Michael Grow. U.S. Presidents and Latin American Interventions: Pursuing Regime Change in the Cold War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008. xiv + 266 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-1586-5.
Reviewed by David Sheinin (Trent University)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2011)
Commissioned by Dustin Walcher
It’s the President, Stupid! Decision Making in Cold War Interventionism
Michael Grow tells his readers early that this will be a “fresh interpretation of the root causes of U.S. interventionism in the Western Hemisphere during the Cold War--a reconceptualization that seeks to move the historiography of hemispheric interventionism beyond old orthodoxies of ‘security versus economics’” (p. xiii). It is that, in addition to a rich, fast-moving historical synthesis, that works extremely well. Grow has produced a wonderfully readable overview of U.S. interventionism in Latin America during the Cold War, with each key intervention laid out as a chapter. This is not a history of the interventions themselves or of historical context outside of one very specific objective: Grow is concerned with showing how and why presidents made decisions to intervene. The author makes a compelling case that repeatedly the buck stopped with the president. There are few surprises. In a Cold War context, U.S. presidents broke from a focus on the Soviet Union at key moments to intervene in Latin America. They announced that national security was at stake when there was no real danger to U.S. interests. The presidential decision to intervene in Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1961), British Guiana (1963), the Dominican Republic (1965), Chile (1970), Nicaragua (1981), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989) was always the result of a combination of domestic U.S. political factors, presidential muscle flexing, Cold War power politics imperatives, and a sense that there was a strong, imminent threat to security.
Much of Grow’s skill lies in his mastery and ordering of information and analysis with which many readers will already be familiar. At the same time, the scholarship has moved past some of the assumptions that drive Grow’s approach, like the orthodoxy of “security versus economics” as a policy imperative binary. Here and elsewhere, Grow is treading over familiar ground in highlighting the work of revisionists and postrevisionists as he searches for lessons in the longstanding failure of U.S. Cold War foreign policies. He does not address the work of a host of authors who have discussed a range of measures by which we might reasonably assess a number of the problems raised. Moreover, Grow asserts that he is concerned with the roles of Latin American and Caribbean actors in U.S. decisions to intervene (what he calls intervention by invitation). However, he draws on no Spanish language sources, no Latin American or Caribbean primary documents, and only a small handful of analyses of national historical processes outside the United States that framed intervention in the hemisphere.
Chapter organization is chronological, by intervention. In that ordering, there is a puzzle. Why does the U.S. role in the 1973 overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende merit no chapter and no significant place in the volume? At the same time, why did Grow include a chapter on the much less historically significant U.S. intervention in the 1970 Chilean election that brought Allende to power? Moreover, why does Grow include a chapter on “Nicaragua, 1981” while there is no chapter on the 1986 Iran-Contra Scandal (and only passing reference to it in a subsequent chapter on the 1989 Panama invasion)? The excision of the 1973 Chilean coup d’état and Iran-Contra is enormously problematic; in so doing, Grow sets aside key touchstones in the narrative of U.S. interventionism, Cold War regime change, and the changing role of the president. By leaving out these interventions, Grow has removed two cases where the absence of immediacy in presidential decision making on intervention raises doubts about the force of the book’s key argument. Despite this, readers will find that in making the choices he did on chapter organization and emphasis, Grow has quite rightly directed an important spotlight on “Chile, 1970” and “Nicaragua, 1981.” These two historical moments show very clearly how presidential decision making set the United States on a course for ugly intervention; they certainly should have received more attention than they have until now.
Grow’s rejection of economic or business imperatives as driving policy is a theme that appears repeatedly. While economic interests were perhaps not at the forefront of presidential decision making in the episodes outlined, and in the manner presidents reached their decisions to intervene, day by day in the lead-up to action, Grow sometimes seems too anxious to dismiss them altogether as factors that may have framed those same decisions. By announcing the problem as an economics versus presidential policymaking binary in a manner that excises the melding of those motives in the mind of the president or his advisers, and marginalizes other potential prompts, he removes economic motives as a factor. The scholars Grow cites on the economic motivations for intervention are at times weak foils for his analysis. In his chapter “Chile, 1970,” for example, Grow notes that several authors have attributed President Richard Nixon’s “Chilean intervention to economic motives” (p. 99). He cites James Petras and Morris Morley (The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government ) on Nixon’s interventionism as “the effort of an imperial state to defend the interests of U.S.-based multinational corporations in Chile” (p. 99). However, Grow neglects that Petras and Morley’s argument is structuralist. It would not necessarily contradict Grow’s points on presidential policymaking and may well enhance them.
The chapter on the 1983 Grenada invasion is representative of other chapters in the book in that it adds little that is new in broad strokes on the invasion and U.S. policy (and anticipates, in this case, what will shortly be the release of a deluge of relevant U.S. government documents). It succeeds, though, as do other chapters, in ordering available material and analysis usefully and in a way that establishes great clarity on timing and decision making, bringing together a range of elements including fears of another Iranian hostage crisis and the roles of Grenada’s neighbors in the Caribbean. Here as elsewhere in the volume, Grow is at his best digesting a rich secondary literature and some published primary documents to follow three analytical trains. First, he argues compellingly that the decision to intervene, while prompted by many factors, came down to what the president wanted and did. Second, he tersely shows precisely what mattered to the president in the lead-up to the decision to intervene. Finally, day by day, and even hour by hour, in the lead-up to the trigger being pulled on Grenada, Grow leads readers through how Ronald Reagan and his advisers came to be in a position to decide--then how the president himself made the decision to intervene. There is simply no other historical synthesis of U.S. interventionism during the Cold War that so effectively combines these features in weaving a strong narrative on presidential power and interventionism.
. See, for example, Eric Paul Roorda, “The Cult of the Airplane among U.S. Military Men and Dominicans during the U.S. Occupation and the Trujillo Regime,” in Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the History of U.S.-Latin American Relations, ed. Gilbert M. Joseph, Catherine C. LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 269-310; Jonathan Haslam, The Nixon Administration and the Death of Allende’s Chile: A Case of Assisted Suicide (New York: Verso, 2005); and Christian G. Appy, “Eisenhower’s Guatemala Doodle, or: How to Draw, Deny, and Take Credit for a Third World Coup,” in Cold War Constructions: Political Culture of United States Imperialism, 1945-1966, ed. Christian G. Appy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), 183-214.
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for each of the chapters
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David Sheinin. Review of Grow, Michael, U.S. Presidents and Latin American Interventions: Pursuing Regime Change in the Cold War.
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