Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2024 > Teresa Huhle. Review of Cooperating with the Colossus: A Social and (...)

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 16-17, April 20, April 27, 2024

Teresa Huhle. Review of Cooperating with the Colossus: A Social and Political History of US Military Bases in World War II by Rebecca Herman

Saturday 20 April 2024



Cooperating with the Colossus: A Social and Political History of US Military Bases in World War II Latin America

by Rebecca Herman

Oxford University Press

2022. 320 pp.
(paper), ISBN 978-0-19-753187-7

During World War II, the United States Army deployed aircrafts and troops in sixteen Latin American countries, utilizing existing defense sites, but more importantly, constructing numerous new bases. Focusing on Brazil, Panama, and Cuba, Rebecca Herman examines the history of the negotiations accompanying base construction, the construction phase itself, and the subsequent use of the bases. She provides a unique combination of diplomatic, military, and day-to-day perspectives on the inter-American relations among the “Good Neighbors,” a term famously coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1933 inauguration speech when outlining his foreign policy approach toward Latin America. Roosevelt’s commitment to respecting the sovereignty of the republics south of the Rio Grande aimed to conclude decades of interventions, particularly in the Caribbean and Central America.

Rebecca Herman’s work demonstrates that, in the aftermath of World War II, the sovereignty of Latin American republics remained intact in theory, but not on the grounds of the military bases and their surrounding areas. Negotiating this delicate balance was essential, given that potential Axis invasion scenarios often included Latin American collaboration. Consequently, ensuring Latin American loyalty became a strategic defense objective, as also evidenced by research on the Office of Inter-American Affairs’ cultural and social influence in the region during that period.[1]

Cooperating with the Colossus is a profound exploration of a neglected period in twentieth-century US-Latin American relations. The study integrates classic international and diplomatic history with a bottom-up social history perspective, immersing the reader in the local contexts of places such as Belém in northern Brazil, Camagüey in Cuba, and the Panamanian Canal Zone. Here, the notion of inter-American cooperation among unequal partners in the joint fight against Axis aggressors was no abstract concept, but a daily experience of “close encounters of empire.”[2] A dialogue with this eponymous influential volume from 1998 comes to mind when starting to read Herman’s monograph; it comes as no surprise that she also explicitly connects her study to the research tradition that the volume coined.

In Herman’s history, the empire was present with aircrafts and uniforms, and close encounters happened in the bases at which locals worked and in the villages and towns where US soldiers and civilians moved around on- and off-duty. Both here and at state levels, Herman aims to portray “Latin American actors trying to make the most of partnerships with powerful and well-resourced counterparts” (p. 5). The diverse range of these Latin American actors portrayed by Herman is impressive. Additionally, she also shows that the empire spoke with different voices, when analyzing the discord among US commanders at the bases, diplomats, and officials in the War and State Departments.

Despite these various levels of analysis and actors considered, Herman’s core argument is straightforward and best summarized with two related and recurring pairs of terms: sovereignty and cooperation, and principle and practice. Her assertation that “though national sovereignty and international cooperation are compatible concepts in principle, they are difficult to reconcile in practice” serves as the overarching framework for her argumentation throughout the book (p. 3). Furthermore, Herman underscores that the southern neighbors—Brazil, Panama, and Cuba—were “careful to preserve national sovereignty in principle and proclaim it in rhetoric, [yet] leaders of these countries quietly and selectively diminished sovereignty in practice” (p. 9). Latin American leaders were committed to Good Neighborliness; they were also interested in pretending it when yielding to US demands that significantly strained this principle (p. 33).

Herman advances her argument by structuring the book thematically. Two top-down chapters set the ground; four gripping bottom-up chapters delve into conflicts around labor rights, racial discrimination, sex work, and jurisdiction over US soldiers. A seventh chapter offers a brief examination of the postwar history of the bases—properties that the United States sought to keep, but which Latin American leaders successfully nationalized in 1946 and 1947. Each chapter draws from a mix of diplomatic and juridical sources but also from local press, which Herman collected in more than thirty national and local archives in Panama, Brazil, Cuba, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

The Canal Zone in Panama and the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, chapter 1 shows, were seemingly logical choices for the expansion of military infrastructure in Latin America, but nowhere was public support for cooperation harder to achieve than at these sites of early twentieth-century imperialism. Instead, a substantial number of new bases were built through the implementation of Pan American Airways’ Airport Development Program, the airline constituting an additional key player in Herman’s narrative. Pan Am’s integration in the defense project came with the significant benefit of hiding US government involvement and initiating construction while negotiations were ongoing over the specific nature of this involvement. Negotiations with Brazil—a country that, unlike the other two cases, had not experienced US military presence before the 1940s—proved particularly delicate for the United States. Fear of Axis sympathies within the government of Getúlio Vargas (1930-45, 1950-54) strengthened the Brazilian position. This enabled Brazil to negotiate for substantive military aid, while other countries successfully negotiated economic assistance from the United States.

When Herman places her readers on the ground in chapter 3, the book becomes an even more captivating read. This chapter on labor rights sets the stage for the next three to come, as they all navigate through specific legal cases, local protests against the US-American way of handling things, the broader diplomatic repercussions of these local affairs, and creative ways of organizing things “in practice” while leaving them untouched “in principle.” Herman thus illustrates how laborers at the bases sought to assert the full social rights recently incorporated into national legislation, a demand resisted by US officials. A case in point is the issue of compensation upon worker termination. In the Cuban scenario, US negotiators successfully pushed the Cuban government to provide exemptions from national legislation to Pan Am and the US army. Unlikely coalitions emerged, such as the Communist Party supporting these exemptions in light of defense interests after the Soviet Union joined the Allied forces in 1941. However, this did not stop workers at the Batista Airbase in San Antonio de los Baños from fighting for their labor rights in court. Indeed, it is among her study’s most fascinating results that Herman shows just how often laborers and local residents surrounding the bases spoke up for themselves. Labor remains a central theme in chapter 4, where Herman delves into the complexities of Panamanian race relations, West Indian labor migration, and the enduring legacy of labor segregation in the Canal Zone.

Chapter 5 is about how the very personal became political around the bases, particularly in the context of encounters between US servicemen and local women, whether as dance partners or sex workers. More than anything else, these encounters raised concerns related to “social norms and moral health” (p. 115), posing a potential threat to inter-American cooperation. Herman convincingly embeds the stories about these interactions, about male protests against the “transgressions” of their daughters and sisters, and about the US army’s efforts to regulate nightlife from social clubs to sex industries into the broader histories of changing gender relations in the three countries under study. Regrettably, Herman notes the challenge of accessing the perspectives of the “Coca Colas” or “Gate Girls,” as women socializing with US soldiers were dismissively called in Brazil and Panama.

Jurisdiction, the topic of chapter 6, brings Herman back to a more narrowly defined legal topic, and perhaps to the one most explicitly connected to the question of sovereignty. Who would be in charge, if US soldiers and civilians faced arrest, what entities possessed the right to arrest them, and which jurisdiction would preside over their cases? In many parts of the world, the US army got legal control on their bases in foreign countries, but Latin American leaders resisted entering formal agreements on this matter—that is, in principle. On the ground, as Herman shows once again, practical solutions emerged that closely aligned with what the United States had wanted in the first place. Still, single cases could generate much uproar and significantly destabilize the already fragile arrangements. After the war, Herman explains in chapter 7, the military bases became too much of a burden to the Latin American leaders who had promised their constituents sovereignty. In none of the three cases was the United States able to keep its bases beyond 1947. However—and this is not a minor finding or message of Herman’s study—while bases were nationalized, the US military stayed as an advisor. For the larger history of US-Latin American military cooperation, Herman argues, this is the legacy that matters most.

Concerning her own legacy, Cooperating with the Colossus is a must-read for historians interested in US-Latin American relations. I also recommend it to scholars exploring World War II history, and for readers interested in the specific histories of Brazil, Cuba, and Panama. The many anecdotes that show how people across Latin America made sense of inter-American relations in their daily confrontation with the US army at a time when alliance was unquestioned continue to resonate with readers longer after they close the book. Story after story, Herman substantiates her central argument that while wartime cooperation between the Good Neighbors was built on the principle of national sovereignty, this principle was lacking in practice. Latin American decision-makers did not yield because they could not resist the pressure; rather, they did so because they believed that the gains outweighed the losses.

(Review author: Reviewed by Teresa Huhle, Universität zu Köln)


[1]. For example, Gisela Cramer and Ursula Prutsch, eds., ¡Américas Unidas!: Nelson A. Rockefeller’s Office of Inter-American Affairs, 1940-1946 (Madrid: Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2012).

[2]. Gilbert M. Joseph, Catherine LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore, eds., Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of US–Latin American Relations (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

[Reproduced from H-Net under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License]

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.