Lately, the news has regularly demonstrated how the United States has fallen short of its ideals. The New York Times’ 1619 Project stirred controversy for reframing American history around the country’s early dependence on slavery, rather than its declaration of founding principles. The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan confirmed to the world that the U.S. failed in its mission to rebuild that country as a democracy. And the recent assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was a reminder that many of America’s historical foreign interventions also failed to live up to the nation’s professed principles, as with the 1915 U.S. military invasion after the assassination of another Haitian president, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam.
These issues are particularly difficult for hard-news journalists to navigate. What some readers see as plain-language descriptions of history and context, others perceive as evidence of bias. Jonathan Katz, a former Associated Press reporter in Haiti, has had to figure out that balance for himself. His time in Haiti during the devastating 2010 earthquake and its aftermath left him convinced that America bore some responsibility for the poor quality of life in the Caribbean country. Katz went on to write a book on the international community’s failure to respond to the 2010 disaster and another, forthcoming book on America’s interference in countries around the world during the early 20th century. But despite the evidence he can produce to justify using terms like occupation and colonialism, he’s found that some editors still shy away from those descriptions.
I talked with Katz about what it means to grapple with America’s past. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: As a country, we seem to be going through this moment where we’re reckoning with how we should understand and tell stories about the chapters in our history where the American project was used to justify abuse or enslavement or exploitation of less powerful people.
You were a reporter in Haiti during one of the low points in its history—a time of total devastation. And one of the things that really comes through in your writing is you’ve concluded that America’s involvement in Haiti shaped how bad things got.
How did you get to the point where you felt confident saying, as a statement of fact, that America’s involvement in Haiti was a form of colonialism?
Jonathan Katz: It wasn’t instantaneous. Even before I became a reporter, I knew that the United States had sometimes been a malign actor in the world. That wasn’t particularly news to me. But I would always approach accusations with skepticism. I still do, anytime anybody’s immediate answer to anything is, “Oh, the United States did that. It must’ve been the CIA.” Show me the receipts. But as a reporter, I have gone pretty deep into the evidence of a lot of different moments of American history and Haitian history. Sometimes those receipts were actually even reported at the time.
It was a radicalizing experience living in Haiti. It’s a stark place in terms of understanding how the world works.
Green: As a journalist, and specifically as a journalist who worked in Haiti for the Associated Press—the most “Just the facts, ma’am” wire service that exists—did you feel like you were allowed to use language that correctly labeled America’s involvement there, specifically words like colonialism?
Katz: Working for AP raised the bar on the amount of evidence I needed to produce to make any sort of claim. I think it ended up ultimately making my work stronger, and it makes me more confident in some of the perspectives that I came to.
I first moved to Haiti in 2007. I had spent two years before that in the Dominican Republic. And two years before I moved to the Dominican Republic was the coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president of Haiti.
The AP style was not to call it a coup. I believe the word was rebellion. I remember that being a really big deal.
Green: When you say “big deal,” what do you mean? Like: It was very clear that it was a coup, and you felt like you were having to be Orwellian?
Katz: I would just get a lot of, like, flak. I would get emails from people angry at me for having not referred to it as a coup. But by the time I moved there, even though it had only been three years, I just thought, Look, this is the style. It was really as I was looking back, as I was writing my first book and poring through these old clips, that I thought, This was a coup. That’s an appropriate word.
My principal job as an AP correspondent was to deal with what was happening around me in real time. And that was a full-time job. So to a certain extent, it makes sense that it was only when I started writing books and really started digging back into the history that I was able to get more precision.
Green: You wrote recently about an incident where you got an assignment for a national outlet—you don’t name it. You were supposed to be writing about the recent assassination of the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse. You used the word occupation to refer to the role that the U.S. Marines played in Haiti from 1915 to 1934. And your editor questioned you on that word.
As a caveat, I should say: I think there are a lot of well-educated Americans who don’t know much about the history of the U.S. presence in the Caribbean. And it’s an editor’s role to add nuance and push back and ask dumb questions.
Still, that story struck me because it seemed like you were encountering a reflexive resistance to telling the story straight. The assumption is that if you’re using this kind of loaded word, one that gets tossed around in academic circles, you’re not telling it straight. You’re bringing an accusatory, ideological lens to bear on history. Why do you think that reflexive desire to shy away from naming things exists at national outlets?
Katz: That period of time was officially called “the U.S. occupation of Haiti.” There are letters from occupation officials referring to themselves and saying, “On behalf of the American occupation, thank you for the fruit basket.” Stuff like that. That back-and-forth with this editor reflects a tendency to try to downplay the most egregious parts of America’s past. To a certain extent, we’re seeing that in domestic conversations as well with the 1619 Project and America’s history of racism.
This is how an empire has to operate. If you keep in mind all of these individual moments and string them together into a narrative, the conclusions that one can draw aren’t very friendly to self-identity and national identity—to the imperial project. I don’t think that there’s necessarily a room where the powers that be are sitting, making a decision, and saying, “Let us suppress these memories.” It’s a much more individual process. As an AP correspondent, I was part of that process. Nobody wrote me and said, “Thou shall not call the coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide by that name.” You don’t want to look ideological. You don’t want to look crazy.
As you said, most people in the United States, even well-educated people, don’t know about America’s history of empire in the Caribbean or Latin America or Asia or the rest of the world. The question to really ask is, “Why?” When people think about our history, they tend to think it goes: American colonial past, American Revolution, Civil War … and then there’s this blank space, and then World War II. Why is there this blank space? I honestly think that one major reason is that in this period, the United States was doing some really horrible things. And it is much easier just to ignore that period entirely than to confront that history.
With that editor, it was not just a back-and-forth over a single word. It was really the whole thrust. I was saying that, on balance, the United States has been a malign actor in Haiti, especially over the course of the 20th and the early 21st centuries. That idea was dead on arrival.
Green: One of the fundamental tensions in the debate around the 1619 Project, or in this fight with your editor, seems to be “Are you a patriot, or are you not? Are you someone who loves America, or are you not?” When a word like empire gets tossed around, the assumption is, “Oh, that guy is calling America an empire. He must hate America, because obviously America was founded to be the anti-empire.”
Do you think it’s possible to work from the place of being a patriot and still say it’s really important to look directly at these bad things that the United States has done around the world?
Katz: My story in America is like a lot of people’s. I’m primarily the great-grandson of immigrants who fled the pogroms of Russia to come to the United States and find safety and liberty and a chance of prosperity. We were the huddled masses. My great-grandfather, Aron Katz, didn’t know his birthday, so he made it the Fourth of July. To a great extent, I maintain that sense of America as a land of liberty. But living as I did in Haiti—being on the other end of American power and seeing the way that it was affecting people—the history is undeniable. The question is, “What do you do with that?”