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Reviewed by:
  • The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships
  • William Crotty
David F. Schmitz , The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 263 pp.

This study is related to, and in many respects is a continuation of, David F. Schmitz's earlier Thank God They're on Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921–1965. Schmitz is a diplomatic historian and the holder of the Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History at Whitman College. In the related study, he argued that from the 1920s through the Vietnam War U.S. governments, despite claiming to be promoting democracy worldwide, allied themselves with authoritarian governments. The rationale was that such dictatorships promoted U.S. economic and strategic interests by ensuring stability, order, and predictability. He claims that this not only ran counter to the country's professed intent to spread democracy, but more often than not placed the United States on the "wrong side of history."

After World War II the justification was to contain Soviet Communist expansion. [End Page 157] One consequence was an inbred hostility to nationalist forces in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. To achieve broader strategic objectives, the United States demonstrated a commitment to provide weapons, economic subsidies, diplomatic support, and training in military and interrogation methods to such dictatorships, regardless of the repressiveness of their regimes. On occasion and as deemed necessary, the United States was willing to invade countries (the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, etc.) when it believed the prevailing order was under attack.

The culmination of this thinking, evidenced in both Republican and Democratic administrations, was Vietnam, where the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations chose to assume the legacy of French colonialism, opposing indigenous Communist nationalist forces and making the war in Southeast Asia a U.S war. The rationale was to contain Communism. The legacy of the war remains with us.

Schmitz sees in the Vietnam experience another legacy: a rejection of the passivity, submissiveness, and unquestioned trust of the 1950s and earlier decades and an increased public willingness to challenge and oppose the tradition of support for corrupt, inefficient, and often brutal anti-democratic regimes.

The newer study overlaps with and extends the arguments of the previous book, tracing the evolving emphasis on questioning official justifications of decision-makers bound by the traditions of power politics and the commitments of the past. The resulting struggle of opposing visions within the government had—and will continue to have—major consequences for the current and future U.S. role in the world, for perceptions of what constitutes a national threat, for U.S. relations with developing countries, and for the integrity of U.S. commitments to promote human rights.

Relying on impressively thorough research in primary sources, Schmitz develops these themes in assessments of Cold War decision-making and policies (the study extends from the 1960s to the 1980s). The quality of official decision-making and the assumptions made, once documented, can be disturbing. Many of the cases covered in the book are now largely forgotten, at least in the United States: the Kennedy administration's actions in South America; the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administration's policies in Africa, including the disastrous support of the corrupt, repressive Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo/Zaire; the commitments of numerous U.S. presidents to white minority governments in South Africa and Rhodesia; the support for the takeover by the colonels in Greece; the Nixon-Kissinger "madmen" psychology in Vietnam (Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese to assume he was an uncontrollable, irrational, anti-Communist, hence the illegal bombing of Cambodia); the embrace of Suharto in Indonesia; the support provided by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for coups overthrowing elected leaders in Guatemala and Chile. The list goes on and on.

The contradictions in policy and the assumptions underlying such actions serve to reinforce Schmitz's arguments. A few examples illustrate the nature of the problem. On Vietnam, the critics (a vocal constituency but one with seemingly little influence on government thinking) saw "the war as immoral and damaging to American values and institutions. The United States was supporting a military dictatorship in Saigon that was corrupt, ineffective...


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pp. 157-160
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