Guantánamo Bay
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2017

Though the United States gained a powerful position in the Caribbean basin following the Spanish-American war of 1898, it was not until that war’s aftermath that American leaders looked closely at projecting power in the region. In 1900, influential naval thinker Alfred Thayer Mahan published The Problem of Asia, a book that tremendously impressed at least one of his readers, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt.

Mahan pointed to China as an enormous potential market for American products, following the “Open Door” policy inaugurated in 1899. He noted that a canal across Central America would give American merchants enormous advantages over their European rivals. The canal, in turn, would have to be protected by bases in and around the Caribbean Sea. European nations would have to be kept out of the region, Mahan preached, lest they threaten the canal and in turn this valuable potential trade between the American East Coast and China. Thanks to the distances involved, the U.S. Navy did not need overall numerical superiority to muster a regional advantage against European interlopers.

Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in 1901, following the assassination of William McKinley by an anarchist. He quickly set to work to carry out Mahan’s vision. The United States negotiated an agreement with Colombia, which then ruled Panama, for a canal across the isthmus there. The Colombian representative agreed on a price, but the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty, desiring more money. Not being one to give up so easily, Roosevelt ordered that a revolution be engineered in Panama. No land communications existed between Panama and Colobia proper, and with the U.S. Navy preventing reinforcements from landing in Panama the revolutionaries were soon successful — with the help of U.S. Marines. The revolutionaries immediately accepted the deal Colombia had spurned.

With a canal assured, the waterway would need protection. Mahan had recommended Jamaica as the ideal central location for a naval base to control the Caribbean, but acknowledged that the island’s British rulers might not be willing to part with it. As an alternative he suggested the southeastern coast of Cuba, somewhere near the port of Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba lies at the head of a long and narrow channel, and in 1898 a Spanish squadron had been easily annihilated by the Americans waiting outside, as each Spanish ship had to make the passage individually and be met by the combined fire of the American fleet. Nearby, Guantánamo Bay presented a much better site. American troops had landed there during the campaign to capture Santiago de Cuba, and American’s first casualties of the war had taken place there when two Marines were killed.

CIA map of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station.

The Cuban government proved a much more pliable negotiating partner than the Colombians. McKinley had overseen the insertion of the Platt Amendment into the Cuban constitution in 1901, making its acceptance a condition of Cuban independence and the withdrawal of American troops. This clause gave the United States the right to set Cuba’s relations with foriegn governments, including that of the United States. The Cubans had no choice but to sign the lease Roosevelt presented them: The United States would hold the 45-square-mile property in perpetuity, for the rental fee of 2,000 gold coins per year. The agreement handed the land to the Americans to “do any and all things necessary to fit the premises for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose.”

The Platt Amendment was finally repealed in 1934, and a new lease was negotiated to adjust the payment for inflation. Otherwise it followed the prior agreement, including the “no other purpose” clause, and clarified that the lease could not be broken without the agreement of both governments.

Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the base’s existence became a sore point of U.S.-Cuban relations, with Fidel Castro’s government making repeated demands for its return. Castro cut off land communications in 1964, and the base currently supplies its own water and power, with much of the latter coming from a new set of high-tech wind turbines. The United States continues to pay its rent, but the Castro government has not cashed any of the checks since 1959. The Castro government claims to reject the lease terms, but American lawyers point to Castro’s having cashed the first rent check as signalling acceptance.

Interpreting the “naval base” clause very broadly, in 1991 the U.S. began making use of the territory for purposes the lease clearly never intended, housing 34,000 Haitian refugees there. More recently, the base has become internationally known as a site where prisoners from the U.S. “War on Terror” are held. Legal skirmishing continues as to the status of these prisoners and the legality of their imprisonment; the United Nations and the European Union have both requested that the prison be closed. Years after Barack Obama promised to close the facility, it remains in operation.

The combined Atlantic and Pacific fleets exercise at Guantánamo Bay, 1910.

For its first decades, the base at Guantánamo served its stated purpose, serving as a coaling station located conveniently between the Panama Canal and the Navy’s East Coast bases. It did not have repair facilities, relying on mobile repair ships while the fleet was on station there, but did have a large and well-sheltered anchorage and soon acquired a large hospital. Soon the Atlantic Fleet was deploying to the site every January for winter maneuvers. The ships exercised in the waters of the Windward Passage and sometimes deeper into the Caribbean.

In January 1913 the maneuvers for the first time included aircraft, as the entire Navy aviation establishment joined the fleet for eight weeks at Guantánamo Bay, setting up the “Aviation Camp” that eventually grew into McCalla Field, now closed. Winter maneuvers continued at Guantánamo Bay every year until World War II.

In U.S. Navy Plan Gold, Guantánamo Bay is the strategic Amercain base foreseen by Roosevelt and Mahan. Ships based there can easily intercept French fleets trying to proceed from their bases at Martinique and Guadeloupe toward the Panama Canal, and it’s a very useful refueling stop for ship hunting French raiders in the Caribbean basin. It commands the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola, and fleets can easily operate from there either north or south of the barrier presented by the islands of the Greater Antilles. And given its location on a foreign island and lack of permanent facilities, it’s not a particularly tempting target for French attack; the American public will be far less sensitive to bombardments of Guantánamo Bay than of Miami. They just don't care what happens there. Mahan knew his Americans.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.