The Dictator Next Door

Eric Paul Roorda’s The Dictator Next Door is an insightful and incisive work of diplomatic history, studying the United States’ dealings from 1930 to 1945 with Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, for years a foreign policy problem unto himself. It also demonstrates how the Good Neighbor Policy, which claimed to promote solidarity and peace among western hemisphere nations, came to allow dictators in Latin America “to run their countries however they pleased, so long as they maintained common enemies with the United States: first the fascists, then the communists” (1).

The book is essentially a study of how the democratic United States tolerated and even supported military dictatorships in other nations, despite some diplomats’ desire to shun dictators and promote democracy abroad. Roorda’s main argument centers on how the despotic Trujillo presented the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations with problems, because he was no pliable puppet.

Difficult to control and a frequent embarrassment to the United States, Trujillo had few friends in the State Department, but the United States military and presidents backed him because he was neither fascist nor communist, and because the Good Neighbor policy called for supporting standing rulers, regardless of their methods. Roorda traces the history of Dominican-American relations and demonstrates how American influence on the region built for years before Trujillo’s rise.

A former Spanish colony, the Dominican Republic was ruled by Haiti until its independence in 1844, after which the military assumed long-lasting control and foreign powers jockeyed for influence there. The United States’ influence increased steadily between 1860 and 1904, and culminated in the United States Marine Corps’ takeover in 1915. During this period, the American military trained Dominican men to serve in its constabulary and army, thus establishing a sort of school for dictators in which Rafael Trujillo was its best student.

Trujillo received training from the Marine Corps and earned an Army commission during this time, despite a history of criminal activity, including rape and extortion (for which he escaped punishment), and rose to the rank of general. Not the United States’ first choice as the Dominican Republic’s leader, he rallied the army to stage a coup in 1930, three years before the Good Neighbor policy was introduced, and was helped by the Hoover administration’s nonintervention policy, which preferred commerce over militarism as a means of promoting good will.

Roorda explains the process in great detail in chapter two and does not spare the American government from sharp criticism. He maintains that Hoover’s desire to redeem the United States’ image in Latin America, as well as the administration’s unwillingness to back his ambassador (who distrusted Trujillo and refused to recognize him), helped Trujillo maintain his control.

Wary of Theodore Roosevelt’s and Woodrow Wilson’s use of “gunboat diplomacy,” the Hoover administration recognized Trujillo because he seemed likely to protect American commercial interests and it was more politically expedient to recognize de facto regimes, dictatorships or otherwise. He even states plainly that the savvy Trujillo was able to play the American legation against the American military, which trained and obviously respected Trujillo.

Clearly critical of American behavior in Latin America, Roorda states that “in the history of U. S. relations with its closest neighbors . . . the rhetoric of solidarity and protection against European aggression ran counter to the brutal logic and increasing momentum of U. S. territorial expansion and imperial ambitions” (23). He deems the policy paradoxical from the outset; while it promoted friendship with Latin America (which filtered into popular culture during the 1930s and ‘40s), Latin American intellectuals were less than enthusiastic because it relied on American authority and kept authoritarian regimes in power, Trujillo’s being the most egregious.

During the Depression, Trujillo consolidated his power even further despite the Dominican economy’s near-collapse, receiving additional American economic aid, mainly because of his promises to protect American business interests. However, he soon became “the greatest source of instability in U. S. -Dominican relations. . . . As U. S. officials found out, the benefits of a ‘stabilizing’ dictatorship could be canceled out by an unreliable dictator” (87).

Roorda maintains that the Good Neighbor policy itself was an empty, nebulous policy created by Franklin Roosevelt, whom he characterizes as “a master of innuendo, ambiguity, paradox, and the manipulation of disparate personalities” (91). In chapter four, Roorda characterizes Trujillo as a shrewd, image-conscious manipulator of public opinion on a par with FDR, but with total control of an intimidating military that crushed any opposition.

Trujillo flouted his authority, renaming geographical features, parks, and even the capital city for himself, surrounding his rule with public spectacle, and assuming total control of the Dominican press in order to glorify his regime and even deify himself. One telling newspaper quote deemed him “so necessary that [the people] give him permanent power” and somehow dubbed his regime “super-democracy” (95).

The American government, meanwhile, was aware of Trujillo’s transgressions yet played into his hands, even assisting his censorship campaign and public-relations efforts. While the United States was not fooled, Roorda implies, it played along in an effort to heed the Good Neighbor policy’s claim to support national sovereignty and thus allowed Trujillo a free hand. The entire book centers on a single recurring theme: the folly of a democracy supporting dictators.

Roorda maintains that “the reliance on dictators to attain the traditional U. S. goals of stability and cooperation in Latin America meant having to ignore those instances when the strongmen themselves incited unrest and conflict” (147). The American military is partly to blame, since it trained Trujillo and treated him as a favored protégé, while diplomats saw through the dictator’s pageantry and disapproved of his methods (Trujillo returned their disdain).

Roorda casts a good deal of the blame at the Roosevelt administration, which, in its efforts to avoid heavy-handed intervention, allowed Trujillo to remain in power because he seemed to represent stability even while disrupting Dominican-American relations (with his conduct at home and his occasional bloody attacks against neighboring Haiti). In describing American logic vis-à-vis Trujillo, “Dominican stability made him practical to deal with,” even if that meant turning a blind eye to the questionable ethics of backing brutal regimes that did not threaten American dominance or prosperity.

At times, he argues, this meant that Trujillo was the proverbial tail wagging the American dog, getting his way because Roosevelt lacked the will or the political clout to intervene against him. The book uses ample detail and careful research in describing the United States’ paradoxical relationship with Trujillo, relying heavily on government documents, personal papers, the contemporary press, and a large number of secondary sources.

While its assertions are not groundbreaking (recent diplomatic history is harshly critical of American support for brutal dictators), it is well-written, with concise prose and well-constructed arguments, on the whole an excellent diplomatic history. For scholars seeking an explanation of American relations with Latin America, and who do not mind its sharp criticisms of American foreign policy’s ethical lapses and oversights, The Dictator Next Door is well worth one’s while.

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