In the 1930s, Professor Herbert Bolton asked the rhetorical question--do the Americas have a common history?--and answered it in the affirmative. Scholars and politicians have offered many different responses to that question, which usually reflect their judgment of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, the idea of that commonality is the underlying rationale for the OAS and the justification for U.S. policies toward Latin America, from the most engaging, the Good Neighbor Policy and the Alliance for Progress, to the more questionable efforts.
The course of events, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century, has put into question the essential unities of the Americas. Recently U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell remarked that "there is no region on Earth that is more important to the American people than the Western Hemisphere." While Europeans generally dismiss such references as eccentric expressions of American or Yankee "exceptionalism," there is little doubt that speculation about the ties that bind can still generate a lot of ink.
Two recent books that use as their starting point a consideration of the "Western hemispheric idea" are The Americas in the Modern Age, by Lester D. Langley, and Greater America: A New Partnership for the Americas in the Twenty-first Century, by L. Ronald Scheman. Professor emeritus of history at the University of Georgia, Langley has written extensively about the U.S. and the rest of the Western Hemisphere; he is the author of America and the Americas and the general editor of a series of books that investigates the relations between the United States and the individual nations of Latin America. Scheman was until recently the director general of the Inter-American Agency for Cooperation and Development and also served as the U.S. executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank. His previous books include The Inter-American Dilemma and the Alliance for Progress.
Langley suggests that the Americas as a continent have had an "uncommon history" when compared with the history of the rest of the world. Contrary to Bolton's premise, he affirms that it is not what the countries and people of the Americas have in common that binds them, but rather their cultural, political, and economic conflicts. Langley's historical analysis of U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean over the past 150 years identifies the experiences of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the determining factor for those relations. To demonstrate this, he articulates and contrasts two different, sometimes but not always conflicting visions of "America," that of U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt and Cuban writer and revolutionary Jose Marti. He refers to these throughout the book, as they clash and modify each other over the past century.
Scheman deals essentially with the past several decades, and as one might assume of a person who has spent much of his long career serving inter-American institutions, he accepts the validity of the Bolton thesis less critically. He is more intent in describing how much Latin America has changed and achieved since the financial crisis of 1982. If the Americas do not have a common history, do the nations of the Americas, as Scheman insists, have a common destiny? Scheman makes the case that U.S. economic policy toward Latin America, driven not by idealism but by smart policies and good business, will achieve what he assumes can be a common destiny and which he identifies as the "greater America" of the book's title. The entire book is an exhaustive argument for wise and forward-looking U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. It is not a "balanced analysis ... but a vision of the future that builds on the positive and constructive achievements of the hemisphere .... This book is an advocacy."
Langley offers an analysis of the trajectory and shifting directions of U.S. policy toward the rest of the Western Hemisphere from the early twentieth century, when liberal capitalism promised Latin American leaders continuous progress and prosperity. …