Thursday, May 21, 2020

Review of Allcock's Thomas Mann

I always like a good questioning of conventional wisdom, and Thomas Tunstall Allcock serves it up in Thomas C. Mann: President Johnson, the Cold War, and the Restructuring of Latin American Foreign Policy (2018). In class and in my textbook, I've never referred favorably to either Mann or LBJ. I actually discovered I have one sentence that sums them up:

He [LBJ] was even more inclined than Kennedy to forge ties with Latin American militaries and to use covert action. His choice of advisor on Latin American affairs showed that commitment (135-136).

Pretty dismissive. I actually wonder why, given Mann's opposition to the Bay of Pigs invasion and LBJ's outright invasion of the DR, I used the word "covert." But I digress, as they say.

The now infamous Mann Doctrine accepted anti-Communist authoritarianism, while LBJ invaded the Dominican Republican and supported the wave of military coups that hit the region after the Cuban Revolution. It ends up not being a total reappraisal because Allcock is cautious about going too far in that direction, but it's a needed addition to the era--I've always found Mann interesting but there is little about him.

One of his arguments is that "Johnson's presidency still compares favorably to others in the Cold War era in terms of the scale of financial aid provided to the region and the priority given to encouraging Latin American development" (4). To be fair, this is a relatively low bar.

Further, Johnson's efforts to reshape the Alliance for Progress was a "genuine alternative" to the entirely modernization-obsessed JFK example. He argues Johnson and Mann were rooted in the New Deal era with a sense of limits to U.S. policy. Richard Goodwin writes in his memoir that Mann was "a colonialist by mentality who believes the 'natives'--the Latin Americans--need to be shown who is boss" and so the Alliance was dead (245). Allcock takes a poke at the "best and the brightest," (including Goodwin specifically) a club to which Mann didn't belong, arguing instead that he was pragmatic and did not fall for grand theoretical generalizations. Allcock sees Mann's years as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico as evidence of his mastery of diplomacy, even as Goodwin and others whined about him.

He says it is not a moral story: "If any value judgment of that policy is present, it is that flexibility and a willingness at least to consider the interests of other nations is a position preferable to one of neglect or domination" (10).

As for the so-called Mann Doctrine, Allcock views it in large part as a creation of a hostile press, which was in the Kennedy camp and preferred the higher soaring rhetoric. Mann was furious about the leak of his meeting (which is what Tad Szulc at the New York Times based his article on) and noted that Kennedy's own previous nominee had said more or less the same thing.

We arrive at a place where Mann is not exactly rehabilitated but he is situated in terms of continuity. He's certainly no better than the Best and the Brightest, whose bestness and brightestness didn't stop a stupid invasion of a Latin American country. But by no means did he support Latin American democracy when a Communist threat seemed present. In that, he's no worse either. No one in U.S. policy circles really thought non-elite Latin Americans should decide their own futures if that even appeared to threaten U.S. interests. No one in U.S. policy circles doubted that many deaths would occur as a result. 

He was no angel but no more a devil. Mann was a skilled diplomat at particular times, which resolved conflicts that could've needlessly become a lot worse, such as in Panama. That's a good thing. Not huge, but a good thing. In the end, though:

[T]he commonly held view among historians that many of the efforts of this period--and particularly the Alliance--were failure is difficult to dispute" (219).

In the end, security always trumped everything else. I recommend the book, which is a good read.


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