A Long Way from Michigan

Overtaken by Events: The Dominican Crisis—from the Fall of Trujillo to the Civil War

by John Bartlow Martin
Doubleday, 821 pp., $7.95

Rarely has a government functionary revealed so much about the intricacies of power, its uses and abuses, as does John Bartlow Martin in Overtaken by Events. Describing himself as a “Liberal,” a friend of Adlai Stevenson and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Martin served President Kennedy as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic until Juan Bosch was overthrown in 1963, and President Johnson as special envoy to that country during its frustrated revolution in 1965. His main purpose in describing those missions, and filling the gap between them, is to stress the good intentions of American policy in the Dominican Republic and, generally, in Latin America—and to show that its failures are mainly caused by uncontrollable events. But as an old Saturday Evening Post journalist he allows his feel for the full story to get the better of him, and as it does, the “events” keep piling up with such nagging consistency that his logic is itself overtaken.

The story is fascinating, at times shocking, often naively told. It is crammed with romantic incantations of nature and such natural behavior (amidst strikes and strifes) as bird watching. It seethes with undiplomatic tantrums and denunciations; it is wrought by guilt and colored by nationalistic admiration for New York efficiency, Washington might, and Michigan (Martin’s home state) scenery. It reads like a banal Russian novel, panoramic in scope, paternalistic in tone, in which the heroes and villains are constantly involved in plots and subplots, leading them, with both bloody absurdity and tragic necessity, to the climactic, cathartic unhappy ending—the death of Dominican pride, independence, and freedom.

Martin’s long book is marred by his lack of genuine sympathy for his characters. This is partly due to his emotional involvement; he wants to love Dominicans. But their extreme sense of honor, their disdain of certain kinds of work, their cult of machismo (a hybrid between manly bravado and male sex appeal), and their reckless disregard of human life and property frighten him off. Early during his tenure, for example, he finds himself rushing away from a group of angry, shouting, anti-Yanki peasants (who, obviously, were following the “straight Castro/Communist line” because they were “organized in advance”). As Martin and his family leave, two stones fly through his car window, hitting no one. But he reacts sharply: “One of the stones in front that had fallen at our boy’s feet turned out to be only a mango pit. But I never again, I am afraid, try as I might, felt the same about the Dominican people after they threatened our children.”

MARTIN IS HIS OWN major character, and he finds his setting more and more unbearable. Hence, he retreats into nature, where he can admire “the horsemen herding the fat cattle slowly up the hills, the windmill turning in the dying wind, white birds in great flocks winging in….” With people, he “somehow lost touch with reality. Here, on the beach, in the sea, in the swamp, in the pasture, cows …

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