Stephen G. Rabe. The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 257 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2461-0; $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4764-0.
Stephen G. Rabe. The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 296 pp.
Reviewed by David Sheinin (Department of History, Trent University)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2000)
Just as Stephen Rabe's earlier book Eisenhower and Latin America established a set of research and analytical standards for the study of United States-Latin American relations in the 1950s, this new book establishes similar parameters for the early 1960s. Rabe's history of Kennedy era foreign relations is even better researched, and is approached with more analytical sophistication than the earlier volume. There is no work on this topic and time period that is better researched or more insightfully rendered.
Some readers will question one crucial research strategy. Despite thorough and path-breaking work in the National Archives of the United States, American presidential libraries, and a comprehensive range of other sources, there is no research into Latin American archival sources. This means that some questionable assumptions find their way into the analysis. In the case of Argentina, for example, Rabe repeats the unfair characterization of President Arturo Illia as a "country doctor," the Argentine military's code for incompetence that, in the end, warranted a coup d'etat in the eyes of Argentine officers and their American contacts. On the longstanding US effort to convince Argentine president Arturo Frondizi of an anti-Cuban stance, there is no attention to the paradoxical qualities of Argentina's United States policies. By reading Argentine reactions through American diplomatic eyes, the book misses the fact that in the early 1960s, the Argentines were at odds with Washington on some topics, like Castro, but supportive of the American Cold War position on others, like the United States' stance toward the Soviet Union on disarmament.
The absence of Latin American sources is notable and has an impact on how Rabe understands inter-American relations. But the author has framed his analysis as a study of US foreign relations, has undertaken the most comprehensive and vital research project to date on the topic, and has written an outstanding analysis of the period that should be understood in the methodological context presented. Until now, despite a wealth of scholarly works on Kennedy-era foreign policies in Latin America, much of the U.S. government documentation remained closed to researchers. Rabe has mined thousands of such sources opened after 1990 and the result is a spectacular history of the times.
The failure of the Alliance for Progress is at the core of this study. Rabe's understanding of Kennedy's intentions and approaches to Latin America is less grim than that of some harsher critics of the president. Though the Alliance failed it was not for Kennedy's lack of interest in the region, or a deficiency of concern for Latin American poverty. Rabe finds that Kennedy treated inter-American relations as more important to U.S. foreign policy than had any president after the Second World War, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter. Kennedy immersed himself in Latin America. He educated himself, took a hands-on approach to policy-making, made informed decisions, and worked hard to promote development in the region. Rabe argues that Kennedy's focus on Latin America came, first, from his conviction that the region was and would continue to be a Cold War hot spot and, second, that he simply wanted to help the poor.
Why, then, did the Alliance fail? American faith in development theories and projects was misplaced, as was the faith in an American capacity to impart its institutions and values on Latin America, thereby creating model democracies. Kennedy was surprised at the lethargy of the U.S. foreign aid bureaucracy. But in addition, Americans understood Latin America through the same old prisms and reacted with shock when none of the repackaged formulas for change in the Americas worked. Modest U.S.-assisted programs in health and education proved a drop in the bucket in the face of rapidly escalating poverty: the Kennedy administration "learned that democracy and social justice could not be easily imparted to poor countries" (p.196).
There is more to it than naivete, good will, and squandered possibilities. Rabe reasons convincingly that the U.S. government undermined the Alliance for Progress in a policy contradiction not uncommon to American approaches to other parts of the world at the same time. He shows masterfully that, despite tying the Alliance to visions of democracy for the hemisphere, in its recognition policies, military aid programs, and in other ways, the Kennedy administration backed repressive authoritarian rule. Joao Goulart of Brazil, Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, and Juan Jose Arvalo of Guatemala each spoke out in favor of the Alliance and respected constitutional norms in their countries. But each was subject to American destabilization initiatives. And each of their successors helped entrench violent military dictatorship in Latin America.
Kennedy likely gave the go ahead to more covert operations in Latin America than any other Cold War era president. Rabe is at his best here, having combed through a wealth of recently opened government documentation to provide a powerful analysis of Washington's disdain for democratic rule, even as the administration talked a pro-democracy line. If, as the book suggests, Americans abetted a golpista military in Argentina and abandoned the friendly administration of Arturo Frondizi, elsewhere the record is still more grim. American destabilization efforts in Brazil, for example, have been written up elsewhere [most notably by Joseph A. Page in THE REVOLUTION THAT NEVER WAS: NORTHEAST BRAZIL, 1955-1964 (New York: Grossman, 1972)]. But Rabe's analysis will stand as a definitive analysis of this and other cases of U.S. intervention, both for the power of Rabe's research and the strength of his analysis. Kennedy set the tone for the administration, reasoning that where Latin America was "critical" to the West, "Brazil was the key country in Latin America" (p.64). The extent of U.S. fears of a Communist takeover under president Joao Goulart are stunning, particularly so when one considers that the administration had good intelligence from a variety of sources suggesting that Goulart should, in fact, be considered a friend of the United States.
Rabe confirms and amplifies what we already know about US support for the military coup of 1964. While it took place during the Lyndon Johnson administration, the foundations for American backing for the Brazilian army had their origins under Kennedy. The evidence presented ranges, at times, from the absurd to the grotesque. Reporting on a 1962 visit to Brazil, Robert Kennedy suggested that the United States could not trust the Brazilian president because he looked "a great deal like a Brazilian Jimmy Hoffa" (p.69). Other details are not as funny. The administration made effective use, for example, of the newly established American Institute of Free Labor Development (AIFLD) to undermine independent, leftist labor in Brazil. When the Johnson administration backed the coup in 1964, this marked a fulfilment of Kennedy policies so that in a private interview in 1964, Robert Kennedy stressed that without the coup, "Brazil would have gone Communist" (p.70)
Important chapters on counterinsurgency doctrines and the Johnson administration aftermath to Kennedy are outstanding and help explain better than any other study of the period why the United States became so obsessed with conceiving of Latin America and its problems through a Cold War context. As interested as Kennedy was in the region, by 1960 American leaders were unable to step back from their conflict with the Soviet Union to view Latin American strategic and development problems as essentially Latin American. This book has set high standards for historical writing on U.S.-Latin American relations. It is essential reading.
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