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We Answer Only to God: Politics and the Military in Panama, 1903-1947 (review)
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Hispanic American Historical Review 79.3 (1999) 568-569

Book Review

We Answer Only to God:
Politics and the Military in Panama, 1903-1947

National Period
We Answer Only to God: Politics and the Military in Panama, 1903-1947. By Thomas L. Pearcy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998. Maps. Tables. Figures. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xvi, 231 pp. Cloth, $45.00.

Much of Latin American history portrays Panamanian national life as a by-product of Spanish, Colombian, French, and United States hegemonic policy. In the early 1980s, geographic determinism -- the isthmus as a convenient commercial terminus, or as a site for a good dig -- gave way to Panamanian nationalism as the focal theme. By the late 1980s, revisionism had moved onward to focus upon militarized isthmian politics, culminating in Operation Just Cause in 1989.

In We Answer Only to God, Thomas L. Pearcy connects, as he states, "the social history literature with the institutional literature," thus seeking "to situate the military more fully within the broader context of a sovereign, independent republic." Between 1960 and 1962, this reviewer was a United States Army officer in the old Panama Canal Zone, and was privileged to hear the young captain Omar Torrijos and other officers of the Panamanian Guardia Nacional articulate their dreams for an authentic nation-state. Pearcy here shines his interpretive light on subsequent events that might be called a politics of police praetorianism, but he also derives a theory showing that Panamanian police praetorianism from 1967 to 1989 had authentic roots that dated from earlier times.

The section on colonial history is a survey. In it the author argues that incipient Panamanian nationalism was thwarted by Spanish colonial policy. This trend, he states, continued when Colombian efforts to create a constitutional republic with a capital at Bogotá translated into military control over independence-minded Panamanians. This section also evaluates United States security measures in Colombian Panama that were instituted between the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty of 1846 and the 1903 treaty that produced both rights to the canal and the U.S.-friendly client-state known as the Republic of Panama.

Pearcy then shows that after 1903, the efforts by United States leaders to create a legitimate police institution constituted an alternative to the Caribbean and Central American revolving-door golpismo so prevalent in that era. The stage is set for an original thesis, the emergence of the police institution as the legitimate vehicle for Panamanian nationalism between 1931 and the advent of World War II security measures from 1940 to 1942.

Police commanders José Remón and Bolívar Vallarino were thus part of an established political and economic vehicle in the post-World War II era, praetorians who made and unmade politicians. But they were also guardians of a Panamanian nationalism that did not fit the United States regional paradigm for Panama as a tranquil place from which to operate a neutral and vital waterway. As Pearcy suggests, Omar Torrijos's rising star came from this tradition and was in no way idiosyncratic.

The historian who would evaluate Manuel Noriega as a powerful, nationalist, corrupt meglomaniac, or as a Cold War opportunist, can employ Pearcy's revisionist paradigm to good stead. Pearcy's linking of isthmian social forces in the 1930s to the police institution as spear carrier for authentic Panamanian nationalism between 1967 and 1989 is a splendid and welcome contribution to Latin American history. This book is a model for the analysis of civil-military relations within developing nations in general, and within client-state nations in particular.

Russell W. Ramsey
United States Army School of the Americas