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Conspectus Peace and Power in Central America

July 05, 1987|WAYNE S. SMITH | Smith is adjunct professor of Latin American studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and is the author of "The Closest of Enemies" (W.W. Norton)--an account of U.S.-Cuban relations since 1957.

Nations, like the living organisms that in a sense they are, must adapt to the changing environment around them if they are to survive and flourish. Attitudes and policies appropriate to one historical period more often than not prove entirely irrelevant to the next. To hold rigidly to them is to court obsolescence and decline. Americans should ponder this law of history, for while the world around us has changed enormously since World War II, our attitudes and assumptions about that world and our place in it have not.

We came out of the war with the most powerful economic machine the world had ever known. It had no rivals, and somehow we expected that it never would. We, not others, set the pace.

We also emerged from that war locked in a global struggle with the other superpower. There was nothing imaginary about the challenge from the Soviet Union. It was real, and we had little choice but to take it up. We did so, however, with an all-consuming passion that blotted out everything else. We The Bear in the Backyard: Moscow's Caribbean Strategy by Timothy Ashby (Lexington: $22.95; 224 pp.)

At War in Nicaragua: The Reagan Doctrine and the Politics of Nostalgia by E. Bradford Burns (Harper & Row: $6.45, paperback; 211 pp.)

The Soviet Brigade in Cuba: A Study in Political Diplomacy by David D. Newsom, Foreword by Adm. Stansfield Turner, USN (Ret) (Indiana University Press: $25 cloth, $7.95 paper; 122 pp.)

Partners in Conflict: The United States and Latin America by Abraham F. Lowenthal (Johns Hopkins University: $19.95; 235 pp.)

David and Goliath: The U.S. War Against Nicaragua by William I. Robinson and Kent Norsworthy (Monthly Review: $26; 387 pp.)

National Security and United States Policy Toward Latin America by Lars Schoultz (Princeton University: $42.50, hardcover; $12.95, paperback; 365 pp.)

overcame the madness of the McCarthy period, yes, but were left with a distinctly Manichean vision of the world. We saw--and still see--virtually every foreign policy question in starkly East-West terms. And it was not simply a struggle with Moscow in which we believed ourselves to be engaged; rather, it was one with a monolithic movement called "International Communism." The red hordes became the black death of our day.

Despite this early near-hysteria, we in fact had things pretty much our own way for many years. At first, we were the only nuclear power on the face of the globe--and even long after the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons, the margin of superiority yawned massively in our favor. Not until the very end of the '60s did the Soviets begin to close the gap.

We and our Western European allies, together with the Latin American states whose votes we virtually controlled, had a lock on the United Nations. So much so that it is a wonder the Soviet Union ever joined.

The emerging countries were just that; weak and divided, they had at first little impact on the world scene.

In Latin America, manifest destiny--the idea that the American Flag would fly from one end of the continent to the other--had given way to mere hegemony by the end of the last century. We would not own Latin America, just control it. Basing ourselves on the Monroe Doctrine, which we regarded as sacrosanct, we intervened in the affairs of the Central American and Caribbean countries whenever we wished. In this century alone, we did so no less than 20 times. We shaped events to suit ourselves and took it for granted that such was the way things ought to be.

Suspicious of non-alignment anywhere in the Third World after World War II, we regarded it as outright heresy in Latin America, where the East-West struggle had resulted in a new and more ideological set of reasons to intervene. Nonaligned advocates of radical change were more often than not regarded as agents of "International Communism." If such people reached the halls of government, the United States felt compelled to take a hand in getting them out. Thus, in 1954, we ousted a government in Guatemala, the Arbenz government, that was not even remotely Communist. Arbenz was a former Army officer. There were no Communists in his cabinet and only four in the National Assembly. But the Arbenz government was progressive. It carried out land reform. It had also legalized the Communist Party, and, when we refused to sell it arms, did not hesitate to buy them from the Eastern bloc. That was enough. The CIA went into action to remove it.

We demanded obedience from the Latin American governments, and, for a time, most of them gave it. They accepted our intervention in Guatemala, as they did our effort at the Bay of Pigs seven years later to deal in the same way with Cuba (which in order to break with U.S. hegemony was indeed on the way to becoming a Communist state). They not only accepted but even participated in the Dominican intervention of 1965.

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