US economic help, Cuba could collapse into a revolutionary morass. This binding domestic constraint became a key foreign policy lobbying tool along with its pre-commitment to provide bases for US Caribbean operations.


56During the second quarter of the twentieth century, Cubans regained their sovereignty. They repatriated the Isle of Pines, the one piece of Cuban territory that the United States had continued to claim during the century’s first quarter. They persuaded the United States to repeal the Platt Amendment’s authorization of its intervention and meddling in Cuba. They prevented US troop landings in response to Cuba’s 1933 revolution, in contrast to past experiences. They replaced the old economic reciprocity treaty with a new and more favorable treaty. During World War II, they got the United States to purchase Cuba’s entire sugar crop, embedded in procedures designed to secure the country’s social peace.

57The case for Cuban successes appeared in elegant prose on the pages of the journal Foreign Affairs where foreign policy elites from both countries formulated their arguments. The Cuban authors deployed the weapons of the weak: flatter the imperial power, but also evoke the prospect of collapsing into revolution, if the stronger power is unforthcoming. Use the language that the authors in the imperial power employ when they argue. Cubans addressed war, strategic geography, and the worth of Cuba to the United States at dire international moments. They articulated forcefully that Cuba mattered because of its location. The language of international realism also highlighted that meddling in Cuba’s domestic politics was counterproductive for the United States.

58Amidst negotiations, Cuban diplomats stayed focused, persuading their counterparts, first, to accept the priority of Cuban sovereignty over economic stakes and, later, to accept the link between war efforts and rescuing Cuba from the Depression. Following the 1933 revolution, Cuban authors pointed out that its government could not yield to the United States, given the ongoing high risk of revolution. Nevertheless, one concession was possible – to ratify the US use of its base near Guantánamo in exchange for the Platt Amendment’s repeal. And with greater zeal than in the United States, Cuba joined international organizations in search of alliances.

59Remarkably, all the US concessions came in the context of bilateral civility and cooperation. These had been conversations among gentlemen, all representing elites in both countries. The Cuban elites had come to critique the US role in Cuba, notwithstanding their otherwise moderate-to-conservative views, thereby converging with the critiques of that US role from the nationalist Left – a national consensus.

60These outcomes improved on preceding decades of US interventions; no parallel has appeared following the 1959 revolutionary victory. The past was unlike its past and its future, but it shows that the United States and Cuba can negotiate successfully and have mutually beneficial relationships.

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1 For scholarly support for Mañach’s characterization of Welles’ role, see Wood, 1961: 59-69.

2 For elaboration regarding Mañach’s views of US-Cuban relations, see Segreo and Segura, 2012: 50-75.

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Jorge I. Domínguez, « Conversations among Gentlemen: Elites Frame the US-Cuban Agenda, 1920s-1940s, in Foreign Affairs »Études caribéennes [En ligne], 54 | Avril 2023, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2023, consulté le 06 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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