“It is good also not to try experiments in states.”
—Francis Bacon

As a term, imperialism underwent a number of visions and revisions at the turn of the century when the fact itself was receding. There was Bernard Bosanquet’s British interpretation and, in France, the Baron de la Seilliere’s multivolume opus. Such were radically redefined by Lenin in 1916 and it is from one of his pockets that Morris Morley’s brick of a book emerges (128 pages of small-print footnotes, and if the author read every entry in his bibliography he can have done little else in life). The whole churns out of the graduate carrels of the Department of Sociology of the State University of New York at Binghampton. I have long felt that doctoral dissertations should be franked with readership warnings—THIS BOOK MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR INSOMNIA—and Morley’s is predictably leaden reading of the kind accomplished with gritted teeth, holding hard to the arms of one’s chair. One chews at a sofa bed whose infrastructure is this:

The US government, conceived of as the imperial state, is viewed as the engine of a Geoffrey Wagner’s latest book, Red Calypso, is a study of Cuban adventurism in the Caribbean. worldwide system of capital accumulation. . . . The imperial state does not function on the basis of its own inner logic, but responds to the interests and demands of capitalists seeking to move capital abroad and to pursue accumulation . . . it seeks to maintain and, if necessary, recreate (by destabilizing political regimes, by electoral intervention) the optimal environment for capital accumulation and expansion in particular Third World societies.

Which is to say that since America has never had an empire, nor acquired territories of late, you can only call it imperial, by Orwellian law and Leninist praxis, in view of its virtue (or vice) of capital accumulation. This sophistry is convenient, since not only does it duck Russian land or proxy possession, it can indict every aspect and agency of the US government, down to the Department of Commerce (guilty of promoting our exports). For these agencies create a “universe within which multinational capital operates” and capital export is here seen as invariably “economic, coercive, and ideological” (despite extra-American global factors). Lend someone money and it is tainted with ideological pressures (tell that to Citibank of its lost African and South American loans). In fact, America is considered heartlessly stingy when it does not scatter dollars abroad and brutal when it calls in its debts.

Morley substantiates his theory by instancing American economic coercion of, chiefly, Cuba. From the downfall of the second Batista presidency on, his documentation is very thorough and shows, as expected, case after case of missed American opportunities. There is bias in the presentation—not all Cubans would agree that Castro’s 1959 courts carried out a “relatively limited number of executions,” while Fidel’s adventures in Angola and Grenada are served up through Cuban sources (quite incorrect in the latter case); but by the time one has slogged through this hands-off-everything recital of dollar diplomacy one cannot help being left with a certain gratitude for US interventions on behalf of its borders and threatened nationals. After all, Russia does not have a hostile island arsenal 90 miles off its shores, nor do we indict Japan for overseas capital accumulations (in America, no less).

Imperialism turns into a mere buzzword, for there can be no comparison between Soviet physical coercion since World War II and American economic chess games. Eisenhower, Morley cites with shock, “refused to trust the Russians to even the slightest degree.” That’s “bourgeois morality” for you. In short, the ammunition Morley so assiduously assembles for his thesis could, in other hands, support its opposite. Turn it around and you have Chapman Pincher’s The Secret Offensive. Morley’s source book shows sociology once again as the enemy of free enterprise (v. David Marsland’s Seeds of Bankruptcy).

Supported by another university, good old Rutgers, Tom Farer’s critique of our foreign policy seems to see Russia as less of a threat than Jeane Kirkpatrick. The book is sown with excitable attacks on our former UN ambassador, who has “given aid and comfort to the butchers at the gate of change.” We are told of “the sneering brutality of her own polemics” which rest “on an almost demented parody of Latin American political realities.” Her prose is “hysterical” with “a heroic indifference to detail,” while “her own insensitivity to real contexts is stupefying.” She is “rabidly dogmatic,” guilty of “simple mendacity,” and so on. One gets the impression that these hate phrases have been taste-tested for lyrical malice on the author’s envious tongue before committal to print.

Despite this litany of gibes, the book is an impressive piece of research, if sharing in the contradictions it indicts. Its central section addresses the apparently insoluble conflict between human rights norms and egalitarian reform, a rural Central American peasantry being tied to the outgoing oligarchy (even voting for the same), while rights advocacy actually diminishes their welfare.

Still and all, it is hard to swallow some of Farer’s generalizations, e.g.: “the Mossadeq and Arbenz regimes had indisputably democratic credentials. Certainly, their claim to be representative governments was, at a minimum, no less persuasive than that of the present government of El Salvador.” In a ridicule of the domino theory in Southeast Asia, we learn that Thailand and Malaysia “have never been more securely upright.” And that Mexico is a “conservative capitalist” country. As a general rule, “[s]ome leftist governments may arise. But the experience of the last 20 years demonstrates that they will pursue their own interests and eventually accommodate with the West.” Really? When we further read that “authoritarian-socialist regimes do not as a group display a strong tendency to produce economic stagnation” (Cuba being accorded a high economic grade), we wonder whose is the “demented parody” here. Colombia is misspelt throughout (except in the index), Brazil is not properly a Latin country, and the absurd Lumumba is lauded.

The book ends with a detailed section on overseas interventions. Here one must have serious quarrels. Jean- François Revel long ago shot down the equivalence theory, e.g., that US “occupation” of the Dominican Republic could in any way be called similar to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (how many land mines and mutilated children did we leave behind in the former?). Reading “that a mobilized, politically aware population will not for long submit to government by junta, even a junta which enjoys the glamour of military victory and employs egalitarian rhetoric,” one thinks of Cuba and Guyana. And is it true that “never in its entire modern history has the United States supported a revolution against tyrannies of the Right”? The shades of Somoza, Batista, Marcos, and Duvalier rise up to protest. Despite such cavils, I was always interested in Farer’s book; the trouble was I couldn’t find anything decisive in it. No wonder he was a university president. Thank heavens he was never secretary of state.

Tim Ashby could, and should, be. Still in his early 20’s, this brilliant Heritage Foundation policy analyst has produced by far the best book of the three, a closely researched study of Russia in the Caribbean. It is principally devoted to Cuban vassalage since Moscow started giving the area the benefit of its attention circa 1960, with a coda on Soviet power probes into Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guyana, and Suriname. A depressing lack of resolve on our part emerges, from Herbert Matthews’ New York Times comment of 1957 that “there is no communism to speak of in Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement,” to Carter’s “no need to panic.”

The detailed documentation Ashby adduces of hostile Russian armament just off our southern shores is compelling and makes books like Farer’s academic in all senses. Imagine the same off Murmansk. And now Nicaragua, with by far the largest armed force in Central America, lies athwart the isthmus itself. After all, America bought the Virgin Islands for their geostrategic importance when its southern flank was far less vulnerable than it is today. Our present answer to this threat seems to be to appoint as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere a congressman who abstained from the 416-0 House vote in 1983 condemning the Russian shooting down of Korean Airlines 007, and who filed suit against Reagan for liberating Grenada.

Ashby delineates this situation with passion and grace, reminding us that originally the Cuban Communist Party worked with Batista (to topple Prio) until Fidel saw Leninism as the road to power rather than a mere creedal conviction. In a final chapter Ashby strikes a note of cautious optimism despite recent developments in Mexico (which sheltered Castro’s exile base and assisted the Ortegas as well as Grenada’s Maurice Bishop). There have been external rescues from proxy communisms (postwar Malaya, Grenada) but none mounted from within, yet Ashby shows that the momentum of Russian imperialism has at least been halted here and there (Suriname, El Salvador, Angola) in a way that augurs some optimism about Nicaragua. The bear’s bank vault is not bottomless. Let us stretch it all we can. All in all, Ashby’s book is splendid background to doubtless forthcoming confrontations in the field and thoroughly deserves its six printings and book club choice. Resolve is all.


[Imperial State and Revolution: The United States and Cuba, 1952-1986, by Morris H. Morley; New York: Cambridge University Press]

[The Grand Strategy of the United States in Latin America, by Tom J. Farer; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books]

[The Bear in the Backyard: Moscow’s Caribbean Strategy, by Timothy Ashby; Lexington, MA: Lexington Books]