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A Guatemalan insurgent surveys the landscape during a revolution backed by the U.S. government. The U.S. only got involved after the United Fruit Company lobbied Congress to protect their interests — and spent half a million dollars convincing America to go to war.
1954.George Silk//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
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Workers in Honduras — the country that writer O. Henry famously called the "Banana Republic" — harvest their product.
Bay Islands. 1952.Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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American soldiers show off a gun captured from Cacao rebels.
Cape Haitien, Haiti. 1915.Bettmann/Getty Images
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The bodies of the dead litter the fields of Guatemala.
In Guatemala, pro-democracy students led a revolution against a dictator with fascist leanings. Initially, this was a Guatemalan war — until the United Fruit Company lobbied the American government to intervene against the insurgents.
Santa Maria Cauque, Guatemala. 1954. Bettmann/Getty Images
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U.S. Marines proudly hold up the captured flag of Nicaraguan revolutionary leader Augusto César Sandino.
Nicaragua. 1932.Wikimedia Commons
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A U.S. Marine poses with the dead bodies of Haitian revolutionaries.
Haiti. 1915. Wikimedia Commons
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The body of Haitian revolutionary leader Charlemagne Péralte, killed by U.S. Marines.
Charlemagne was nailed to a door and photographed by the soldiers as a form of psychological warfare. This photo was taken by an American soldier.
Hinche, Haiti. 1919.Wikimedia Commons
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U.S. Marines patrol through the Haitian woods in search of guerrilla fighters.
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A banana plantation in Honduras.
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An Army vehicle is fitted with a machine gun in preparation for the Nicaraguan presidential elections.
The troops are expecting the people to riot when they hear the results, and they're getting ready to deal with it — with a weapon that can fire 450 rounds per minute.
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American soldiers defend a gate against Haitian revolutionaries.
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Political prisoners are put to work in Nicaragua.
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Political prisoners are put to work making chairs.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 1921.New York Public Library
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The reason we fight. Poorly paid foreign workers and a batch of bananas.
Suriname. Circa 1920-1930.Wikimedia Commons
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The American flag is displayed over Fort Ozama after it has been captured from rebel soldiers.
Domincan Republic. 1922.Wikimedia Commons
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"Time of peace, prepare for war," reads a display in a military training camp.
The Banana Wars: How The U.S. Plundered Central America On Behalf Of Corporations
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service,” an American veteran named Smedley Butler once wrote, “and during that period, I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers.”
Butler had fought in the so-called Banana Wars of the early 20th century, when the American military sent their troops south into Central America to keep their business interests there intact.
It was a time when mistreated workers across Central America were getting fed up with working long hours in harsh conditions for less than a living wage. Workers started grumbling. Some went on strike. Some threw together militias and waged full-on rebellions to fight for better conditions.
But for the American government, all this fighting for freedom was bad for business. Companies like the United Fruit Company had a vested interest in keeping their Central American plantations stable and so they called in the American Army to crack down on those who were disrupting the system.
Butler and other soldiers like him were thus sent to Central America to fight the Banana Wars. When a rebellion in the Dominican Republic, for example, damaged an American-owned sugar cane plantation, American troops were sent in, starting in 1916. They took over a small castle called Fort Ozama, killed the men inside and set up a military presence to protect their business interests.
Troops also moved into Haiti to quell the Cacao Rebellion in 1915, partly to protect the interests of the Haitian-American Sugar Company. The U.S. Army stayed behind even after the war was over, patrolling the streets of Haiti and making sure that no one got out of line.
And in Honduras, where the United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit Company were worried about their banana sales, the American Army marched in on seven separate occasions throughout the early 20th century. Sometimes the army was called in to crush strikes, other times to stop revolutions — but every time, it was to keep business booming.
Hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of locals died in the Banana Wars. Strikes and revolutions were crushed and put to an end – all while the profits of a handful of companies were maintained.
“I might have given Al Capone a few hints,” Butler said. “The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.