Harry Franqui-Rivera. Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. xxix + 308 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-7867-7.
Reviewed by Micah W. Wright (Boise State University)
Published on H-War (July, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Soldiers of the Nation makes a significant contribution to the rich literature on military service and nationalism in Puerto Rico. Scholars such as María Eugenia Estades Font, Jorge Rodríguez Beruff, Humberto García Muñiz, and Héctor Marín Román have focused on the island’s strategic position, the military as an instrument of Americanization, and insular political machinations surrounding mobilization. Yet servicemembers’ contributions to the island’s popular politics and national identity have been largely unexplored. Franqui addresses this omission through an examination of the ways in which military service provided the island’s working class opportunities for socioeconomic mobility and political enfranchisement from the Grito de Lares (1868) to the creation of the Estado Libre Asociado (1952). Contrary to much of the historiography, which imagines the soldiery as US pawns or symbols manipulated by native political leaders, Franqui argues that these men were “instrumental in redefining Puertoricaness and modern Puerto Rico,” and largely responsible for the popularization of the autonomist formula represented by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (p. xiv).
Franqui’s opening chapters survey the last decades of Spanish rule and the transfer of sovereignty in 1898. In the aftermath of the short-lived Grito de Lares rebellion, Spanish authorities embarked on an “anti-nation-building project” designed to maintain control over one of the empire’s last outposts. Though the uprising had been defeated by a unit comprised almost entirely of Puerto Ricans, the native-born were soon removed from the militias. Repression also led to widespread political disenfranchisement. Such policies left the male population “excluded from access to socioeconomic power, and even adulthood and manhood” given the colony’s status as a military outpost (p. 33). As a result, Puerto Ricans began to develop an embryonic sense of nationalism that translated into support for the United States during the War of 1898. Thereafter, Washington embarked upon its own nation-building project that included increased political representation and enfranchisement, as well as remobilization in the form of a native militia and police force. The Americanization campaign “served to create a sense of inclusion as opposed to Spanish policies of exclusion and displacement” (p. 47). Criollo elites thus supported and participated in US colonial institutions, while the military served as a vehicle for socioeconomic mobility. Moreover, soldiers’ contribution to sanitation work and relief efforts after the San Ciriaco hurricane helped to forge a “special relationship” with the peasantry that further legitimated US rule.
The remainder of the text is organized around periods of conflict during which Puerto Rican national identity was debated and contested, including both world wars, the nationalist uprisings of the 1930s and 40s, and the Korean War. In each case, Franqui illustrates how the military influenced the evolution of puertorriqueñidad and the options available to both Washington and the island’s political elite. For example, he contends that after the extension of US citizenship and Selective Service to Puerto Rico in 1917, the colonial administration was successful in securing the population’s loyalty, thus dooming the pursuit of independence by political means. Yet, because US authorities were dependent on local leaders to mobilize the peasantry, they lost “exclusive control over the nation-building via military service” project (p. 94).
Franqui’s most novel interpretations come in later chapters, in which he explains nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos’s failure to win converts among the popular classes and Luis Muñoz Marín’s eventual embrace of autonomismo. Economic distress and the Great Depression fueled political violence that was also, according to Franqui, “a battle for control of Puerto Rican identities” (p. 99). Albizu Campos and his Ejército Libertador failed to appeal to the working class, who continued to hold the US military in high regard and embraced the drive for “progress” rather than a return to the Hispanic past. Meanwhile, Muñoz Marín’s efforts to industrialize the island depended upon both the votes of the peasantry and the mass mobilization of workers. Since these refused to support political decolonization, he was forced to embrace the commonwealth formula as a “third way” between independence and statehood. According to Franqui, the 65th Infantry Regiment’s participation in the Korean War served as a proving ground “to test the viability of the new political status and promote” the Popular Democratic Party’s vision of a hybrid Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic identity for the island (p. 182). By war’s end, the nation-building through military service project had been popularized, as had a new national identity that allowed the island’s residents to be both American and Puerto Rican.
Overall, this study has much to recommend it. Franqui’s archival research is exemplary, as evidenced by the wealth of materials gleaned from rarely cited collections on the island and mainland. Above all, he is successful in demonstrating the extent to which military service shaped modern Puerto Rico. Soldiers of the Nation should be of interest to scholars of the island, and colonial military service more broadly.
. María Eugenia Estades Font, La presencia militar de los Estados Unidos en Puerto Rico, 1898-1918 (Río Piedras, P. R.: Ediciones Huracán, 1988); Jorge Rodríguez Beruff, Strategy as Politics: Puerto Rico on the Eve of the Second World War (San Juan: La Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2007); Humberto García Muñiz, “El Caribe durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial: El Mediterráneo Americano,” in Puerto Rico en las relaciones internacionales del Caribe, ed. Carmen Gautier Mayoral, Angel I. Rivera Ortiz, and Idsa E. Alegría Ortega (Río Piedras, P. R.: Ediciones Huracán, 1990); and Héctor R. Marín Román, ¡Llegó la gringada! El contexto social-militar estadounidense en Puerto Rico y otros lugares del Caribe hasta 1919 (San Juan: Academia Puertorriqueña de la Historia, 2009).
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Micah W. Wright. Review of Franqui-Rivera, Harry, Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952.
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