Recorded on March 6, 2023, this Authors Meet Critics book panel focused on Cooperating with the Colossus: A Social and Political History of US Military Bases in World War II Latin America, by Rebecca Herman, Assistant Professor of History at UC Berkeley.
Professor Herman was joined in conversation by Julio Moreno, Professor of History at the University of San Francisco, and José Juan Pérez Meléndez, Assistant Professor in Latin American and Caribbean History at UC Davis, and a Bridging the Divides Fellow at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in Hunter College. Elena Schneider, Associate Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of History, moderated. (Please note that Professor Meléndez is not included in the video, per his request.)
This panel was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Department of History.
About the Book
During the Second World War, the United States built over two hundred defense installations on sovereign soil in Latin America in the name of cooperation in hemisphere defense. Predictably, it proved to be a fraught affair. Despite widespread acclaim for Pan-American unity with the Allied cause, defense construction incited local conflicts that belied the wartime rhetoric of fraternity and equality.
Cooperating with the Colossus reconstructs the history of US basing in World War II Latin America, from the elegant chambers of the American foreign ministries to the cantinas, courtrooms, plazas, and brothels surrounding US defense sites. Foregrounding the wartime experiences of Brazil, Cuba, and Panama, the book considers how Latin American leaders and diplomats used basing rights as bargaining chips to advance their nation-building agendas with US resources, while limiting overreach by the “Colossus of the North” as best they could.
Yet conflicts on the ground over labor rights, discrimination, sex, and criminal jurisdiction routinely threatened the peace. Steeped in conflict, the story of wartime basing certainly departs from the celebratory triumphalism commonly associated with this period in US-Latin American relations, but this book does not wholly upend the conventional account of wartime cooperation. Rather, the history of basing distills a central tension that has infused regional affairs since a wave of independence movements first transformed the Americas into a society of nations: national sovereignty and international cooperation may seem like harmonious concepts in principle, but they are difficult to reconcile in practice.
Drawing on archival research in five countries, Cooperating with the Colossus is a revealing history told at the local, national, and international levels of how World War II transformed power and politics in the Americas in enduring ways.
About the Panelists
Rebecca Herman is an Assistant Professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of History. Her work explores twentieth-century Latin American social and political history in a global context, probing the intersections between grand narratives and local history. Her book, Cooperating with the Colossus, reconstructs a contentious U.S. military basing project advanced in Latin America during World War II under the banner of inter-American cooperation in hemisphere defense.
Julio Moreno is a Professor of History at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Yankee Don’t go Home! Mexican Nationalism, American Business Culture, and the Shaping of Modern Mexico, 1920-1950. His other publications are on U.S.-Latin American relations during the Cold War. His research and publications center on the intersection of U.S. business and diplomacy through the subfields of diplomatic, business, and cultural history. He is currently writing a book on the history of Coca-Cola in Latin America.
José Juan Pérez Meléndez is an Assistant Professor in Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of California, Davis, and a Bridging the Divides Fellow at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in Hunter College. His work is concerned with nineteenth-century colonization dynamics in Brazil in global perspective, and with the international dilemmas of decolonization in the twentieth-century Caribbean. His forthcoming book, Peopling for Profit, charts the co-production of migrations and regulatory powers in the Brazilian Empire with a special focus on the driving force of oligarchic business dynamics.
Elena Schneider (moderator) is Associate Professor of History at UC Berkeley. She is a a historian of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic World. Her research focuses on Cuba and the Caribbean, comparative colonialism and slavery, and the Black Atlantic. Methodologically, she seeks to write history that moves across regional, imperial, and national boundaries, integrating diverse stories normally told separately. She is also committed to the practice of writing history “from below” and the challenging archival work that makes reconstructing the experiences of historically marginalized peoples possible. Her book, The Occupation of Havana, is a longue durée history of the causes, central dynamics, and enduring consequences of a crucial incident of imperial warfare, the British invasion, occupation, and return of Havana (1762-3) during the final stages of the Seven Years’ War.
Authors Meet Critics: “Cooperating with the Colossus,” by Rebecca Herman
[JULIA SIZEK] Hello, everyone. Hi. My name is Julia Sizek. And I am a postdoc here at Social Science Matrix. And I am here to welcome you to our exciting book panel here today.
Today, we’re going to be discussing Rebecca Herman’s new book Cooperating with the Colossus, which is an examination of US military bases built in Latin America during World War II. She examines the tensions of United States empire in the project of cooperating for hemispheric defense. And she does this not only through looking at diplomatic projects but through conflicts over discrimination, labor rights, and criminal jurisdiction on the ground.
Today’s event is part of our Author Meets Critic series which features critically engaged discussions about recent books by faculty and alumni in the UC Berkeley Social Sciences division. We would like to thank UC Berkeley’s Department of History for co-sponsoring this event.
I will be introducing our moderator Elena Schneider. Elena Schneider is a historian of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic world and an associate professor in the UC Berkeley History Department. Her research focuses on Cuba and the Caribbean, comparative colonialism and slavery in the Black Atlantic.
Methodologically, she seeks to write history that moves across regional, imperial, and national boundaries, integrating diverse stories that are normally told separately. She is also committed to the practice of writing history from below and challenging archival work that makes reconstructing the experiences of historically marginalized peoples possible. Her book, The Occupation of Havana, is a longue durée history of the causes, central dynamics, and enduring consequences of a crucial incident of imperial warfare– the British invasion, occupation, and return to Havana during the final stages of the Seven Years’ War.
[ELENA SCHNEIDER] Sure. Thank you, Julia. We’re going to do a little AV Stand up. Hi. Thanks so much for coming to those of you who are here in person. And thank you also to those of us who are here on Zoom. We really appreciate you all joining us today. This is a real pleasure, a chance to talk about my colleague, Rebecca Herman’s book.
So as was mentioned, I’m an associate professor in the history department working in the Latin American and Caribbean field along with Rebecca Herman. And so my job is just to introduce our panelists individually. And then, I’ll be moderating and fielding questions. We also have a microphone. And Julia will circulate to gather your questions during the Q&A period. We’ll also be fielding questions from Zoom.
So Rebecca Herman is an assistant professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of History. Her work explores 20th century Latin American social and political history in a global context, probing the intersections between grand narratives and local history. Her book, Cooperating with the Colossus, reconstructs a contentious US military basing project, advancing Latin America during World War II under the banner of inter-American cooperation and hemispheric defense. And also, would you like to say a word, maybe mention your next project when you get a chance?
Your bio was too short.
Our next panelist, critic number one, is Julio Moreno. He is a professor of history at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Yankee Don’t Go Home!– Mexican Nationalism American, Business Culture, and the Shaping of Modern Mexico from 1920 to 1950. His other publications are on US-Latin American relations during the Cold War.
His research and publications center on the intersection of US business and diplomacy through the subfields of diplomatic, business, and cultural history. He’s currently writing a book on the history of Coca-Cola in Latin America.
So thank you. I’ll turn the microphone over first to Rebecca.
[REBECCA HERMAN] All right. Thanks, everyone, for being here. And, Julia, thanks so much for all of your work organizing this chuck for the technical support and my critics, my wonderful critics. Thank you for joining. We’ll see if I’m still smiling at the end of the session.
So I think my role on the panel is really just to orient those of you. Probably the majority of you have not read this book. And so I want to help to contextualize a little bit so that the comments from José Juan and Julio do make sense and tell you a little bit about it. And then I’m going to turn the mic over so we can hear some of the comments and questions from our guests.
So you may not have read the book. But you’ve read the title, which really gives a lot of way. It’s a book about US military bases in World War II Latin America. The focus is most heavily and is really anchored in the experiences of communities in three countries– Brazil, Cuba, and Panama. And I can talk more about that during the Q&A if you want to geek out around methodology and that sort of thing. But I wanted to mention that now in case that proves relevant in the comments.
And the book examines both the high politics of basing and also the social histories of the bases themselves. So it moves between different registers. It moves between the international, national, and local spheres in which this history of wartime basing unfolded.
Through the history of these bases, it tries to contemplate the nature of cooperation between unequal partners. So for those of you who aren’t that familiar with the region’s history, Colossus of the North is a nickname that the United States has had in Latin America that really speaks to the kind of preponderance of US power and the US tendency towards interventionism in the region. So cooperating with the Colossus is intended to highlight the fact that this book is really thinking about how folks in Latin America have tried to engage US power while grappling with the consequences of these asymmetries in their relationships.
Because of the overwhelming history of US interventionism in the region, cooperation is really not the first word that comes to mind when you think about the history of US-Latin American relations. But I think that actually, Latin Americans’ frustrated efforts to find ways to effectively cooperate with the Colossus has been a constant and really underscrutinized through line in the history of the region. And the scholarship on US-Latin American relations in recent years has really moved in a direction that I think sets us up well to examine those efforts in a nuanced and responsible way.
There’s been a push in recent years led by Julio Moreno and others to take more seriously Latin American agency in histories of US-Latin American relations without diminishing the asymmetries of power that structure relationships in the hemisphere. So that’s a balancing act that I try to engage in this book.
To give you some context about the bases and explain how I use those bases as a vehicle for thinking about these broader themes, here’s a map that we had drawn up for the book. During the Second World War, the US established over 200 defense sites on sovereign soil in Latin America. So they made me break it into two maps because I really wanted one map. But they said it was too cluttered. [INAUDIBLE] on a single book page. It just doesn’t turn out to be very legible.
The US at this point already occupied the naval base in Guantanamo Bay and already had established the Panama Canal Zone. But most of the other defense sites on this map were new to the war period. And World War II is really a key moment in the growth of the United States global basing empire.
So today, it’s sort taken for granted, that the United States has this global military footprint that’s an important part of its national defense and thinking about national security. But before World War II, the US only had around 14 bases outside of US continental borders. Today, that count is somewhere around 750. So over the intervening years, that number has expanded and contracted. But World War II was really an important moment in the outward push of US national defense.
What makes it interesting in terms of thinking about the history of these bases is they were created. And how these stories played out on the ground is that there’s really not much by way of precedent at this moment. So there’s this real make it up as you go along part of the story that I found in the archives as I was trying to understand the history of these places.
So why did the United States want bases in Latin America during World War II? Because you don’t think of Latin America typically when you think of the Second World War unless you’re a Latin American [INAUDIBLE]. Elena, do you mind passing me the water? Thanks so much.
So well before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there was an overwhelming concern among US defense strategists that German forces could cross the South Atlantic from West Africa to the Northeast of Brazil. So I put this generic world map up here so that you can just get a sense spatially of how close that proximity really is. So it’s only about 1,600 miles to cross the South Atlantic.
This is a moment when thinking about defense strategy is changing because of advances in aviation technology. So airplanes really shrink the distance between places and make US defense planners feel the nation is much more vulnerable than it’s ever been before. And so there was this scenario that was envisioned where German forces might cross the South Atlantic. There might be this fifth column of Nazi sympathizers already living throughout the region who would then receive them and help them in their pursuit, either of an attack on the Panama Canal, which is really important strategic asset for the US, or invade the United States.
And so defense planners called for the development of strategic airfields at really close intervals because aviation has advanced but still not that far. Planes still can’t fly that far. So that means you need a lot of airfields. And the objective was to be in a position to unilaterally defend the Americas from any kind of extra hemispheric aggression.
Now, the usual story about the US and Latin America in World War II is that it was this atypical moment of harmony in the Americas, this real high point. This is a poster from the war period produced by a US government agency that was circulated throughout the region. It’s the image that’s on my book cover. I believe I have the Spanish version on the book cover. This one’s in Portuguese. It was circulated throughout the region.
The first three decades of the 20th century had been a period marked by repeated US military intervention in the region. And these military interventions had fomented all kinds of anti-US sentiment. It well beyond the places in the Americas that experienced that intervention firsthand.
And during the early 1930s, for reasons that maybe I can’t fit into 15-minute spiel, but the US government pulls back from that interventionist tendency and reinvents US policy towards Latin America under the banner of the Good Neighbor Policy. The name of the policy is felt self-explanatory. But the basic premise is we’re not going to intervene in Latin American affairs anymore.
This was a development that Latin American jurists and diplomats had been seeking for decades through various different strategies. And so when the United States finally conceded to a principle of non-intervention in the region, it was seen as this huge boost to inter-American affairs. And that boost and the goodwill that it generated became really important in the late 1930s because there was this concern about Axis’ sympathies in the Americas. There was a sense that goodwill was now a national security imperative. They needed to push back against the anti-US imperialism that had become really baked into nationalism in different parts of the region during this era.
So ultimately, this– so this is all to contextualize why this moment of Pan American unity during World War II was seen as a departure. And ultimately, the American republics do band together in support of the Allied cause. Even the holdouts that wait until later in the war end up breaking ties with the Axis powers. Brazil and Mexico, both send soldiers to fight in the war. Many of the American republics that don’t send soldiers do declare war.
And so Pan American unity in the war is often described as a crowning achievement of the Good Neighbor Policy and one that is fatefully discarded when the Cold War brings new security concerns to the United States and then the US returns to interventionism. So that’s the typical narrative.
And so World War II with the exception of some key aspects of that story doesn’t get tons and tons of attention in the literature on US-Latin American relations, in part maybe because it’s atypical in a broader story that’s more organized around intervention. But in my book, I suggest that we’ve aired in taking more time cooperation at face value and also in dismissing postwar cooperation as a charade and that we might instead think about cooperation critically as a vital and dynamic field of contest in the Americas.
So I use basic to do that. And it works pretty well in my opinion because it was the most contentious form of cooperation. So there’s this whole menu of ways that the American Republics cooperate during the war. Hosting US bases is by far the most politically unpalatable.
And so the way that I found when I got into the archives, folks in the diplomatic sphere trying to navigate this difficult proposition, and then people on the ground who encounter US soldiers in their communities where US bases are hosted presented a lot of opportunities for thinking about the inherent tensions between national sovereignty and international cooperation between unequal partners.
So let me just tell you quickly about the book’s structure. I think I mentioned in the beginning that the book moves between scales. And this is in part because when I was in the archives and I was beginning to reconstruct these stories about the different spheres in which I saw conflicts over sovereignty playing out, it wasn’t just in diplomatic negotiations over basic. It was also in navigating newly won labor rights on defense construction sites.
It was in the nature of race relations in places where workforces were segregated. It was in how US-based authorities took it upon themselves to regulate prostitution in the communities surrounding basing sometimes in violation of local law and in fights over criminal jurisdiction and this question of, do Latin American authorities have retained the right to police the behavior of US personnel on their own soil? And if not, is that an infringement on sovereignty that’s unacceptable that’s at odds with the Good Neighbor Policy?
So the chapters in the book take an hourglass shape in terms of the scale that they’re operating at. I begin at the regional level, where I talk about the history of basing in the Americas and the problem of basing from the perspective of its various constituents. In chapter 2, I move into the bilateral realm, consider how Latin American heads of state and their foreign ministers negotiated the terms of US basing. Typically, they managed those appeals for basing rights by leveraging them, using them as bargaining chips to solicit all kinds of quid pro quo, economic and military aid that would help them to advance some of their own nation-building objectives during this period.
Latin American leaders were especially reluctant to accept any terms around basing that would openly diminish their nation’s territorial integrity or the principle of territorial sovereignty. So questions around jurisdiction were especially complicated. And remember, this is the beginning of the US basing establishing bases on sovereign peer nations.
So previously, the US had bases typically in colonial territories or places where the United States didn’t profess to respect the territorial sovereignty of that place. So the fact of the Good Neighbor rhetoric surrounding territorial sovereignty created a host of issues around how do we actually operate these bases and who’s in charge.
So what that meant in effect, particularly in the context of war, things are moving quickly. They’re trying to advance this defense construction without creating all kinds of backlash. The terms around governance were usually really vague in formal agreements and were often worked out on the ground.
So that’s where the subsequent four chapters go. They go to the ground. And they look at how these ad hoc governance systems were improvised at different places and built in the context that would best be most effective in each space.
For me, these middle chapters are really the heart of the book. While US and Latin American leaders managed to strike mutually beneficial agreements in the high political realm, problems on the ground, noise from below really routinely threaten that peace.
I’ve already described some of those conflicts– US defense contractors failing to observe newly won labor laws; race and nation-based segregation at defense sites; US soldiers violating local social norms or upsetting existing social practices, particularly in their engagements with local women; US-based authorities regulating prostitution; and then police and courts lacking the authority to police the behavior of US personnel.
So sometimes these conflicts were settled locally. But often, they required some kind of state intervention. A lot of times, you see people on the ground appealing to their own national leaders or directly to Franklin Roosevelt saying, this is really at odds with the Good Neighbor Policy, and using that language of the war to advocate for the ends that they sought.
The various resolutions that US and Latin American allies devise to resolve these conflicts tell us something about a problematic relationship between international and domestic politics that cooperation wrought. And this consequence for domestic politics that these international relationships precipitates is something that I’m really interested in.
You start to see a little bit of a pattern emerge over these chapters. With labor law, prostitution policy, and criminal jurisdiction, you see Latin American leaders who profess a nationalist defense of territorial sovereignty surrender jurisdiction in practice, even if they refuse to do it in principle. And so you see typically covert means by which, for example, labor laws can be suspended or imperfectly applied in ways that benefit US interests.
So then finally, in chapter 7, I zoom back out. I consider the fate of these wartime bases. Popular protests at the war’s end ultimately forced the evacuation of most of them. And I think a little bit about the legacy of wartime cooperation in the postwar era and moving into the Cold War.
I had a few notes about how this fits in the scholarship. But I think I might be pushing it on time. So I might save that for our discussion–
Oh, great. All right, well, maybe I’ll just say this a few words about where this fits in the scholarship. So I think I hinted at this when I first began speaking.
But with this book, I’m really building on a broader intellectual project that’s been underway for some time to restore Latin American agency to histories of US-Latin American relations, to push back against the idea that the United States is this all-powerful puppet master in the region that’s pulling the strings of dictators and the like but doing so in a way that doesn’t diminish the really great power asymmetries that shape relations in the region.
This is manifested in the scholarship in a number of ways that I think really lend themselves to a more nuanced consideration of cooperation as an analytic theme in the region’s past. One trend has been scholarship that recognizes Latin American dictators and other powerful elites as complex historical figures with their own agendas and interests and motivations in enlisting US power.
Another has been to look at the work of Latin American diplomats and jurists and intellectuals as architects of international governance. And then, there’s other scholarship that’s more focused on social and cultural histories and tends to be grounded in more of a bottom-up framework. Folks who have found that close encounters is one of the phrases from a leading book in this field with US power on the ground in Latin America to be an effective means for understanding the agency of less powerful people. So not just looking at diplomats and dictators but also folks who might disappear if you zoom out too much.
Resistance remains a popular analytic theme in those ground level accounts. But even that portrait of resistance often includes the ingenuity of ordinary people at channeling foreign resources to advance their own ends. So you see both with elites or people on the high political stage and folks on the ground these efforts to cooperate with the Colossus. So that’s why I have that kind of hokey title because this is something that I really am seeing in the work of others as well.
So in all of these distinct narratives, there’s this common pattern– Latin American actors trying to make the most of a partnership with powerful and well-resourced counterparts from the United States while also confronting and trying to mitigate the inequality that structures their relationships. So in regards to how my project fits, how the Good Neighbor era fits into this broader story, I believe that rather than mark a brief era bookended by periods of interventionism, World War II is better understood as an important pivot point in this longer story.
There’s a certain political economy of security cooperation that’s forged during the war that lives on as a really important legacy of the war in inter-American relations during the Cold War period and beyond. For US officials, security cooperation remains a more discreet mode of intervention, one that’s really born in this period that’s conventionally known for its non-interventionism.
So in other words, the book endeavors to rethink how the Good Neighbor era fits into the longer history of US-Latin American relations, not merely by demonstrating as others have that the period itself was riddled with intervention after all, though it was, or that the US simply innovated new tools for sustaining hegemony during this period, though it did, but by taking a wider angle lens to the history of the region that views intervention as one feature of this broader dynamic contest over US power and resources in the Americas.
Considering cooperation allows us to see how cooperation, which was envisioned by some in Latin America as this avenue for collapsing international hierarchy, also helps in practice to preserve that hierarchy. All right, I’ll stop there. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
[JULIO MORENO] Well, first and foremost, thank you for the invitation. And it’s truly an honor to have the opportunity to comment on your book. I don’t like to think of myself as a critic because I really, really enjoy reading the book. And it’s one of those books that you read consciously read slowly. And you really don’t want it to end. Because the way the different stories unfold throughout the book, it’s just amazing, very engaging.
So I had a hard time thinking about what can I say that would really highlight where the field is, how Rebecca really contributes to that field, and what are some of the questions, some long-term questions that I think we should consider as we look at this type of accounts that you provide for us. So I want to do that by highlighting the structure of the book, the way in which, Becca, you contribute at different points as literally in each chapter make significant contributions to the book.
And then I’m going to highlight at least three areas where I feel are– well, I have some questions that I would love to have you elaborate on, but also some questions that I think will be important for us in the audience to grapple with as we think about where the field of US-Latin American relations is and what we make of those encounters between Latin Americans and the United States.
So what you see here, it’s basically my way to sketch out what the book does. So if you could picture yourself to a two-parallel process, on the one hand, you have World War II and the Good Neighbor Policy and the US interests to make things work and get Latin Americans to cooperate mainly because of the urgency that World War II represents.
So if that’s on my right hand, that’s one parallel process that Becca brings in from literally the early 20th century to the 1940s. But on the other hand is the Latin American process, which is embedded within these calls for social reform, which is often expressed in popular protest and in pressure for social reform and this nationalist rhetoric and those domestic politics as well as the Good Neighbor Policy.
Those are the two pillars that are shaping how US diplomats, how Latin American political leaders behave, but most importantly, how people on the ground behave. And the contribution that you make has really engaged the way in which people at the very high level as well as on the ground, how they engage. They begin to use this language that is embedded within Latin America. But it’s also very keenly aware that the US government and different US government agencies have an interest in getting the cooperation of Latin Americans.
So stay with me for a minute because we have this parallel process that we bring all the way up to the 1940s. And that is what you see at the high level, if you look at the chart– at the top chart there. And then, you look at the two middle bubbles, so to speak.
You have the way in which Becca really engages the reader on how labor tensions on the ground are mitigated. And she does an amazing job looking at the way in which those conflicts often are resolved just in a variety of ways. But if you look at the way in which Latin American, especially Cuban workers engage, you have the display of that nationalist rhetoric, that display of labor reform without pressure to comply with labor policies that benefit the Cuban workers.
She knows there’s a disconnect between a progressive Cuban labor law, for example, in the late 1937, 1940s and the US labor policies that are applied at the basis. As workers navigate through that, they end up not only using just the Cuban judicial system, but even the US judicial system as well. So it’s an excellent contribution to the way we do transnational history. And she does an excellent job dissecting the different layers of that transnational system, including those judicial processes across countries, which is, again, very, very impressive.
But it’s not just progressive labor reform or the pressure to adopt progressive labor reform that is pushing for addressing these labor conditions at the military bases, the construction of military bases in Cuba in different parts of Latin America. It’s also race or better yet racism that in the case of Panama really is the driving force of labor tensions. She does an excellent job looking at the way– explaining the way in which people on the ground in Panama are really beginning to use US racist attitudes as a leverage to push for reforms at various levels.
So, again, stay with me for a minute. We have, again, the pressures in Latin America driven by calls for social reform, nationalism. We have the rhetoric of the Good Neighbor Policy and the urgency of the Cold War as those two pillars. Then you have labor tensions driven by social conditions, by labor legislation in Cuba. And in Brazil, for example, you have labor tensions driven by racial tensions, of racial issues in Panama.
So I’d like you to just stay with me here and go to the second two bubbles here. Because then, what Becca does is she looks at the way in which in the context of those two pillars that I just mentioned, what are the tensions that surface on the ground. And she looks at the way in which prostitution and the behavior of US servicemen in those military bases, why it serves as a source of conflict and how those conflicts are mediated.
And it’s a fascinating, fascinating story that really gets at those conflicts. On the other hand, the– and I lost [INAUDIBLE]. On this section here, she also looks at the way in which the jurisdiction over the crimes committed by those servicemen on the ground, how that gets worked out within Latin American systems.
Let me keep track of my time here. And as these conflicts unfold, one thing becomes clear. And that is that people on the ground resort to this notion that when it comes to the behavior or this, quote unquote, “disrespectful behavior” of your servicemen towards local culture, local traditions that often gets used and gets appropriate and then used by people on the ground to push for policies or very specific demands that they have.
Same thing when it comes to issues over jurisdiction over who should have– questions of who should have jurisdiction over the crimes that US servicemen commit on the ground.
I do want to move on– I’m keeping track of my time here. So I’m going to have to move on to the second part. The last bubble here is dealing with after World War II, what are the limits to both US and Latin Americans, what the limits in terms of pushing their agendas. And she highlights that there are a number of limits on both ends.
But I want to move on to– I was a critic. So some of the issues that I think I would love to hear more about or what I think is important for us to discuss. And one is that as scholars, when we want to bring out the agency of local people on the ground, it does require an incredible amount of pressure to balance, what happens on a number of factors.
And at least in my judgment, I felt that the book strikes for that balance, in most cases reaches a balance. But in some cases, it leaves some questions open. And I divided this into different sections.
The first one is the question of dealing with the weight we give to different actors on the ground. Becca does an outstanding job looking at how people on the ground in Latin America exercise that agency as they negotiate with the United States. I would have loved to hear a bit more on the German side.
We know that during World War II, there’s no doubt that Germany is scolding Latin Americans. And I think at different points, those questions become pretty relevant. For example, in the book, one of the issues that raised that question for me at least is that these arms agreement or sales that is happening between Brazil and Germany from 1938 to 1942.
And at different points, you note in the book that the United States held back in signing an arms agreement with the United States. And it begs that question. If the urgency that the US feels on the ground but the fear of German influence on the ground is so big, why would the US hold back in moving forward with an arms agreement with Brazil during this period? And I would love to hear more, Becca, on that section.
So balancing the role that different actors play on the ground, I think that is important. And to Becca’s credit, this is an extremely, extremely, extremely challenging task for those of us doing US-Latin American relations and looking at the nature of that encounter between people on the ground, people in high politics and how they negotiate with the United States.
The second item that I think when I comment the need to strike for that balance, it’s really that intersection, that intersection between what happens in the sociopolitical sphere within that broader cultural context. And there is– you do an amazing job highlighting the type of sources you use. Just fascinating. Very, very well researched.
You make an extremely compelling argument at the diplomatic side. By the sociopolitical– you make no secret this is a sociopolitical history. Yet, the question that surfaced as I was reading this account is the following– what about those stories?
What about if Latin Americans are using nationalism and this call for social reform to mobilize and pressure the US government as they are at the negotiating table, what about those Latin Americans who buy into the US our way of life, the American way of life in consumer culture? How much pressure do they provide? Or how much do politicians who are negotiating with the United States, how much attention do they put to those sectors of Latin American society that buy into the American way of life?
Again, it’s a question of balance and how much of that balance we bring into the narratives that we build as we focus specifically, as we zero in on the sociopolitical sphere. In other words, what is the intersection of the sociopolitical sphere with the cultural sphere As we write the history of those encounters? And for me, I think, at least this question– and I have to be honest– is partly driven by some of the very own research issues that surface for me. And let me just very quickly put this in perspective for you.
So you have this picture– and I know this is a few years later– a picture of Fidel Castro in 1959 delightfully sipping on Coca-Cola as he’s pushing for this revolutionary movement. And you can– these nationalist chants in the background. Do I focus in sociopolitical sphere? If so, what do I make of Castro buying into, again, the seductive nature of the American way of life in consumer culture?
So I do think for us as scholars looking at US-Latin American relations, that intersection, dissecting that intersection between the social and the political sphere and the broader cultural context, I think, is important. And I would love to, again, to center part of the conversation on that.
And last but not least, as I wrapping this up here, is the question of balance or how much agency we give to Latin Americans and US diplomats before or the period up to 1945 and the period after 1945. And, Becca, you do an excellent job at different parts of the book leaving an open-ended, which I think is critical.
I think it is important for those of us who are focused on looking at agency. And the extent to which Latin Americans are attempting to shape conditions, it is important to keep it open-ended. And you make no secret that the different points of the book we leave it open-ended.
Here are some of the conclusions or some of the questions that surface as we’re going through the book with the following– if Latin Americans and US diplomats were so clever, a play in the diplomatic game up to 1945, and if we have this urgency by 1947, especially when some of the US military bases up close, if they’re so clever negotiating and making things work, even using national political leaders– as you go through the book, you’ll see the Latin American political leaders, they use popular protests and nationalism as a tool to get the US to gain more from the United States.
So they were so clever in negotiating. Why did they lose that diplomatic mojo that they had before 1945? What changed? And I think this is a fascinating question. And it really opening a new lines of– new lines of research inquiries as we look at the 1940s.
And I do think it is important. Because when we come full circle, if we look at the nature of US-Latin American relations from the late 1900s to the 1940s, the questions of Pan Americanism and the creation of the OAS, I think there’s a lot there that we could uncover. But I did have some of those questions. And I’m going to stop there because I believe my time is up. But thank you for the invitation. And I look forward to the conversation. [APPLAUSE]
[REBECCA HERMAN] –for so long. And you think all along the way, will anyone read this [INAUDIBLE]? So it’s really good to have you to come to this book fresh, not having read them before and really connect with it. And–
Yeah. So I mean, I just– what a moment. I’m so thrilled to have had you both read so carefully and to really connect with the work. I’m very grateful. And really grateful for all of those really provocative questions. I hope we can continue the conversation after because I only want to take a couple of minutes so that folks have time to ask questions.
But gosh. So where do you even begin? I mean, you both picked up on this question of the transition to the postwar period. So maybe I’ll just say something about that, which is, Julio, to your question about, well, if they were so savvy, what changed? Or why didn’t they carry that clever use of these techniques into the postwar period?
And a big thing is what changed was the context they were operating in. And so you do see these strategies persist into the postwar period. They’re just not as effective because of a couple of things. One, the US doesn’t care as much about Latin America for a period of time as it did during the war.
So this belief that actively cultivating goodwill in the region is important to the United States’ best interest, that context goes away. And so a lot of the leverage goes away. But you still see folks using the same language of US security concerns to advance their requests and to try to say, no, you should really invest in these development projects. Or you should really invest in this or that thing because it’s going to be good for your interests.
It’s just not as compelling when the United States is now focused on Europe and Asia and Latin America doesn’t regain that super important place in US strategic thinking until really the Cuban Revolution. And the other thing that changes the nature of the threat that defense strategists are obsessed with, it’s no longer an extra hemispheric invasion that would require this kind of infrastructural investment when the shift is really more about counterinsurgency and the fear of Communist infiltration.
The nature of military aid changes the nature of that particular threat changes what US resources are available. So I think one of the three lines that I see when I look at other periods and I’m thinking about this idea of cooperation with the United States is something worth taking seriously is people playing the best hand that they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. And those cards change.
So I think that’s part of the story. This question about sovereignty, I think, is so important. When I was thinking about where to focus my attention is also thinking about the meaningful differences between how Cuba and Panama experience this or people there did compared to Brazil, which didn’t have that experience of US occupation and intervention.
You’re right that– so Guantanamo, Puerto Rico, the Canal Zone are always a little bit present. And for US defense strategists, the British colonies in the Caribbean, all these places are super important because the way that they can advance their interests there are different because of this question of sovereignty. So I tried to– I mean, Guantanamo is this kind of like shadow cast over the entire undertaking.
So much of what has to happen is for people to show this isn’t just the proliferation of Guantanamos across the region. And so it’s present in that way. But I wonder if I had said, OK, I’m going to take Roosevelt Roads as one of my case studies if that could have been a really interesting opportunity for thinking even more about what sovereignty really means and what international hierarchy looks like in this period.
And I think that’s certainly something worth thinking about. There was a summer where a handful of folks working on US basing in different parts of the world were being convened by Paul Kramer to have these Zoom seminars where we would swap work. And it was really interesting because there are people who are working on US basing in Okinawa, in Japan, in Germany. Totally different context.
And seeing how these sets of challenges around governance manifested in different places was really rewarding. But I think probably certainly would have pushed my own limits and pushed me beyond the limits of my capabilities. I’ll sit down, and I invite questions.
[ELENA SCHNEIDER] Thank you for those fantastic comments and a great response and [INAUDIBLE], Rebecca. Do we have any questions in the room? And also, on Zoom, if you have a question. I’m seeing [INAUDIBLE].
Zoom, if you have a question.
Oh, was it that thing?
People on Zoom, if you have a question, please feel free to submit it.
–for the Q&A.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Go ahead. Thank you. Thank you so much for this wonderful presentation of the book. I haven’t read it. So the question has to do with the negotiations by the political elite. So on the upper level but how did they use their negotiations with you as Americans for their national politics? So it’s in between the local level and the high–
[REBECCA HERMAN] Yeah, thank you. How’s that? Is that good? Yeah, so I think the chapter titles like high politics and horse trading– and there is a lot of really quid pro quo, not as cynical as that sounds like legitimately, for example, the Brazilian government saying, well, if you really want us to be equal partners in defense, we need modern weapons. And modernization of security forces is a really important nation building objective at this moment.
And so this question about– there’s some really great scholarship. Brazil is one area in Latin America that has had a really sizable amount written on this period in part because Julio Vargas did this really amazing job of playing the global context to his advantage. So he negotiated arms deals with Germany that really alarmed folks in the US.
So then, the US government stepped forward and said, no, no, no, maybe we can help you get the things that you need. But part of the problem wasn’t the will. It was the practical ability to do it, figuring out how to do it legally, where the weapons would come from. Eventually, the Lend-Lease Act enables a lot more movement of those kinds of materials.
But at one point, I think the best they could do was prevent German shipments from being stopped. So military aid was one of the examples. Then the investment in various parts of industry. So Volta Redonda, which was this really important symbol of economic nationalism in Brazil, a steel mill, was built with financing from the US investment in the revitalization of the rubber industry in Brazil because this is valuable to the United States’ strategic interest rate– the need for rubber during World War II.
And then there were all kinds of ways that were coming from the United States but then could be channeled towards areas of interest. So, for example, the US invested in public health infrastructure and thought of this as advantageous on a couple of levels. One was to protect the health of US servicemen. Another was to protect the health of rubber workers so that they didn’t get sick and stop being productive. And then another was on this goodwill level. If the United States is contributing to aid Brazil in the development of public health capabilities, then that was a positive thing.
So I mean, I have a three-year-old and a six-year-old. And we’re still trying to brainwash them to the idea that cooperation is just a family value and a social good. But I think cooperation is really an effective way to get what you want. And so you see that on both sides of these negotiations, trying to find places where security interests dovetail with nation-building objectives.
And if I may– I mean, the evidence you provide for that quid pro quo is just very impressive. You definitely dive into providing that evidence for those type of– that type of interaction.
Thanks, yeah. And in the Brazilian case, I really relied on the work of Frank McCann. I mean, there are some great folks who are really interested in military history who have done a lot of the heavy lifting there. But then in some cases, it was really digging into those diplomatic archives and that sort of thing. Yeah.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Becca, thank you– is this on? OK, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about your chapter on prostitution regulation and policy. Because when I think about– when I teach on US imperial policy in Puerto Rico and I’m thinking about Laura Briggs’s work and that kind of adaptation of British, I guess, prostitution regulation policies and then how that changes in 1917, I’m wondering how your chapter might help me speak to that and also reframe it and bring it towards World War II. Like, how would you connect those histories for an undergraduate audience?
[REBECCA HERMAN] Thanks, that’s a great question, Bernadette. So that chapter became a broad umbrella sex chapter, where the second half is really devoted to prostitution and the first half is looking more at gender relations and changing social customs and the establishment of USO clubs, which were new, and conflicts that those created particularly in Brazil where US officials were eager to encourage US servicemen to have wholesome recreation options where they could engage with women from elite families who were perceived to be less likely to carry disease and keep them away from red light districts. And that created all kinds of tensions.
The section on prostitution thinks about– well, this overwhelming concern about military readiness and venereal disease led to, on the one hand, creation of wholesome recreation options, on the other hand, efforts to sanitize prostitution. And the way that this connects back to this threat of sovereignty is that this is a period where Latin American nations– well, nations around the world are still trying to think like, what is the most effective, most modern way to deal with sex work?
Do you try to have a policy of suppression and abolition? Do you criminalize it? Do you not prohibit it but decriminalize it? And so all of those questions are ongoing in each of the places that I’m looking at. And the war department’s official policy is suppression– keep US soldiers away from prostitutes. But ultimately, at each place, there’s these really tailored to the local contacts based on what the red light districts look like, policies for managing sex work and US soldiers access to sex workers.
And so I think it intersects a little bit with that earlier scholarship and that it’s not an imperial context. But it is grappling with how US officials do or don’t respond to the reality of local jurisdictions. I don’t know.
I’d be curious to talk to you about this after. Maybe I can send you the chapter and just that section. We can think about how they connect. Yeah, that’s a good question. And it goes back to this question of when you’re the sovereign versus non-sovereign space and how the story looks different.
Yeah. No, that’s a great question. I mean, I think there’s more on this, the environmental history of US military bases during the Cold War period. And it’s possible that my next book will have a chapter that thinks about this. Well, we’ll talk after. But [INAUDIBLE] is one of the places that would be an obvious place to think through these problems.
But in terms of the environmental consequences of this moment, I didn’t dedicate any space in the book to it. There’s some about in terms of the afterlives of the bases of what happens to these airfields. Most of them become national airports or national military bases. One of them was one of the airfields that the aerial support for the Bay of Pigs Invasion was supposed to bomb. It was supposed to be one of their aerial targets.
But I guess the short answer is not with this project. Maybe the future project. John Lindsay-Poland has a book about it in Panama specifically. Also, when it comes to testing weapons and the environmental fallout of that. But just in terms of paving the airfields, I didn’t see a lot of discussion of the environmental harm that that would cause. That’s a good question.
[ELENA SCHNEIDER] Well, thank you, everyone. This has been a really fascinating conversation. Thank you, Rebecca, for writing this fantastic book. Thank you, Julio and José Juan for those wonderful comments and all of you for being present and engaging. Thank you. Thank you.