Deeper into the Mire

Report of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America

Macmillan, 158 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Central America: Anatomy of Conflict International Peace),

edited by Robert S. Leiken
Pergamon Press (in cooperation with the Carnegie Endowment for, 351 pp., $19.95
Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan; drawing by David Levine


Toward Central America the United States has always asserted the prerogatives of a great power. The recent publication of a moving and comprehensive history of US involvement in Central America by Cornell’s distinguished diplomatic historian Walter LaFeber and the subsequent release of the Kissinger commission’s report on the region underscore the persistence of this behavior. Although the Kissinger report poses the problems of US policy toward Central America in their most acute form, it is far from being a historical examination of the situation in the region, and here is where LaFeber’s book is especially helpful.

LaFeber’s sad story of past US involvement in the region prefigures what seems to be the shape of its future. Despite reservations by some of those serving on the commission, the premises underlying the Kissinger report have led the commissioners largely to endorse Reagan’s policies. In view of the joint histories of North and Central America, how could anyone have expected anything much different? But the dangers to us—if not to the Central Americans—have grown, and that is why LaFeber’s book should be read along with the report.

Even during the first years of their independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, the five states of Central America, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, sought the protection of the United States against the predatory ambitions of Mexico. This is one reason they formed the United Provinces of Central America in the 1820s. At one point, El Salvador’s legislative congress voted to annex the country to the United States; Mexico’s occupation of San Salvador blocked that from happening. Then, in 1849, the Nicaraguan minister in London asked whether Honduras, Salvador, and his own nation might be admitted to the Union; when nothing came of that, he requested that the United States at least defend their territorial integrity.

Although Washington rebuffed these initiatives, believing, in Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’s words, that Latin American countries had “no prospect” of establishing “free or liberal institutions of government,” the United States feared Mexican and later British encroachment in the region. The British had, in any case, moved in quickly after the Latin American wars of liberation, and established their economic predominance by financing the railroads in Central America. Washington, as early as the 1840s, was apprehensive over British dominance. President Polk even tried to organize the five states to force the British out of the eastern part of Nicaragua, and later, in a treaty with Nicaragua, guaranteed Nicaragua’s territorial integrity; in 1850, the British finally did leave.

The pattern of US interference in Central America, as LaFeber sees it, has been based on two policies that are interrelated—the need for military security and the insistence on economic domination. LaFeber, who holds that practically every US maneuver in the region had an economic motive, believes that security and capitalism go “hand in hand.” But it is…

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