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What Can Obama Do in Latin America? | The Nation

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What Can Obama Do in Latin America?

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This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...

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He taught us how to live with loss, and he told us, over and over again, that other utopias are possible.

What if Barack Obama had picked The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel or Democracy Now! anchor Amy Goodman to advise him at the upcoming Summit of seventy-five years ago President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did something just like that, tapping a former Nation editor and fierce critic of US militarism to advise his administration on Latin American policy. As a result--consider this your curious, yet little known, fact of the day--anti-imperialism saved the American empire.

FDR took office in 1933 looking not just to stabilize the US economy but to calm a world inflamed: Japan had invaded Manchuria the year before; the Nazis had seized power in Germany; European imperialists were tightening their holds over their colonies; and the Soviet Union had declared its militant "third period" strategy, imagining that global capitalism, plunged into the Great Depression, was in its last throes.

When, soon after his March inauguration, Roosevelt put forward a call to the "nations of the world" to "enter into a solemn and definitive pact of non-aggression," the colonialists, militarists and fascists who ruled Europe and Asia balked. Because the new president's global reach came nowhere near his global ambitions, the London Economic Conference--convened that July by the equivalent of today's G-20--broke up rancorously over how to respond to that moment's global meltdown.

Luckily for Roosevelt, the seventh Pan-American Conference was scheduled to take place that December in Montevideo, Uruguay. Admittedly the very idea of pan-Americanism--that the American republics shared common ideals and political interests--was then moribund. Every few years, in an international forum, Latin American delegates simply submitted to Washington's directives while silently seething about the latest US military intervention--in Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Honduras, the Dominican Republic or Haiti. (Take your pick.)

Momentum was then building among Latin American nations for a revision of international law, which effectively granted great powers the right to intervene in the affairs of smaller republics. Venezuelan diplomats, for instance, were insisting that the US affirm the principle of absolute sovereignty. Argentines put forth their own "non-aggression" treaty codifying non-intervention as the law of the hemisphere. Caribbean and Central American politicians insisted that detachments of US Marines, then bogged down in counterinsurgencies in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, get out.

FDR dispatched his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, to the summit, but instructed him not to offer anything more than a promise to build a few new roads. The demand that the United States give up the right of intervention was "unacceptable."

Yet Roosevelt, who had a way of mixing and matching unlikely advisors, also asked Ernest Gruening (recommended by Harvard law professor and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter) to accompany Hull. In 1964, as a senator from Alaska, Gruening would become famous for casting one of only two votes against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which President Lyndon Johnson would use to escalate the Vietnam War, but in the 1930s, he was already a committed anti-imperialist.

In the pages of the Nation and other left-wing journals, he had helped expose the use of torture, forced labor and political assassinations that took place under Marine occupations in the Caribbean, atrocities he likened to European brutality in India, Ireland and the Congo. After touring Haiti and the Dominican Republic, he lobbied Congress to cut off the funding of counterinsurgency operations in the region, and he excoriated the "horde of carpet-bagging concessionaires that are the camp-followers of American militaristic imperialism." That such an uncompromising critic of US diplomacy would be chosen to advise the Secretary of State reflects the strength of the left in the 1930s--and Roosevelt's willingness to tap it.

Burnin' and Murdewin'

As the delegation set sail for Montevideo, Gruening was shocked to learn that the US had "no program except to be friendly with everyone and radiate goodwill."

"Mr. Secretary," he reported himself telling Hull, "the one issue that concerns every Latin-American country is intervention. We should come out strongly for a resolution abjuring it."

Hull, whom Gruening later described as speaking in the thick accent of a born and bred member of the Tennessee gentry, dropping g's and wrestling with r's, replied that that would be a hard sell.

"What am Ah goin't to do when chaos breaks out in one of those countries and armed bands go woamin' awound, burnin', pillagin' and murdewin' Amewicans?" Hull asked. "How can I tell mah people that we cain't intervene?"

"Mr. Secretary," Gruening responded"that usually happens after we have intervened."

Hull was, however, afraid of bad press. "If Ah were to come out against intervention," he said, "the Hearst papers would attack me fwom coast to coast.... Wemember, Gwuening, Mr. Woosevelt and Ah have to be weelected."

"Coming out against intervention would help you get reelected," Gruening replied. It would, he insisted, help the New Deal jump off the merry-go-round of invasion, occupation and insurgency that had badly crippled US prestige throughout Latin America and much of the world.

He was right. In Montevideo, Gruening helped bridge the gap between US envoys and "anti-American" Latin American diplomats, including those from Cuba where, well before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, serial US interventions had strained relations between Havana and Washington. Most importantly, he reconciled the Secretary of State to the principle of non-intervention.

Hull "rose to the occasion magnificently," Gruening wrote, announcing that the United States would henceforth "shun and reject" the "so-called right-of-conquest.... The New Deal indeed would be an empty boast if it did not mean that." Latin American delegates broke out in "thunderous applause and cheers." And FDR, ever the agile politician, seized the moment, confirming that the "definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention."

"Our Era of 'Imperialism' Nears its End," the New York Times announced. " 'Manifest Destiny' Is Giving Way to the New Policy of 'Equal Dealing With All Nations.' "

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