Feature Review: JFK, Democracy, and U.S. Security Policy in the Americas
“This hemisphere is our home. This is where we live. These people are our neighbors. If we can’t make it work here, where we live, how can we expect to make it work anywhere else?”
So lamented President Lyndon Baines Johnson to Secretary of State Dean Rusk shortly after the assassination of Johnson’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy. “It” was the crucial task of balancing the promotion of social reform in Latin America with long-standing economic interests and perceived security concerns.
Johnson’s genuine anguish was certainly warranted. From the perspective of official Washington in late 1963 and early 1964, hopes for a decade of political liberalism and rapid economic development, reflected in the charter of the Alliance for Progress, seemed elusive. The Alliance itself appeared virtually rudderless; the frequently asked question “What are we going to do about Cuba?” had lost none of its salience; and the forces of oppression and reaction in the region were perhaps stronger than at any time since the early 1930s. What had gone wrong? Why was the United States unable to transform Latin America into the laboratory for democracy that had been an objective of U.S. officials since early in the century?
Scholars have recently grappled with this vital issue in a number of interesting ways. None has done so as succinctly or insightfully as Stephen G. Rabe. The publication of The Most Dangerous Area in the World marks a major contribution to the historiography of U.S. foreign relations. It is, quite simply, U.S. diplomatic history at its best. Rabe accords primacy to political, economic, and strategic matters, addressing important issues like ideology and culture within that framework. He succeeds so well at his task that he must now be considered among the most able American historians of his generation, field notwithstanding. The volume under review deserves a reception similar to that accorded such studies as Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town or Patricia Nelson Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest. Also, The Most Dangerous Area in the World reveals more about the Kennedy administration’s relations with Latin America than any other book and in the process compels a reassessment of liberal internationalism as the ideological foundation of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, in order to explain U.S. actions as a global power scholars can no longer minimize the importance of the Western Hemisphere.
It is this latter achievement that is ultimately the most noteworthy. Although concerned exclusively with Kennedy and the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere, Rabe’s book displays a profound understanding of power, its uses, and consequences in the twentieth century, the century of total war. So much so that its author should now occupy a place in the tradition of revisionist intellectual inquiry about U.S. foreign policy that runs from Charles A. Beard through William Appleman Williams to Thomas G. Paterson (Rabe’s mentor).
Rabe’s examination of Kennedy’s Latin American policy culminates with a cogent and withering assessment of the inherent limits of the Alliance for Progress. It follows six chapters in which he subjects to similar scrutiny the basic characteristics of administration policy. From the outset Rabe carefully constructs an edifice that will finally bury the myth of the liberal-minded, socially progressive thirty-first president. In the first chapter, “Origins,” he notes that Kennedy believed that U.S. security depended on winning the Cold War in Latin America. The problem, of course, was not only to decide what constituted victory but also to make sure that losing was impossible. If losing meant averting a replication of Castro’s success at all costs, then the administration’s commitment to democracy was inevitably disingenuous. It is indicative of the subtlety with which Rabe argues his case that readers will wonder whether Kennedy actually believed in the “lost chance” thesis of the Cuban revolution that he evidently articulated during the 1960 presidential campaign (p. 13). If Kennedy did believe that overtures to Castro could have altered the subsequent course of history, Rabe makes it clear that candidate Kennedy did not understand why Castro’s revolution had succeeded.
It must be noted, as Rabe rightly points out, that Kennedy made a special effort to understand Latin America but did so only “within the context of the history of twentieth-century inter-American relations” (p. 198). That proviso meant that stability and preventing revolution were always the most important outcomes of the policymaking process. Too often from January 1961 to November 1963, for instance, the United States pursued stability in its traditional sphere of the Caribbean with a kind of New Frontier-style gunboat diplomacy. With U.S. Navy warships at the ready – sometimes backed by activities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), though sometimes not – the United States meddled in the internal affairs of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The results were hardly salutary. The military overthrow in September 1963 of Juan Bosch, whose anti-Communist bona fides the administration doubted, destabilized Dominican politics in the name of internal stability. In April 1965 U.S. troops intervened to restore order, much to the dismay of friends throughout the hemisphere. Likewise in Haiti, strategically located astride the Windward Passage, the United States strongly opposed the brutal regime of Fran_ ois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and pressured him to leave office. Authorities in Washington feared that Haiti might become another Cuba in the Caribbean. Yet there existed no liberal or moderate alternative to Duvalier who could guarantee the stability they so desired. Like numerous Latin American strongmen from Mexico’s Venustiano Carranza onward, Duvalier would somehow have to be digested. In Rabe’s apt assessment concerning the dilemma U.S. officials created for themselves, “Their fear of Castro and communism tempered their zeal for democracy and reform” (p. 48).
Accompanying the willingness to resort to gunboat diplomacy in the Caribbean was the determination to engage in extended destabilization campaigns in Guatemala and the Southern Cone nations of Argentina and Brazil. In each of these instances the United States sided with local military forces on the pretext of preventing civic disorder. The putative sin of President Arturo Frondizi in Argentina was that he had failed sufficiently to distance himself from Castro even while seeking development aid from the United States. Rabe shows how extremely perilous it was for Frondizi to pursue a partly independent foreign policy in Latin America. Argentina changed course in February 1962 by breaking its ties with Havana, yet Frondizi’s days in power were numbered. He had seriously erred in welcoming the Peronists, potentially a destabilizing element, into Argentina’s political mainstream. Tellingly, the United States refused to criticize the military when it removed Frondizi from power in March 1962. Ties to the Argentine military soon strengthened, which “meant more to the Kennedy administration than preserving democracy” (p. 63). The negative consequences for democracy in Argentina (and elsewhere) would be long felt.
Nor was President João Goulart’s government in Brazil able to “cure the ...administration of its obsession with Cuba” (p. 67). Most U.S. authorities opposed Goulart from the moment he ascended to power in 1961. His affinity for the Brazilian left and refusal to sever relations with Cuba were unacceptable to the White House. The CIA dissented, depicting Goulart instead as an opportunist and refusing to believe his ideological radicalism. Nevertheless, relations between the United States and Brazil’s military and conservative politicians grew closer until April 1964 when the military, with the U.S. naval forces nearby, deposed Goulart, thereby ushering in an era of repression that destroyed democracy in Brazil for many years.
Even worse than the readiness to countenance the eclipse of democracy in the Southern Cone was the decision to extend U.S. military assistance to the military in Guatemala after the overthrow of President Miguel Yidígoras Fuentes in March 1963. However strong they were, the anti-Communist credentials of Yidígoras were insufficient in the eyes of U.S. officials. The seizure of power by Guatemala’s brutal military, abetted by the counterinsurgency training sponsored by the Office of Public Safety in the Department of State’s Agency for International Development, would forcibly politicize the Mayan population and result in more than two hundred thousand deaths over the next three decades. As President William Jefferson Clinton’s apology to the people of Guatemala in March 1999 makes clear, there was blood on the hands of U.S. government officials for their Guatemalan policy commencing in the early 1960s, if not as early as 1954.
Concerns about the spread of Cuban influence inexorably led to the enunciation of the so-called Kennedy Doctrine less than one week before the president’s death. Differences with Great Britain over the fate of Cheddi Jagan in British Guiana gave the doctrine its immediate raison d’être. At a June 1963 meeting with British officials at Birch Grove, England, Kennedy warned that independence for the left-leaning Jagan’s government might lead to global conflict, whereupon he called Latin America “the most dangerous area in the world” (p. 91).
Seen either as tragic misperception or harsh reality, that depiction does not seem far-fetched. From the administration’s vantage point, it was prudent to view the hemisphere through Cuba-colored glasses. Rabe consistently shows how the obsession with Cuba undermined lofty, liberal U.S. social and political objectives throughout much of the region. Yet if Latin America had become a dangerous threat to U.S. political, economic, or strategic interests, it is clear that U.S. actions, more than revolutionary adventurism by its island adversary, contributed to the construction and development of a hemispheric danger zone.
Rabe’s history is too finely textured merely to villify the Kennedy administration at every turn. In Venezuela, Chile, and Peru, for instance, it did endeavor to take seriously its commitment to promote social justice and defend constitutional principles, both of which were embodied in the creation of the Alliance for Progress. Even the best of intentions often went awry, however. No leader in Latin America mixed the promise of reform and anticommunism better than Rómulo Betancourt in Venezuela. Yet his government crushed its radical opposition.U.S. assistance flowed freely, and Venezuela’s political scene remained stable if not truly democratic. Hence, “Betancourt probably ensured that he could never follow the lofty goals of the Alliance for Progress” (p. 108).
Chile, also designated by Washington as a showcase for the Alliance, was ruled by conservative Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez, whose reluctance to embrace the Alliance’s social goals alarmed U.S. authorities. The Christian Democratic Party led by Eduardo Frei Montalvo benefited from covert U.S. aid in preparation for the 1964 election – a thinly disguised effort to quash Salvador Allende Gossens and the constitutional left. In the early 1970s, continued covert support for domestic opponents of Allende would contribute to the dismantling of democracy in Chile.
In mid-July 1962, the White House denounced the seizure of power by Peru’s military, a golpe that blocked the rise to power of pro-Alliance elements. Washington briefly broke relations with the new government. The foreign business community in Peru was far less upset by developments, though. U.S. officials deferred to this perspective by resuming diplomatic relations and restoring military aid within three months, at exactly the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Rabe concludes that capitulation to the forces of authoritarianism in Peru led “other military men in Latin America [to] quickly [surmise] that they could wait out the United States” (p. 122).
It must be said that the organization of the book adds to the impact of Rabe’s interpretation. He never lets Cuba dominate his narrative even though Washington’s concern with revolutionary adventurism is the sine qua non of his analysis. Indeed, there is no single chapter devoted to Kennedy’s policy toward Cuba, a topic with its own extensive scholarly literature – especially concerning the missile crisis. It is not coincidental that Rabe leaves for last the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy’s first major initiative in the hemisphere. Given the readiness to sacrifice democracy for the illusion of order, the Alliance never had a chance, as previous chapters demonstrate. About Kennedy’s pet project, Rabe concludes, “Perhaps the best thing that could be said about the Alliance was that the infusion of money helped Latin America postpone the economic and financial disasters that hit the region in the 1980s” (p. 172).
Rabe’s analysis of the Alliance incorporates a subtle, materialist perspective into his overall interpretation of how and why Kennedy decided to confront Communist revolution. The Alliance represented a form of liberal internationalism. Yet U.S. policymakers evidently did not understand, and perhaps ultimately did not care, what the consequences of promoting Alliance-driven internationalism could mean for the many poor in Latin America. Economic development in the early 1960s portended rapid urbanization and the growth of a labor-intensive service sector economy in much of the region. Without population control urban growth would surely perpetuate the gulf between poor and rich and render impossible the objectives of social reform and democratization. U.S. officals did not calculate the human costs of Alliance-influenced economic progress.
Likewise, the terms of trade for Latin American commerce did not markedly improve in the early 1960s, at which time fierce competition was reducing the region’s share of global trade. U.S. leaders split over the need for commodity price supports and tariff preferences. Also, the availability of capital through direct foreign investments, to prime the pump of development, rose in absolute terms in the 1960s, especially at the end of the decade, but declined as a percentage of total U.S. international investment. Leftist Latin Americans believed that the United States sought to further its hegemony over the region by means of trade and capital investment. While not fully accepting the view of these dependency theorists, Rabe remarks that “Kennedy and his advisors [at times] undercut the Alliance by choosing security and stability over change and development” (p. 168). In economic terms, he finds that U.S. officials failed to support structural reform of a mostly rural economy, choosing instead to foster technical modernization and the global commercialization of agriculture.
Rabe finally concludes that confronting revolution mutilated Kennedy’s high ideals and noble purposes. In the starkest terms, a postindustrial society like the United States could not easily transform dramatically different cultures like those in Latin America. What makes The Most Dangerous Area in the World such an important book is that inevitability rather than tragedy best characterizes the limits of U.S. foreign policy. That U.S. objectives in Latin America met a fate similar to the goals of other great powers throughout modern history challenges the presumptive faith in exceptionalism that has formed the core of the liberal internationalist project of the United States throughout the twentieth century. The United States under Kennedy went beyond his predecessors, who largely focused their attention on the Caribbean, and sought to remake nearly all of Latin America in its image. The effort failed, and we now have this superb book explaining why.