rev. 6 February 2007. Get the PDF
Though America’s days of colonization had been over for roughly half a century by the time two resounding explosions in the far east violently christened the Cold War, the newly-global political system set in motion a novel U.S. foreign policy of economic and diplomatic pressure in developing countries (though shared to varying degrees by both its allies and enemies) which would later be turned into the pejorative “cultural imperialism.” This phrase is not entirely without merit, but neither is it always applied fairly, for in many cases the influx of U.S. dollars was good for all parties involved, and a change in culture was predicated entirely upon a more stable economy and not a purposeful imposition of “Western” values. If America qua Imperial Power had been dormant for 50 years, then, whence the accusations of cultural imperialism?
Much of this has to do with the concentration of political, economic, and military clout in a mere four superpowers. Meanwhile, according to Guy Pauker, “The Middle East, Southeast Asia, tropical Africa, and Latin America are apt to remain power vacuums during this period, owing to their lack of unity, political instability, economic stagnation, and cultural heterogeneity” (Qtd. in Hook and Spanier 80). Hook and Spanier believe that that U.S.’s fear was not of Soviet military control—though this was very much a pressing concern—but the possibility of Communism spreading, like a disease, into vulnerable nations and turning them into oppressive dictatorships in the process, as seems the wont of most communist regimes, at least if history is any indication (82). Indeed, these fears were likely well-founded, as such a thing had already happened to China, and like its sire the Soviet Union, it had lost millions of its exploded population in ill-thought national reforms1.
So many nations in the aforementioned areas, though, were ripe for reform—real reform—and so began the international tension. Hook and Spanier are right to note that Western capitalist countries were at a disadvantage: historically, it was capitalist countries, in the throes of mercantilism, that colonized so many of these developing areas—French Indochina, Belgian Congo, British India—and so even post-colonial capitalist nations were viewed with a great deal of suspicion (86). It should be added, though Hook and Spanier do not directly say so, that communism, by contrast, had the advantage of appearing as a purely populist movement, democratic in a way that Western democracies could not be due to the inherent disequilibrium of free markets. The authors do note, however, that nowhere in the sparkling promotion of Communism qua egalitarianism were mentioned “the force, massive terror, and staggering human costs” (82).
The authors believe that it is in large part due to the vulture-like watchfulness of warring superpowers that so many newly-independent nations fell into the trap of military dictatorships or indefinitely-prolonged juntas (87). This is true, but it is necessary to remember that many of these countries also faced population explosions at a time of economic depression and social unrest: the tendency of interim revolutionary governments to retreat into the fastness of martial control had as much to do with the broad and dismissive strokes of a desperate ruling party as it did from the political leers of foreign powers.
After all, the US was in large part content to leverage its economic power passively, channeling money into pro-democratic nation-building exercises in post-war Europe, a practice set in motion by the Marshall Plan. To a great extent, the economic boost provided by foreign investment was enough to keep these countries securely capitalist, and the Marshall Plan is generally heralded as an unprecedented success in peaceful nation-building (or nation-rebuilding, as the case may be). Hook and Spanier are quick to note, however—and this becomes the crux of the argument for the United States’ culpability in the “casualties,” so to speak, of the Cold war—that aid outside of Western Europe was more often than not military aid and selective in the extreme (91). It need hardly even be pointed out that the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, both proxy wars between the United States and the U.S.S.R/P.R.C., were hardly the sort of passive economic buttressing of the early Cold War but rather a direct military response to direct Communist aggression in the region. Thus, the authors assert, the suspicion of the United States as a post-colonial colonizer was replaced by the equally-harmful view of the United States as a briber, offering aid with the tacit demand that the receiving government openly “associate themselves with U.S. Cold War policies” (92).
The authors’ second argument for U.S. culpability comes from its hypocrisy with respect to issues of race, having officially ended its own policies of segregation as late as 1964 and green-lighting South African apartheid until the roar of international outcry finally ended the practice in the early 1990s. (Hook and Spanier 92). Certainly, the history here is appalling, but likely as not the racial discrimination had little to do with developing countries insofar as it relates to the Cold War. Communist countries were just as likely—if not moreso—to engage in the same sort of behavior, even if their public stance looked to drawing divided races into the egalitarian envelope of Communism (Borstelmann 136-138).
What seems more important, and this becomes Hook and Spanier’s third and final point, is that the United States was particularly ignorant of the dynamics of class struggle in these nations. It “tended to equate [revolutions] with communism [and] Washington’s reaction to the communist threat was to support almost any regime, no matter how repressive, if it claimed to be anticommunist” (93). This led to support for a number of failed governments overseas, as well as a whole host of amorphous dictatorships and so-called “banana republics” in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s—a shameful portfolio which includes the infamous Iran-Contra scandal (101). If there was any policy more telling of America’s primary concerns than its policy of propping up violent but diplomatically-friendly dictatorships in Latin America, it has yet to be heard. This, in an ocean of rhetoric about ideology, is the sole domain of Cold War realpolitik—political action intended not to do what is best for the constituents of a nation, but to keep it under the wide thumb of U.S. control and safely align it on the side of Democracy. The authors make a case for America’s 1954 intervention in Guatemala as being indicative of general policy (101); however, the case can also be made for the ultra-conservative military junta in Argentina, which received clandestine approval from the United States—or at least from then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who also played a similar role in Chile’s 1973 coup d’état (Duncan 1).
American lawmakers, who “stubbornly identified reform with revolution, and revolution with communism, largely thwarted the best intentions—perhaps—of Kennedy and his Alliance for Progress (Hooks and Spanier 102). It was in this context that the U.S. entered into its long and storied political battle with Cuba, which included such highlights2 as the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion—another CIA-backed coup d’état—and the “Cuban Missile Crisis,” a tense few days in which the world teetered on the brink of mutually-assured destruction as Washington and Moscow (with Cuba as a hapless and haughty proxy) played a game of diplomatic chicken in which Washington won by a hairsbreadth.
Hook and Spanier’s text seems to dwell overlong on the United States, although it seems implicit that the Soviet Union’s involvement was very rarely as nuanced as its Western counterpart’s, but rather tended to be almost entirely aggressive and militaristic, no doubt buoyed by a string of aggressive leaders—first Stalin, then Khrushchev, and finally the more feckless Brezhnev—and the hyper-belligerent stance that typified Soviet-era politics. Meanwhile, the United States attempted to tread a dangerous path that would satisfy its ideological mission of fairness and independence while also extinguishing the slow burn of communism in developing countries around the world. The unintended consequence of stopping communism at all costs was the continued “high level of economic distress, political repression, and social unrest” (103).
It is a matter of some debate whether or not these contentious countries would have been better or worse off with communism officially installed. Certainly, at least a few of the revolutionary countries in Latin America and in Africa would have adopted a socialist or communist government by popular decree, which admits the possibility that they would face horrors the likes of which the Soviet Union and China have seen despite their general economic success3. Would this have been a better result for these developing countries? Especially in Africa, where so many Sub-Saharan nations are still mired in debt, disease, corruption, and violence, it is possible that the Command Economy of communism would have galvanized the local economy and brought some much-needed infrastructure, but it is just as likely as not that the tendency of communist regimes to become dismissive, corrupted, and bloated would be no different than the hodgepodge of warring tribes that seems to have run of the continent now. Hook and Spanier appear to give very little thought to the hypothetical scenario in which the Soviet Union expanded, unchecked, into the economically-desolate places of the world. As China has proven, it is exceedingly possible to become and remain an both an economic superpower—and a diplomatic friend—under the auspices of communism4, its continued repression and human rights violations notwithstanding. Although the authors do not seem to consider this, they do ultimately conclude that, while this sort of frantic “containment” may have been justified in the early days of the war, it became quite clear, after a number of disastrous interventions and the very sudden buildup of a mass anticommunist hysteria fueled by the looming threat of nuclear war, that the United States’ aggressively defensive foreign policy5 was not working. Still, it continued well past the additional disasters of Korea and Vietnam, and clearly it continues even today as the fear of communist agents has been succeeded by the fear of terrorism, and the U.S. attempted to install a West-friendly government in Iraq, so far accomplishing little more than stirring up local resentment and bolstering the indignation of terrorist-friendly countries6 or factions within countries.
Hook and Spanier, despite a minor Western slant that is excusable for an American textbook—even a postrevisionist one—seem to judge America’s foreign policy fairly and accurately. Their harshest criticisms of the United States may be forgiven if for no other reason than they as historians are afforded better hindsight than the politicians of the era, who by comparison were fatally myopic but likely well-intentioned on a much grander scale known only to them.
- Borstelmann, Thomas. The Cold War and the Color Line. Boston: Harvard UP, 2001.
- Campbell, Duncan. “Kissinger approved Argentinian ‘dirty war'” The Guardian 6 Dec. 2003. 1 Feb. 2007<http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1101121,00.html>.
- Hook, Steven W., and John Spanier. American Foreign Policy Since World War II. 17th ed. Washington, D.C: CQ Press, 2007.
- In one particularly myopic move called “The great sparrow campaign,” for instance, Mao commanded all peasants to bang pots and pans for 15 minutes at a single prescribed time, and the grain-eating sparrows, too frightened to land, would drop dead from exhaustion. This campaign was successful, until it was discovered that sparrows also ate locusts, who caused even more damage to agriculture than their natural predator. Millions died in the resulting famine.[↩]
- A more appropriate neologism would be “lowlight,” as it is both the authors’ opinion and general consensus that the Bay of Pigs invasion represented the absolute nadir of American involvement in Latin America, both from a perspective of political overreaching, anticommunist zeal, and naked complicity.[↩]
- An economically- and militarily-successful Communist country with a historic of human rights abuse seems to be the “best case scenario” according to historical evidence. The “worst case scenario” is that of North Korea, which, though now a nuclear power, is economically deprived and culturally isolated in the most severe way.[↩]
- The “free-trade zones” notwithstanding: they are likely the wedge that will open China further, but are currently only a small niche in the much larger command market.[↩]
- Id est, the U.S. was not at that time indulging in preemptive action against hostile countries, but was aggressively nation-building in an attempt to form a virtual army of democracy-friendly satellite countries.[↩]
- In Venezuela’s case, the indignation of friends of terrorist-friendly countries[↩]