In the late summer of 1940, 70 years ago, it looked all but inevitable that Winston Churchill’s Britain would fall to Nazi Germany. The Dunkirk evacuation had narrowly averted utter disaster, but German air superiority and Hitler’s control of continental Europe left Britain vulnerable and isolated. The Soviet Union had not yet abandoned its pact with Germany, and only help from the United States seemed to offer any glimmer of hope.
The Americans, though, were decidedly reluctant to ride to Britain’s rescue. Neutrality and “isolationism” were more popular politically than the idea of getting involved in another European conflict. That, at least, was the starting position of the Roosevelt administration, which knew that fighting distant wars was a certain recipe for electoral defeat.
And yet the United States distrusted Germany and suspected that a victorious Hitler would eventually turn his attentions to the Western Hemisphere. In particular, American strategists feared that in the event of a British defeat, the UK’s colonies in the Caribbean would in their turn fall to the Germans, providing them with a toehold in the US’s “backyard”.
So it was that on September 2, 1940 the United States and Britain signed an agreement that would have a profound effect on many Caribbean territories – but nowhere more so than Trinidad & Tobago. The deal, known as the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, was this. The British desperately needed naval reinforcements to defend shipping and supply convoys from German submarine attacks. The US Navy signed over 50 superannuated destroyers known as “four-stackers” (because they had four chimneys), of which 43 went directly to the Royal Navy and seven to Canada. In return the UK government agreed to lease to the US land various colonial territories for use as naval or airforce bases.
The leases were set at 99 years and were rent-free. They gave the Americans the right to build and maintain bases in Newfoundland (today part of Canada), Bermuda, the Bahamas, Antigua, Jamaica, St Lucia, British Guiana, and Trinidad & Tobago. In other words, the US military obtained a network of facilities that stretched all the way down the Caribbean archipelago. Added to their possessions in Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands and direct interests in Cuba, the agreement reinforced US control over the strategically vital approach to the Panama Canal. Little wonder that the young Eric Williams pointedly remarked that the Caribbean had suddenly become the “American Mediterranean”.
In the judgment of Time magazine: “Trinidad is the southern spearhead, where defence is most urgent because it lies athwart the most practicable route for an enemy move from Dakar in western Africa, thence to some landing point on the eastern hump of South America, and northward to the Canal Zone, Central America, the US itself.”
Work began in earnest on the US bases the following year. There were two main installations, the deep-water harbour at Chaguaramas and inland Cumuto (where the base was known as Waller Field), but according to the excellent www.trinoutdoors.com, there were no fewer than 225 US sites in Trinidad, many amounting to nothing much more than a quarry or storage facility. Some local people were immediately affected, promptly ejected from their homes and farms as construction work began. Beaches were closed and ruled off-limits. There was certainly friction between certain communities and what could easily be seen as an occupying force of mostly white American personnel.
This, though, was just part of the story. The arrival of some 25,000 US troops and workers on an island of barely half a million inhabitants was bound to create confrontation, but it also provided opportunities, excitement and, above all, change. This is the theme of Harvey R Neptune’s fascinating account of the period 1941 – 47, Caliban and the Yankees, which describes the extraordinary social ferment of those years.
A colony neglected by the “mother country” and already reeling from recent riots, Trinidad & Tobago already had a strong pro-independence movement before war broke out. Ties with Britain were loosening, and people were hungry to escape the torpor of colonial rule. The influx of Americans with their dollars offered that escape for many and a tantalising taste of a very different way of life.
Thousands of Trinidadians got jobs on the bases, earning much better money than before. Racism among the US forces was present, but less so than among the colony’s old white elite, who, according to Neptune, resented the easy relations between Americans and black Trinidadians. For many locals in a pre-TV age, this was their first exposure to American manners and popular culture – and it proved an exhilarating experience. Fashions, tastes in food, popular music were all changed for ever. Anything American was desirable.
With the advent of thousands of young, unattached men, prostitution flourished, and rates of recorded venereal disease skyrocketed. But many local women simply wanted the thrill of a foreign – and preferably generous – boyfriend, and many a young local male felt the jealousy and resentment expressed in the popular calypso “Rum and Coca-Cola”:
Since the Yankee come to Trinidad
They got the young girls all going mad
Young girls say they treat ’em nice
Make Trinidad like paradise
The brashness and exuberance of the American presence was a breath of fresh air for many Trinidadians, even if it upset the wealthier, more conservative segments of society. The large-scale military development also boosted the local economy, previously badly hit by wartime austerity, and raised living standards and expectations to new levels. It was a boom time, an earlier version of the oil-rich 1970s.
Yet by the end of the war, the US “occupation” had also become an irritant to Eric Williams and other nationalists who wanted an end to foreign domination of all sorts. It was now only a matter of time before the British abandoned their Caribbean colonies. The politics of the immediate post-war period would be dominated by Williams and his demand for the Americans to leave Chaguaramas – which they finally did in 1967 after a scaling-back in 1956.
In that year the Mighty Sparrow had performed perhaps his most famous calypso, which captured the sadness of some – and no doubt relief of others – that the friendliest of occupations was drawing to a close:
Well, the girls in town feeling bad
No more Yankees in Trinidad
They going to close down the base for good
Them girls have to make out how they could