This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
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.