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The United States in Central America: 1860-1911, Episodes of Social Imperialism and Imperial Rivalry in the World System.

This is meant to be the first of four books in preparation on French, German and United States relations with Central America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If this book is any indication of what is to come, the three pending studies will tell us much about the relations among these three countries and Central America.

Schoonover has spent a decade in archives in Central America the United States, France, and Germany examining the economic relations among these countries. This research has produced substantial fruit. There are discussions of interesting and important events and some re-examination of U.S. policy in the region in this book. The author's discussion of U.S. relations with Jose Santos Zelaya in Nicaragua, Zelaya's attempts to find alternate capital for the construction of an interoceanic canal after the U.S. began the Panama Canal, and growing opposition to Zelaya on the part of the U.S. state department, is an effective and interesting essay. Similarly, his discussion of the growing tendency among U.S. state department representatives to demand special privileges and protections for American citizens living in Central America provides a clear and convincing insight into the often unreasonable demands made by U.S. government representatives in Central America, particularly in the early twentieth century. His examination of the Eisenstuck affair in Nicaragua also provides an interesting example of the nature of U.S./ German economic rivalry in the Central American region and the increasing ability of the United States to put pressure on Central American governments to favour U.S. investors.

In drawing these portraits Schoonover balances his archival research with wide reading in the secondary literature. This research has allowed him to paint often quite complex portraits of the entrepreneurs who bounced around Central America in this period and the various schemes they proposed. These portraits are occasionally compelling pictures of ruthless exiles from the United States, particularly the American south both before and after the American Civil War.

There are problems in argument and continuity here, though. Schoonover uses a "world systems analysis" and argues that this analysis will allow us to understand seemingly isolated events within the broader context of the expansion of the world capitalist system and, in this case particularly, the determination to extend "social imperialism" to the Central American region to solve social and economic problems in the "metropole." He defines social imperialism as "a link between metropole and periphery in which the preservation of well-being and security in the metropole rested on its ability to ameliorate domestic social woes through its ties to the periphery" (p. 3). In single-mindedly pursuing this theme, Schoonaver hits the reader over the head continually with the argument, never for a moment letting us forget that these often ridiculous entrepreneurial schemes and more often conflicting and ill-informed reports from consuls and diplomatic representatives were all part of some grand scheme to export the problems of the United States, to soak up excess production, and to secure cheap raw material. The problems with this argument when applied so rigorously to Central America are fairly obvious. In the broader context it might well be true; that is, American foreign policy makers near the end of the nineteenth century attempted to use whatever influence they could to benefit U.S. entrepreneurs and businessmen in Central America, often in competition with European counterparts. By the end of the nineteenth century, responding to the problems experienced by the U.S. economy they might have even had a perception that U.S. economic expansion in Latin America and elsewhere was tied to U.S. economic prosperity. But, anyone reading the conflicting and confusing reports to the State Department from its representatives in the various Central American countries through this period needs to bulldoze over the particulars, and the exceptions, to find if the theory fits as completely as Schoonover has it do in this book.

The other problem, of course, is that Central America had very little to offer either the United States or Europe in the form of markets or even raw materials. Central America's true importance lay in its potential for interoceanic transport. Thus, most of the time U.S. actions in Central America had little to do with immediate commercial gain or opportunities but were, rather, tied to the desire for control over and stability around the various forms of inter-oceanic transport (railways and canals). These are sometimes complementary concerns and sometimes not. In the broader context control over the canal can be seen as an important element in economic imperialism (although strictly security concerns need also to be examined) but its location in Central America complicated U.S. relations with Central America in ways that can not always easily be fitted into the theory applied here. Certainly Schoonover is, at times, guilty of making mountains out of molehills; one gets the impression from this book that U.S. policy makers were obsessed with the economic possibilities of Central America, and believed their role there to be key to U.S. prosperity and social harmony.

There are problems with continuity here as well. Schoonover tells us that this book was created out of an effort to shorten the manuscript on U.S./ Central American relations mentioned above. He believes the nine episodes presented in this book to be "related. by theoretical and methodological considerations" (p. xi). This relationship is not always clear. A number of the essays presented here seem to be unrelated research notes packed into a series of only vaguely connected essays. Certainly the "Historiographical Excursion into Southern International History" presented at the end of the text is unnecessary and bears the mark of some one unwilling to discard research, no matter how peripheral to the study.

Schoonover has much to tell us about the relationship of France, Germany, and the United States, towards Central America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite the problems, this book provides scholars with substantial information drawn from a wide range of sources. The argument is interesting and, at times, helps explains much that happened in the region in the period. One hopes the other projected volumes maintain these merits while being less heavy-handed in the application of theory and more cohesive in their argument.
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Author:Handy, Jim
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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