See you in C-U-B-A: Calvin Coolidge in Havana

Irving Berlin’s hit song, “See you in C-U-B-A,” popular in the 1920s, touted the “lively atmosphere” on the largest Caribbean island, exhorting would-be revelers to escape the land of Prohibition and to “travel with us on a train or a bus to Miami where we can begin to plan a wonderful trip on a plane or a ship that’ll take us from Florida to Havana – see you in C-U-B-A!” President Coolidge took that advice, but with a different purpose in mind.

President Coolidge attending a chirch service aboard the U.S.S. Texas

President Coolidge attending a church service aboard the U.S.S. Texas

On his only foreign visit, Calvin Coolidge went to Havana in early 1928 to address the Sixth Pan American Conference there. Coolidge and his delegation, which included Secretaries Kellogg and Wilbur, former Secretary Hughes and Ambassador Morrow as well as journalist/writer H.L. Mencken and humorist Will Rogers, had left Washington by rail (the “Coolidge Special”) on January 13 for Key West (not Miami!) and, having departed there on the battleship (and flagship of the U.S. Navy) U.S.S.Texas early on January 15, arrived at Havana on the afternoon of that same day. Along with hosting Cuban president Gerardo Machado, a large and enthusiastic crowd welcomed him there, celebrating the fact that his visit marked the first time a sitting U.S. president had put his foot not only on the soil of Cuba, but of any foreign nation on the American continent. Coolidge’s address on the occasion of the opening of the conference on January 16 also marked the first time that a U.S. president had thus spoken to a non-U.S. audience.

Coolidge’s address, hardly as sparse as might have been expected from “Silent Cal,” was remarkable for its courteous respect for the nations of the Americas, striking a theme of sovereignty and peaceable coexistence:

“Thirty years ago Cuba ranked as a foreign possession…. Today Cuba is her own sovereign. Her people are independent, free, prosperous and peaceful, enjoying the advantages of self-government…. What Cuba has done, others have done and are doing…. Among our republics… people have taken charge of their own affairs… an attitude of peace and goodwill prevails among our nations.”

He also stressed commercial ties, as U.S. investment in Latin America had almost tripled between 1920 and 1928, for better or worse closely enmeshing the economies of various nations with those of the U.S. For example, the United Fruit and Standard Fruit companies controlled most of the revenue of Honduras, and U.S. firms dominated Venezuelan oil production. Control of the Panama Canal and a policy of using troops, when necessary, to safeguard U.S. interests also worked to give the United States the upper hand in the region. In a direct show of influence, U.S. troops trained and maintained a pro-American National Guard in the Dominican Republic (withdrawn by Coolidge in 1924) and occupied Nicaragua and Haiti with a peacekeeping force of U.S. soldiers throughout the decade. To some extent, Americans also controlled Cuban politics and the Cuban economy, and the United States nearly came to blows with Mexico over the ownership of Mexican oil fields by American companies, a situation defused by Dwight Morrow as U.S. Ambassador.

The triennial conference in Havana was in fact a forum for Latin leaders to demand changes in American conduct. Thus, Coolidge’s appearance in Havana represented the extension of an olive branch. Besides Coolidge’s gracious speech, respected former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, serving as a special envoy, also gave a tour de force speech that persuaded the delegates to refrain from passing a strong anti-U.S. resolution. Afterward, Kellogg had his legal adviser J. Reuben Clark draft a white paper (the Clark Memorandum) that argued against direct military intervention in Latin America. It might be said that the Coolidge diplomacy represented an interim stage between unfettered economic and military intervention and the “Good Neighbor Policy” instituted by president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

Returning from Havana to Key West on the speedier cruiser Memphis, the president fell victim to a bout of seasickness; but once back on firm soil, all was well with him again as he rode the streets of Key West in an automobile, and later visited with Florida Governor John W. Martin in Jacksonville. Upon his return to Washington, he was no doubt gratified to learn that the Havana City Council had resolved to rename their city’s Seventeenth Street “President Coolidge Street.”

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