Prior to World War II, the role of the United States in world affairs was largely limited to Mexico, the Philippines, and the nations of the Caribbean Basin (Cuba, Haiti, and the Central American republics). Then, as now, Americans were not much interested in those places; most, in fact, were probably only vaguely aware of the influence that the United States exercised over them. The term “Third World” had not yet come into existence, replete with its heavy cultural and moral overtones, and apart from Protestant missionary organiza tions and a small number of American corporations, there were no domestic constituencies for “Latin American” or “Philippine” policy. Occasionally some sensational event—a civil war, a revolu tion—would push these countries briefly onto the front pages of American newspa pers, but most of the time they received coverage only in the “little” magazines— particularly The Nation and The New Republic.
The situation prior to World War II sharply contrasts with that of the present day in other ways as well. Unlike today, in the interwar period few American journal ists were college graduates; fewer still spoke foreign languages; and almost none could be described as politically or culturally left of center. On the other hand, those who wrote for the little magazines tended to be all three. In that sense, they were precursors of today’s journalist-activist or journalist-as participant, and their role in shaping elite opinion and even American policy, particu larly in the late 193 os, was far from negligent. One such was Carlton Beals, who covered every major Latin American story from the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s to the Cuban revolution in the 1960s, and who is now the subject of a full-dress academic biography by John A. Britton.
Though Beals himself does not emerge in these pages as a particularly interesting or sympathetic personality, his career does allow his biographer to explore a wide range of important subjects—most of them related to the “international” aspect of American cultural and political radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s. There are cameo appearances from many key figures of the period—Mike Gold, Ernest Gruening, Bertram Wolfe, Frank Tannenbaum, Waldo Frank, Joseph Freeman, Freda Kirchwey, as well as such foreign personalities as Diego Rivera, Alexandra Kollontai, Julio Antonio Mella, Fernando Ortiz, Rabindraneth Roy, and David Alfaro Siqueros. The book lacks a certain intellectual weight and sureness of touch, and suffers from too close an identification with its subject; nonetheless, it brings to bear an impressive amount of research, not only from Beals’s personal papers but from American and Mexican archives. On more than one count, it adds significantly to our understanding of the history of both countries, and above all to the wider phenomenon of “Third World-ism” past and present. The ghost of Beals stalks much of the news coverage that Americans have received about many countries over the past eight years, most notably El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Carlton Beals was born in Kansas in 1893, the first son of a lawyer-newspaperman and an English teacher, both of whom sub scribed to the more radical version of American populism. Beals’s father was something of a failure in both of his chosen professions; his prospects did not improve in California, where he resettled his family in 1900. But Carlton seems to have absorbed most of his father’s basic values, above all his sense of moral superiority and his rejection of conventional American values. Upon his graduation from Berkeley in 1918 he fled to Mexico to avoid military service in the United States. He remained there more or less continuously for many years thereafter (with a brief interlude in Italy in 1922), learning the language and serving in various capacities—as an English instructor to the staff of revolutionary chieftain Venustiano Carranza, as a teacher at the American School in Mexico City, and then, for almost a decade, as a correspon dent for The New Republic.
During the 1930s, Beals expanded his interests to Cuba and Peru, to each of which he devoted full-length books. His obsessive and wrongheaded campaign of character assassination against U.S. Ambas sador Harry Guggenheim in Havana—even his admiring biographer comes close to calling it that—played an important role in preparing the way for the Cuban revolution of 1933. Concretely, by representing U.S. policy as being more favorable to dictator Gerardo Machado than in fact it was, Beals helped to undermine the ambassador’s attempts to ease Machado out quietly, in the process polarizing the conflict among Cubans. Beals was also the first American journalist to interview Nicaraguan General Augusto Sandino, who had become a Latin American legend through his leadership of a guerrilla campaign against a small ex peditionary force of U.S. Marines. In 1937 he participated briefly in the efforts of Leon Trotsky (by then an exile in Mexico) to clear his name against Stalin’s accusations at the Moscow Trials, and by the early 1940s he had become a frequent contributor to mainstream American magazines. In the late 1940s and 1950s, however, the Amer ican national mood was distinctly unconge nial to radicalism or people who wrote about it; Beals thus holed up on a farm in Connecticut owned by his fourth wife, writing on a wide range of non-political topics for minor magazines and book publishers. He returned to public view briefly in the early 1960s to write for the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, as well as to produce one last major book, Latin America: World in Revolution (1967). He died in 1979.
Britton reports that one of Beals’s professors at Berkeley told him that he had “the knack of writing"—to which he added, “Don’t let your pen be idle.” The gentleman had greatly overstated the case, though his advice was sound. Beals was blessed less with talent than with sheer industry—over the years he wrote thirty-four books and more than two hundred magazine articles. At its best, as in Banana Gold (1932), his work resembled that of the more talented travel writers of the day. Most of the time, however, his prose was deeply purple— tasteless, hyperbolic, undignified. His Porfirio Díaz, Dictator of Mexico (1932), for example, is pockmarked by expressions like “corral and kosher” or “know his onions.” When one American academic expert on Peru took issue with his book Fire on the Andes (1934), he accused the man of being “a rancid Bourbon, a kisser of the toes of aristocracy, a sacred institution chest-pounder.” As he grew older his style simply became more acerbic, as he substituted vituperation for argument; Latin America: World in Revolution seems to have been written with his liver. Presumably he owed his pre-eminence to the fact that then, as now, journalists were notoriously shiftless, and the few who—like Beals—were not be came disproportionately influential.
Between 1910 and 1930 Mexico was torn by a series of civil wars which subsequent historians call the Revolution. At one level, the conflict was about issues which had been smoldering since the late colonial period—land tenancy, the prerogatives of the Roman Catholic church, and racial distinctions. At another, it turned on relations between Mexico and the United States, which had become in the late nineteenth century the country’s largest source of foreign capital and investment. And finally, it represented a struggle for power among leaders of an ascendant class of revolutionary generals, most of whom subsequently became businessmen-politicians and eventually founded a new order not significantly different from the one the Revolution replaced.
During the 1920s Mexico was a favored place of pilgrimage for American radicals, largely because (to them) its regime represented the antithesis of Coolidge prosperity and what Beals called “the American herd gospel: success, college friends, conventional engagement... a job in the shipping office.” According to Britton, Beals was particularly attracted to “the humble lifestyle of the Indian and mestizo peasants, convinced that they were morally superior to the middle-class, materialistic money grubbers of the United States.” At no point in the book, it should be mentioned, does Britton question whether this characterization is adequate to the period; indeed, he repeats the notion periodically as if it is above all scholarly discussion.
Actually, the romantic phase of the Revolution ended early, as did its quarrel with the United States, with whom a treaty settling outstanding claims for expropria tion was signed in 1923. By the mid-i920s, General Plutarco Elías Calles had become a virtual dictator, assisted by thuggish labor and peasant leaders whose principal task was to suppress all of the rebellious tendencies out of which they themselves had emerged. As Britton points out, Beals was somewhat late in recognizing this.
During the 1920s, in fact, Beals was something of an unpaid press agent for the Mexican government, which carefully monitored his articles in The New Republic and hastened to massage his ego when he seemed to be veering from the official line. In most cases, however, Beals needed no disciplining. When José Vasconcelos, former minister of education, challenged Calles’s stand-in for the presidency in 1929, in an election marked by fraud and violence, Beals assured the readers of The New Republic that the defeated candidate had no support; when Vasconcelos’s followers questioned the veracity of his reports, Beals conceded that they might have a point, but that “the matter is not worth going into now.”
Likewise, when he visited war-torn Jalisco in 1927, he discovered that the Catholic guerrilla movement there was largely a response to government provocations, but he hesitated to publish his findings—for fear, he confided to friends, of giving aid and comfort to advocates of U.S. military intervention! By the end of the decade, when his disillusionment with Calles was complete, instead of setting the record straight and admitting his errors, he moved on to Cuba, where he could offer uncritical support for a revolutionary cause which had not yet triumphed.
Britton puts at the center of Beals’s attraction to Mexico his “anti-imperialism,” not merely his opposition to U.S. military intervention in the affairs of other, weaker peoples but his opposition to U.S. economic influence through investment and the export of technology. “His qualified advocacy of modernization by revolution and his unqualified condemnation of imperialism,” he writes, helped to establish “the basis for a new framework of understanding and explaining the complex process of change that was underway not only in Mexico but elsewhere in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.” He even credits Beals’s views with being a kind of primitive precursor of what is known today as “dependency theory,” a shorthand term for the notion that some countries are poor because others are rich, and that all foreign influences in pre-industrial countries necessarily lead to poverty, not progress.
In some ways this characterization of Beals is apt, to the extent that dependency theory seeks to have it both ways. That is, it tends to idealize primitive cultures in isolation at the same time that it purports to favor the fruits of modernization (health, literacy, rising living standards), using the quasi-religious concept of “revolution” to avoid explaining how to get from one state to the other. Thus, almost alone of American radicals, Beals opposed not merely the “Dollar Diplomacy” of various Republican administrations but Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” the centerpiece of which was a series of reciprocal trade agreements which opened U.S. markets to Latin American exports.
For Beals, this policy was a device for siphoning off valuable raw materials and currency from Latin America, as if the act of entering into ordinary commercial transactions amounted to a looting of the southern nations. He never explained where he expected these countries to get the resources to improve the lot of their peoples if they could not sell their products abroad. All he knew was that U.S. influence was bad, in whatever form it took. In fact, in his view, Roosevelt’s abandonment of military intervention was actually the more insidious, since it paved the way for “the subtle, but even more debilitating policies of economic exploitation.” “Like most economic nationalists in Latin America,” Britton writes approvingly, “Beals saw government action, not private initiative, as the most practical means to guide national economic development.” That Latin American nationalists might reason thus is one thing; why Beals—a foreigner—felt obii gated to subscribe uncritically to their views is quite another. Moreover, that his biographer could write as if Beals’s ideas have never been tried—whereas, in fact, for more than fifty years they have been the conventional wisdom in Latin America and now stand revealed as the first cause of its widespread economic and social decay— speaks volumes about the ideological blindness which afflicts important sectors of the American academy, particularly that which specializes in “Third World” studies.
Throughout Britton’s book there are frequent references to Communism and Communists, as well as to efforts by American government agencies to link Beals to the Soviet Union. The author was able to obtain Beals’s file from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act and quotes from it profusely; like most documents of this kind, it makes for piquant reading. Beals moved in radical circles in Mexico and the United States, and obviously knew many people on the Left in both countries, including Communists. The fact is, however, that he was never a Communist, or for that matter even attracted to Communism, particularly in its Soviet incarnation. He quarreled with Michael Borodin, the Comintern’s repre sentative in Mexico in the early 1920s, as he did with assorted other Russian agents or their sympathizers. It would appear, actually, that he quarreled with almost everybody.
Beals’s stance as an independent radical recommended him to Max Schachtman, leader of the American Socialist Workers Party, who invited him to him to participate in the Dewey Commission, convoked in Mexico City in 1937 at the request of Leon Trotsky. The commission, it will be recalled, was a response to the show trials staged by Stalin in Moscow the year before whose purpose was to “prove” that his defeated rival in the struggle for power had all along been secretly in the pay of the German Kaiser, Imperial Japan, and the British Empire. (It is perhaps worth noting that contemporary liberal and Leftist opinion appeared to require such extraordinary responses in order to vindicate Trotsky’s revolutionary honor.)
Beals arrived late from the United States and in a bad humor; took umbrage at the fact that several crucial sessions had been held without him; and exacted revenge by acting as the devil’s advocate in the proceedings. He eventually resigned in a huff, refused to sign the commission’s final report, and in fact took up the cudgel against it in the American liberal press. This chapter shows Beals’s biographer at his worst: Britton makes a lame and unconvinc ing case for his subject’s role in the matter (“Beals was coldly objective [while] Trotsky apparently saw the hearings as a chance for personal vindication”), but he does at least succeed in convincing us that—contrary to the later allegations of Trotskyists in the United States—Beals harbored no Stalinist sympathies. Evidently, his vanity and outsized sense of self-importance were far larger than any particular political commitment.
During the late 1950s friends advised Beals that a new revolution was brewing in Cuba, which led him to revisit the island for the first time in many years. He did not meet Castro on this occasion, but what he learned did not impress him favorably. Ironically, for once his tendency to shoot from the hip led to a bull’s eye: he described the incipient Cuban dictator as a “quick tempered, impatient, imperious, violence-prone adventurer, whose father built a landed empire on theft and corruption, and left his son the legacy of a youth shattered by his father’s vaunted infidelity.” Once the revolution triumphed, however, Beals cast caution to the winds and became a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a group of American pro-Castro apologists. Revisiting the island in i960, he was reminded of Mexico in the 1920s; “I feel much younger,” he wrote. “I feel rejuve nated. It seems that everything around me is filled with youthful energy.” Britton adds, “His writing . . . was full of an ebullience that, at times, bordered on naivete. He failed to detect, or perhaps refused to allow himself to see, that Castro was headed ever closer to Russia.”
Shortly after seizing power Castro took up an old suggestion which Beals had made long ago—that the Latin Americans should have their own news organization, inter preting world events from their own point of view. Thus was born Prensa Latina, for whom he became an occasional writer. The agency sent him on a lecture tour of Mexico and South America, with the understanding that it would distribute his travelogues and commentaries. Midway in the journey, however, director Fermin Revueltas was replaced by Jorge Massetti, an Argentine Marxist friend of Ché Guevara, and Beals found his articles subject to censorship and heavy rewriting. He wrote privately to a friend that Prensa Latina had become “Communist lock stock and barrel, and has degenerated into a combination censorship bureau [for Cubans] and a propaganda bureau abroad.” In the same letter, he warned that if the Cuban Communists did not moderate their actions, “the whole revolution is going to be wrecked.” He quietly terminated his relationship with the news agency, but never criticized Castro openly.
“Beals was a secular prophet who challenged middle class comfort and conformity with the disturbing reminder that most of the people in the Western hemisphere did not fit into the bourgeois mold. His singular advocacy of the legitimacy of revolution and the illegitimacy of imperialism constituted a personal campaign against the expansionist, business-oriented, materialistic and individ ualistic society that he rejected.” Thus Britton’s epitaph for his hero. Certainly it is the way that Beals himself would have wished to be remembered.
Without doubt, Beals rejected American society as he found it, but his radicalism sought a larger theater for its fullest expression. For him, anti-Americanism was a kind of organizing philosophical princi ple, against which all other institutions, nations, and movements were judged. This explains why he was attracted to Latin America in the first place, since it was the one region of the colonial or semi-colonial world during the interwar period where hatred of the United States (as opposed to Britain, France, or Holland) was something of a fixation by intellectuals and politicians. It also helps to account for his love affair with the Mexican Revolution, which waxed and waned not according to its own peculiar rhythms but according to the way it was perceived as an anti-paradigm to the American way of life. Once Calies made his peace with Washington, his government lost its appeal for Beals, who simply moved on to Peru, and then Cuba, always in quest, as one critic wrote, “of the tumult and chaos his soul loves.” Thus, Beals’s interest in Castro was tepid during the latter’s “moderate” (pre-1959) political phase, and reached fever pitch only when the Cuban dictator sought and obtained a direct confrontation with the United States.
Beals’s career established the basic parameters of “engaged” or “committed” journalism as it would subsequently emerge in the 1960s—a commitment not to Marxist ideology but to a vague notion of undifferentiated “revolutionism"; the snobbish manipulation of claims to expertise in exotic cultures; a contempt for the purported “materialism” of Western societies without offering an alternative to the poor of the pre-industrial world; a rigid, reflexive anti-Americanism; the creation of false dichotomies—particularly between economic development and political inde pendence; above all, the notion that a symbiotic relationship exists between the United States and less developed countries, in which the interests of one cannot be advanced without detriment to the interests of the other.
Above all, it prefigures the way in which journalism has come to shape so much of our perceptions of the world, and, by indirection, the views which our own elites hold about our country and our culture. Beals’s biographer is right to make strong claims for his subject’s importance; his doleful legacy continues to be felt wherever American society finds itself in conflict with others who choose to side with our enemies, regardless of the cost to us, to them, or to their own, long-suffering peoples.
Mark Falcoff is
Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute
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