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American Quarterly 58.3 (2006) 662-691

Imperial Mechanics:
South America's Hemispheric Integration in the Machine Age
Ricardo D. Salvatore

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Figure 1
The Kiss of the Oceans postcard, ca. 1911 © Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis.
[End Page 662]

The nations all await
Our coming, with their portals opened freely;
They are Republics, each our sister State,
And down the world, from Mexico to Chili,
The railway's mutual commerce should pulsate.

—F. D. Carpenter, "From Zone to Zone," in H. R. Helper, The Three Americas Railway (1881), 284, 286

The airplane, more than any other means of transportation, has overcome Latin America's geography. It was the airplane that finally conquered the towering mountains, bottomless swamps, and dense jungles. More than rails or roads or rivers, planes helped solve our neighbor's transportation problems.

—Delia Goetz, Neighbors to the South (1941), 116

The rise of the machine as the dominant representation of U.S. superiority and supremacy in the Western Hemisphere corresponded with the transition in the form of conceptualizing empire: from Manifest Destiny in the mid-nineteenth century to Benevolent Informal Empire (Good Neighbor Policy) in the fourth decade of the twentieth century. The railroad, the automobile, and the airplane represent different moments in the evolution of U.S. technology and were used, at each moment, to deploy U.S. claims to technological and cultural superiority. In addition to affirming U.S. dominance, these technological "marvels" were crucial to envisioning ways of integrating Central and South America into the sphere of U.S. commerce and influence. Subsequent imaginaries of transportation systems uniting the three Americas—the Pan-American Railroad, the Pan-American Highway, and Pan American Airways—constituted projections of U.S. machine civilization into the terrain of inter-American relations. I call these visions "transportation utopias" to emphasize their fictional and comprehensive [End Page 663] nature and also to underscore the displacement of machine magic to the nonplace of "Pan-America," a virtual space created at the conjuncture of foreign policy principles, business expansionism, and knowledge enterprises.

"Imperial mechanics" refers to the interrelationship between imaginaries of empire and conceptions of machine-civilization. My use of this concept responds to the necessity to connect the two notions in a way that allows us a better understanding of U.S. hegemonic conceptions and policies with regard to Latin America. "Imperial mechanics" is a cognitive and rhetorical displacement of "hard machines" (railroads, automobiles, airplanes, canals) into the terrain of Pan-Americanism and informal empire, a field usually associated with the "soft machine" of inter-American conferences, political pronouncements about peace and security, bureaucratic bargaining, and hemispheric propaganda. This essay shows the extent to which U.S. visions of hemispheric integration were built upon notions of connectivity, circulation, and modernity that promoters and policymakers considered embedded in machines.

The construction of the Panama Canal (1904–1914), an engineering achievement of gargantuan proportions, marked the ascent of the United States to a position of international leadership. A Herculean mechanical force that separated the continent into two, creating a passage between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, gave the United States enhanced naval control of the "American Mediterranean" and heightened the intensity of international navigation and commerce by reducing transportation distances and costs. 1 Paradoxically, this engineering marvel was presented as a monument to hemispheric unity and cooperation. Displaced into the terrain of inter-American relations, the Panama Canal was expected to render an additional service: to present to the Latin American neighbors U.S. technological superiority as a mechanical, visible fact. It was a spectacular machine that authorized the United States to speak as the new hemispheric hegemon.

This essay examines the role of these crucial mechanical constructs—"spectacular machines" and "transportation utopias"—in the making of imaginaries of hemispheric integration that functioned as the foundations of Pan-Americanism. They were two moments of a broader use of "hard machines" to reconfigure inter-American relations, at a time in which U.S. foreign-policymakers embraced a notion of hemispheric hegemony...


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