28 April 1965-21 September 1966
President Lyndon Johnson’s 30 April 1965 decision to intervene in the Dominican civil war reflected pervasive concerns about a communist takeover similar to that which occurred after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. His decision also occurred amidst the escalating American military intervention in Vietnam. The immediate cause of the civil war lay in the May 1961 assassination of Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina and the ensuing political chaos. By April 1965 two powerful factions had emerged, the Loyalists and the Constitutionalists. The Loyalists, supported by Colonel Elias Wessin y Wessin who commanded the 1,500 man autonomous Armed Forces Training Center, backed the government led by President Donald Reid Cabral. The Constitutionalists, supported by elements of the military, backed the exiled socialist politician Juan Bosch, who had briefly held the Dominican Republic’s presidency in 1963 before being ousted in a coup, and wanted his liberalizing constitution reinstated.
On 24 April 1965 President Reid revoked the military commissions of several young officers suspected of planning a coup against his government. In response, they revolted, adopted the label of Constitutionalists, and persuaded approximately 1,500 soldiers and a unit of the Dominican Navy’s elite frogmen to join their cause. The Constitutionalists made radio announcements and distributed 20,000 weapons throughout Santo Domingo. The military units aligned with the Constitutionalists and armed civilian groups began attacking police, buildings of rival political groups, and occupying strategic positions throughout the city. Despite a pre-revolt strength of over 17,000 men, the Dominican military’s personnel loyal to Reid’s government were divided and disorganized. Only Wessin y Wessin’s 1,500 AFTC soldiers and elements of the Dominican Air Force were capable of immediate action.
American Military Actions
Evacuation of U.S. and Foreign Nationals
In response to the rapidly deteriorating situation on 25 April President Johnson directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to prepare to evacuate American nationals. Two days later, unarmed Marines from the USS Boxer helicoptered to Haina (ten miles south-west of Santo Domingo) to evacuate American civilians brought from the Hotel Embajador in Santo Domingo. The next day a battalion of Marines landed at Haina, proceeded to the Hotel Embajador, and established a helipad on the nearby polo field from which nearly 700 civilians were evacuated.
American Stability Operations
Unfortunately, the situation in Santo Domingo continued to deteriorate. On 28 April harassment of Americans continued, the U.S. embassy came under sniper fire, and Ambassador William Bennett reported “collective madness” engulfing the city. After receiving an early morning written request on 29 April for help from the Loyalists, at 1930 hrs President Johnson authorized the use of overwhelming force to stabilize the situation. Soldiers from the 82d Airborne Division and Marines from the 6th Marine Expeditionary Brigade were dispatched to reinforce the embassy, protect American nationals in Santo Domingo, and prevent a communist takeover. The President recognized that by bypassing the Organization of American States (OAS), American unilateral action would cause diplomatic tensions with OAS members, but he remained confident enough members could be convinced to offer support after the situation improved.
The stability operations, which lasted from 30 April to 3 May, can be separated into three phases: 1) The landing at San Isidro Airfield (about ten miles east of Santo Domingo); 2) The eight mile advance west from the airfield to the Ozama River; 3) The establishment of a line of communications to link the airfield with the International Security Zone (INSZ) around the US Embassy, thereby separating the two factions. The operation was based on JCS Operation Plan 310/2-63, which had been rehearsed several times, but did not include current political or geographic information.
On 26 April U.S. Continental Army Command notified XVIII Airborne Corps to place the 82d Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Robert York, on Defense Condition 3. At 1630 hrs, 29 April, the JCS designated York commander of U.S. Ground Forces, Dominican Republic, and shortly thereafter Atlantic Command directed him initiate Operation POWER PACK I. Originally, two battalion combat teams from the 3d Brigade, 82d Airborne Division were to layover in Puerto Rico before parachuting near San Isidro Airfield, eight miles east of Santo Domingo. However, concerned that the Loyalists could not hold out until morning, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the JCS, ordered the brigade to land directly by airplane at San Isidro, rather than parachuting. They also worried parachuting would appear too aggressive. Although landing at San Isidro airport resulted in congestion, it proved fortunate because sharp coral outcroppings covered the nearby parachute drop zone.
At 2130 hrs, Vice Admiral Kleber Masterson, aboard USS Boxer, received news of the 82d Airborne Division’s imminent arrival and dispatched his aide and two Marine captains to the airfield. They convinced the Loyalist forces to open the control tower, turn on the runway lights, and talk down the airplanes. The first plane, carrying York, touched down at 0216 hrs on 30 April and within a few hours another forty-six planes delivered the two battalion combat teams.
Advance to the Ozama River
After landing, York and Masterson met aboard USS Boxer to plan their next move. To trap the Constitutionalists in the city’s Ciudad Nuevo district, they envisioned the 82d Airborne Division moving from the airport to the Duarte Bridge (which spanned the Ozama River and led into Santo Domingo), while the Marines held the left flank and the Loyalists the center. At dawn on 30 April the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry advanced along the San Isidro Highway to secure the bridge’s eastern approach. Men of Company C crossed and established a six-block beachhead encompassing the city’s main power station. Simultaneously, 1st Battalion, 505th Infantry established a perimeter around the airfield and sent patrols into the adjacent countryside. Unfortunately, the Loyalists abandoned their positions. The gap they left between the Marines and the paratroopers remained open for three days.
Closing the Gap and Establishment of the Line of Communications
The rebels were able to move freely through this gap and distribute weapons throughout the city. York secured approval for four more battalions to close the gap, but Johnson worried another unilateral move would resemble the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, further damaging OAS relations. Nevertheless, Operation POWER PACK II began, which sent emergency medical supplies, equipment, and units, including a field hospital and a medical battalion from Fort Bragg.
Johnson instructed Wheeler to resolve the situation quickly. Wheeler then appointed Lieutenant General Bruce Palmer, Jr., who was serving as Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, as Commanding General, United States Forces Dominican Republic to replace York. On 1 May, Palmer received command of XVIII Airborne Corps; he now had over 24,000 troops at his disposal. Wheeler also emphasized that the operation’s success depended on close cooperation with Ambassador Bennett.
After arriving on the island, Palmer made closing the gap his first priority. By dividing rebel territory and separating the two factions, he hoped to force the two factions to seek a negotiated solution. On 1 May Palmer briefed the JCS on this plan and ordered York to reconnoiter the 2.5 kilometers from the Duarte Bridge to the INSZ to determine the feasibility of closing the gap and opening an American controlled corridor linking the Army and Marine forces. Two platoons from Company C, 1-508 Infantry completed the mission, but took seven casualties. Nevertheless, the reconnaissance proved the gap could be closed. Before proceeding, Johnson wanted the plan cleared with the OAS. The following day Palmer met with OAS Secretary General Jose Mora and a special committee who gave their permission after a brief and cordial discussion.
On 3 May at 0001 hrs, three American infantry battalions left Duarte Bridge, leapfrogging toward the Marines within the INSZ whom they contacted at 0112 hrs. By moving at night and avoiding known concentrations of rebel forces, the 82d Airborne Division established a four-block-wide line of communications. Palmer’s plan trapped 80 percent of the rebels in their Ciudad Nuevo stronghold and established a route for American supplies and communications. By physically separating the two factions the American military paved the way for a negotiated political solution.
By 4 May 1965 Palmer had overseen the largest buildup of U.S. forces in Latin America (nearly 24,000 at peak strength) and established an air bridge between Pope AFB and San Isidro Airfield. The additional forces deployed included the 82d Airborne Division’s two remaining brigades, 5th Logistics Command, 15th Field Hospital, 503d Military Police Battalion, 50th Signal Battalion, 218th Military Intelligence Battalion, 42d Civil Affairs Company, and elements of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, 1st Psychological Warfare Battalion, and 7th Special Forces Group. From 4 to 23 May, the United States military conducted unilateral peacekeeping operations. Palmer used these additional forces to help stem the flow of armaments into rebel areas and return Santo Domingo to some degree of normalcy. Under the calming presence of American forces, the OAS helped negotiate a cease-fire agreement, signed by Dominican Air Force Colonel Pedro Bartolomé Benoit and Colonel Francisco Caamaño Deñó (representing the Loyalist and Constitutionalist factions, respectively).
Despite sporadic sniping, which accounted for the majority of American casualties, U.S. forces had little difficulty conducting peacekeeping and garrison duties. No major engagements erupted between Loyalist and Constitutionalist forces until 13 May when Loyalist General Antonio Imbert Barrera launched an eight-day offensive to eliminate rebel resistance north of the line of communications. Ambassador Bennett lodged an official complaint with the OAS, but Imbert’s actions ultimately aided the American cause by allowing the United States to play the role of the neutral. The unilateral American phase of the intervention ended when the OAS established the Inter-American Peace Force (IAPF).
Creation of the IAPF
The creation of the IAPF on 23 May garnered the international support the administration needed. The IAPF experiment not only tested OAS members’ capacity for coalition military operations, but also required them to overcome traditional suspicions of both the United States and each other. The OAS appointed Brazilian General Hugo Penasco Alvim as commander, with Palmer as his deputy. Palmer alleviated concerns about placing Americans under foreign control by creating a skeleton IAPF headquarters staffed with selected XVIII Airborne Corps Soldiers. The XVIII Airborne Corps supplied the bulk of the IAPF’s forces and logistics. This arrangement was palatable to the Latin Americans because the United States did not display overt control over the IAPF.
At its height, the IAPF was comprised of nearly 8,000 military personnel from the United States, Brazil, Honduras, Paraguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. Although the American contingent dwarfed its Latin American counterparts, the latter proved their worth politically and tactically. The IAPF’s Latin American forces were organized into two battalions: the Brazilian marines and all non-Brazilian troops (including the American soldiers) formed the Fraternity Battalion and all the Brazilian infantry the Brazilian Battalion. The American contingent consisted of the 1st Brigade, 82d Airborne Division; 16th Support Group; elements of 7th Special Forces Group; and assorted Air Force personnel.
IAPF Operations in Santo Domingo
Starting on 24 May Latin American troops began performing multi-national military police patrols in quiet sectors. They reported violations of the cease-fire and civil disturbances to Palmer and later IAPF headquarters. On 29 May the Brazilian and Fraternity Battalions relieved American units at selected locations throughout the city. This demonstrated President Johnson’s sincerity about not maintaining a permanent U.S. military presence in the Dominican Republic, which in turn, helped ensure the success of the negotiations.
The IAPF’s first test occurred on 6 June after Colonel Caamaño’s rebel forces suspended negotiations. In a brief, but violent exchange, rebel forces fired upon IAPF troops protecting the line of communications. IAPF forces returned fire and the rebels withdrew shortly thereafter.
On 15 June the rebels launched their final attempt to escape their Ciudad Nuevo stronghold. At 0750 hrs they began attacking American outposts along the line of communications with sporadic but concentrated small arms fire. By 0915 hrs they were directing continuous fire at American positions and at noon they assaulted Brazilian positions with a coordinated use of mortars, bazookas, and tanks. This action resulted in the bloodiest battle of the intervention and a sound rebel defeat. The rebels lost 56 square blocks of territory and suffered numerous killed and wounded, while the Americans and Brazilians only took a few causalities. By failing to split IAPF forces and losing territory the rebels had no choice but to return to negotiations.
Provisional Government and the IAPF
Although the Constitutionalists emerged as losers after 15 June, the Loyalists had not won – a situation that suited the OAS since its members preferred to find a middle road between the two factions. On 18 June an OAS ad hoc committee (created by an OAS Meeting of Foreign Ministers resolution on 2 June) put forward a proposal for a political settlement which served as the basis for negotiations. After over a month of intense negotiations, Constitutionalists and Loyalists agreed to accept an OAS-sponsored Act of Reconciliation on 30 August. This act established a provisional government (with Héctor García-Godoy as provisional president) which would organize elections within six to nine months. This allowed General Imbert and Colonel Caamaño to cede claims to the presidency without fear of reprisal. In addition to calling for disarming the population, the agreement arranged for the IAPF to remain intact until the elections to ensure stability for the government.
While installing a provisional government relieved much of the tension, violence continued. On 9 September General Wessin y Wessin, who opposed his autonomous Armed Forces Training Center’s integration into the regular Dominican Army, attempted a coup. Under the guise of a farewell address he massed his armored vehicles and began a slow road march towards Santo Domingo. U.S. forces foiled the attempt by blocking the highway leading to the Duarte Bridge. No shots were fired and Wessin retired without incident, leaving the country for Miami where he became the Dominican consul general.
In late September, Generals Alvim and Palmer prevented a coup against García-Godoy. The Dominican military seemed likely to dispute his authority publically, but Alvim and Palmer preempted any proclamation by convincing Dominican military leaders of the IAPF’s determination to support the government.
Transition and US Departure
To ensure a peaceful transition the rebel occupied Ciudad Nuevo district needed to be disarmed and demilitarized. Operations to accomplish this occurred in two phases. First, on 13-14 October, by agreement with García-Godoy and the Constitutionalists, military police and troops from the 82d Airborne Division evacuated most rebel military forces. The second phase took place on 25 October and occurred without the full approval of Garcia-Godoy, who was being indecisive. During this phase IAPF forces comprised of elements of the 82d Airborne Division conducted a sweep south across the district from positions along the line of communications. Meanwhile, the Latin American battalions assumed blocking positions to seal the district’s western approaches. The operation proceeded without incident and the IAPF removed remaining rebels, located several arms caches, and uncovered numerous incriminating communist documents. Elements of the 82d Airborne Division remained in Ciudad Nuevo until 1 November and a company of Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 504th Infantry remained to occupy the city’s power plant and the Duarte Bridge.
In late November violent outbreaks in Santiago and Barahona between Constitutionalists and Loyalists required military intervention. Dominican troops took the lead in restoring order, but the presence of accompanying Soldiers from the 2d Battalion, 508th Infantry had an added calming effect on the situation.
The last major confrontation occurred on 19 December at 0900 hrs in Santiago when 300 Loyalists attacked 150 Constitutionalists under Caamaño as they departed a mass held for a slain lieutenant. The gun battle raged for five hours until a company of American Soldiers interposed themselves between the factions, negotiated the release of fifteen Americans, and allowed both sides to disengage. Another unsuccessful coup attempt occurred in January 1966, after which Caamaño, other prominent Constitutionalists, and military chiefs agreed to accept diplomatic postings overseas. In the presidential elections on 1 June 1966, Joaquín Balaguer won fifty-seven percent of the vote, defeating Juan Bosch. Both men remained active in the Dominican political scene through the 1990s, although Bosch never again held public office.
On 21 September 1966, after overseeing a peaceful transfer of power to Balaguer, the last American forces departed. Nearly 24,000 Soldiers and Marines had deployed to the island, of whom 27 were killed and 172 wounded. U.S. military forces succeeded in enabling the administration to achieve its goals of protecting the lives of Americans, restoring peace and political stability in the Dominican Republic, and conducting multi-national operations with their Latin American counterparts as part of the Inter-American Peace Force.
The Dominican intervention remains an example of large-scale, overwhelming, focused use of American military force as an integral part of U.S. foreign policy. In a rapidly changing political environment the military adapted, working closely with the executive branch, State Department, and foreign representatives. By ensuring unilateral military actions would not preclude multi-national involvement, President Johnson and Lieutenant General Palmer guaranteed enough OAS members remained open to cooperation following stabilization. By physically separating the Loyalists and Constitutionalists, Palmer allowed the United States to accomplish its foreign policy goals without becoming overly entangled in local political factionalism. Despite some domestic and international criticism of the government’s actions, the Johnson administration considered the campaign to be a success. Although Operation POWER PACK would be overshadowed by Vietnam, it succeeded in protecting American civilians, restoring order, averting a communist takeover, and paving the way for legal non-violent political succession in the Dominican Republic.