Beyond  /  Antecedent

The Long, Sordid History of Foreign Government Lobbying

The many strategies foreign governments have used to shape American policy in their favor.

Perhaps the most significant case of a disreputable regime moving to shape American policy began when dictator Rafael Trujillo seized control of the Dominican Republic in 1930. Trujillo quickly endeared himself to segments of his nation’s population by reconstructing the capital after the 1930 San Zenón hurricane, paying off the Dominican Republic’s foreign debts, and adopting anti-Black policies. American State Department officials could not overlook that Trujillo assassinated opponents and their family members while demanding loyalty to his political party and payments from almost every enterprise in his country.

To counteract such views and obtain U.S. armaments, Trujillo spent the next three decades trying to mold U.S. public opinion and policy in his favor. To do so, he used lobbying, public relations, and other strategies, setting the standards for regimes seeking to cultivate beneficial relationships with members of Congress for years to come.

Trujillo’s agents first identified Congress as a necessary instrument to shape U.S. foreign policy in the late 1930s. In October 1937, the dictator encouraged the widespread slaughter of hundreds of Haitian workers and civilians during what became known as the Parsley Massacre. These atrocities sparked a wave of backlash that temporarily isolated the Dominican regime from the international community.

In an effort to stifle the cries coming from the U.S., Trujillo’s officials ordered diplomats to compare his racist, anti-Black policies to racism and segregation in the U.S. and used the lobbying services of Joseph Davies, a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Still, this did little to silence the passionate denunciations coming from, among others, New York Representative Hamilton Fish, Jr., and Massachusetts Senator David Walsh.

To silence such criticism, Trujillo’s officials established beneficial connections with Fish and Walsh that involved exchanges of money and goods. Fish received at least $25,000 from the dictator’s agents under the pretense of an oil-related investment, but the New York Representative spent the next years denying allegations of bribery

Walsh’s treatment differed a bit. Weeks after the Parsley Massacre, Trujillo welcomed him to the Caribbean nation. There, Walsh received what he estimated was at least $1,000 in cases of liquor and mahogany furniture. Far more valuable, though, were six mosaic tiles torn off the walls of the Iglesia de San Nicolás de Barí, built in 1503 as one of the Western Hemisphere’s first Catholic churches. More than trinkets and celebrations, religion was the perfect means through which the dictator could win over the Catholic Walsh.