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The United States and the Caribbean

Franklin W Knight

Wednesday, August 03, 2011    

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For the past few decades there have been repeated assertions predicting the demise of the book. New technologies, it has been declared, will make the book obsolete. Nevertheless, the book remains alive and well. There is just something about the form and feeling of a good book that cannot be replaced when the content is conveyed electronically. A good example is Jason Parker's Brother's Keeper: The United States, Race and Empire in the British Caribbean, 1937-1962. Parker, a young historian at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, earned his first degrees at Vanderbilt University. His doctorate is from the University of Florida.

Brother's Keeper weaves an attractively coherent and highly persuasive multi-dimensional narrative with consummate skill and exemplary literary flourish. The achievement is stunningly monumental and the contribution to several academic fields singularly impressive. Reading like a fast-paced novel, Parker carefully untangles the wide and constantly fluctuating variety of international relationships that developed in the inordinately complicated period between the end of the Great Depression and the early 1960s. It stops before political independence erupts in the British Caribbean, but that may be the subject of a second volume.

This short book covers a lot. The principal themes range from the expansion of the influence of the United States across the Caribbean to include the British West Indies, the political and economic decline of the once venerated Great Britain and its desire to promote a prudently fiscal process of decolonisation, the contagious development of nationalism among Caribbean leaders as well as Caribbean nationals in the North American diaspora, the re-awakening of the US Civil Rights movement, and the overshadowing zeal of the Cold War.

Several threads, including race, political reform, anti-colonialism, and an almost pathological obsession with security on the part of the Americans hold these themes uneasily together.

The first chapter sets the scene during the later 1930s. The United States, having saved the Western democracies at the end of the First World War, was confidently flexing its commercial and economic muscles to spread the American Dream that from the time of Woodrow Wilson had been generally considered good for the world. Partly because of the long-standing tolerance of the Monroe Doctrine for those European Powers with remnants of empire in the Americas and partly because both the Great Depression and the Second World War complicated the Western World, the dream was beginning to fade.

Imperial tolerance, however, did not extend to Spain in 1898, but endured in the case of the French, Dutch, and British Antilles. Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw an opportunity to reconstruct the rest of the world by ending colonialism. The post-war years were especially challenging. "Anglo-American-Caribbean affairs from 1937 to 1945," writes Parker, "witnessed the confluence of Allied geopolitics, hemispheric racial trends, and colonial turmoil, and these affairs belong as much within the story of the wartime Grand Alliance as within that of the interwar "Good Neighbour" period, with which they share features of US activity elsewhere in the hemisphere." This is a point also made by Colin Palmer in his superb book on Cheddi Jagan.

The acquisition of leased land space similar to Vernam Field in Clarendon reinforced the USA presence across the British West Indies during World War II and made the region akin to an American lake. Roosevelt's new Caribbean policy was predicated on what Parker calls the "Three Rs". The first was a realistic pursuit of military-cum-strategic objectives to bolster American hegemony within the hemisphere. One aspect of this policy was the expansion of bases to counter possible submarine threats to the United States and the Panama Canal. Another was the development of regional oil and bauxite resources in Trinidad and Jamaica for the US strategic reserves. The second involved enabling social, political and economic stability across the region. This was enormously complicated by the inescapable third factor of race, since the domestic situation in the United States undermined its public rhetoric.

The Caribbean would most probably have been marginalised after the war, had not the Cold War changed everything. "(T)he United States would use its Caribbean policy to prove its racial and anti-colonial sincerity, its worthiness as an ally, and its sponsorship of reform for colonial peoples who stayed in the Western camp." The deus ex machina appeared in the appeal of the ill-fated West Indies Federation that could be used to reconcile a number of conflictive claims.

The 1950s constituted a critical turning point as the Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower asserted the superordinate importance of anticommunism, free trade, and Western solidarity as its guiding foreign policy principles. Race and anti-colonialism retreated as the Cold War overshadowed everything else. The Caribbean diaspora lost much of its political clout both on the mainland and among the emergent island governments. The Cuban Revolution sucked all the oxygen and the newly constituted West Indies Federation died prematurely and ingloriously in 1961.

The denouement was as untidy as the inauguration. Federal creations worldwide during the 1950s were economically unsound and politically illogical. None was more so than the West Indies Federation. "Among the lot," notes Parker, "only the West Indies Federation stood at the Crossroads of Third World nationalism, Western anti-communism, inter-American and Anglo-American relations, and Cold War geo-strategy." His post-mortem examination of the premature demise of the West Indies Federation and its impact locally and internationally ranks among the most perceptive anywhere in the literature on that sorry subject.

Meticulously mining the holdings of 22 archives in seven countries as well as carefully consulting an enviable bibliography of secondary sources, Parker incorporates more political angles and captures more subtle nuances than any previous study. In the Caribbean, economic and demographic factors strongly influenced political actions. Regardless of the programmes and policies of the major powers, Caribbean leaders were not pushovers but highly sophisticated political performers on the world stage. Caribbean people, for better or for worse, did not follow meekly the dictates of the great Atlantic powers.

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