Gen. Leonard Wood in Cuba, 1899-1902

From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 15-17:

The most capable of the military governors was probably William Ludlow, governor of Havana, an engineer, who was sufficiently incensed at the wretched condition of the city that he advocated an American occupation “for a generation.” But the departmental commander with the best political connections was Brig. Gen. Leonard Wood, a physician and career soldier, governor of Santiago, who instituted a regime of cleanliness in the city and meted out public whippings to citizens who violated sanitary regulations….

In December 1899 [President McKinley] named Wood military governor of Cuba and instructed him to prepare the Cubans for independence…. Wood had uncommonly broad authority to accomplish that task. He was, wrote his biographer, “practically a free agent.” Ecstatically optimistic about his task, he declared to the press a few weeks after his appointment that “success in Cuba is so easy that it would be a crime to fail.”…

Wood was already demonstrating the “practical approach to nation building. He arose each morning at 5:30 and began a day of furious routine, signing directives, giving orders, hearing complaints, and undertaking inspections of schools, hospitals, road construction, and public projects. He would even investigate the routine operation of a municipal court. He ran the military government like an efficient plantation owner with a show so southern charm for his Cuban wards coupled with a Yankee sense of organization and efficiency. He died with the Cuban social elite and conversed with the lowliest guajiro (rural dweller) in the countryside. For sheer intensity of commitment, Wood was unmatched by any Cuban executive until Fidel Castro. Cubans who remembered the old three-hour workdays under the Spanish now had to adjust to Wood’s bureaucratic regime of 9:00 to 11:00, 12:00 to 5:00, six days a week. Wood’s office ran on a twenty-four-hour schedule, with the day-to-day business supervised by Frank Steinhardt, who later became U.S. consul and in 1908 took over Havana Electric Railway….

When Wood stepped down in May 1902 Cuba was not militarily occupied in the same way as, say, Germany after 1945, but it had already felt the imprint of American ways and techniques, expressed through a military regime and stern-minded physician turned professional soldier. Mindful of the biblical injunctions on cleanliness, Wood had proceeded to sanitize the island’s towns by strict regulations on garbage disposal (the Habaneros had always thrown their refuse in front of the house), paving the streets, and whitewashing the public places. Wood was convinced that filth explained Cuba’s epidemics of yellow fever, though an eccentric Cuban scientist (of Scottish ancestry), Dr. Carlos Findlay, argued correctly that the culprit was the mosquito. Wood’s vigorous sanitary campaign nonetheless probably helped control another Cuban scourge, typhoid.

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Filed under Cuba, democracy, disease, military, nationalism, Spain, U.S., war

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