Eric Thomas Chester. Rag-Tags, Scum, Riff-Raff, and Commies: The U.S. Intervention in the Dominican Republic, 1965-1966. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001. x + 289 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-58367-032-3; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58367-033-0.
Reviewed by Jeffrey F. Taffet (Department of Humanities, United States Merchant Marine Academy)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2002)
Certainly Scum, But Commies Too?
Certainly Scum, But Commies Too?
In the colorfully titled Rag-Tags, Scum, Riff-Raff, and Commies, Eric Thomas Chester examines the 1965 U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic. Following the ouster of the brutish Trujillo dictatorship at the end of 1961, the Dominican Republic entered a period of conflict as leaders of the military and a broad spectrum of politicians competed for control of the small Caribbean nation. The December 1962 presidential election that brought the social democrat Juan Bosch to power, and his removal in September of the next year by the military, were among the most significant events in the period. However, the intervention by U.S. marines in April 1965 certainly ranks as the most dramatic event in the period.
Chester broadly considers the entire period between Rafael Trujillo's 1961 assassination and the 1966 national elections that returned a former Trujillo stooge, Joaqu=n Balaguer, to the presidency. As the subtitle to the work suggests, though, Chester focuses most of his attention on the intervention. He examines the most significant period, the seven weeks following the landing of the marines in late April 1965. By the end of this short period, with prodding from the Johnson administration, Dominican leaders from across the spectrum agreed on the composition of a caretaker government that would hold elections in 1966. June 1965 was also, not coincidentally, when the rebel forces suffered their final defeat. In examining these few weeks in detail, Chester looks specifically at the decisions that led to the willingness to use marines, U.S. efforts to militarily and diplomatically isolate the rebels and support the Dominican military, and the attempt to create a stable pro-U.S. provisional government that excluded Bosch as a solution to the crisis.
For Chester, as with most scholars of the issue, the intervention is important as a case of government hypocrisy, as a failure to recognize the true nature of foreign conflicts, and as a dramatic shift in the ways the Johnson administration hoped to use military force. In writing about the Dominican Republic, Chester clearly hopes to explain, in miniature, some of the problems in decision-making that led Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam. In making the case that the Dominican intervention was the beginning of a shift in U.S. policy that ultimately led to bigger problems elsewhere, he approvingly quotes Howard Wiarda's comments that April 28, 1965, the day U.S. marines landed in Santo Domingo, could be identified as "the day the United States lost the Cold War in Latin America, and throughout the Third World" (p. 252).
Chester, who was trained as an economist and who is an active member of the Socialist Party and the IWW, does a capable job of explaining the diplomatic maneuverings behind the Johnson administration's efforts. In using the vast bibliography of secondary sources on the intervention, and through solid work with recently declassified government documents, Chester is able to add to the understanding of how the Johnson administration attempted to manipulate the various Dominican factions. His main interest is in examining the conflicts within the U.S. government concerning the best approach to creating a regime that would not include the former president, Juan Bosch. To that end, among his strongest sections is a lengthy discussion regarding the efforts of Johnson's National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, to create a provisional government led by a Bosch supporter and the "duplicitous maneuvers" that ultimately undercut Bundy's work (p. 151). His work on the mission of the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Ellsworth Bunker, that followed Bundy's and led to the creation of a more right-wing government, is also quite good. Throughout the text, Chester does a fine job of making Johnson's personal interest in the Dominican Republic clear and in sorting out the advice that various White House insiders gave the president. Both the sections on the Bundy and Bunker missions make clear Chester's biggest point, which is not necessarily new, that the intervention's key goal was to ensure that Bosch would not be able to return to power.
Perhaps the most unique element of Chester's analysis is his study of the efforts of the leading socialist in the United States, Norman Thomas, and his prot=g= Sacha Volman, to influence the situation. Volman, through work with Latin American unions supported by Thomas and the CIA, became a close confidant of Bosch and at times served as an intermediary between Bosch and the Johnson administration. The importance of these actors is not always clear from Chester's analysis, but he is able to demonstrate that there was a great deal of contact between these leftists in the United States and Bosch. Often Chester is critical of these socialists and their willingness to push Bosch to accept policies developed in Washington. He is especially critical of the willingness of Thomas and Volman, who both were involved in international poll-watching efforts in 1966, to announce that Bosch had lost the election fairly. Unfortunately, Chester does not explain the ultimate relevance of these socialist leaders' actions in any convincing way. Their efforts are certainly interesting, and may be suggestive about the nature of the socialist party in the making of U.S. foreign policy, but Chester does not solidly make the argument.
Perhaps more importantly, Chester also discusses the efforts of some of the leading Latin American social democrats, including Luis Munoz Marin, Romulo Betancourt, and Jose Figueres to influence the situation. All three initially opposed the intervention, then pushed for a greater role for the OAS, and ultimately took part in a failed plan to create a group of "wise men" that would manage the Dominican Republic as a trusteeship for the OAS. Although these individuals did not play a central role in the diplomatic wrangling in Washington, their actions were important in helping Johnson justify his approach. While certainly opposing the landing of marines, their willingness to take an aggressive stand against intervention was tempered by their personal ambivalence about Bosch. Viewing the deposed leader as weak and ineffective, they did not push the Johnson administration to make Bosch's return a priority, which certainly made planning a government without Bosch easier in the White House.
Although Chester does quite well with the historical narrative, he is not as effective in his analysis. Most frustratingly, throughout the text he argues that Johnson was intent on ensuring that Bosch would not return to power because of a belief that it would lead to the creation of a communist government in the Dominican Republic alongside Cuba. Although older works on the intervention (most notably Abraham Lowenthal's classic The Dominican Intervention) suggest that an ideological urge towards communism existed alongside fears about instability leading to communism, both of which served as a factor in U.S. decision-making, Chester takes the argument much further. In his explanations, the concern over spreading communism, far more than Bosch's past failures as president, drove Johnson's thinking about how to proceed. Chester does suggest important evidence that suggests Johnson did repeatedly discuss his fears of a communist Dominican Republic; unfortunately, the genesis of this idea is never confidently explained.
Chester makes it clear that in his short time as president of the Dominican Republic, Bosch did not do anything that might have suggested he was weak on communism or would ultimately create a pro-Soviet state. Still, he suggests that throughout the intervention Johnson remained adamant that Bosch was a threat because his return would mean an eventual communist takeover. Chester even argues that Johnson believed the 1965 rebellion was inspired by and directed from the Soviet Union, but he does not explain where evidence supporting this idea came from. In Chester's vision, Johnson's actions do not appear to be based on a poor understanding of the issues or a mistaken notion that military force might improve the situation, but on an irrational and possibly megalomaniacal approach. While certainly the idea that Johnson acted so aggressively because of a Cold War impulse makes sense, some evidence on where these ideas came from would help greatly.
A second major problem with the work is that Chester does not demonstrate a clear understanding of U.S. policy towards Latin America in the early 1960s. Using the intervention as the case in point, he argues that Johnson dramatically shifted U.S. policy in the region, but he does not fully explain what the Kennedy administration had tried to do in Latin America. Under the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy's program for promoting development and democracy in the region, the United States tried to support left-leaning social democrats like Bosch. That the Johnson administration would view Bosch in negative terms less than two years after Kennedy's death thus requires explanation. The Kennedy people believed leaders like Bosch were the solution for keeping Latin America free from more Castro-style dictatorships, a point that escapes Chester. What might have been different about global conditions in 1965 versus 1961, or what separated Bosch from similarly-minded Latin American leaders, is a major question that needs to be explored. The Johnson administration did make changes in U.S. policy towards Latin America, but until the escalation in Vietnam diverted resources away from the region, Johnson still supported the Alliance for Progress concept. A broader vision is necessary for Chester to explain why Johnson would use military force to counter Bosch, but to fund other leaders who attempted similar, and even more activist, policies elsewhere. The answers to these questions are not difficult, and many recent studies examine them in detail. Unfortunately, Chester does not bring their conclusions into his work, which significantly weakens the overall approach.
Quite clearly the Dominican intervention is a key event in the history of U.S. foreign relations with Latin America, and certainly symbolic of the renewed willingness of the Johnson administration to use force to stabilize situations in the third world. As Chester suggests, the landing of marines in Santo Domingo may even be a window onto the failed policymaking that led to greater problems in Vietnam. It is in this respect that the text is most useful. Chester's ability to use recently declassified documents to piece together a detailed record of the U.S. diplomatic efforts is a significant contribution to the scholarship on the Dominican intervention. Unfortunately, Chester does not go deep enough into attempting to understand the root causes behind Johnson's actions. While it is certainly interesting to read about the diplomacy behind efforts to create some kind of provisional government, and to see that the range of players included U.S. socialist leaders, a broader understanding of how the intervention fits into the big picture of U.S. international history, U.S.-Latin American relations, or Johnson's presidency would certainly enhance this study.
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Jeffrey F. Taffet. Review of Chester, Eric Thomas, Rag-Tags, Scum, Riff-Raff, and Commies: The U.S. Intervention in the Dominican Republic, 1965-1966.
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