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SOUTHCOM History

Beginnings

For centuries, strategists and merchants in America, Great Britain, and elsewhere had dreamed of a canal joining the Atlantic and Pacific across the narrow land bridge of the Isthmus of Panama. In the 1880s, a French company began construction, but technical problems and epidemic tropical disease left it bankrupt. Panama was then a province of Colombia, wracked by chronic unrest and rebellion; in 1885, a battalion of U.S. Marines landed at Colón to restore order after rebels burned the town and took Americans hostage. In 1903, Panama declared independence, with U.S. backing. The United States recognized Panamanian independence on Nov. 6, and a treaty with the new government was signed on Nov. 18, giving the United States sovereignty over a Canal Zone 10 miles wide. Eleven years later, on Aug. 15, 1914, the canal officially opened to traffic, reshaping American maritime strategy and endowing the region with a much greater strategic value.

On Aug. 15, 1914, the canal officially opened to traffic, reshaping American maritime strategy and endowing the region with a much greater strategic value.

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt had added his own corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. He asserted that the United States would enforce order in a troubled hemisphere to “exercise international police power in flagrant cases of … wrongdoing or impotence.” European banks commonly extended unrealistic loans to regional leaders, expecting their own governments to enforce repayment through “gunboat diplomacy.” When Venezuela defaulted on German loans and ignored a German ultimatum demanding payment, the German navy blockaded the country, sank Venezuelan ships, shelled forts along its coastline, and landed troops. Roosevelt, worried that economic debt could become a pretext for the establishment of European bases in the Americas, pushed the Germans into arbitration with Venezuela and declared that the United States would intervene, as a last resort, to ensure that other nations in the Western Hemisphere fulfilled their obligations to international creditors. The following two decades saw Marine landings and U.S. occupation in Nicaragua (1909-1933), Honduras (1912), Haiti (1915-1934), and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924) for a variety of reasons. In addition, in 1916, Denmark sold the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix to the United States, adding to American interests in the Caribbean.

U.S. Army Infantrymen

U.S. infantrymen carry ammunition to a machine gun position, Panama, October 1942. Photo courtesy of the Panama Canal Company, National Archives

The years between World War I and World War II did little to change U.S. relations with Latin America. Along with continued interventions in the region, American business interests continued to grow. Just before World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the U.S. Caribbean Defense Command (1941-1947), an early version of a unified military organization designed to defend the Panama Canal and surrounding areas. Based in Panama, the command organized and implemented a regional defense program that included antisubmarine and counterespionage operations, and established U.S. military training missions throughout Latin America. It also distributed military equipment to regional partners through the Lend-Lease program, and opened U.S. service schools to Latin American soldiers, sailors, and aviators. At the height of World War II, the United States had assigned 135,000 uniformed personnel to duty stations in Latin America and the Caribbean, approximately half of whom were under the direct control of the U.S. Caribbean Defense Command.

During the war, Latin American nations not only provided the U.S. military bases, both to hunt German U-boats and provide transport links to West Africa, but a number also joined the Allied war effort. The Brazilian Expeditionary Force of more than 25,000 troops, for example, fought alongside U.S. forces in Italy during 1944-1945.

The Cold War and 
Expanded Responsibilities

After World War II, U.S. strategy in the region evolved beyond defense of the Panama Canal to embrace broader security responsibilities in Central and South America.

After World War II, U.S. strategy in the region evolved beyond defense of the Panama Canal to embrace broader security responsibilities in Central and South America. U.S. Caribbean Defense Command therefore became U.S. Caribbean Command (CARIBCOM) in 1947. With the name change came an expansion of the command’s area of responsibility (AOR) to include Central America (excluding Mexico), South America, the Caribbean Sea and islands, and a portion of the Pacific from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the Peru-Ecuador border. CARIBCOM’s mission set included the security of U.S. forces in Panama and the region, along with defense of the Panama Canal and its maritime approaches, but also reflected the beginning of the Cold War and growing threat of communist-backed insurgencies in the region. Under the U.S. government’s Military Assistance Program, begun in 1951, military ties between the United States and nations of the region were strengthened to improve readiness. CARIBCOM only rarely had to respond to military threats during this period, especially after the Pentagon handed over responsibility for much of the Caribbean to the U.S. Atlantic Command (LANTCOM) in 1956. However, the region continued to be prone to natural disasters, and disaster relief – a secondary CARIBCOM mission – came to the fore. In 1949, Ecuador suffered a magnitude 6.8 earthquake, and the command coordinated an airlift of 41 tons of relief supplies to affected areas. In March 1953, CARIBCOM returned to Ecuador after severe flooding severed road and rail links between the country’s two major cities, Quito and Guayaquil. The command airlifted 657 tons of relief supplies from the Canal Zone to Ecuador, and established an air bridge between the two cities until U.S. Army combat engineers could clear roadways and repair rail lines. Nearly a year and a half later, in September 1954, CARIBCOM evacuated victims and coordinated delivery and distribution of 50 tons of relief supplies and water purification equipment to Honduras after flooding from Tropical Storm Gilda destroyed thousands of acres of banana plantations and left 3,000 homeless. In October 1954, the command, coordinating with LANTCOM, delivered relief supplies to Haiti after Hurricane Hazel. The following year, CARIBCOM coordinated an airlift of relief supplies to Costa Rica after heavy flooding, as it did in Colombia in November 1955. In January 1956, the command airlifted several tons of medicine and medical equipment to aid Argentina during a polio epidemic. In 1960, CARIBCOM went to the aid of Peru (earthquake), Brazil (flooding), and Chile (earthquake).

The first UNITAS (United International Anti-Submarine) exercise, initially coordinated by LANTCOM, was also held in 1960. This cooperative annual exercise joining the navies of the Americas and the Caribbean has continued ever since. The initial intent of UNITAS – training to better defend the hemisphere against the Soviet threat – has changed over the intervening years to an exercise based on training together to counter the challenges of today.

U.S. Military Assistance

A U.S. military advisor instructs students on the use of engineering equipment in Bolivia, July 1963. During World War II and the early years of the Cold War, U.S. military efforts in Latin America concentrated on conventional security matters. In the 1960s, the U.S. military focus shifted toward civic action and counterinsurgency programs. National Archives photo

The arrival of President John F. Kennedy in the White House in 1961 forever changed American relations with Latin America. The abortive Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis focused American attention on the proximity of a socialist Cuba in the Caribbean, and the administration’s Alliance for Progress program sought to aid development in Latin America in order to begin to remedy widespread poverty and income inequality that could inflame pro-communist movements.

The abortive Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis focused American attention on the proximity of a socialist Cuba in the Caribbean, and the administration’s Alliance for Progress program sought to aid development in Latin America in order to begin to remedy widespread poverty and income inequality that could inflame pro-communist movements.

In an attempt to better coordinate military operations in Latin America, the Kennedy administration decided to make CARIBCOM into a unified command focused on protecting U.S. interests in the region. The CARIBCOM designation improperly identified a command whose Caribbean responsibility had been handed to LANTCOM and whose dominant concerns now rested with Central and South America. On June 11, 1963, the administration redesignated CARIBCOM as U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Concurrently, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara elevated SOUTHCOM to a four-star command. Defense of the Panama Canal (where the command was based) remained SOUTHCOM’s top priority, but the command’s mission set expanded to include contingency planning for Cold War activities, administering the U.S. foreign Military Assistance Program in Latin America, and undertaking civic action projects with partner-nation personnel to aid regional development under the Alliance for Progress initiative.

Honduran Soldiers

Honduran soldiers arrive in the Dominican Republic, 1965. National Archives photo

From the early 1960s, military assistance evolved from preparing for conventional warfare to concentrating on civic action and counterinsurgency. One of the first flashpoints occurred in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s, a result of the disputed national elections following the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo. By early 1965, the constitutional government faction had requested U.S. military assistance, which President Lyndon B. Johnson approved over the objections of virtually all of his civilian and military foreign policy advisers. On April 28, 1965, elements of XVIII Airborne Corps, including units of the 82nd Airborne Division and 7th Special Forces Group, began a yearlong occupation of the Dominican Republic under Operation Power Pack. Following negotiation of a peace settlement between the opposing parties, the last U.S. personnel left the country in 1966. A multinational peacekeeping force, drawn from member states of the Organization of American States (OAS), replaced them. The peacekeeping operation, known as Operation Push Ahead, included troops from Brazil, Honduras, Paraguay, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

By early 1965, the constitutional government faction had requested U.S. military assistance, which President Lyndon B. Johnson approved over the objections of virtually all of his civilian and military foreign policy advisers. On April 28, 1965, elements of XVIII Airborne Corps, including units of the 82nd Airborne Division and 7th Special Forces Group, began a yearlong occupation of the Dominican Republic under Operation Power Pack.

Disaster relief operations continued as always. SOUTHCOM responded to fires in Brazil in 1963; returned with food and medical supplies after flooding in 1964; airlifted medical teams and supplies to Bolivia in 1964 during an epidemic of hemorrhagic fever; and responded at “home” when Panama was lashed by a tropical storm. From 1965 to 1968, SOUTHCOM provided assistance following earthquakes that struck Chile, El Salvador, Peru, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Throughout the decade, the command responded to flooding, drought, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...