Web general

Berkeley Talks transcript: U.S. military bases in World War II Latin America

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #152: U.S. military bases in World War II Latin America.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.

[Music fades]

Natalia Brizuela: Hello, everyone. I hope everyone can hear me. Please send me a chat if you can’t, a message in the chat. My name is Natalia Brizuela and I’m the chair of the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley. I’m saying UC Berkeley because these virtual events bring in people from all over. So, just stressing that.

I am thrilled to welcome you and introduce our first event in a series that we began last year where we highlight a new work, scholarship and artistic, from faculty members at UC Berkeley. It is an honor for us that professor Rebecca Herman from the history department has agreed to inaugurate the series for this year in a conversation on her recently published book, Cooperating with the Colossus: A Social and Political History of U.S. Military Bases in World War II Latin America. Professor Herman is assistant professor in the history department at UC Berkeley, and her work explores 20th century Latin American social and political history in a global context, probing the intersections between grand narratives and local history.

She will be joined in conversation and commentaries by professor Margaret Chowning, who’s professor and Sonne, I don’t know if I pronounced that right, Chair in Latin American History in the history department at UC Berkeley. Her research interests are Mexico, the late colonial period in 19th century; women, church and social and economic history in Latin America.

And Kyle Jackson, who is a transnational historian of the Americas and a Ph.D. candidate in history, also at UC Berkeley. His research and dissertation looks at early U.S.-Latin American relations through the prism of New Orleans.

So, I thank everyone for being here with us. It’s exciting to know that there’s about 60 people out there right now listening and joining. Professor Herman will give a brief a commentary about the book, and then she’ll be joined by professor Chowning, who will give comments about the book and then Kyle Jackson, and then there’ll be a conversation between them.

But at any moment throughout this, please send your questions using the Q&A option at the bottom of your Zoom screen, and we will attempt to get through all of the questions that you pose. But if we happen not to, all of the questions will be shared with our three speakers and particularly professor Herman. So do not worry. Please also just remember that… Pose your questions as they come up and there will be time for them at the end of the discussion between Rebecca, Kyle and Margaret. So, thank you all for being here. Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you, Margaret. Thank you, Kyle, for agreeing to be part of this conversation and I will hand it over to you.

Rebecca Herman: Wow. Thank you so much for that introduction and for this invitation. I am really grateful to be here. Thanks to Jenna for organizing as well. I only realized it as I was kind of putting some remarks together for today that this is really the perfect place to talk about the book for the first time since it came out because my very first research trip for this project was funded with a grant from Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies. I did my Ph.D. in the history department at Berkeley, and I got a Tinker Grant to travel to Northern Brazil the summer between my second and third year in graduate school.

So, if there are graduate students on this call who are just embarking on a new project, I’m sorry to say that was 11 years ago and the book is coming out this month. But I’m happy to talk about that journey from preliminary dissertation research to published book. If you have questions about that, feel free to reach out. I can also say that if you’re feeling like you need to figure out what your project is about right away, that’s obviously not the case. It’s more of a marathon than a sprint.

I’m also very grateful to Margaret and Kyle for being here. I haven’t run a marathon in real life, but I think that if you run a marathon, you get all kinds of support along the way that kind of help you get to the finish line. In my metaphorical marathon, Margaret and Kyle have both been really valuable sources of guidance and support and feedback. So, this is also just really lovely to have the chance to be here with them and talk about it with you all.

As you all know, this is my first book, Cooperating with a Colossus: A Social and Political History of US Military Bases in World War II Latin America. I still haven’t held the book in my hands. It is out on eBook already. But there’s been paper-related pandemic delays. So, the book has not shipped yet. I think any day now. What that means is I know that none of you have read the book, so that makes my job pretty easy. I can assume that nobody here has… Well, I guess I have a few colleagues who have definitely read it, but for the most part, the audience consists of folks who are maybe curious about this book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. So, in the few minutes that I have, I’m just going to try to introduce you to the major themes in the book, the actors that I’m most interested in, and hopefully entice you to pick up a copy when it’s available to you.

Okay. If you’re even just a little bit familiar with the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, probably what you think of first is intervention rather than cooperation when you think about U.S.-Latin American relations. The U.S. has a long history of intervening in Latin America militarily, economically, politically as part of a broader project to assert and maintain U.S. hegemony in the region that dates back to the 19th century. It’s that history of intervention that earns the United States the nickname the “Colossus of the North.” So that’s where the word colossus comes from in the title.

The period of Second World War, which is the period that my book focuses on most centrally, stands out in this larger history of U.S.-Latin American relations as this kind of atypical high point. Typically, when the war comes up, the remarkable thing is that it was this moment where almost every country in the Americas banded together, united around the war effort. So, this image that you see on the book cover is a propaganda poster from the Second World War that celebrated U.S.-Latin American cooperation in the war effort.

Now, because of this broader history of interventionism, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that U.S. basing was a very, very contentious form of cooperation. That became the thing that really most interested me about it. It became a way to think about cooperation, which is a long thread in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, but in a much more critical way.

Recently, scholars had begun to pay more attention to the efforts of folks of all different ideological stripes in Latin America to try to find a way to engage the Colossus of the North on their own terms and try to make the most of an alliance with the United States, or make the most of the United States’ fixation on the region while constraining U.S. power.

So, in the fields of histories of international law, histories of transnational solidarity around things like women’s rights, there’s a lot of scholarship now coming out that is more attentive to those dynamics. So, when I talk about cooperating with the colossus, I’m thinking in this sort of critical way about how people in the region during the Second World War tried to make the most of the United States’ sudden attention to the region and willingness to share resources with the region and willingness to send weapons to the region, while also trying to mitigate U.S. overreach and to grapple with the real significant asymmetries of power that structured that cooperative relationship.

Importantly, I track that effort to cooperate with the colossus, not just in the realm of high politics. You see leaders from Brazil, Cuba, and Panama, who are the three countries that I focus on the most closely in the book, trying to navigate U.S. interests in basing in Latin America, and to use bases as bargaining chips to solicit aid for all sorts of their own national nation-building projects.

But you also see efforts from people on the ground trying to cooperate with the colossus. So, workers who are hired to build the bases, women who engage in sex work near bases with U.S. soldiers, judges who are trying to assert jurisdiction over criminal actions committed by U.S. servicemen. So in all of these ways, the book is moving between the high political realm and how that relationship is navigated there, and then conflicts that arise around the bases locally, around similar questions of sovereignty, but that manifest in different ways in the lives of ordinary people.

I’m going to share my screen and show you a few images. I’m not sure how many minutes I have left because I actually didn’t look at the clock when I started, but if Janet, if you were keeping track and could let me know, that would be great.

Janet Waggaman: You can continue.

Rebecca Herman: Okay. All right. So, let me share my screen, and then I’ll present. Okay.

The first response I often get when I say, “Oh, I write about U.S. bases in World War II Latin America,” is, “The U.S. had bases in World War II Latin America?” Latin America is not the first region that comes to mind when you think of World War II. It’s probably the last region that comes to mind. Thanks to this cartographer that Oxford helped me hire, I can show you. The U.S. had a lot of defense sites across Latin America.

Now, this map is really busy and overwhelming. So, my editor encouraged me to break it into two maps, and these are the ones that ended up in the book. I could talk more, if you’re interested, later in why the U.S. wanted defense sites in Latin America, why they needed them when they hadn’t in the same scale before. But I wanted to get more quickly to the heart of what the book really looks at, which is this project of cooperation and all of the conflicts that were built into it.

So, the book moves from this sort of general overview of the history of military basing in Latin America that helps get at the baggage that the basing agenda brought with it into World War II of Guantanamo, which is the most famous U.S. base in Latin America, was one of the few sort of precursors to the wartime project and a very much a symbol of U.S. imperialism and a lightning rod for anti-U.S. sentiment. As U.S. officials went to Latin American counterparts to seek basing rights, Guantanamo was very much looming large. In particular, the extent to which it represented the kinds of violations of Latin American nation sovereignty, that the Good Neighbor Policy, recently instituted, was meant to reject.

So, it follows these kind of high political negotiations and then goes to the ground where the bases were built. These governance issues on this slide are sort of the four central spaces where we see similar conflicts over sovereignty and jurisdiction play out, but in these more concrete ways in the lives of the people who work on and live around the bases.

First, I look at fights over labor rights that played out in various ways in different parts of the region. This is a photo of Brazilian workers at the airfield in Belém, which is one of the places that I look at most closely using records from Brazilian labor courts.

Here’s another image from Natal, which was the United States’ biggest air base outside of the United States during World War II.

The project also looks at questions of race-based and nation-based discrimination, especially in the Panama Canal Zone. While I didn’t have images that really represent that perfectly, this poster on the cover of my book really hints at the way that cooperation was racialized in ways that often emphasized whiteness in the Americas as a sort of common ground.

There’s this poster that was most widely circulated in Brazil that also shows this theme. If you think about what most Brazilian brothers in arms look like, this is not exactly the image that comes to mind, but this is the way that it was often portrayed in propaganda.

Some Black activists, for example, George Westerman, who was a really important Black activist in Panama during World War II, took advantage of the anti-racist rhetoric that often accompanied the U.S. War project, or the way that the U.S. publicized the war project in Latin America to advance longstanding Black Panamanian desires for better treatment, both within the Canal zone and also within Panama. So, the project looks at how these different kind of international and domestic conflicts became entangled during the war in ways that local actors tried to make productive.

I also look at social relations, social norms and gender relations and how those were impacted in a number of spaces. USO clubs. The USO was created during World War II. In part, in Brazil, for example, USO clubs were intended to keep U.S. servicemen away from red light districts to the extent possible, to give them social spaces where they could engage with women from elite families who were believed to be less likely to carry venereal disease. But they often created all kinds of trouble within elite families, for example, in conservative parts of Northern Brazil where it was unthinkable that a woman from an elite family would accompany a U.S. soldier to a dance unchaperoned.

I’m going to have to skip over some of these wonderful photos, I think, but we can come back around to them in the Q&A if you’re interested. Sex work is another area that I look at. So, this is a picture of a member of the U.S. Navy with a sex worker in Belém during the war, another source of conflict and another source of conflicts around jurisdiction specifically because local U.S. officials on the ground would elaborate all sorts of efforts to regulate red light districts, which was obviously beyond their own jurisdictional purview.

Then finally, the issue of criminal jurisdiction. This is something that continues to plague U.S. basing efforts to this day, despite the fact that unlike during World War II, there are really extensive agreements drawn up around basing that addressed the issues of criminal jurisdiction. This was a family in Panama who lived near a U.S. defense site, where a drunken soldier set fire to their home. There was a big conflict between the government of Panama and the government of United States about who should be entitled to try the soldier, who is responsible.

So, that gives you a little bit of a sense for the kinds of stories… Hold on. Let me close this so that I can see my notes again… that are in the core of the book… There we go.

As a Latin Americanist, one of the things that I’m most interested in as I look at these stories is the extent to which they were especially powerful because they were areas that were the source of ongoing debates in domestic politics. So, this is a moment in which the fight for labor rights has made its significant progress in the 1930s, and so suddenly, this issue that really has nothing to do with U.S. power becomes entangled with U.S. power because when U.S. defense contractors begin denying newly won labor rights to the workers that they’re employing, those workers are able to draw sort of anti-imperialist rhetoric into their quest to enforce these newly won labor rights and see that those newly won labor rights are upheld.

At the end of the book, I think about the fate of these bases and the extent to which popular protests prevented the extension of basing rights even in places where local governments were willing to extend them. I think about the longer legacy of World War II security cooperation in the region.
I hope that gives you just a little bit of a taste of the book. Ten minutes is a short time to cover 400 or 350 pages, but I welcome your questions and look forward to hearing what Margaret and Kyle have to say.

Margaret Chowning: Well, as they say in the congressional hearings, I’m glad to yield back some time to you if you need a little bit more time, Rebecca. But why don’t I go ahead and say what I had to say, which I think is probably going to be less than 10 minutes.

I wasn’t sure what you would be saying by way of summarizing the book, so I decided to think about… I am a Latin American historian, and I’m supposing that much of the audience for this webinar is interested in Latin America and might be interested in my take on the importance of this book within our… I’m not going to talk about historiography. I’m not going to talk about all of the good recent books that Rebecca alluded to that are beginning to come out on this period. I’m just going to talk about how I think this impacts almost the way that you teach modern Latin America or understand it at a kind of broad teaching level.

It’s not the only judgment I make about books that I read, but one of the judgements I make about books that I read is whether it changes my lectures. I think this is a book that changes lectures. Let me explain why.

Most people who write textbooks about Latin America, who write about Latin America, any kind of a 20th century Latin America in any kind of broad way or lecture on 20th century Latin America, don’t pay too much attention to World War II. Latin America was not, despite all of those military bases, really a battleground. I guess the Caribbean a little bit, but maybe those bases did their job and there wasn’t much fighting. There wasn’t fighting in Latin America itself. So, it just hasn’t seemed like the kind of thing that would have a big enough impact to devote time in your lecture or your textbook to it.

So for example, two recent textbooks that just came out this year, in fact, Alexander Dawson’s Latin America Since Independence, which is sort of textbook plus primary sources, and Mark Wasserman’s Latin America Since 1800. Neither one of those has, as far as I can tell, textbook editor/authors and their publishers don’t want to put them online. So, I haven’t confirmed this, but just to judge by the table of contents, it appears that the war seems to be subsumed under sections that kind of covered roughly that period of time, so sections on populism, sections on the growth of the American Empire in Latin America, the Cold War coming out the hot war in World War II.

In the case of the Wasserman book, the description of a chapter called “Between Revolutions,” which is between the Mexican Revolution and the Cuban Revolution, the description does say that the impact of World War II is part of the discussion. I can’t tell you what he has to say about it, but the chapter title gives you a clue that the most important thing to Wasserman about this period during which World War II occurs are the two revolutions on either side of it.

So basically, in these textbooks and in most teaching, I think most of us would agree that the political story kind of moves from the rise of mass politics, populism, beginning in the 1920s and the 1930s through to the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s. Then we add to the Cold War dictatorships beginning in the 1960s.

The war, if you picture a kind of narrative, the war doesn’t really produce much of a blip in those narratives. The social history story, which Becca’s book contributes so much to, as you can probably tell from that brief summary, also doesn’t change markedly because of the war. The social processes, again, begin sort of in the 1920s: urbanization, the growth of the labor movement, the great growth of middle class, middle sectors. Again, not too much of a blip produced by the war.

There’s coming to be a bit of a cultural history story associated with the war, and the cover image of the book is an indication of the kind of documents and images that some historians have begun to use studying propaganda, studying cultural missions to the United States in the context of the war, which I think gets us a little closer to Becca’s book and to seeing the war as something kind of generative and transforming. But it’s still… I would say a lot of that, not to paint with too broad a brush, a lot of this work kind of seems to be seeking the early roots of the Cold War. So, it’s not so much the war itself that’s transforming as the way the world order was reshaped by the defeat of fascism, the rise of the Soviet Union and other communist states after the war.

There is a third recent textbook, which I have read because it was published by UC Press, and I actually read it for the press a few years ago. This one is a book by Mike Conniff, Lawrence Clayton and Susan Gauss, a little bit more of the sort of traditional textbook. It does devote 13 pages to what’s called Latin America in World War II. But I think the nature of this section illustrates what I’ve been trying to say.

The narrative is created by U.S. and treaties to Latin America as the war ramps up to aid in hemispheric defense. Of course, the bases are part of that. The story of most Latin American countries, Argentina, they say, is the big exception, getting on board with this plan. Although, part of the story also is that the shrewdest leaders get something in return. There’s a picture of Getúlio Vargas with Roosevelt and some generals all in a car, maybe you’ve seen it, Becca, and they’re all laughing at something that’s really obviously hilarious. You wonder what language people are speaking in that made everyone laugh so hard. The caption reads, “Vargas had struck a good bargain in exchange for leasing the base,” and it follows by pointing to a Volta Jeronda in the steel complex that the United States helped to fund. So, it’s kind of a picture of Latin American leaders receiving financial aid in exchange for cooperation and the beginnings of the flow of, according to these authors, military assistance begins to flow south.

Narrowly, Becca’s book doesn’t contradict that story, but it just tells us so much more, and in telling us so much more, I think makes us see the war itself as itself a change, an agent of change.

So, stepping back a little bit that by bringing in the people who live around the bases that Becca summarized, to whom, as the chapters in these textbooks on populism make clear, the leaders who were approached by the U.S. were indebted to those people to a degree never before seen in Latin American history. So basically, it mattered what people around the bases… potentially mattered because these are the people who keep populists in office, either through elections or in other means of mass politics that had not been part of the story in the 19th century.

When people protested the way their daughters were treated at the USO dances, or that their houses were burned down or something else that happened in the building of the bases, local, and then if it was kicked up to the national level, national leaders had to pay at least some attention. So, in other words, sovereignty, or at least the perception of sovereignty, becomes really important in a way that, again, it hadn’t been in U.S. relationships with Latin America in the 19th century.

So, the story in these books, which makes it seem like the U.S. wants something; Latin America gives it in exchange for something, leaves out this whole story of the importance of the social history to the history of basing and to the political history and to the themes struck by national leaders who never stopped talking about sovereignty and how important it was. That was one of the roots to reelection and reappointment.

So, the calculus for leadership changed. Maybe it would’ve changed anyway in the course of some kind of imagined Cold War, but what we know is that it starts with these bases and the experiments and how cooperation could also serve sovereignty come in the course of this process. So, yeah. I think that’s, to me, the real gist of linking those local stories of basing to the national leaders, to the international story, I think it does come away with giving us a new appreciation for what the war meant for Latin America because these are not small issues at all. Okay. Thanks.

Kyle Jackson: Thanks for that, Margaret. You set me up well, actually.

Margaret Chowning: Good!

Kyle Jackson: Because as someone who… I’m a transnational historian, but technically my work focuses on U.S. history, I’m hoping to add a little bit of perspective both from an earlier period because my work focuses on the long 19th century, and I think in some ways, Becca’s story picks up on a lot of the themes that I’m trying to trace back a little bit further in history.

But to the point you just made, Margaret, about the importance of Becca’s approach and methodology of this social history, this ground-up approach to diplomatic and military history, I think that’s a really important contribution that has major implications for how we look at the longer history of U.S. foreign relations and U.S. Latin American relations.

One way I think that that’s important is that it helps us avoid the trap of projecting U.S. hegemony backwards, further than when it was in actual fact. In the 19th century, the United States was by no means a hegemon in the Western hemisphere. That was Great Britain. I also think it helps us avoid overstating or oversimplifying the degree to which the United States could dictate terms abroad. That power, of course, will grow exponentially over the course of the 20th century. But, as I think the book powerfully demonstrates, that power to dictate terms was always mediated by Latin American agency and strategy. That’s both in the realm of social politics, mass politics, and at the high politics diplomatic level.

Also, this bottom-up approach to diplomatic history, I think calls attention to the real and significant fact that U.S. architects of pan-Americanism, the Good Neighbor Policy, security cooperation, hemispheric economic integration, always had to grapple with the political and social realities on the ground in Latin American countries. So, the kind of unidirectional way that we often think about U.S. imperialism or the growth of U.S. power in the 20th century was always in a dialectic. It was always being shaped in significant ways by things that were far outside of the control of the U.S. architects who aspired to have a sort of hemispheric, hegemonic control.

So, in terms of what I think this, as to our story of the long 19th century, I was struck by the degree to which the underlying dynamic that Becca describes, this back and forth and this Latin American agency that both delineated the extent and the limits of U.S. power, I think in some ways what Becca describes in the World War II era is a high water mark that represents a big shift, but it’s also very similar to what I witness in my own research about the 19th century.

So, in the 19th century, the United States was a rising power, but it was not, as I said, a hemispheric hegemon. There’s Britain, which is the dominant power. There’s France; there’s Spain, and eventually Germany and Japan all are vying for power. So, as Latin American nation states were dealing with these European or North American powers, the power asymmetries were less. There was a greater degree of give and take depending on the individual circumstances that were being negotiated.

In the broadest sense, I think what struck me the most as a element of continuity is that both in the 19th century and very much so in this 20th century World War II era story, there’s a consistent pairing of economic objectives and security objectives that I think speaks to the larger phenomenon of the entwined emergence of capitalism and militarism in the Western hemisphere that in many ways is present throughout the entire history, from Latin American independence and U.S. independence, and the decolonization of the Americas in the early 19th century that stretches well into the 20th and even into the 21st century.

I think there are really important forerunners of many of the tools and tactics that Becca describes. In the early 20th century, we have this heyday of what U.S. foreign relations scholars call “dollar diplomacy” or “gunboat diplomacy,” essentially using financial and military power of U.S. interest to hold out as either a threat or an enticement to get what they wanted from Latin American countries, which was often access to ports, actual territorial possessions, holding stations with the advent of steamships, and to always have access to these beachheads that these different imperial powers, such as the United States, believed would enable them to further their strategic interests.

Then in terms of the immediate prologue to the World War II story, I think the era of the Mexican Revolution and the heyday of formal intervention that we associate with the first decades of the early 20th century in the greater Caribbean, that era of U.S. military intervention, which very much intersected with two of the major case study countries in the book, Cuba and Panama, that moment and those tactics of pursuing security or order for the benefit of essentially industrial or finance capitalism set the tone for what happens throughout the rest of the 20th century.

By that, I mean in that earlier era, the war, instability, revolution in Latin America came to be conceived of as a shared problem that threatened the global capitalist order, the global banking system, the global commercial networks, and therefore demanded a collective military response. So, I think that the seeds of security cooperation that were sown in the collaborative effort to suppress Mexican revolutionaries operating in the borderlands regions of the United States and the more formal military interventions in many countries around the Greater Caribbean in that era before the Good Neighbor Policy, led to this larger project or helped provide a more global scale or hemispheric scale to the product of collective security and security cooperation.

I’m running out of time here a little bit, but I just want to speak a little bit to how I think this helps 19th century historians and how 19th century historians might speak to the question that Becca’s asking.

So, Cooperating with Colossus, to me, is the culmination of a more than century-long process of military and economic integration in the hemisphere, but it’s coming out of a new reality that was fundamentally shaped by the new economic and imperial order coming out of World War I. That cataclysmic event is what essentially established the United States as a global economic powerhouse and military leader. So, this new moment and this new order of things that comes out of World War I, in some ways can help us understand the more limited aspects of U.S. power in earlier eras.

For 19th century historians who see hemispheric form policy through the framework of empire, development, modernization, I think they can look to the story that Becca describes and understand better how these tactics of intervention and security cooperation in earlier eras evolved and changed and responded to new pressures and new institutions and new projects that were growing out of World War II and leading into the Cold War.

A longwinded way of saying that, I think that there’s a lot that 19th century historians can learn by looking to this culmination. I think in order to understand how we get to the Good Neighbor era and the security cooperation that Becca describes, it’s useful to look at the earlier waves and earlier examples of similar but fundamentally distinct incarnations of these tactics in earlier eras. So, I’ll stop there.

Janet Waggaman: Thank you, Kyle. Thank you all for your wonderful presentations. I think we’re all now looking forward to read that book when it comes out. We’ve been sharing in the chat a promo code that we have available for the audience who’s listening to this webinar.
I don’t know if Rebecca you have any questions for Kyle, or Kyle if you have any questions for Rebecca or professor Chowning, I want to give you the space to ask questions between the three of you or any comments that you might have on each other’s presentations.

Rebecca Herman: I don’t know if this is a question or if I’m just thinking out loud, but I was struck… So when Margaret was talking and noticing that a lot of what coverage World War II does get is often as a prelude to the Cold War. So, there’s sort of the tendency to kind of look from the war forward and then Kyle’s thinking about how to look from the war backwards. If that was actually something that I really… It took some time to figure out as I was working on the book, if I was doing either of those things or centering the war in its own right.

So, I just thought it was interesting that in this moment where we’re thinking about the war looking forward in time, the war looking backward in time, that I really did come to think of it more as a pivot point that was useful for both of those things, really, like thinking about a through line that I hadn’t yet personally been attentive to when I began studying the history of Latin America that became more obvious to me over the course of my research.

Kyle Jackson: I think that framing of a pivot is really interesting. I wonder if you feel the same way about the proclamation of a fundamental shift in with the Good Neighbor Policy. That is presented often as a big sea change in the way that the United States was approaching its affairs in Latin America. Do you think that was a transformation that was accepted by Latin Americans themselves? Did they also see it as a sea change? Or did they see it more as a another rhetorical manifestation of, “Oh, we’re all pan-American sister republics,” and more as like a smoke screen to hide a fundamentally continuous policy?

Rebecca Herman: I mean, the most common way I see it employed in Latin America is this is the perfect, “Let’s force the U.S. government to make good on this rhetoric. We know that is partly PR. This is partly strategic. But it gives us this vocabulary that we can use to try to hold the State Department’s feet to the fire and try to force the Good Neighbor Policy into being.”

I don’t know if there are undergrads in the room, but I’m teaching a class on the U.S. and Latin America in the spring, in which one of the exam questions is often, “Did the Good Neighbor era on mark a point of continuity or a point of change? And you can give either answer and support it well, and get all the points for the question.” So, I think that that’s a really useful also exercise just for thinking about different ways of framing the past.

Margaret Chowning: Becca, I wondered if you want to give just maybe one concrete example from the book about how people living near the base challenged jurisdictions and challenged base governance. I don’t know, some of the stuff that you got from the Belém archives, the labor records there. Describe the source if you feel like doing that.

Rebecca Herman: Yeah, sure.

Margaret Chowning: Describe the source and then talk about how you got this out of that source.

Rebecca Herman: Yeah. I’m happy to. This was one of the big challenges of this project, especially as I’m learning with a second project, where source bases are much easier to find. The bases were initially built in secret. So, that makes a problem when you’re looking for a paper trail. And I’m a social historian at heart, so I was really interested in the social histories of these bases. Those are just harder sources to find, particularly in the 1940s in the countries where I was working.

So, the labor story was one where I knew I stood some chance of finding sources because I had… One interesting part of the story that I didn’t mention in my 10 minutes was that it was actually the airline Pan-American Airways that was contracted to build most of these defense sites before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Part of that was strategic because PanAm could do it under the guise of commercial expansion. So, the war department provided the blueprints and the engineering plans and FDR’s emergency funds provided the money. But then PanAm would go and negotiate directly with host governments about any permissions required to build the airfields, and then hire workers themselves rather than have the Army Corps of Engineers hire them, for example.

So, what ends up happening in a lot of parts, in both Brazil and Cuba, both Brazil and Cuba saw the advent of new and very progressive labor legislation in the 1930s, in a lot of cases, more progressive than what existed in the United States at that point. The U.S. government was really eager to sidestep a lot of these new labor rights because they slowed down construction or they made it more expensive. In Brazil, Vargas had created a network of labor courts in the very early 1940s.

So, some of the very first cases that were taken to these courts had to do with Brazilian labor complaints on U.S. defense construction sites. So, that created this really fascinating place where domestic and international politics kind of collided head-on because on the one hand, labor legislation was one of Vargas’s sort of flagship populist nationalist initiatives, remains one of his biggest legacies on the Brazilian justice system. On the other hand, Brazil became the United States’ most important ally in a lot of ways in Latin America.

So workers really pressed those fissures by bringing cases against PanAm or PanAms Brazilian subsidiary, PanAir, to the labor courts. That was a place where you could actually find traces of the experiences of workers who are not as well represented in the archival record as diplomats. It took a lot of digging because those records were not preserved for the most part. So, I went to all the labor courts that had existed at the time. Until the ’80s, there was a law in the books that you could dispose of those records after 15 years. So, in most places those records weren’t preserved. But in Belém, incredibly, they were.

So we found, I think, it was 5 or 600 cases against PanAir in that labor court. That allowed me to reconstruct this story. Then the sort of diplomatic exchanges, PanAm’s corporate records, you could piece together all of the different interests that had a stake in the outcome of these court cases trying to jockey to make sure that their interests won the day.

It also provides an opportunity to see how a nationalist like Vargas could continue to ring the bell of national sovereignty and really insist on his nationalist credentials while collaborating with the United States, while really quietly diminishing sovereignty behind the scenes. So, his ministry of labor ultimately ended up leaning on the courts to interpret the law in the way that represented U.S. interests and effectively managed to give the U.S. exemption from certain provisions of Brazilian labor law without publicly doing so, without issuing any kind of a formal exemption that would’ve provoked a lot of backlash for both Vargas and the United States.

So, these social histories, again, it’s not just to sort of add color to the international story or to talk about the regular people instead of just talking about diplomats, but there’s a lot of an iterative quality to these stories. You see the way that local workers just taking their cases to courts ends up having these ripple effects in the diplomatic sphere, and then all of this diplomatic maneuvering ends up in turn having an impact on how labor rights are upheld or not in places where those are sort of ongoing domestic struggles, ongoing social struggles.

Janet Waggaman: I don’t know if you have any other comments or questions before jumping into the questions from the audience. Nope?

Rebecca Herman: I’m happy to take audience questions.

Janet Waggaman: We have many questions.

Rebecca Herman: Great.

Janet Waggaman: Okay. I’m going to start with one. I’m going to mix it with a second one. What is the biggest base outside of the U.S. in World War II or the biggest one in Latin America? And the second question about this is how many of the bases remain? Is Guantanamo one of the few left, or do most remain?

Rebecca Herman: Oh, those are both great questions. The first one, the U.S. air base in Natal in Brazil, which is sort of the northeasternmost point of the Brazilian coastline, was the biggest, as I understand it, the biggest airbase outside of U.S. continental borders. Brazilians call it the trampoline to victory. It was the springboard to victory because it ended up being really crucial for the United States to ferry supplies across the South Atlantic. Brazilians are super proud of the Brazilian contribution to the war effort, and I think often feel that it’s not given sufficient attention in histories of the Second World War. So, yeah. That was the biggest one.

In terms of what happened with the bases. First of all, U.S. basing now is a global thing that we all kind of take for granted that it exists and is part of the U.S. global military footprint. Before the war, the U.S. had only 14 bases and most of those were in colonial spaces. Then during the war, there was this huge expansion in U.S. basing and a contraction after the war, but never to pre-war levels.

So, the global military footprint really dates, in its current scale, to the Second World War. There have been periods of expansion and contraction. All of these issues that relate specifically to the challenge of overseas basing on sovereign soil, there’s just a contradiction built in right. Extraterritorial authority on sovereign soil is a thorny issue.

In the years immediately following the war, the U.S. gave up a lot of defense sites that they didn’t need anymore, that they weren’t interested in retaining, and then there were a bunch of key sites that they wanted to retain and that they wanted to retain in the long term. So, with all three of the countries I focus on the most closely, Brazil, Cuban, Panama, the U.S. attempted to extend its rights to occupy certain of the bases that it had created during the war. Panama and Brazil both agreed to negotiate new agreements.

In the case of Panama, there was even a treaty that was reached between the foreign ministries, but then massive popular protests erupted on the streets. I mean, just massive, massive protests that are often thought about now in hindsight as a starting point for the end of the U.S. governance in the Canal zone that prevented the Panamanian National Assembly from approving the treaty. So ultimately, that attempt collapsed and the U.S. evacuated the bases outside of the Canal zone.

In Brazil, Vargas was removed from power and it was just sort of politically untenable, particularly after the war. Communists in Latin America were in a position to criticize the United States again during the war because the Soviet Union was a U.S. ally. Communist parties in Latin America didn’t seize the basing issue for all of the fodder that it would provide. After the war, they did. So, you had a lot of protests ongoing around the continuing presence of the U.S. in Brazil that ultimately forced the U.S. to leave as well.

The other thing is that during World War II, the United States became much closer to the Latin American security forces than it had ever been before, in part sort of as a diplomatic gesture. Securing these really enhanced relationships with Latin American armed forces diminished the need for bases because if they could feel confident that they could access bases as needed, then that was even better because it was cheaper.

So, as the inter-American military system became formalized in the years after the war, the sort of value of basing was diminished somewhat in the Western hemisphere, even though the U.S. maintained a much stronger military footprint everywhere else.

Janet Waggaman: Thank you. I have a second question about Brazil from Laura Belik: “Congratulations on the book. I cannot wait to read it. Part of my doctoral research looks at the posts and recruitment centers for rubber soldiers going from Sierra to the Amazon in the 1940s. The entire center special service sending Brazilian workers to the Amazon program was mostly funded with U.S. money at that time, with active support from the U.S. Navy and along the way. I would love to hear more about the contact and connections between the U.S. Army bases and the spaces that serve the Brazilian military and Brazilian workers who supported the U.S. at that time.”

Rebecca Herman: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m excited to hear about your research. I’d love for you to reach out after the session. Yeah. Raw materials were among the strategic interests that the U.S. had in Latin America during the Second World War. One were air bases that could help the U.S. military to prevent any kind of access aggression, like extrahemispheric invasion of the Americas. But another really important one was access to raw materials that would be important to the war effort, and rubber was a huge one. So, there was this really big U.S. investment in revitalizing the Amazonian rubber industry during the war and really great, rich labor histories about the people who worked in the rubber industry, who were recruited from the northeast and went to the Amazon to tap rubber.

So, they’re related insofar as they formed part of this sort of broader project. They also both represented areas where the U.S. security objectives and Vargas’s nation-building objectives dovetailed really nicely… So this is a moment when civil aviation is advancing and civil aviation infrastructure was really appealing to Latin American governments who were entertaining the U.S. government’s request to build out that kind of infrastructure.

So, for Getúlio Vargas, it was a no brainer that if the United States was willing to spend its own money building modern airports and easing all of the really difficult challenges that transportation in the Amazon presented, that that was something to take advantage of. The same thing goes for the rubber industry. So, U.S. investments, in trying to revitalize the rubber industry that had really suffered in the early 20th century and employment of workers who were otherwise suffering from drought and unemployment in the Northeast, these were all ways that the defense effort and agreeing to cooperate with the colossus could really benefit his country and his credentials.

Janet Waggaman: Thank you. I have another question, from Elena Schneider: “Thank you all for this panel. I once heard an eminent historian describe writing comparative history something like trying to play an accordion. Can you speak with us about some of the challenges of putting Brazil, Panama and Cuba in the same frame, and also some of what you were able to see differently by doing so when so many 20th century historians don’t?” I invite also Margaret Chowning and Kyle Jackson to jump in and add any comments you want to these questions.

Rebecca Herman: Yeah, Elena, that’s such a great question. Thank you. I know that you’ve watched me try to juggle this effort to bring such three sort of distinctive places with very different historical relationships with the United States, really different geopolitical positions going into the war, and to try to do justice to the uniqueness of each of those experiences and to think about how all of those differences impacted the way that this similar story played out in different contexts.

I tried to do that in a couple of ways. I chose these three places because they were the most important sites from the U.S. government’s perspective when they set out to build airfields. So, it was more about the sort of substantive story, but it ended up being really methodologically rich because Brazil, for example, just was in such a different position from Cuba, and the U.S. military represented something very different to Cubans who had experienced repeated U.S. military occupations and interventions. That was very different than the Brazilian experience, where many Brazilians had never met a U.S. soldier, had different experiences with the history of U.S. empire.

So, one of the challenges when writing the book was to recognize that it was both a transnational story and also a comparative one. I try to always keep the sort of potential of those two perspectives in mind when moving around in different parts of the book.

To go back to the labor example, since I’ve talked about that already, that chapter focuses on Brazil and Cuba, which share similarities insofar as they both were sites of these really progressive advances in labor legislation in the 1930s. In both places, labor rights became one of the first jurisdictional areas of contestation on the ground. You can see the difference in the position that each government was in in the way that that played out. In Cuba, the U.S. manages to successfully elicit a formal exemption from certain provisions of Cuban labor law, sort of building on previous diplomatic relationships and leveraging that longer history, whereas in Brazil, the way that a similar outcome materializes takes a different course.

It’s also interesting in the chapters that deal with social relations, the way that certain aspects of the U.S. military presence resonate for people. The way that Cubans, for example, talk about the U.S. presence is very different than the way that Brazilians perceive the arrival of U.S. soldiers and then over time grow to resent it. So again, it’s tricky because you don’t want to be too in the weeds all the time, but I definitely try to keep those differences front of mind and not just collapse the stories into one narrative. I don’t know if Margaret or Kyle, you want to say anything about your impression of my management of that challenge.

Kyle Jackson: I think you do a great job. I guess the only thing I would add is that I think the comparative approach is useful for, in some ways, reminding us of the importance of geography and differing geostrategic importance and imperatives for each country and how those dictate the postures that they bring to diplomatic or military negotiations.

I think in my work I try to talk about network supports, and understanding the different positions of each of those places really helps you understand why the politics of each are different, why the questions of labor are different in each, and how all of those factors bear upon the high politics stuff that I think you persuasively argue is coming from the bottom-up as well.

Janet Waggaman: There’s several questions related to the maps you shared. I don’t know if you would like to share them again. I know we didn’t have much time back then to go through the…

Rebecca Herman: Yeah. Sure.

Janet Waggaman: … images.

Rebecca Herman: Yeah. I did just see someone had asked if the maps would be in the book and they are. These two are. Here, let me share it.

Janet Waggaman: Yeah. One of the questions says: “I’m curious about the exceptions to the construction of bases or engaging in this corporation intervention policy. What other cases were there besides Argentina? Did I see correctly the map that El Salvador was not part of this, too?”

Rebecca Herman: Yeah. Let me open this. I think Fonseca is El Salvador, if I’m not mistaken. Did that work?

Janet Waggaman: Yes. If you could… Yes.

Rebecca Herman: Oh. I should say the way these maps came about was I just kept a running list as I was going through the archives. There’s no one list. There was no one program to build the defense sites. As I mentioned, PanAm built a lot of them, but then some of them were built above board after the attack on Pearl Harbor, particularly the ones on the Pacific Coast of South America for the most part.

In Cuba, one of the bases I look at most closely was not a PanAm base, but the others that had been built earlier were. So, it was kind of this hodgepodge mix of all of these different defense sites. I should also say I’m using the term base pretty loosely because at the time they used airbase and airfield interchangeably, my actors did. So sometimes what I’m talking about… Like Natal, as we talked about, was the biggest U.S. airbase outside of continental borders, that’s probably what you picture when you picture an airbase.

Other times it might have been… There was kind of a rinky-dink airport that some commercial airlines tried to use. Then in World War II, the U.S. War Department hired PanAm to pave the runways, add communications facilities, beef them up. So, sometimes it meant just enhancing, modernizing, expanding existing airports in a way that would make them capable of serving U.S. strategic interests.

The broader term I use in the book… So, that’s how I use airbases and airfields. Defense installations or defense sites is a broader category that includes particularly a number of locations in Panama. Panama hosted 134 U.S. defense sites outside of the Canal zone. So, that doesn’t even count the sites within the Canal zone. But sometimes those defense sites were radio installations. The defense site’s term is more inclusive. You’ll see it’s one of my first footnotes where I kind of spell out these definitions in the book.

What I found… So, this is all to say this map may be incomplete. I fully anticipate that if there are military buffs out there from different parts of Latin America, that they may reach out to me and say, “Oh, you totally missed this defense site,” that I didn’t know existed. But I found it really valuable to be able to visualize because what U.S. strategists had in mind when they wanted to acquire these sites was they wanted to create the infrastructure that the U.S. would need to unilaterally defend the hemisphere from an extrahemispheric aggression. Because this was a moment of big advances in aviation technology, the U.S. was more vulnerable than it had been in the past. But aviation technology was still not so advanced that you could travel very far in an airplane from point A to point B. So, that’s why there are so many sites because they wanted them at 300-400 mile intervals. Having the maps, I feel like, helps you see comprehensively what that chain would look like.

Yeah. Now I can’t remember what the question was. Were there other questions?

Kyle Jackson: If I could follow up with a little mini-question about that: Was the presence of actual U.S. military personnel at defense sites uniform, was it the exception? Was it the rule? I mean, a lot of the ones you highlight in the book are really major sites where there’s USO clubs and very a visible U.S. military presence. But are U.S. military personnel involved in all of these sites or just some of them?

Rebecca Herman: Yeah. Great question. This is another place where from site to site, it varies dramatically. I try to be very careful in setting this up in the introduction to the book so that people don’t get the wrong idea. In Mexico, for example, Cardenas was insistent that the U.S. technicians, servicemen who were stationed at the sites dress in plainclothes. So, there were a lot of efforts to try to diminish the visibility of the U.S. military presence in different places. There were places where they were very small contingents and then there were places that were much larger. The places that I foreground in each of the countries that I focus on in the book are places that had a larger presence because part of what I’m so interested in is how that presence precipitates these conflicts over sovereignty in everyday life.

Janet Waggaman: Did any of these particular experiences or situations in this region led to or contribute the development of the current status of forces agreement practice used nowadays?

Rebecca Herman: That’s something I’ve wondered a lot about. Since my focus has been more on the Latin American histories of these bases, it’s not a through line that I followed into the post-war era, but it was definitely… It’s something that when I meet other people who work on basing in other parts of the world, I’m really eager to hear their expertise about.

One of the things that’s so interesting in Latin America during World War II is that U.S. officials keep coming back around every time… There are many instances in which they consider formalizing the sort of ad hoc governance arrangements that they do come to establish on the grounded bases. So, to take the question of criminal jurisdiction, which is one of the first things you think of with status of forces agreements, there’s no agreement.

In fact, Latin American governments will not concede that the United States is entitled to exercise jurisdiction over its own servicemen while abroad. The U.S. government maintains that it’s a right under international law and sort of clings to that sort of vague reference to international law to assert its authority. But no nationalist in office is able to say, “Okay, the U.S. can have extraterritorial authority on our land.”

Many, particularly judges, police officers, take offense at the notion that they are not competent to exercise jurisdiction over US servicemen. They take it as sort of an illustration of the United States, once again, treating Latin Americans as inferior partners or as junior partners. So, this is a really sore subject.
But in practice, at every base that I look at, the U.S. authorities do manage to exert to authority over most cases most of the time. When they consider the possibility of formalizing those arrangements as the war goes on and the alliances are really crystallized, the response from the State Department or from diplomats on the ground is, “Don’t rock the boat. We’re getting what we want in practice, so we don’t need to put it in writing. We’ll never get it in writing.”

So, the fact that status of forces agreements, which are become the common practice for establishing governance arrangements at U.S. bases around the world from the Cold War on, do just that. They put in writing what the agreement is around jurisdiction. It’s really interesting to me because the lesson in Latin America over and over again seemed to be like if we just don’t formalize it, we can keep getting what we want out of this situation. So, that’s always been something that I’ve found kind of curious.

Janet Waggaman: Thank you so much. We wanted to thank you, on behalf of the class, for accepting this invitation. Wanted to thank professor Margaret Chowning for coming today virtually, and Kyle Jackson. We’ve been sharing on the chat the promo code that we have to get the book, and we can’t wait to read it and to have you all one more time with us in class. Thank you all for coming.

Rebecca Herman: Thanks, everyone.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.