Occupational Crises: New Perspectives on Military Occupation in U.S. and World History

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee and SHFG

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 2:45 PM - 4:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Civil War and Reconstruction; International Relations; Military


Only two years after the United States completed a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, concluding America’s longest war, this panel returns historians’ focus to military occupation as a recurrent locus of crisis in U.S. and world history. This panel complements research by historians including Greg Downs, Matthew Casey, Brandon Byrd, Susan Carruthers, Mary Louise Young, Alan McPherson, among others, by emphasizing how occupation both reflected and helped catalyze multifarious crises within U.S. and non-U.S. societies, beyond exclusively military concerns, in ways that transformed postwar political settlements, racial and gender relations, international industrial life, and colonial and neo-colonial cultures. Panelists highlight crisis as a feature of occupation and post-occupation legacies in four cases: the Reconstruction-era U.S. South, American Samoa, Haiti, and post-World War II Korea. Brianna Kirk’s paper expands on new studies of Reconstruction as military occupation by examining the 1866 Norfolk, Virginia, riots as an episode that illuminated the federal state’s coercive military power as key to the consolidation and weakening of freed people’s newfound civil rights after the Civil War. Kirk reinforces the emerging thesis that the varying presence, capacity, and willingness of U.S. troops in the South to safeguard the promise of equal citizenship for emancipated African-Americans determined the contours of freedom in the occupied South, in conjunction with the actions of white southerners, Congress, the executive branch, and not least, the agency of freed people themselves. Holger Droessler’s study of the politics of the U.S. Navy’s early twentieth-century occupation of Samoa explores the dynamics of colonial rule and resistance in Pacific territories seized and annexed by the United States in the Spanish-American War’s wake. Denied birthright citizenship, Samoans nonetheless organized in the 1920s against direct U.S. military rule, precipitating a political crisis that resulted in congressional granting of limited autonomy to Samoa, if not full citizenship for Samoans. Shelby Sinclair’s paper on poor and working-class Haitian women during the U.S. occupation foregrounds the politics of representation and these women’s agency in the making of anti-occupation politics. Challenging narratives that portray Haitian women as simply victims and secondary figures in male-dominated Haiti, Sinclair shows that rural and urban Haitian women’s protests after World War I helped spark an international political crisis that reverberated in the halls of Congress itself. Finally, A.J. Murphy’s analysis of the transformation of martial managerial culture during and after World War II explains how the U.S. military's dependence on civilian foreign workers produced a crisis of efficiency which revitalized Taylorist practices that the War Department had decided to end for civilian white workers in U.S. arsenals in North America. Murphy’s research hints at how wartime occupational labor and managerial practices survived formal temporalities of war and military governance, impacting the U.S. state’s everyday relations with foreign nationals in the Cold War-era empire of bases. Together this research foregrounds crises of military occupation as crucibles forging complex ties, tensions, and conflicts between the U.S. military, American citizens, and non-Americans, and decisively shaping U.S. wars, their outcomes, and American foreign relations in North America and beyond.

Papers Presented

Occupation, Crisis, and Neglect: The U.S. Navy in Eastern Sāmoa, 1900-1937

To date, American Sāmoans remain the only people born on U.S. soil who cannot claim birthright citizenship. In my paper, I will analyze the origins of this peculiar legal status of American Sāmoa and its residents from the U.S. Navy’s occupation in 1900 to the 1930s. Legal ambiguity and administrative neglect, I argue, have been central to the exercise of U.S. power in the unincorporated territory of American Sāmoa. As a result, American Sāmoans have been living in a constant crisis of governance for over a century. In the early 20th century, U.S. officials pursued a self-declared “civilizing mission” across their Pacific possessions, but scarce resources and public attention set clear limits to those efforts in American Sāmoa. As governors rotated frequently, the naval government failed to build up administrative expertise and continuity in leadership. By the 1920s, Sāmoans organized a resistance movement, the Mau, to hold the U.S. Navy to account and defend their political autonomy. After these successful anti-Navy protests, Congress finally confirmed the Deeds of Cession of Tutuila and Manuʻa in 1929. In the early 1930s, some Sāmoan leaders even pushed for full U.S. citizenship, but Congress failed to pass an organic act due to the Great Depression and opposition from the Navy and racist lawmakers. Overall, U.S. colonization of eastern Sāmoa in the early 20th century throws a critical light on military occupation as paternalism and neglect clashed with islander aspirations.

Presented By
Holger Droessler, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

“The mournful sound of your women, of your daughters martyred”: Staging Haitians Women’s Sufferance in Circum-Caribbean Anti-Occupation Writing, 1919-1930

On July 28, 1915, three hundred thirty United States Marines stormed the shores of Port-au-Prince, Haiti attempting to seize control of the second oldest independent nation in the western hemisphere. That day marked the start of the United States Occupation of Haiti, an invasion that would last nineteen long years. Under the grip of U.S. control, Haiti would see the installation of a puppet president, the institution of a forced labor system, bloody armed warfare, and the coerced creation of treaties favorable to foreign interests. For Haitian women, the consequences of occupational violence were acute. These working women’s underexamined doings and sufferings offer insight into the social and cultural ramifications of U.S. empire in the Caribbean. This paper examines just how Haitian women deployed personal images and stories to inspire the public outrage that catalyzed U.S.-government commissioned investigations into the abuses of the occupation between 1920 and 1930. It foregrounds Haitian women’s stories in their own words. Though historians and literary scholars have noted that Haitian women are often relegated to status as victims and symbols in Haiti’s fraught historiography, this paper critically intervenes to suggest that Haitian women authored their own narrative. Although they found themselves on the margins of official inquiry in 1920, by 1930 their mournful cries reached fever pitch and transformed the face of Haitian resistance to U.S. intervention. Using previously uncited material culled from five major Haitian periodicals (Le Matin, Le Nouvelliste, Le Courrier Haitien, La Presse, and L’Action) this paper clarifies Haitian women’s collective strategies to garner the attention and support of readers in the United States in the wake of World War I. Their stories headlined U.S. newspapers, sparked debate during a U.S. presidential election, and informed strident critiques of U.S. colonialism. Indeed, Haitian women, working in bustling urban markets and the beleaguered countryside, captivated the American public and forced the U.S. Senate to repeatedly confront the crisis of intervention.

Presented By
Shelby M. Sinclair, Princeton University

An Empire of Efficiency: Labor Control in the Cold War U.S. Military’s Global Civilian Workforce

In 1911, civilian workers at the U.S. Army’s Watertown Arsenal struck against the arrival of management engineers with stopwatches, leading Congress to ban certain Taylorist methods in military and other federal workplaces. After three decades, however, the ban was lifted. What explains the military’s return to scientific management? As the Cold War defense establishment took shape, it recruited hundreds of thousands of women, nonwhite workers, and foreign nationals as civilian employees of the Department of Defense. It was for this feminized and otherwise marginalized new population of workers that the military resurrected a suite of management engineering methods that had previously been deemed too degrading for the government to employ. This paper examines the design, application, and reception of management engineering programs used on civilian workers at the U.S. military’s overseas installations in the 1940s and 1950s. Work measurement systems that were tested in logistical and support units in the U.S. military’s operations in Europe during WWII were formalized and expanded after the war. Foreign national workers at the U.S.’s newly expanded global empire of bases concentrated in occupied and recently occupied nations – especially Germany, Japan, and Korea – were subjected to a distinctive and standardized form of labor discipline created by and for the U.S. military. The paper argues that U.S. defense leaders viewed the employment of foreign nationals and the management programs that were applied to them as tools of anticommunism.

Presented By
AJ Murphy, Brandeis University

"'Major, they are coming': Race, Violence, and Occupation during Virginia's Reconstruction"

In the summer of 1866, the American South found itself plagued with outbursts of racial violence in the wake of the Civil War’s end. Memphis and New Orleans experienced destructive race riots, deemed so shocking that congressional committees diligently investigated the course of them in their aftermath. Historians explicitly link these two instances to President Andrew Johnson’s failed Reconstruction policies. However, a race riot in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 16, 1866, is often disregarded. Occurring in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act’s passage by Congress a week prior, the political context of this episode is crucial in understanding the intersection of racial violence and military occupation after the Civil War. This paper argues that military occupation in Norfolk provided tenuous protection for Blacks, and that the riot reveals the dangers and political consequences of demobilization. A post-riot investigation shows how Unionists made the case for a continued military presence by emphasizing the defiant methods of rebels. Congress then pressed for a “post-surrender wartime” force upon evidence that Confederate states continued operating on war-footing as occupying forces were further reduced, resorting to violence to reestablish their pre-war political power. Norfolk’s experience after the Civil War compels us to rethink racial violence through the lens of occupation. By doing so, it highlights the difficult task the post-war occupation forces faced in protecting Blacks and Unionists. Viewing Norfolk from this new perspective allows us to see the critical junctures facing the future of the United States in the immediate post-Civil War world.

Presented By
Brianna Frakes, University of Virginia

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Justin F. Jackson, Bard College at Simon's Rock
Justin Jackson is Assistant Professor of History at Bard College at Simon's Rock. His book, The Work of Empire: War, Occupation, and the Making of American Colonialisms in Cuba and the Philippines, is forthcoming with University of North Carolina Press.

Presenter: Holger Droessler, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Holger Droessler is an Assistant Professor of History at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, U.S.A. He is a historian of 19th- and 20th-century U.S. history, with a special focus on imperialism, capitalism, and the Pacific Ocean. He is the author of Coconut Colonialism: Workers and the Globalization of Samoa (Harvard University Press, 2021). Currently, he is researching his next book, "War Workers," which will tell the story of non-civilians working for the U.S. military from the Civil War to Iraq.

Presenter: Brianna Frakes, University of Virginia
Brianna Kirk is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Virginia, studying under Dr. Elizabeth Varon. Originally from Philadelphia, she received her bachelor's degree in History from Gettysburg College in 2015, and her master's degree in History from UVA in 2019. Her dissertation, titled No Safety for Union Men: Norfolk during Virginia's Civil War and Reconstruction, examines military occupation and racial violence in Norfolk, Virginia, from the outbreak of the Civil War through the state's readmission to the Union in 1870. Brianna has served as a research associate for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky digital history project, and a research assistant for a book published by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture on 400 years of African American History in Virginia. She also worked as the lead interpreter and interpretation supervisor at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, VA.

Presenter: AJ Murphy, Brandeis University
A.J. Murphy is Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University. They are currently writing a book about the Cold War U.S. military's adoption of business management techniques.

Presenter: Shelby M. Sinclair, Princeton University
Shelby Sinclair is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University in History and African American Studies. Her research focuses on nineteenth and twentieth century Black women’s history in the United States and Caribbean and her areas of specialization include Black women’s labor history, U.S. empire in the Caribbean, and Black feminist theory. Her research has been supported by the Coordinating Council of Women Historians, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, the Social Sciences Research Council, the National Humanities Center, and the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association. Shelby holds an M.A. in History from Princeton University and a B.A. with Honors in Comparative Ethnic Studies and History from Stanford University where she was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow.