History 460: History of US Foreign Intelligence
Rafael Trujillo: The Dominican Dictator
Trujillo: A Necessary Evil
“I know that one day I may not be necessary tomorrow, but today I am.” These are the words uttered by Yuri Orlov in the movie Lord of War. Orlov was an arms dealer in the 1990’s, who was eventually arrested for his illegal sales and dealings. When it seemed as though he was about to go to jail, the U.S. Government let him go, not because was innocent, but because he was guilty. Orlov pointed out that his customers are enemies of America’s enemies. He, at this moment, was a necessary evil in a world of shifting alliances and corrupt political strife.
Though Orlov was a fictitious character who was loosely based on real people, this concept of having and exploiting the ‘necessary evil’ is not fictitious, and is nothing new for the U.S. Government. For example, it can be traced back to earliest days of the revolution, when George Washington secretly used some of the lowest forms of scum, criminals and thieves to spy on the British forces. In Washington’s time, espionage was looked down upon in aristocratic circles, his circles. It was something gentlemen simply did not do; in terms of class, it was beneath them, which was why he conducted his meetings with these people in private. In spite of whatever threat of ostracization Washington may publicly endure, he seemingly felt it was worth having the intelligence on the British. For Washington, having this military information was essential, even if its providers were social ruffians; it was a necessary evil that helped Washington and America win the war.
Just because Orlov and Washington’s spies were necessary to the U.S. Government in their own respective times does not mean that their own necessary evils as well as those of others cannot expire in their worth. Such was the case for one Dominican Republic Dictator, Rafael Trujillo, who at 10:00pm on May 30, 1961 was on his way home when his limousine was stop by three cars. Eight men got out of the cars and unleashed seventy rounds of machine gun ammunition into Trujillo, killing him, thus ending his more than thirty years of rule in the Dominican Republic. However, these assassins were allegedly supplied with the weapons by the CIA.
The United States had dealt with and supported Trujillo’s dictatorship for years. Trujillo had been receiving much support from the U.S. during the 1940’s and 1950’s, but it seemed that in May 1961, Trujillo had out lived his usefulness as far the CIA was concerned. The necessary evil was no long necessary. What motivated the CIA to take such action if the accusations are true? How did the Dominican Dictator obtain his power and manage to rule for thirty years nearly uncontested? Finally, what role (if any) did world politics play in Trujillo’s rise, dominance, and eventual assassination?
In 1891, Rafael Trujillo was born in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic. He grew up in a country that was mostly torn apart by war and chaos by the various political factions at that time. The U.S. had actually sent in Marines to establish some order and a temporary government to restore peace. In 1918, he joined the Dominican National Guard, which was trained by the U.S. Marines themselves. By 1924, when the Marines pulled out, Trujillo was in charge of the entire guard.
It is important to remember that these were the events in the world in which Trujillo grew up around, and are instrumental when trying to understand the man. He witnessed a country that was in utter disarray, but when a strong military presence arrived, some sort of harmony and order was achieved. This was a lesson about military strength that Trujillo would certainly not forget. In 1930, he popularly won the presidential election. However, he claimed to have taken ninety-five percent of the votes. It is this author’s opinion, he was either lying or he simply fixed the election in some way, because that no one could win a fair democratic election with so many votes. None the less, he was the uncontested ruler of the Dominican Republic and let his people know it by establishing a secret police consisting of seven sub-parts who all reported to him. Trujillo had no problem using force or torture to get what he wanted, and he removed all who would dare to oppose his rule. In should also be noted that throughout his rule, he managed to bring the D.R. out of debt and major depression while accumulating a personal fortune worth almost one billion dollars.
One of the best demonstrations of Trujillo’s ruthlessness as dictator was that of the massacre of 12,000 Haitians in 1937. A huge famine had inflicted much damage on the Dominican’s neighboring country of Haiti; so many starving Haitians with nothing to lose came pouring into the Dominican Republic. Trujillo ordered his men to fire on anyone who crossed the border. That day, Trujillo had ordered the deaths of nearly 12,000 men, women, and children. Trujillo lost the respect and support of many other Latin American countries that day, but not America. To make some kind of an International apology, Trujillo sent his wife on a propaganda campaign to show Dominican support for European war refugees, and even let 100,000 Jews seek refuge on his island. Again, this was meant to improve his image and combat his critics. As for the dead Haitians, he ordered their bodies to be placed in a mass grave site that was then covered over, and a Catholic shrine dedicated to one of its saints was placed over it. I visited this shrine and mass grave in July 2005 while on a summer long mission’s trip, where I learned about Trujillo for the first time.
On that same trip, I also visited one of Trujillo’s summer getaway mansions, which is on a mountain top overlooking the city of Santiago. This mansion had been converted into a bed and breakfast, but its name had not changed--Camp David (See Figure A). During the 1930’s, much of the world was devastated by an economic, depression or by war, and the Dominican Republic was no exception to this depression. Trujillo, probably still filled with memories of how American troops had successfully occupied the D.R. before, reasoned the only chance he had to keep his economically broken countrymen from staging a revolt was to get support and backing once more from the Americans.
He went to great lengths to convince the U.S. Government (U.S.G.) he was on their side, other than naming his vacation home after his American counterpart’s (Roosevelt) newly created vacation spot. Trujillo also visited America in July 1939, where he paid his respects to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and he placed a wreath on Washington’s tomb at Mt. Vernon all before meeting with the president. He also told reporters, “We [D.R.G.] are sincerely bonded to the policy of peace and harmony with the U.S. and I offer my heartiest cooperation to the service of its ideals.” Many critics were asking Roosevelt why he would meet with such a man, and he replied, “He may a S.O.B., but his is our S.O.B.”
Fortunately for Trujillo, FDR had announced his Good Neighbor Policy, which was mostly America’s attempt at winning favor with the Latin American countries that they had exploited and ignored for many decades as well as to promote trade and capitalism. In addition, the U.S.G. was also trying to prevent the spread of Communism, Nazism, and Fascism in the Americas. So perhaps having a local brutal dictator on your side was better than having a local communist one in the mind of the U.S.G. For better or worse, Trujillo’s regime was needed in the Caribbean to prevent any form of fascist state from emerging.
Finally, the time had come when it seemed that Trujillo’s presence as a necessary evil was no longer necessary as far as the U.S. was concerned. As for the plans and events leading up to the assassination of Trujillo, they played out like this: the U.S. Government (USG) involvement in the plot to assassinate the Dominican dictator began with the Eisenhower Administration in February 1960, when Eisenhower began to consider giving covert aid to Dominican dissidents. By April of that year, Eisenhower approved a contingency plan which said that the U.S. would support and take immediate action to remove Trujillo “once a suitable successor regime could be found” to replace the dictatorship.
The Eisenhower Administration seemed to have wanted to remove Trujillo. However, they did not want another communist Castro-type regime so close to America to fill the power vacuum if Trujillo was removed; this may explain the Administration’s cautiousness (a cautiousness shared by the next administration) about rushing in and removing Trujillo. Why trade one evil dictator for one who was possible worse, maybe even communist one? Also, the U.S.G. knew Trujillo was increasing the stakes and was more frequently brutalizing and abusing his people, but more importantly, other Latin American countries knew what he was doing; this, in turn, looked unfavorable on America. Since Trujillo, as previously mentioned, had such strong relations with the U.S. during past few decades, he was, in the eyes of those Latin countries the protégé of America. Whatever he did, it seemed as if the U.S. had given him the ‘go ahead on’ to do whatever he pleased. Therefore, other than preventing another possible communist state developing so close to home, the U.S.G. additionally had to consider saving face.
It is important to remember that all of this was happening on the backdrop of early 1960’s Cold War tension with the U.S. and U.S.S.R, so the U.S. did not want any more countries too close to its borders to become another Cuba (a communist state), and give the Soviets yet another foothold so close to America. In this mindset, the decisions made over the next few years on the part of the U.S.G., particularly the CIA, make more sense. In the spring of 1960, the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Joseph Farland, established contact with a group of Dominican dissidents who wanted to overthrow Trujillo, whom Farland referred to as “moderate, Pro-Americans that want to establish a democratic form of government.” However, he left the D.R. in May 1960, but asked his Deputy-Chief-of-Mission, Henry Dearborn, to remain as the contact man between the CIA and the local dissidents. It became official, or rather ‘unofficial’ when Dearborn received cable on June 16, 1960 informing him that his role as “communications link” was now “unofficially” approved by the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-America Affairs Roy Rubottom.
Before returning to Washington in May, Farland was asked by some of the dissidents for a “limited number sniper rifles with telegraphic sight.” Farland agreed to pass on this request to Washington. He did ask for the weapons and actually received approval from both the State Dept. and the CIA. In July 1961, officials in the CIA felt that providing the weapons would prove useful in not only overthrowing Trujillo, but would also serve in building a close relationship with those who wanted to carry out the assassination, since it seemed they would take over once Trujillo was gone. As was stated in one memorandum, “providing the arms as requested would contribute significantly toward this end [of having closer relations].”
The CIA was going to air-drop twelve sterile (or untraceable) sniper rifles into the Dominican Republic at location, previously, suggested by Farland, but once Dearborn received the cable informing him of what was about to happen, the Dominican dissidents instructed Dearborn that they did not want to make any moves on Trujillo. The reasoning for this was that they felt Trujillo was about to be pressured to step down by the OAS (Organization of American States). Apparently Trujillo had a personal hatred for the Venezuelan leader, Rómulo Betancourt, and had tried to have him assassinated but failed. Betancourt went to the OAS, who “voted unanimously to sever diplomatic relations and to impose economic sanctions on the Dominican Republic.” The Dominican dissidents felt this would force Trujillo out of power and they would not have to risk themselves, but they were wrong in that he did not step down. As such, the sniper rifles were never delivered to the Dominican Republic.
In August 1960, with the sanctions now on Trujillo, the U.S. had removed most of its diplomatic personnel from the island. However, Dearborn remained as the Consul General and served as the CIA’s Chief of Station. Over the next few months, Dearborn reported the desire of the dissidents to continue their planning for the assassination of Trujillo to the CIA in addition to their need for the weapons to overthrow him. By the end of the Eisenhower Administration on January 19, 1961, Dearborn was informed that the Dominicans would be getting their new weapons and other materials. The next day, the Kennedy Administration would take office, and over the next few months, world events would soon play a major and dramatic role in how America would continue to be involved in the assassination of Trujillo.
The dissident leaders had actually flew to New York City and met with different CIA officials in February 1961. They requested a variety of accessories such as pistols, carbines, cameras, and few fragment grenades. They also talked about various ways that Trujillo might be assassinated such as planting bombs, remote detonating, ambushing his car, poisoning him, and direct assaults on him with firearms. One thing the dissidents made very clear to CIA officials was that they felt that the only way to successfully remove the Trujillo regime “would be his personal assassination.”
Over the next few months the CIA supplied Dearborn with a few pistols and three 30 caliber M1 carbines to give to the dissidents for the purpose of “personal protection.” Also, some machine guns arrived in March, but Dearborn was not ordered to give them to dissidents so they stayed in the station. Thus, for the next two months, the dissidents and Dearborn had to try to convince the CIA to let them use to weapons if they would have any good chance of pulling off a successful assassination attempt against the Dominican dictator.
The reason for this sudden hesitation on the part of America was because of what had recently aspired on another Caribbean island a few miles away, which would be regarded as one of the worst covert operation failures in America history--The Bay of Pigs Incident. The CIA had been conspiring with Cuban exiles to overthrow the newly formed Castro Communist State. However, due to some last minute tactic changes by President Kennedy, the whole mission ended bloodily. Many people were killed on both sides in the April of 1961. To make matters worse, the press got wind of the situation and exposed it to the whole world. In addition to failing, America’s image was tarnished as was the reputation of the American Intelligence Community. For these reasons of utter internationally known failure on the part of CIA and the Kennedy Administration, it was understandable that if they failed so badly at assassinating one Caribbean dictator that they would not want to try and go after another.
The Bay of Pigs fiasco might have deterred the CIA from wanting to be involved in the Trujillo plot. They even wanted the dissidents to hold off on carrying out their plans for a while, but the Dominicans were determined as ever to remove Trujillo. They said that this was their affair and they would not stop just because it was “inconvenient for the U.S.G.” As Dearborn reasoned and expressed to the CIA, they have already helped the dissidents to some extent and were already implicated, so they might as well continue to support them in order to provide the greatest chance for success.
With the assassination seeming imminent, the State Dept and CIA made the Kennedy Administration fully aware of what was about to transpire explaining how the CIA had supplied the weapons to the Dominican dissidents and what they had intended do with them. Kennedy, after meeting with his advisors, sent this cable to Dearborn on May 29, 1961, one day before the assassination took place:
We must not run risk of U.S. association with political assassins, Since the U.S. as matter of general policy cannot condone assassination. (Original emphasis was added) This last principal is overriding and must prevail in doubtful situations…Continue to inform the dissident elements of U.S. support for their position.
The next day Trujillo was assassinated by the same guns the CIA had previously given the Dominican leaders, knowing fully what they intended to do with them. Kennedy was in Paris when he heard about the assassination and would soon meet with top cabinet members to discuss what could happen next. Dearborn was called back to D.C. to join the meeting, where he explained that he understood Kennedy’s cable as meaning: “I don’t care if they kill him, just don’t get anything pinned on us, because we are not the ones doing it.” The world found out about the assassination soon after, and many suspected that the CIA was involved somehow. Nevertheless, no one could prove anything concretely because all of the documents were either confiscated by the CIA or destroyed by Dearborn. In terms of America, there was never any evidence that suggested that anyone was every reprimanded for the assassination. In fact, given the other recent failures of the CIA, many viewed this as a “success.”
As for the Dominicans, the D.R. President Joaquín Balaguer, who had been more of Trujillo’s political puppet, with no real power of his own, gradually moved the people into a more democratic style of government for the next few years. The Trujillo family themselves fled the country, taking the former dictator’s body with them to Paris, where they would live the rest of their lives. Trujillo’s son tried to carry on his father’s legacy as leader of the military, but it lasted a mere five months or so before he too fled to France. Moreover, this whole incident helped many people obtain their hard earned freedom from a tyrannical and brutal dictator.
Given everything that occurred with other missions, this one was considered a breath of fresh air, but it was recommended that CIA’s supplying of weapons and equipment be kept secret as it could have lead to another potentially embarrassing mark for America. Truly, when one takes a step back and looks at all the U.S.G.’s political agenda and its double-talk with Dominicans, one notices how they used the dissidents more than the dissidents used America. Trujillo had out lived his usefulness to the U.S. general political interest. As such, the necessary evil was no longer necessary, and all the U.S.G. needed was a means to remove him without having to do it themselves and getting caught. With the help of dissidents America had their scapegoats. In one sense, as Yuri Orlov may have put it, Trujillo’s ‘tomorrow’ had finally come.
Sources (the pasting for these didn't work out quite right in the blog, but here the all are):
Nicolas Cage, Lord of War, Directed by Andrew Niccol, Hollywood, CA: Lions Gate Films, 2005. Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Intelligence, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), pp 14.
Memorandum, Dearborn to HQ, 6/7/61, in documents found in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, America Republics, volume 12, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), pp 199.
Spartacus Education, Biography of Rafael Trujillo,
Michael R Hall, "The Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy in the Dominican Republic," Journal of Third World Studies 23, no. 1 (April 1, 2006): pp 13-16.
Personally overlooking the city lights under the stars above was truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. The view at night on the terrace while.
Special to the New York Times, "Trujillo Arrives in Capital on Visit,” New York Times, July 7, 1939, pp 2.
Quoted in Thomas G. Paterson et al., American Foreign Relationships: A History, volume 2, 4th ed. (Lexington: D.C. Health, 1995), pp 188.
Mark T. Gilder us, "Good Neighbor Policy," The Oxford Companion to United States History, Paul S. Boyer, ed. Oxford University Press 2001, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press, The Pennsylvania State University Library - Penn State, www.oxfordreference. com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t119.e0633, (accessed: Oct. 29, 2007).
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CIA memo, 7/1/60, US Senate Select committee to Study Government Operations with Respects on Intelligence Activities, Final Report, Supp. Reports on Intelligence Activities Book VI, 94th Congress, 1st session, 1975, pp 192.
Richard Bissell, 7/22/75, pp 69, US Senate Select committee to Study Government Operations with Respects on Intelligence Activities, Final Report, Supp. Reports on Intelligence Activities Book VI, 94th Congress, 1st session, 1975, pp 193.
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CIA MEMO for the record, 2/13/61, 2/16/61 US Senate Select committee to Study Government Operations with Respects on Intelligence Activities, Final Report, Supp. Reports on Intelligence Activities Book VI, 94th Congress, 1st session, 1975, pp 198.
Henry Dearborn, 7/29/75, 42-48, US Senate Select committee to Study Government Operations with Respects on Intelligence Activities, Final Report, Supp. Reports on Intelligence Activities Book VI, 94th Congress, 1st session, 1975, pp 201.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Intelligence, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), pp 180-183.
Henry Dearborn, 7/29/75, pp 52, US Senate Select committee to Study Government Operations with Respects on Intelligence Activities, Final Report, Supp. Reports on Intelligence Activities Book VI, 94th Congress, 1st session, 1975, pp 206.
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By The Associated Press, "Son of Trujillo Takes Command of Armed Forces," New York Time, June 2, 1961, sec. A, pp 1, 8.
Memo, Howard Osborn, Director of Security to Executive Secretary, CIA Management Committee, 8 May 1973, Identification of Activities with Embarrassment Potential for Agency, CIA Family Jewels documents, 00425.