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STEPHEN C. RABE:The Most Dangerous Area in the World. John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

This is an excellent, careful, and critical account of John F. Kennedy's Latin American policies, which Kennedy intended as a liberal, reform alternative to "Communist revolution." Although Rabe purposely omits a re-telling of Kennedy's unrelenting war against revolutionary Cuba, it haunts his narrative -- as it did every one of Kennedy's policies -- throughout.

While I was studying Rabe's book, three disparate events made the news that echo and impart a sense of immediacy to his central themes:

-- The death in September of Judith Campbell Exner, a Los Angeles socialite, who had an affair with Kennedy lasting through most of his time in the White House (Los Angeles Times, 26/09/1999);

-- A London court's decision in October that former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, arrested a year earlier on the warrant of a Spanish judge, could be extradited to Spain to stand trial on 34 charges of torture;

The issuing of a report by Guatemala's "truth commission" implicating the U.S. government in the creation of a killing machine that ravaged the country for decades (New York Times, 7/03/1999).

Ms. Campbell (her name at the time) was an unwitting courier of Kennedy's messages to Chicago Mafiosi Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli containing plans to kill Fidel Castro (Los Angeles Times, 26/9/1999). Her death reminds us, as she said, that "Jack was reckless, so reckless." In his frantic attempts to destroy Cuba's revolution and, in Rabe's phrase, to "immunize Latin American societies against radicalism," Kennedy lost his moral compass, and "mutilated" his oft-proclaimed democratic and anti-colonial ideals (pp. 8, 199).

As senator, Kennedy had condemned France's colonial war in Algeria, and declared that "the single most important test of American foreign policy today is how we meet the challenge of imperialism." But as president, says Rabe, Kennedy probably "authorized more covert interventions in Latin America than any other postwar president -- including Ronald Reagan" (pp. 198-99).

One of Kennedy's lesser known but exemplary assaults on democracy, retold by Rabe, was his successful effort to get England's Conservative government to "drag out" granting independence to British Guiana until Cheddi Jagan, the nation's freely elected socialist prime minister, could be removed. This led former colonial secretary Iain MacLeod to relish the irony, as he said, of "America urging us all over the world towards colonial freedom except when it approaches its own doorstep" (p. 85). Following the Bay of Pigs "fiasco," Kennedy launched a campaign to force Jagan's removal. He did so despite the consensus among state department officers and British colonial officials that Jagan, son of an East Indian sugar-worker family, was the ablest leader in the colony and definitely not a Communist, but rather, as MacLeod said, "a naive, London School of Economics Marxist filled with charm [and] personal honesty" (pp. 84-85). For over two years, U.S. agents organized strikes and protests, set off riots, burned and bombed government buildings, inflamed racial animosities and provoked pitched battles between Guianans of East Indian and African heritage, and generally did everything they could to "generate chaos." This campaign, and explicit demands by Kennedy, led the British to impose a proportional representation electoral system that in 1966 brought in Kennedy's choice, Forbes Burnham. The British themselves had warned Kennedy that Burnham, an Afro-Guianan, was "an opportunist, racist, and demagogue, intent only upon personal power" (p. 86). He turned out to be that and more: a corrupt and repressive autocrat, who ruled independent Guyana until his death in 1985.

The same sort of operation was to be repeated on a far more devastating scale in Chile, under Nixon and Kissinger, leading to the bloody military coup on September 11, 1973 that overthrew the constitutional government of socialist president Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power. But it was Kennedy who inaugurated massive covert intervention in the affairs of Chile, which until then had been the most stable and vibrant political democracy in Latin America. He sought to forestall Allende's election in the fall of 1964 by covertly underwriting and organizing the presidential campaign of Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva; the C.I.A. spread disinformation and black propaganda designed to portray the left as the nation's mortal enemy. Kennedy was not coy about his aim in Chile. It would be "a major setback for us if the Communists [sic!] were to win an election in a democratic country," he told then president Jorge Alessandri, "when we have said that Communism can remain in power only by building a wall" (p. 113).

Elsewhere in Latin America, Kennedy's "counterinsurgency" and "internal security" programs, and encouragement of increasing "intimacy" between U.S. and Latin American military and police officers, also subverted democracy. His administration aided and abetted or, through the C.I.A., actually organized the conspiracies that overthrew six popularly elected Latin American presidents during his 1000 days in office.

The military dictators who took power in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Guatemala under Kennedy's aegis -- contrary to the dangerous nonsense of the "modernization" theorists who supplied the intellectual rationale for Kennedy's (and later, L.B.J.'s) counter-insurgency doctrine -- did not "fulfill the aspirations of civilian middle-sector groups." True, the new military rulers of these countries typically were not born into what modernization theorists erroneously termed the "traditional oligarchy." But they did its bidding. They imprisoned critics and reform-minded elements from the very "middle sector groups" they supposedly represented, and (guided by the C.I.A.-run, A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s American Institute of Free Labor Development [sic!]) crushed labor unions and peasant organizations.

Rather than ushering in a golden era of democracy, social justice, and progressive reform, Kennedy's anti-Communist messianism initiated what turned out, according to Rabe, to be a bloody "two-decade long 'militarist assault' on constitutionalism" (p. 144).

U.S. post-war interventionism scarcely began with Kennedy; he inherited it from his immediate predecessors in the White House. Yet he and his co-conspirators in the White House were the architects of a concerted program, as a 1967 Report to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded, of "counter-revolutionary militarism" (p. 144) that gutted democracy and suppressed human rights. In South America (Argentina, Brazil and Chile) as in Central America (El Salvador and Guatemala), U.S.-sponsored counter-revolutionary regimes, says Rabe, "carried out vicious campaigns against their civilian opponents that evoked popular comparisons with the Nazi terror in Central Europe in the 1930s" (p. 141).

It is well-known that, at the behest of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the C.I.A. overthrew Jacobo Arbenz Guzman's reform government of Guatemala on the pretext that he was "pro-Communist." Less known, Rabe notes, is that it was Harry S. Truman who first ordered the C.I.A. to provide Guatemalan exiles with weapons and funds against Arbenz (p. 96), and that Kennedy also encouraged a military coup in 1963 against the U.S.'s own favorite, right-wing president, Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes. (Two years earlier, Ydigoras had lent the C.I.A. a base to secretly train Cuban exiles.) Somehow Ydigoras, whose term of office was ending, got it into his head to allow a free election to select his successor. He even granted former president Juan Jos Arvalo, Arbenz's reformist predecessor, the right to return from exile and run for the presidency. "Ydigoras's defense of constitutionalism," Rabe notes, "alarmed the Kennedy Administration" (p. 74). Encouraged by U.S. officials, the military overthrew Ydigoras on March 31, 1963. Kennedy responded by upping the U.S.'s already unprecedented amount of military assistance and increasing U.S. training and equipping of Guatemala's police officers in "riot control" and "interrogation techniques." From then on, the Guatemalan military regularly "dispatched 'death squads' to slaughter anyone who questioned the prevailing order" (p. 77). Thus did Kennedy set in motion the "killing machine" which -- in the years to come, and with the connivance of every administration since, except Jimmy Carter's (which cut off military aid) -- took the lives of over 200,000 people (New York Times, 7/03/1999).

Maurice ZeitlinUniversity of California, Los Angeles