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  • Tracking the Cold War in Latin America
  • William Michael Schmidli (bio)
Hal Brands . Latin America's Cold War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. 385 pp. Figures, notes and index. $29.95.
Stephen G. Rabe . The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xxxvii + 247 pp. Chronology, notes, recommendations for further reading and research, and index. $19.95.

In an influential 2003 survey of recent scholarship on U.S.-Latin American relations, Max Paul Friedman asserted that, after decades of intellectual jostling with advocates of the orthodox or nationalist position, revisionist scholars had come to dominate the field. "It is now unusual" Friedman wrote, "to come across a work of history that strongly argues the merit of U.S. policies in the region or claims these have been designed principally to protect and promote freedom and democracy."1 Yet if revisionist scholarship still revolved around the "tragic idiom" first articulated by William Appleman Williams, Friedman continued, the field was nonetheless in the midst of a dynamic evolution. Reflecting broader trends in U.S. foreign relations scholarship, studies of U.S.-Latin American relations increasingly incorporated multinational (and multilingual) research and revealed a willingness to consider non-U.S. perspectives and an emphasis on Latin American agency. As a result, "their findings question some conventional wisdom about U.S. power," Friedman concluded, "including elements of the revisionist synthesis that depicted the United States as a regional hegemon, a 'core' nation to the Latin American 'periphery,' or—to take any one of the familiar images—a puppetmaster pulling the strings of puppet leaders, a central planet orbited by satellites, or the manipulator of client states."2

Nine years later, Hal Brands' Latin America's Cold War reveals just how far scholarship on U.S.-Latin American relations has moved in the direction anticipated by Friedman. The breadth of Brands' research is impressive: forty archives in thirteen countries—including ten Latin American nations. The scope of Latin America's Cold War is equally ambitious: Brands describes his book as the first "multiarchival, international" history to assess the entire Cold War era in Latin America. Both "multinational and multilayered," Latin America's [End Page 332] Cold War "deals seriously with all sides of the diplomatic and transnational struggles that occurred during this period," Brands writes, and it weaves diverse perspectives "from the highest echelons of superpower diplomacy to the everyday negotiation of social and political relationships—into an understanding of how the global, the regional, and the local interacted in shaping Latin America's Cold War" (p. 2).

As a result, Latin America's Cold War offers a sharp corrective to revisionist studies that situate the projection of U.S. political, economic, and military power into Latin America at the heart of the conflict. The U.S. effort to prevent communist inroads in the hemisphere, Brands contends, was just one facet in a "series of overlapping conflicts" that buffeted Latin America during the Cold War era, including longstanding social, political, and economic struggles and the ideological impact of decolonization and the emergence of the Third World (p. 7). Far from exerting unchallenged hemispheric hegemony, he continues, U.S. Cold War policymakers struggled to contain the initiatives of their Soviet and Cuban counterparts in Latin America in a competition for influence marked by "substantial symmetry" (p. 262). Moreover, even U.S. success in shaping Latin American allies was decidedly limited; not only were the region's "shrewder statesmen as likely to manipulate as to be manipulated by the United States," Brands writes, but U.S. Cold War initiatives had a limited impact on anticommunist Latin American policymakers and military leaders, who needed "no coaching on the dangers of internal violence and upheaval" (pp. 257, 81).

With its emphasis on Latin American agency and sensitivity to the many players and layers that shaped the Cold War in Latin America, Brands' book stands as a model of international history. But does Latin America's Cold War go too far in decentering the role of the United States? In striving for balance, nuance, and complexity, does Brands assign too much agency to Latin America relative to the enormous power...


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pp. 332-338
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