Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy toward Latin America

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Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America

by Lars Schoultz

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. 480 pages. $19.95 (paperback)

The US quest for hegemony in Latin America

Spread the news! Serious books about US-Latin American relations are again in vogue. In recent years, prominent scholars including Lester Langley, Fredrick B. Pike, Peter H. Smith and now Lars Schoultz have published important studies. The volume under review may be the best of the group.

Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America is a labor of love, possessing an abundance of virtues despite several notable defects. Above all else, it is a delight to read. In nearly 200 years of relations with Latin America, US officials have said many foolish things. Schoultz records numerous such statements with great verve. It makes for compelling history.

In 1854, for example, the US Navy sloop Cyane bombarded the village of San Juan del Norte (Greytown) at the Caribbean outlet of Nicaragua's San Juan River. President Franklin Pierce defended the assault against local residents who had failed to make amends for unspecified attacks upon the honor of the United States: "By their obstinate silence, they seem rather desirous to provoke chastisement than to escape it."

Somewhat better known, but typical of the attitudes Schoultz captures throughout the book, are the words of Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes at the 1928 Havana Conference. Hughes defended the right of the United States to intervene on behalf of its enterprising citizens with these words: "Are we to stand by and see them butchered in the jungle . . .?"

These examples suggest the several themes of Beneath the United States. They include the attitude that Latin Americans are an inferior people, largely because of their mixed racial heritage, who deserve the treatment they receive from the United States; that the United States is entitled, because of security concerns and domestic political needs, to decide what is best for its neighbors; and that Latin America has no standing to question the economic objectives of US foreign policy.

Schoultz does his readers a service by commencing his story in the earliest days of the US-Latin American relationship. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the bete noire of Latin America in Schoultz's account, may have warned that there was "no community of interest or principles" between his country and its neighbors. Still, he and his less able successors were unable to refrain from meddling in a region they defined as their natural sphere of influence, however unproductive their efforts were likely to be.

For Schoultz, the quest for hegemony is a persistent theme in the history of US policy toward Latin America. Just as often, however, the objects of North American desire appear ungrateful. Theodore Roosevelt's exasperation with Cuba, US anger at Argentina's challenge to Washington's leadership in the hemisphere, and Henry Kissinger's denunciation of Chileans for irresponsibly exercising the franchise on behalf of Salvador Allende reflect the constancy of hegemony as a decisive factor in US policy.

Schoultz is far too good a storyteller and scholar, though, to cast this policy in crass, two-dimensional terms. Some US officials made a point of acknowledging the limits of foreign policy. His heroes, it seems, are Elihu Root, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.

As secretary of state, Root had the arduous task of keeping in check the worst impulses of the Republican Roosevelt. That Root succeeded as well as he did in preventing his nation from becoming an imperial power in the European fashion paved the way for President Hoover to address the liabilities of military intervention. …