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Imperial Exceptions: The United States in Latin America after World War II

I spent much more time than I expected learning about post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and am proud of the understanding I have it. In a paper I wrote in December of 2014, I explain my historiographic findings.

I spent much more time than I expected learning about post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and am proud of the understanding I have it. Below is a paper written in early December of 2014 for my graduate degree. Dr. Brandon Mill taught “Special Subjects in History: Readings in Colonialism/Post-Colonialism” in which the final assignment was a historiographic essay over a previously researched period or event while in the class. The paper highlights a serious of books on theoretical frameworks of WHAT to U.S. involvement in the region may be framed as; no true definition exists because the U.S. does not recognize their time in Latin America as anything but “democratic support”. The two pictures I chose to use for the web publication of this paper reflect the sentiments and conclusion I present. It should be noted this version of the paper was hardly touched in an attempt to produce a version acceptable for public viewing. Also, this paper (and me) do not reflect the views and thoughts of the University of Colorado – Denver. Lastly, I appreciate all the support my professors at the university gave.

Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted this mural "Victoria Gloriosa" to commemorate the Guatemalan coup. The Dulles brothers, at the center of the painting, were flattered, and had small reproductions of the mural made to give to their friends.
Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted this mural “Victoria Gloriosa” to commemorate the Guatemalan coup. The Dulles brothers, at the center of the painting, were flattered, and had small reproductions of the mural made to give to their friends.

In June of 1954, Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz quickly prepared for a CIA-led coup by arming a dubious group of peasants in hopes of sustaining agrarian land reforms. The United Fruit Company lost leverage as workers’ wages increased. As it intended from its inception, the CIA intended to “maintain order” in Latin America, and Guatemala was ripe for intervention.[1] Unfortunately, American officials knew it was “impossible to produce evidence clearly tying the Guatemalan government to Moscow,” the imperial rival of the United States.[2] The American-backed Guatemalan Col. Castillo Armas mobilized a “Liberation Army.” Equipped with Czechoslovakian arms purchased with money given to him by the CIA, Armas failed in nearly every sense until their agents stepped in for him.[3] After, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles remarked, “The evil purpose of the Kremlin to destroy the inter-American system,” in Guatemala was foiled by “the people.”[4] Walter LaFeber, a U.S. diplomatic historian, views interventions like Guatemala “not only…different from, but opposed to, most of the U.S. revolutionary tradition” and sought informal control to advance U.S. foreign policy.[5] The United States created an informal empire in Latin America through covert efforts during the Cold War.


Official United States foreign policy can be, at best, vague, just as unofficial policy carried out a diplomacy of guaranteed involvement, like actions in Guatemala, throughout Latin America to support a democratic vision. During the Cold War, Latin America became a hotbed of U.S. diplomatic and military action which led to changes in regimes, revolutions and counterrevolutions, and millions of civilian deaths, much of it under the guise to extend a neoliberal economic system. Scholarship since the end of the Cold War identifies these actions as informally “imperial”. In the context of exemplar works, scholars working in the field recognize the political impacts of these actions as problematic to the democratic vision the United States promotes around the world. These works identify informal empire through specific examples of imperial action, the impact on the region, and the political implications in American diplomacy for years to come. Paul A. Kramer points out, “…the imperial has long been a useful concept in work that attempts to situate the United States in global history, and it continues to be so, as demonstrated by a wealth of emerging scholarship.”[6] He goes on to say:

The distinction between “formal” and “informal,” used to divide both imperial practices and types around the issue of state or corporate control; while it opened an imperial analytic to new phenomena, it also abstracted the relationship between state and capital and introduced new problems of exceptionalism.[7]

Based on Kramer’s evaluation of empire and the exemplar previously mentioned, a historiography of U.S. foreign policy as informal empire is justified in explaining the purpose of military and diplomatic action taken in Latin America over the course of the Cold War.

Kramer is one of many from the Wisconsin School of American Diplomatic History, a collection of revisionist historians whose research led to the theory of, “the United States [being] a long history of expansionism, seeking foreign markets for profit and foreign territories for resources.”[8] Williams A. Williams, one of the leaders of the Wisconsin School of American Diplomatic History and professor at the University of Wisconsin, found “empire” essential for continued consumption to the American psyche, as well as the promotion of wealth. From this internal desire, the United States, “projected [their] imperium outward upon others.”[9] Thomas J. McCormick, a student of Williams, confirmed this view through his theory of the United States using diplomacy as the vehicle driving successful economic hegemony. He states the motivation of “empire by invention” through the Cold War supported peace and prosperity “witnessed by the unprecedented aggregate growth of global capitalism.”[10] Historians from the Wisconsin School of American Diplomatic History produced a framework and narrative in which the evaluation of U.S. economic and diplomatic policies are informally imperial while counter frameworks or narratives explain these policies as quite formal and overtly imperial.

While evaluating “U.S. as informal empire,” comparisons between empires draw on questions of “exceptionalism” as sociologist Julian Go suggests, “Denying empire is simply part of the unique modus operandi of American empire itself.”[11] Go’s argument is threefold: 1) how exceptional the United States has been, 2) identify similarities between the U.S. and British Empire, and 3) speculate on the United States’ future actions.[12] To properly examine the U.S. empire, he is required to do so through the lens of “exceptionalism.” Go states, “America’s exceptional history and behavior are caused by its exceptional internal characteristics.”[13] While comparing the U.S. and British empires, “America has engaged in informal noncolonial imperialism because of its unique ‘social system,’ which has no natural ‘ruling class’,” which itself is an indictment into the uniqueness, or exceptionalism, of America’s imperial ambitions.[14]

Go’s intention of comparing the two empires begins with their ascent towards dominance. He compares Britain’s colonies as designed “substates” to the United States’ attempt to provincialize overseas lands as “territories” based on the Jeffersonian thought of “novel republicanism.”[15] The methods in which the two colonies ruled in light of exceptionalism was highlighted by U.S. control over the Philippines and Britain’s colonizing of India. While evaluating the patterns of imperial aggression of the two empires, similarities appear as Go defined their trajectories as expansive, hegemonic, and reassertive in maintaining an imperial stronghold, with the last stage requiring the empire to officially recognize their imperial ambitions.[16] Even though he recognized the informal imperialism of the United States, the comparison to the British Empire gave Go leverage to subjectively suggest the U.S. formally executed imperial actions. With novel republicanism as a central tenant to U.S. policy, implications of formal empire are not enough to define the United States as a formal empire. Go, a sociologist, failed to mention the unbreakable connection other historians found between economic and structural systems created by the United States during the Cold War. Lastly, comparing imperial systems in different times and spaces complicates any authentic claim to definitive recommendations of empire. Thus, as the claim expressed earlier, the United States has been an informal empire, specifically in Latin America, in its own right.

Body of Work

Originally written in 1980, William A. Williams’s Empire as a Way of Life not only represents a revisionist framework, but also a chronology of interventions by the United States throughout the world. The purpose of William’s work was to define Americans of all types favoring “empire” in the 18th and 19th centuries. This provided them with “renewable opportunities, wealth, and other benefits and satisfactions including a psychological sense of well-being and power” which he defines as an “imperial way of life.”[17] Methodologically, Williams confronts the imperial way of life by considering the process as well as the imperial system. Williams began discussing Latin America intervention with the introduction of NSC-68, the pivotal piece of legislation marking a “general imperial responsibility…[to] establish a new order to replace the old.”[18] Beyond this, Williams discussed little about Latin American during the Cold War, except for the Bay of Pigs invasion and a lengthy explanation of Henry Kissinger’s thoughts on Chilean President Salvador Allende’s election. Successfully overthrown governments emphasized William’s argument of quasi-military efforts in Latin America, but failed coups, like Guatemala, Chile, and Cuba, revealed discussion of how “American interests in the hemisphere” came before the desire of a particular countries democratic desires.[19]

Williams’s focus is on his analytical framework, but this reveals more about how the United States used military constructs like NSC-68 to develop a method of hegemony. In examining U.S. foreign policy prior to 1950, Williams identified ambiguous policies determining imperial impulses, but once written:

Unquestionably, NSC-68 was one of the truly impressive imperial documents in the long tradition of the Western European expansion around the world. Its creation and adoption by the leaders of a society that was founded on the Declaration of Independence is mysterious or paradoxical only if one forgets John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.[20]

U.S. intervention in Latin America would not have taken place without NSC-68, but the motivating factor came from “power and influence” of the United States and a global empire.[21] The dissension between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. gave rise to imperial ventures, along with an executive and legislative justification to continue it through the Cold War. Williams’s work is a precursor to his successors as they would continue the revisionist narrative within the scholarship of U.S. diplomacy.

Picking up the torch of the Wisconsin School was Thomas J. McCormick with a review of the “evolution and devolution” of American hegemony in world affairs during the Cold War through a “modified world-system” analytic framework in America’s Half-Century.[22] The framework under scrutiny was the, “…tension between economic internationalism and political nationalism that U.S. hegemony sought to resolve in America’s half-century since World War II.”[23] McCormick began his review of America’s half-century by reviewing foreign policy decisions from the embrace of the Open Door policy as a marker of “American economic supremacy…served by an unlimited global market.”[24] To McCormick, world war led periphery nations from the Pacific Rim, Mediterranean, and Latin America directly under U.S. hegemonic rule. Interest in Latin America mounted as the creation of Bretton Woods system with the intention to structure a loan system in which the United States would supply funds to friendly regimes. Others suffered as:

The United States attempted to defuse the neutralist movement by targeting key regimes for either covert overthrow or offers that were too good to refuse. The advantages of covert action were its relative inexpensiveness and its ability to partially mask American involvement.[25]

While never using the term “colonial”, McCormack used an imperial U.S. foreign policy to outline a traditional hegemonic, colonial narrative, while frequently referring to it as an “informal empire” throughout the book. Latin America was just one of many regions.

If Williams’s “military power and influence” argument began the discussion, McCormick included economic hegemony to further explain the United States’ imperial ambitions. His theory is overtly revisionist as the entirety of his argument rests on U.S. hegemony, resulting in the large share of the market after the world wars. In the context of the Cold War, McCormick’s analytic framework explains how foreign and domestic factors fed military and economic decisions. This led to a policy of two cooperating forces, the U.S. and U.S.S.R., vying for the peripheries attention for a half-century. The only functional point made from his theory is the traditional lust and greed for power and resources empires seek. McCormick never overtly characterized America’s half-century as empire, but using his framework the United States is an informal, ruthless, resource hunting empire with little fore or afterthought when negligently replacing dictators, destroying whole swaths of an environment, or punishing small nations for never meeting Wall Street-like lending standards. Based on McCormick’s framework, Cold War diplomacy was two sided, but never involved the Soviet Union.

As the Simon Bolivar Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of California, Peter H. Smith argued structural patterns created to “uncover recurrent regularities within inter-American relationships, identify long-term trends, and analyze continuity and change.”[26] Smith does this by framing U.S. diplomatic history in three different eras representing various levels of interaction and intervention within Latin America: the imperial era, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. During the imperial era, there was little success in stopping U.S. intervention as, “The Bolivian pursuit of continental unification produced ambiguous results.”[27] Latin America was a focus for the United States during the Cold War, but countries had the difficult choice of complying, denying, or subverting the American system. None of the options during the Cold War worked and left the continent “susceptible to heavy-handed vigilance, covert action, and military intervention by the United States.”[28] Between the Cold War and War on Terror, Smith identified the 1990s as a “Decade of Uncertainty,” as an ambiguous era lacking traditional imperial systems which left no clear front-runner in establishing a balance of power. He concluded the book with suggestions in how to deal with Latin America in era of extremism around the world, “Inter-American relations do not (and should not) exist in isolation.”[29] Smith’s revisionist review of Latin American during the twentieth-century supports other narratives suggesting the talons of freedom protect and cause detriment in the same clutch.

Smith reduces much of the analyzed system and procedures into four factors which explain the patters and changes in U.S. diplomacy over time:

(1) The relative importance of Latin America vis-à-vis other regions, (2) perceptions of extrahemispheric rivalry, (3) definitions of U.S. national interests, and (4) the relationship between state actors and social groups in policy formation.[30]

Smith discovered the change in patterns of distribution of power, policy goals, and procedures pushed the United States from a multipolar position to bipolar, to a multipolar, and back to a unipolar system based on unilateral military action taken in the last decade.[31] The relationship described between the U.S. and Latin American countries creates an agency between the superpower and substate. As Smith concluded his book, he dedicated a portion to Latin American countries responses to the breakdown of a unipolar system, the rise of globalization, and strategies for progress. Smith’s narrative described a type of dependency not yet discussed.

Walter LaFeber’s Inevitable Revolutions looked at Central America’s interaction with the United States. This review of five specific countries (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica) within a world-system, coined as “neodependency,” offers:

A way of looking at Latin American development, not in isolation, but as part of an international system in which the leading powers, have used their economic strength to make Latin American development dependent on–and subordinate to–the interests of those leading powers.[32]

Within this neodependent system, LaFeber’s review is comprehensive going back to the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny, but he quickly moves into the Cold War as U.S. diplomacy focused on “Maintaining the System.” As neoliberal policies extended into Central America, Thomas Mann, an Eisenhower Administration official, suggested a change in policy at the end of the 1950s in which they focus on pushing democratic reform in Central America. Mann stated, “We should not endeavor to sell the specific word ‘Capitalism’ which is beyond rehabilitation in the minds of the non-white world.”[33] Economic dependence was not just a theory as the practice of it broke down in the 1970s as romantic revolutionaries capitalized on extensive poverty. Part of the blame, LaFeber suggests, was the “failure of the Alliance for Progress and the collapse of the Central American Common Market” along with President Carter who “decreased governmental coercion and publicly attacked military regimes…urging [them] to fight revolutions.”[34] The 1980s and the Reagan Administration left a slight increase in neodependent policy, but much of Central America was a “blood-soaked battle field” by the end of the decade.[35] LaFeber ends with a review of Clinton Administration’s policies being uninterested in the region as Eastern Europe again erupted in conflict. Once again, U.S. foreign policy dictated the economic and political shape of Latin America.

LaFeber extended Peter H. Smith’s explanation of how policy required action from Latin America, but, unfortunately, saw a new form of colonial dependency. The neodependency system offers historians an explanation of how the United States reconciled the contradiction between its “professed ideals and its century-old foreign policy.”[36] This ideological inconsistency led to violent conflict and American force, thus, “the result has been more revolution.”[37] LaFeber discussed “‘dependency’…skewing Central American politics” as it offered an economic counter-balance to the empire in question.[38] The neodependency system gave the U.S. “informal control” to show the Central American countries discussed in LaFeber’s book, “a confidence in capitalism, a willingness to use military force, a fear of foreign influence, and a dread of revolutionary instability.”[39]

Greg Grandin’s scathing review of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, Empire’s Workshop, gives an explanation of how:

Central America was [the United States’] proving ground, as a group of conservative defense officials worked hard to restore America’s sense of self-confidence in order to justify the carnage taking place there in the name of national defense.[40]

The first quarter of the book gives an overview of late nineteenth, early twentieth-century policy which Grandin refers to as “How Latin America Saved the United States from Itself” with the intent to explain how reservationists at the turn of the century railed against imperial ambitions.[41] Grandin points out rising labor unrest as a cause for U.S. corporations demanding protection while Washington found itself standing on the sidelines of the conflicts. Grandin gave agency to the colonized as he states:

For their part, Latin America’s landed class, Catholic Church, and military took advantage of the United States’s new Cold War policy to launch a continental counterrevolution, overturning newly democratic governments and forcing those constitutional regimes that survived to the right.[42]

As he chronicled the evolution of a conservative foreign policy in Latin America, Grandin argues the rise of Nixonian-conservatism in which traditional Christian teachings became counter-intuitive and led to a “sharpened sense of class consciousness and unity of action among corporate leaders.”[43] The last two chapters of the book are Grandin’s polemic against the rise of “new imperialism” starting with President Reagan’s policies of killing 300,000 and ending with President Bush’s “abuse of power.”[44] The colonial relationship in Grandin’s work showed how informal empires’ consequences mirror the formal.

Empire’s Workshop began with a review of Open Door diplomacy, a demand by the U.S. for equal access to resources in Asia. Grandin pointed to this moment as, “The demand for legal ‘equality with all competing nations in the conditions of access to the markets’ provided the foundation for America’s informal empire.”[45] In relation to other works, Grandin’s Marxist review extends LaFeber’s framework of neodependency as he thoroughly illustrates the United States’ “new imperialism”: an extreme form of LaFeber’s neodependency which gave Americans a “new birth of the confidence we used to have in ourselves.”[46] Grandin’s focus was on economic hegemony set in motion by U.S. policymakers which mirrors McCormick’s binary theory. Grandin found economic and structural systems inseparable whereas McCormick differentiates between the two as a causal relationship. Grandin’s book is a micro-history of McCormick’s theory, which further shapes U.S. foreign policy as informally imperial.


One of the six central issues of Paul A. Kramer’s review of the imperial U.S. historiography is the “seductive dichotomy of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’,” where he defines, “‘formal’ indicating state-territorial control and ‘informal’ referring to either forms of economic control or the primacy of private-sector actors.”[47] He goes on to say early scholarship chose to leave economic hegemony out of the discussion, thus, they, “comprehended the outlying world as already disciplined along capitalist lines.”[48] After discussing literature and monographic arguments, Kramer concluded, “an imperial analytic can be applied to both capitalist and non-capitalist systems.”[49] Differentiating the formal from the informal on the grounds of structural and economic history then supports and defines the United States as an informal empire: an empire in which the methods do not match the criteria of what Julian Go finds comparable to the British Empire. Unfortunately, the “formal vs. informal” debate comes down to definitions and semantics of said labels.


The scholarship reviewed represents a nation which sought to exploit a continent containing nineteen different countries during the Cold War. The most common threads to run through these works were political guidance and corporate influence with military actions as a byproduct in Latin America, all of which rest on the assumption the colonized lack the ability if given the opportunity to justly rule themselves. William A. Williams and Thomas J. McCormick argued the implementation of political structures was required to implement capitalistic mechanisms to benefit the United States. Peter H. Smith clarified these structures as they appeared covertly and then overtly unilateral throughout the last century. Walter LaFeber suggested the changing polarity in the world created a required neodependency of Latin America on the United States. Greg Grandin argued a new form of imperialism evolved out of a belief system which benefited those at the top, both at home and abroad. Those who have written on the historiography before, like Paul A. Kramer, agree with the analysis of Latin America diplomacy during the Cold War defined the United States as an informal empire.

Exhumation in the Ixil triangle in Guatemala.
Exhumation in the Ixil triangle in Guatemala.


Go, Julian. Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Grandin, Greg. Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.

Kramer, Paul A. “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World.” The American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (2011): 1348-391. doi:10.1086/ahr.116.5.1348.

LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

McCormick, Thomas J. America’s Half-century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Smith, Peter H. Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.-Latin American Relations. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Suri, Jeremi. “Wisconsin School of American Diplomatic History.” Oxford Reference. 2013.

Williams, William Appleman. Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament, along with a Few Thoughts about an Alternative. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing, 2007.


[1] Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2001), 42.

[2] Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 124.

[3] Grandin, 44.

[4] LaFeber, 126.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Paul A. Kramer, “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World,” The American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (2011): 1348.

[7] Ibid., 1357.

[8] Jeremi Suri, “Wisconsin School of American Diplomatic History,” last modified 2013,

[9] William A. Williams, Empire as a Way of Life (Brooklyn: Ig Publishing, 2007), 4.

[10] Thomas J. McCormick, America’s Half-Century (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1995), xv.

[11] Julian Go, Patterns of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011), 2.

[12] Ibid., 5.

[13] Ibid., 14.

[14] Ibid., 17.

[15] Ibid., 44.

[16] Ibid., 207.

[17] Williams, 20.

[18] Ibid., 178.

[19] Ibid., 190.

[20] Ibid., 179.

[21] Ibid., 123.

[22] Thomas J. McCormick, America’s Half-Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War and After (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), xiii, xvi.

[23] Ibid., xvii.

[24] Ibid., 19.

[25] Ibid., 121.

[26] Peter H. Smith, Talons of the Eagle (New York: Oxford UP, 2008),

[27] Ibid., 108.

[28] Ibid., 208.

[29] Ibid., 393.

[30] Ibid., 400.

[31] Ibid., 399.

[32] LaFeber, 16-17.

[33] Ibid., 145.

[34] Ibid., ,267-269.

[35] Ibid., 323.

[36] Ibid., 368.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 17.

[39] Ibid., 18.

[40] Grandin, 73.

[41] Ibid., 24.

[42] Ibid., 41-42.

[43] Ibid., 178-179.

[44] Ibid., 71 & 231.

[45] Ibid., 25.

[46] Ibid., 121.

[47] Kramer, 1374.

[48] Ibid., 1375.

[49] Ibid., 1377.