Matrix Podcast: Interview with Rebecca Herman

Rebecca Herman


In this podcast, Michael Watts interviews Rebecca Herman, Assistant Professor of History, UC Berkeley. Professor Herman’s research and writing examine modern Latin American history in a global context. Her first book, forthcoming from Oxford University Press, reconstructs the history of U.S. military basing in Latin America during World War II – through high diplomacy and on-the-ground examinations of race, labor, sex and law – to reveal the origins and impact of inter-American “security cooperation” on domestic and international politics in the region. She has also authored past and forthcoming articles and book chapters on the global politics of anti-racism, the Cuban literacy campaign, the Brazilian labor justice system, and U.S.-Latin American relations. She is currently working on a new book project on Antarctica, Latin America, and the World.

Prior to entering academia, she spent several years in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Brazil working as a freelance translator, researcher, and documentarian. Before joining the faculty at Berkeley, she was Assistant Professor of International Studies and Latin American Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. She received her Ph.D. in History from UC Berkeley and her B.A. in Literature and History from Duke.

Produced by the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix, the Matrix Podcast features interviews with scholars from across the UC Berkeley campus. The Matrix Podcast is hosted by Professor Michael WattsEmeritus “Class of 1963” Professor of Geography and Development Studies at UC Berkeley.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California Berkeley. Your host is Professor Michael Watts.

Michael Watts: Hello, everyone. And my name is Michael Watts, and I’m welcoming you back to Social Science Matrix Podcasts. These are an opportunity for us to showcase some of our faculty’s– Berkeley faculty research. And I’m delighted today to have with us Professor Rebecca Herman of the Department of History, and we’ll be talking about her work and her forthcoming book.

Rebecca is a relatively new arrival on the Berkeley campus. She came here in 2015, but her professional history precedes that. While she read literature and history at Duke, she actually came here for her master’s and PhD, which she completed in 2014, and then moved up to the University of Washington International Studies prior to coming here to Berkeley.

Rebecca is, I suppose you might say– although, we could talk about this, Rebecca– a type of global historian, and especially locating Latin America, which is a regional area of focus, on a much larger global and transnational stage. And that, indeed, is the subject of her forthcoming book, The Americas at War, which will be published by Oxford University Press, which we’ll be talking about later in the podcast. Rebecca, thank you so much for generating a little time during these COVID times to be with me today, and I’m so looking forward to our conversation.

Rebecca Herman: Yeah, it’s a pleasure to have a conversation with somebody at all. [CHUCKLES] Very good to be here.

Watts: Well, welcome. Rebecca, I’m going to begin, if I may, with some sort of personal or intellectual formation questions in part. I know that you were trained in history. But I also know that in parts of your life, you lived in the Southern Cone in Argentina and Chile and Brazil and a whole variety of places, working as a translator among other things.

And so I wonder if you could– we could start by talking a little bit about two sorts of things. One is how you came and why you came to think and want to study Latin America in this global, more transnational way and how it is that you approach or, indeed, whether you see yourself as a global historian and came to focus in particular on this key moment, which is so central to your book, namely the Second World War. So fill us in if you would a little bit about your own trajectory, your own journey coming to these sorts of issues.

Herman: Sure. Wow, OK, let’s see. Where to begin? You know, I guess I had an experience in college that I think a lot of people have, where– well, hopefully less now. Maybe that K through 12 education has improved and diversified since I was in grade school.

But I just remember this feeling of getting to college and becoming very quickly aware of how little I knew about the world and feeling almost angry that I had been taught the same stale historical narratives over and over again throughout my K through 12 education about the United States, about Western Europe a little bit. But for the most part, it had been pretty redundant and shallow.

And suddenly, I was in a class in the literature department at Duke taking an entire semester on South Asian Women’s Fiction. And I’d never learned about the partition of India before in any meaningful way, and I was just blown away by this. And so I ended up building a major that was split between literature and history departments that was organized around the parts of the world that I was upset to have never learned about before.

And so it was mostly focused on literature classes and history classes that focused on South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And Latin America was the real central focus. I think having grown up in California for the second half of my childhood, Latin America always felt like a place that was sort of close to home, but also unfamiliar.

And when I started taking coursework in Latin America and started learning in particular about the history of US foreign policy in Latin America that added another level to my frustration with my poor education because I was appalled by a lot of the things that I was learning about and thought I’d had access to a pretty good education. So if I didn’t know about things, probably most 18, 19-year-olds didn’t either.

And from there, I just went on a journey into Latin American history, leaving US foreign policy behind, leaving the United States behind. I did research in Chile as an undergraduate and the summer before my senior year. And while I was in Santiago for the summer, I took just a weekend trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and just kind of fell in love with the city and decided to move there after I graduated from college and developed some really solid friendships, even in the three days that I was there and just was really fortunate about where I landed.

So I’ve always had this interest in the connections between narrative storytelling and history. That was the link between literature and history. And when I got to Argentina, I had a grant to work with a human rights archive called Memoria Abierta, which means open memory in Spanish. That was dedicated to documenting the history of the Dirty War, the violent period in Argentine history during the Cold War.

And my role as an apprentice type, learning the ropes, trying to learn from these really excellent documentarians was to assist in a project that they were putting together to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the coup. So this is drawing on all of this really amazing multimedia material that they had from their oral history archive, and so I got to talk to the historians who were collecting the oral histories to build that archive.

An architect who managed this really cool spatial history project of trying to reconstruct what the clandestine detention centers that had been destroyed looked like when they existed based on the testimonies of survivors who had gone through them, the documentary archive where they were just trying to assemble and preserve documents from various human rights organizations that grew up around the Dirty War– and that was just a really incredible experience.

Watts: Was this– sorry. Can I ask, was this– at that point, was the American imperialism as your interest front and central? Or was it that you were in Chile or in Argentina, and these things had obviously a deeply national focus. Or was that thread always there, or this was something that you really brought to graduate school or developed in graduate school when you came to Berkeley afterwards?

Herman: So that thread was there that sparked my interest. In college, I took a class that I actually teach a version of now. It was my favorite class in college. It was called Communist Kingpins and Counterinsurgencies. And it was about US-Latin-American relations. And so that’s what brought me to Latin America, but then I became interested in Latin America in its own right.

And I really dove down into the National histories of the places I was interested in and living in, and it wasn’t at all clear to me at that point that I would circle back around and end up working on international relations. I did have a moment when I was working at Memoria Abierta, where I remember I was translating something, which was my way of contributing to their work. And the news broke about the CIA black sites.

And I just felt like, God, what am I doing working for a human rights organization in Argentina when, the United States is committing these human rights cities around the world? Shouldn’t I be back in the United States trying to hold my own government accountable? So I struggled with figuring out what my place was, and also trying to think about the relationship between historical study and contemporary politics.

And I didn’t really know where I was going to land. It wasn’t clear to me at that point that I would end up getting a PhD in history, or even entering academia. So that was always– the US foreign policy was always an interest of mine that was in the back of my head. But at this point in my life, and when I applied to graduate programs in history, I wasn’t proposing any projects that had to do with the US Latin-American relations.

I think because my experience with Latin America has been about international movement and contact and transnational relationships, that seemed– that always felt like a comfortable lens for me. A lot of– most of the scholarship on modern Latin America does tend to be very much centered around the nation. And so there is more and more scholarship now.

I mean, obviously the colonial period is a very global scholarship, and even the 19th century. But for a number of reasons, the 20th century scholarship on Latin-America has tended to focus on national narratives. And so I think a lot of exciting work is being done now that is putting those national narratives in more of a global framing and shedding new light on some of the subjects that have been really important in Latin American historiography.

Watts: And that provides a nice segue into the first piece of your substantive research I wanted to talk about, which is an article that appeared last year in the American Historical Review entitled, “Global Policies of Anti-racism, A View from the Canal Zone.” And this is a fantastic piece, looking at a particular moment of politics in the Canal Zone in the 1940s when, as you’ll explain in just a second, some additions and renovations to the canal was underway.

And I think this may be close to your first sentence in that article, but I want to use that as a jumping off point. You say, from its creation, the Canal Zone labor policy was built on the scaffolding of intertwined racial and national hierarchies. So I’d like you to talk to that.

But maybe for those of our listeners who are not terribly familiar with the history of the Panama Canal, maybe just begin initially with a potted history, if you would, of how the canal and Panama itself emerged itself out of a type of American imperial reach before we get into the fascinating story that you tell about the 1940s and race in relationship to it.

Herman: Sure, yeah. So Panama became a Republic in part through US intervention based on US designs for a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. So before the turn of the century, Panama had been a part of Colombia. And there was a long history of separatism and separatist movements on the Isthmus. But that part of the Isthmus had been a part of Colombia since the time of independence from Spain.

The Isthmus had been a point of interest for creating this idea of a transoceanic canal that would connect the Pacific and Caribbean oceans from the 19th century onwards. And the United States was very much interested in this. France was actually the first country to attempt to build a canal through Panama. The US canal was built in the ruins of the French construction project. The French company went bankrupt and ended up managing to sell basically the infrastructure that it had made to the United States.

At this point, of course, the French had been building in Colombia. And when the United States approached Colombia for the permissions that it sought to continue this construction and build a US canal, the Colombian Senate rejected the terms that the United States wanted. And so Theodore Roosevelt ends up supporting a separatist movement on the Isthmus to declare Panamanian independence, support it with US warships.

And then the Panamanian Republic comes into being but, in some ways, has no bargaining power in relation to the United States, because the US is guaranteeing independence in exchange for these canal rights. And so from the beginning, the terms by which the United States establishes the Panama Canal and the terms of governance over the canal, the kinds of economic compensation for the canal have been a bit of a contentious point in Panamanian history.

Watts: Of course. Now, obviously that was a massive mega engineering project, which involved mobilization, I presume, back in the early 20th century, prior to the First World War, of large numbers of people, et cetera. What scale of mobilization of labor, and where did the labor come from to build in this first construction phase, so to say?

Herman: Yeah, so this was a really dynamic period in terms of labor migration. I mean, ever since the mid-19th century, when the United States– when US interests built a railroad that crossed the Isthmus, also for the purposes of getting from one side of the country to the other, the labor force that worked on these infrastructure projects often came from other parts of the Caribbean, and particularly the British Caribbean and the French Caribbean.

So typically, Black West Indian workers were moving about this region in search of opportunities and taking advantage of these large infrastructural projects. They also worked on the French project and then would be employed in large numbers on the US project.

But this meant that when it came to the labor system in the Canal Zone, you saw this– what I was describing in that sentence that you read from my piece, which is labor structure that’s very much segregated, so different payrolls, different facilities, different housing, different recreation centers, different commissaries for Black West Indians, who were in the majority. There were workers from other places as well–

Watts: Got it.

Herman: –and white US workers, who tended to be in positions of technicians, supervisors, and that sort of thing.

Watts: Now, when we jump forward then to the period that you focused on, which is when, I gather, there was additional engineering work launched in the 1940s, beginning in 1940, during the Second World War, those labor relationships were as it were already in place. And you talk about the gold and silver wage scales. I wonder if you could just talk us through that and how this became a vehicle for the sorts of questions of race and hierarchy that you talk about.

Herman: Yeah, that’s right. So the segregated labor system has remains in place over the course of these first 40 years of Panamanian history, and the kind of politics of race within the Canal Zone become really consequential for the politics of race within Panama. So those are two different considerations that intersect in the Canal Zone.

But the gold and silver role were– so originally, the different workforces were paid in different currencies. And so that’s where those names originated. But over time, they were paid in the same currency. They were just paid very different wages.

The justification was that Caribbean workers needed to be paid wages that would be attractive by Caribbean standards. Whereas US technicians would need to be paid according to US wage scales. They also justified it by suggesting that these were different skill sets.

But oftentimes, you had a position like painter or chauffeur, where if you were gold or silver, the only real difference was the color of your skin. It wasn’t the skill set that you brought to the job. And so that was always a pretty problematic way of justifying the segregation and the disparate working conditions and pay.

Watts: Now, we’re also– was there also a type of segregation, not only in terms of pay scales, but in terms of, is it we’re almost a spatial layout within the Canal Zone over which obviously the US had direct jurisdiction? Because you refer to, at some point in your article, that this was, in fact, a Jim Crow system, pure and simple.

Herman: Yes, exactly. It was very much like Jim Crow, except there’s this added component of nationality in the mix. And this is where it becomes particularly problematic with Panamanian workers because Jim Crow, as we know, is this very binary system of white versus Black. There’s this idea that that’s the way that race is thought of in the United States.

But in Latin America, there’s a much more nuanced way of thinking about racial hierarchy. And it’s still hierarchical, but it’s not binary. And so when you tried to apply this way of thinking of gold means white and silver means black, then Panamanians who are mixed race or who thought of themselves as white really resented being placed on the silver roll because they didn’t self-identify as Black and, in fact, thought they were superior to Black people.

And so this becomes really politically complicated when you introduce, one, different ways of thinking about race and prejudice, and also the issue of nationality because the United States tried to just say, OK, it’s not about race. It’s about nationality. Well, African Americans, who are US citizens, threw a wrench in that framing because the United States didn’t want African Americans– or the Canal Zone government didn’t want African Americans, for instance, using gold facilities, gold commissaries, gold clubhouses. So [INAUDIBLE] complicated.

Watts: Absolutely. How did the Panamanian elites use those racial hierarchies for their own interests? I’ll get to, in a sense, the West Indian workforce and what their intentions were and et cetera, et cetera. But what, in this story, in light of what I take to be already existing, long-existing resentments on the part of the Panamanian state about the very jurisdiction and powers that the US had historically had there– what was their latching on to the race question all about?

Herman: Well, this was one of the things that I found most surprising when I came across this story in the archives and started to read more about it. Because the beginning of– in the beginning of the war, the anti-imperialist project of the Panamanian state is– one element of it is based on Panamanian racism towards West Indians.

Part of the frustration with the United States is this perception that the United States has saddled Panama with this burden by bringing in this Black inferior labor force from the British West Indies that then has become a burden on the nation. Or another narrative was that the resentment over the privileging of Black West Indians for jobs in the Canal Zone that Panamanians would like to fill, for instance, were keeping Panamanians off of the gold roll.

But what all of these different threads of resentment had in common was that the Panamanian state, in appealing to the United States to not behave so condescendingly towards Panama, appealed to the United States to treat Panamanians as white, essentially. They begged the United States not to bring in more Black workers for work on the Third Locks Project, which was the project the defense construction– during the war, they wanted to build a larger set of locks that larger warships could fit through in the canal.

And so there was all kinds of political pressure put on Roosevelt’s administration to not import Black workers and to look to Spain instead, which would help to whiten Panama’s population. So you can get a sense for the kind of racism that shaped the thinking of the Panamanian elite around labor and race. By the end of the war, the Panamanian government is denouncing the United States’ racist labor policies in the Canal Zone entirely.

Rather than quibbling with where they fall on the hierarchy, they’re denouncing the hierarchy altogether. And they embrace this very same language of anti-racism that Black Panamanians have been using to try and make demands on the State. So that was just this really interesting transformation that happened in a really relatively short period of time, and that’s what drove me to want to learn more and to write this piece, to try and get at what happened there.

Watts: And was that– by the end of the war, was that a type of nationalist self-assertion on the part of, not only Panama, but many Latin American states in relationship to wanting to be acknowledged in some way as global actors, powers, et cetera, et cetera?

Herman: Yeah, I mean, what’s interesting is in the history of US Latin American relations, so much of US interventionism in the early 20th century was premised on this idea of the United States as superior in all sorts of ways, like Anglo over Hispanic, Protestant over Catholic, white over racially mixed. There were all of these implicit ideas about why people in the United States were, quote unquote, “fit for self-government” and why people in Latin America were not.

And like I said, they were really heavily imbued with these ideas about race. And over the course of the early 20th century, I mean, Latin American jurists and diplomats from across the region, which is a really diverse regions, were trying to push back against that and really push liberal ideas about sovereign equality before the law, and the idea that all of the American republics should be treated equally and really push the United States to of relinquish this idea that the US was the hemispheric policeman that was going to offer tutelage and paternalism to bring Latin Americans up to their level.

So there was a certain pushback against racism and international politics already present. It’s just that it tended to be– it wasn’t posed in anti-racist terms. It was more about pushing back against where Latin American countries seem to fall on this racial hierarchy that was objectionable.

And so the shift is that I’m identifying in this piece, at least as it played out in the canal, is that during World War II, you see those same anti-imperialist projects framed in explicitly anti-racist terms, rather than just trying to assert themselves as on par without dismissing this broader racial hierarchy, if that makes sense.

Watts: Absolutely. Got it. Now, what about the Black populations themselves, West Indian population, who, I take it, in some cases had been in Panama for some time, where presumably Panamanian citizens did– did they then– was their strategy– the race question became, I take it, an organizing principle. And was this orchestrated through trade unions? And how and in what ways did this produce improvements in– or the abolition of or the reform of this bifurcated gold silver wage structure that you were referring to?

Herman: Yeah, so this part of the story is really complicated in regards to just the question of citizenship, for instance. So yes, there were a lot of– by this time, there were more and more Panamanian-born West Indians, so children of West Indian migrants who were born in Panama and would have had citizenship by virtue of Panamanian law, except, in 1941, Panama issues a new constitution that’s the peak of anti-Black xenophobia in terms of Panamanian law that strips Black West Indians of their citizenship, if they’ve acquired it, and forbids the immigration of non Spanish-speaking Black people.

And so this is a real high point in the history of racism in Panamanian politics, particularly with a particular ire for West Indian Black people, quote unquote, “colonial Blacks,” who were people who descended from African slaves who had been brought to Spanish America, had a little bit of a different experience.

But so not surprisingly, there was a lot of solidarity transnationally among West Indian migrants because of this mobility, because of connections across space. With the growing numbers of Panamanian-born West Indian-descended Panamanians, there’s– a new strategy begins to emerge. Certain leaders from that community start to push for the idea that Panamanian-born West Indians should really assert themselves as Panamanian citizens in order to try to push for inclusion and make changes, make demands on the state because they can’t effectively make demands on the Canal Zone government.

And the Jamaican authorities, for instance, hadn’t been particularly helpful. And so in terms of trying to figure out the menu of options of how to push back against racist policies in Panama, it seemed George Westerman, who was the leader in this community, really advocated embracing Panamanian national identity and trying to change it from within.

Watts: But did the workers, the West Indian workers themselves use organized trade union mechanisms for that? And to the extent that they did, they presumably had some type of left political orientation. And how was that left orientation both perceived by the Panamanian elites and presumably at the time by US interests? Would have also raised, a pun, unfortunately a red flag for American interests. So how did that part of the story enter into, as it were, these two forces at play, the Panamanian elites on the one side and American interests and American norms on the other?

Herman: Yeah, OK. So actually, the most active labor union organizing in the Canal Zone were the white workers on the gold roll. And this was really important because their union was very powerful and was very invested in policing the segregation that was going on, preventing Panamanians from getting access to the gold positions that they coveted, and maintaining segregation in the facilities in the Canal Zone.

Black workers on the silver roll had had– there was a really interesting history of labor organizing that predated 1940 that was from the earlier decades, but they’d also experienced pretty intense repression. And so by the time my story picks up, there’s actually– there are certainly some community organizations, fraternal organizations, mutual aid societies, but not a labor organizing in the way that you’re talking about.

We do see that in the immediate post-war period. And maybe that’s what you’re thinking about, from where the CIO ends up organizing the first kind of multiracial, cross-class silver alliance in the immediate years following the war. Some of the Black leaders from the West Indian community become increasingly concerned when they think that the CIO’s politics are going too far left.

They’re afraid it’s going to delegitimize their claims if the United States government can just say, you’re a bunch of communists and dismiss them by claiming communist infiltration or something like that. And so you actually see a subgroup of Black workers break away in an anti-communist move from the CIO, and that ends up creating fissures in the efforts to organize silver workers in the manner that gold workers had been organized.

Watts: Last question, then we’ll segue into your book. What sort of moral of the story did you conclude from this apropos, particularly, again, coming back to that opening phrase of yours, the scaffolding of intertwined race and national hierarchy? What did this seem to you, this story, incredibly rich, that you’ve just given us a gloss on really– what were the jump-out conclusions or surprises for you in laying that out?

Herman: Well, I think one of the stories that you see throughout history that comes up over and over that I find– I guess if you can take a moral– say what’s the moral of the story, the instances where you see, OK, there are these rhetorics that exist at the conceptual level that are really altruistic and profound, like anti-racism, and they gain really important currency during particular moments– so during the Second World War, the fight against Nazism made anti-racism much more powerful of a concept than it had been previously and the United States trying to lead the Allied cause is put in a position in which a lot of what US foreign policy consists of is revealed to be very hypocritical.

And this happens with the US domestic politics as well, I mean, the domestic story of civil rights and human rights within the United States from African Americans trying to call the United States out on not living up to the rhetoric that it’s proclaiming on the world stage is a really interesting one. But I really like stories that reveal how– not just that hypocrisy exists, because that’s obvious, but how hypocrisy is an opportunity for people who are disadvantaged by that hypocrisy.

And so this is a really interesting situation to me where you see the Panamanian government start to call the United States out on being racist. But then people suffering from racism within Panama then having the opportunity to call the Panamanian government out on being racist.

Watts: Exactly.

Herman: And–

Watts: Exactly.

Herman:–I think that a lot of times with global history– and this might bring us back to this question of, am I a global historian? I think global history is really fascinating, but it’s really hard to do at the global scale. And so the way that I tend to work and the way I tend to think is drilling down really deeply into a particular local context and to think about what that can tell us about global history.

And what this particular story tells me about race relations and power and politics is that there’s not one racial hierarchy that shapes power around the entire world that one anti-racist project could then attack. Because in this case, for instance, diplomats who are attacking anti-racism in the international sphere are architects of racism at home. So I think the sort of intertwining of the racialized ideas that shape power in international politics and those that shape domestic politics is something that’s really worthy of study in other contexts where race is thought about in yet other ways.

Watts: Absolutely. Let me transition into your book. Although, before I do that, one of the wonderful things that I so much enjoyed about your article was it reminded me very much of what you may indeed be familiar with, particularly by Robert Vitaris on his work on the– I work on the energy sector, oil and gas companies– wonderful work on exactly the gold silver wage scale system that he called apartheid within the oil compounds in Durham in Saudi Arabia.

So it seems to me that there’s obviously– I mean, apropos your point about global history, there are some wonderful opportunities to think transnationally about how these Jim Crow apparatuses were attached both to the state and to the corporate world right exactly about this time that you were describing.

Herman: Yeah, yeah, that’s great. I think I attended it. He wasn’t there, but there was a labor and empire conference that I attended that had– I mean, you just saw so many manifestations of very similar stories, and it’s a really rich scholarship.

Watts: Absolutely. So let me jump there if I can then to your Americas At War book. And of course, Panama surfaces centrally in that. But now you’ve located it in a rather different register, and here it’s– in a sense, the Second World War is central to it.

But here you begin to focus on, I suppose, what we would call the American base world, and many of our listeners will be aware of that, obviously. It became a central part of politics, particularly, of course, in the war on terror when words like “Guantanamo” or “Bagram” in Afghanistan became central to Black sites and so on that you were referring to. So we’re all aware of that apparatus.

But probably fewer people are necessarily aware of it or to think about it in the moment that you describe, in the Second World War. So can you just begin first of all by outlining why the Second World seemed to be an important crucible for the expansion of a particular set of bases in Latin America in particular and just the scale of it, just to give our listeners a sense of what we’re talking about across the Americas at that particular moment?

Herman: Sure. Yeah, so the reason that the United States was interested in establishing defense sites across Latin America during this period– and this is before the United States entered the war, so years before Pearl Harbor the US is already beginning to figure out how to build defensive airfields across Latin America.

And the main reason it has to do with advances in technology, aviation and weapons technology at this point, because it used to be that defense strategists in the US thought of in the Naval age the oceans on either Coast of the United States were this natural buffer that provided the United States with a certain degree of security. And the Canal Zone, of course, was a very– the canal itself was a really important strategic asset.

But over the course of the 1930s, as you know, planes can fly further. The distance between spaces really shrinks. And by ’38, Roosevelt concludes and his war department concludes that the United States has got to prevent any sort of an attack in the Western hemisphere in general, not just within the United States.

So the particular concerns that drove the base building that I focus on in the book had to do with the idea that Northeastern Brazil is only 1,600 miles from West Africa. And if the Germans crossed the South Atlantic successfully, they might unite with an imagined fifth column of Nazi sympathizers already living in Latin America, where Germany had been gaining greater cultural and economic influence over the 1930s. And then it would just be a hop, skip, and a jump to the Panama Canal or to invade the United States. So this was sort of a scenario driving a lot of defense planning in the early days.

By the time the Allies have some victories in Africa, the United States– this is well into the war. The defense sites that they end up building end up being much more useful for transporting goods across the Atlantic to the Allies, so it doesn’t end up being particularly important defensively. And in fact, obviously the attack on Pearl Harbor came from the other direction.

Watts: Exactly. Exactly.

Herman: But this is– I mean, this real transformation in technology and alongside the United States rise as a global power is what drives this idea that the United States national defense isn’t a national undertaking anymore. First, it’s a hemispheric undertaking. And then by the end of the World– the World War II, it’s a global undertaking. And that’s why you see the proliferation of US military bases around the world in the rest of the 20th century.

Watts: But just give us a sense of the scale. I mean, how many bases were actually constructed first of all in the Americas as part of that mission that you’ve just described that emerges in the ’30s, late ’30s.

Herman: Yeah, so I’ve had to do this tally as I’ve been going because it’s not a subject that’s particularly well-studied in the existing literature. And there’s also no comprehensive list, because it was such a program of improvisation. I mean, there are multiple different projects for building these sites. I’ve counted just shy of 200 different sites in Latin America during this period. Those ranged dramatically in size and scope.

So you had US military bases in Brazil that look like what listeners are probably picturing when we talk about bases, teeming with US soldiers, not quite on the scale of the little Americas but pretty significant in size. But also, that would include radio installations that were built by the United States on Latin American soil and would be run by US technicians, for instance.

And then the distribution of these sites was not even across the region. So 134 of them were located within Panama itself. Others, for instance– there were a number of airfields built in Mexico. But the Mexican government was very cautious about allowing the United States to do too much with them.

And so in the end, it was mostly plainclothes army technicians that staffed the airfields. They were used for transit purposes but didn’t turn into full-fledged bases with large contingents of US troops. So it’s a pretty diverse landscape in terms of what these ended up looking like.

Watts: Now, to the degree that these installations were sort of Greenfield sites, it involved construction of new airfields with the technicians, et cetera, et cetera, how were they prosecuted? Was this clandestine? Who did the construction? Who did the building?

Herman: Yeah, so this is what really piqued my curiosity when I first got into this project, which was, it was obviously a real political problem for the United States trying to figure out how to build these defensive airfields because this was a moment where the US had just really done a total about-face in its foreign policy towards Latin America. This was supposed to be a period where the US had renounced interventionism in the region, was trying to garner goodwill.

This became all the more important with the outbreak of war because they really– there was a strong sense that unity in the Americas would be required for the United States to defend itself or to keep the hemisphere safe, at first stay out of the war, and then later lead the Americas unified into the war.

And so there was a real sense that building US military bases right after the United States had agreed to pull the military out of Latin America was going to be a delicate endeavor. And so the first project outside of Panama that the US initiates is the War Department contracts Pan American Airways, the commercial airline to build the facilities that the War Department wants with funds from the government but under the guise of commercial expansion.

So Pan Am was the one US airline operating in Latin America, had airfields throughout the region. So it wouldn’t have been terribly odd to approach Latin American governments and say, we want to expand our facilities in these locations. We want to build new airfields. Pan Am was charged with the task of obtaining whatever necessary permits were required.

So in theory, it was clandestine. But what I ended up finding when I was in the archives was at the same time the US War Department had been approaching Latin American governments seeking permission to use their airfields for defensive purposes, so it wasn’t particularly hard to put two and two together and recognize that this airline with incredibly close ties to the US government is trying to expand its infrastructural capacity at the same time that the US government is seeking the rights to use that infrastructure.

Most Latin American leaders seem to have concluded what was going on but were happy to go along with it because they wouldn’t embarrass themselves by permitting US defense construction at such a nationalist moment.

Watts: We’re happy to go along with it. But presumably, because it was such a sensitive issue also in some ways had to negotiate perhaps with the United States the conditions under which that would happen and presumably that to the degree, the more larger, more complicated types of installations involved a substantial American presence, people, for example, of various sorts, then presumably this became a rather tricky, delicate issue to navigate, whether in Brazil, in Cuba, in Panama.

Herman: Yes, that’s right. It was incredibly delicate. And the thing about the ADP that was interesting– that’s the Airport Development Program, was the name of the program that the War Department created with Pan Am– was that the only thing that they were getting permission to do was to build the airfields.

And so Getulio Vargas in Brazil could think, oh, you want to expand Brazil’s aviation infrastructure? That’s great, have at it. But I’m not giving you permission to station anyone there. I’m not giving you permission to use it in any military capacity.

And in fact, part of the granting permission, Vargas, for instance, asserted that Brazil would become the owner of those facilities when they were completed. And so Latin American governments were really in a position of leverage to assert ownership over the facilities that were being constructed, in part because they knew why the US wanted them so badly.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor is when the United States starts really wanting to station personnel at these sites. And there’s a moment where some of the defense planners realize, wow, we’ve just sort of paved the way for the Germans because we’ve created all these great airfields for them to land on. And we don’t have anyone there to defend them.

Watts: Exactly.

Herman: So once, I mean– on the one hand, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they’re rushing to get US soldiers on the ground. And that is going to be the most problematic part of the whole affair. On the other hand, the attack on Pearl Harbor is really important in raising popular support for the American republics to become involved in the war to at least declare their allegiance to the Allied cause.

And so in some ways, it actually makes it easier for Latin American governments to consent to stationing the troops there. The thing is, and this is what the bulk of my book is about, is that this is really unprecedented, this construction of US overseas bases on sovereign soil. There’s no blueprint for how to govern them.

Who has jurisdiction over the US soldiers that show up? Well, the US thinks that they do. But Brazil, Cuba, Panama– they’re not going to cede jurisdiction over these people. That would be a total sacrifice of territorial sovereignty. The question of labor law is really contentious.

When Pan Am shows up and doesn’t observe newly won labor legislation in Brazil, Brazilian workers take Pan Am to court. And so all of these kind of local conflicts at the bases that my book deals with in various chapters focusing on different aspects of them end up illuminating other spaces where international and domestic politics collide. So that’s something that they share in common with the HR article.

Watts: Absolutely. You focus in particular on Brazil, Cuba, and Panama in your book.

Herman: Yeah.

Watts: And as you’ve just said, in particular on certain arenas in which these questions of sovereignty play themselves out with a particular drama, you mentioned race, you mentioned labor, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your fantastic chapter on questions of gender and sex? You have a lovely chapter entitled “Sex and Moral Hygiene.”

How did this become a set of issues in the context of bases, American presence, American stationed, et cetera? How did this become both an issue– I mean, we all know about the cases, contemporary cases of the disgraceful behavior by Americans stationed in Okinawa or South Korea. But what was– this is now a long time before all of that happened. And how did those issues as they emerge– how were they navigated and dealt with quite differently in a Cuba versus a Panama, let’s say?

Herman: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so one of the interesting things to me is that these really charged conflicts that start erupting at base sites from the beginning– sometimes, they’re really explicitly about legal questions of authority that take on this broader symbolism, so the question of labor rights, for instance. But sometimes, there were cultural. And those were often some of the most powerful.

And so from the beginning, particularly once US personnel arrive, but even when it was just Pan Am personnel, construction personnel, you see conflicts arise over gender relations. And this comes up in two different ways that, from the United States’ perspective, both have to do with the fight against venereal disease.

So the culturally sensitive thing in a place like Brazil, for instance– in northern Brazil, I focus on the base in Belém, which is in the mouth of the Amazon River. And the elite in Belém were fairly conservative Catholics, and so the kinds of socializing and courtship practices that the US soldiers, who were arriving there, were expecting or trying to engage in with women from high society were incredibly offensive.

The US military authorities, who were concerned about venereal disease, high rates of venereal disease among US soldiers, were very eager for US personnel to socialize with women from elite families because they were perceived as less likely to transmit disease. And so on the one hand, you have US authorities trying to create opportunities for US soldiers to socialize with women from that social sector and, in theory, drive them away from red light districts.

But this is creating– this creates a lot of tension with local communities because it’s culturally offensive to them, and they worry about this idea of moral degradation in their communities that’s going to be the result of US basing.

The second way that this comes up is US authorities say, OK, prostitution is inevitable. And so while the War Department’s official policy is to suppress prostitution at any cost, what local authorities settle on is, it’s inevitable that our men are going to frequent prostitutes. So we need to figure out how to make it as safe as possible. And so at each of the defense sites in different countries, local authorities end up finding– improvising ways locally to regulate the sex industry, which is, of course, a question of legal authority besides being a cultural issue.

And so the way that this happens in each place depends on the local circumstance, the geography of the sex industry, the laws surrounding prostitution. But in all instances, this becomes another area in which you see the United States asserting extraterritorial rule in a way that is– frustrates those Latin Americans who are focused on questions of national sovereignty because it’s offensive to local sovereignty to violate national– to violate local law and assert authority over this particular aspect of local life, but also triggers a bit of a freak out about moral degeneration and moral hygiene of local communities.

So it was just really interesting to me that there’s all of these different spaces where this International Alliance ends up creating quite a bit of trouble on the ground, and Latin American leaders are forced to navigate the pressures that come from these local conflicts and their international relationships with the United States.

Watts: It seems almost as if that period is so crucial because all of these things that you talk about– that in some sense, we can see in the Cold War under a different sets of circumstances, or even in the contemporary base world, for example, they seem to be all present in a way. The struggles over sovereignty and how this gets negotiated, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, seem to be almost already set in place in the history that you tell in that interwar period between the late ’30s and ’45.

Herman: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s just a tale as old as time. International cooperation and national sovereignty are inherently incompatible. And the way that incompatibility is resolved really reflects the power asymmetries in the Americas, for instance. It would look different in Europe, of course. It looks different in Japan.

And so again, we have this kind of global story that I’m drilling down into one particular context to try and illuminate a little bit. But yeah, it really does resonate. What’s distinct about Latin America relative to other parts of the globe is that you actually don’t see a ton of US bases in Latin America in the postwar period during the Cold War. And that’s for a number of reasons.

But I do think that of the various– of the various things that come out of this wartime experiment in security cooperation, because that’s really– this is the beginning of security cooperation as a feature of inter-American relations, the beginning of military training, military aid, development assistance.

All of these things that will wed certain Latin American regimes to the United States as they pursue their mutual security interests during the Cold War are much more effective from the perspective of US defense strategists and, in some ways, less problematic than basing. And they render basing unnecessary. Because if you have such tight relationships with Latin American governments that you can rely on access to airfields should you need them, then you don’t have to create the problems that come with governing them yourself.

Watts: Absolutely. Absolutely. Rebecca, we’re almost at an end, unfortunately. But I did want to ask you one last question, and that has to do with your new project. And I wonder if you could just say a few words. Because in a sense, it’s an interesting extension of all of these things. I wonder if you could just provide a little final few remarks on your new interest.

Herman: Yeah, so it’s funny because I wondered if this is my second project would seem so tangential. A lot of historians do like the same thing for a different period, or there’s a reshuffling. And at first, I thought this project seemed so out of left field. But actually, the continuities are really striking the more I get into it.

My new project is on Antarctica and the global politics of environmental governance in Antarctica. And what drew me to the project was coming across this particular aspect of it, which is in the late 1970s, the Argentine military dictatorship. Argentina historically has had territorial claims to Antarctic land.

And in the late ’70s, the Argentine military junta airlifted an eight-months pregnant woman to Antarctica so she would give birth to the first Native Antarctican. And he would be Argentine. And it was this grand gesture to reaffirm Argentina’s claims to territorial sovereignty. And I just thought, whoa, this is so interesting.

And there was an effort to create a civilian colony. A few years later, Pinochet and Chile who– Chile also had these historic claims to Antarctic territory that overlapped with Argentina’s claims– created a civilian colony of his own. So I started to dig into that history, and I had made assumptions about maybe this was about trying to rally popular support at home during a time when these governments’ human rights records were under scrutiny.

But actually, it turned out, at least what I’m finding so far, is that it was sort of a defensive posturing in response to a number of new visions for Antarctic governance that were being pushed from elsewhere, the rising environmental movement, particularly Greenpeace. The Non-Aligned Movement was pushing for Antarctica to become part of the common heritage of mankind.

Greenpeace wanted to create a World Park in the Antarctic, and there was a lot of speculation at this point about the potential discovery of oil. And how would that be taxed if there’s no clear consensus around who rules in Antarctica? So anyway, it just sort of blossomed into this larger project of thinking about how competing ideas and competing ways of thinking about the relationship between government and nature percolated during this period and how these Latin American governments responded to them.

Watts: Fantastic. Well, with any luck, Rebecca, we can get you back on the podcast series when your project is done and when you have a wonderful new book on the Antarctic sovereignty and nature. It’s been a terrific pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for generating some time. And of course, we look forward to the appearance of your book, The Americas At War, later in the year. Thank you so much.

Herman: All right Thank you, Michael it’s been a pleasure.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening to learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.

You May Like



Published March 30, 2021

Matrix Podcast: Interview with Brittany Birberick

In this episode, Professor Michael Watts interviews Brittany Birberick, an anthropology PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley — and a former Matrix Dissertation Fellow. Birberick's dissertation project focuses on urban transformation in Johannesburg, South Africa. More broadly, she writes and thinks about economies, migration, temporality, and aesthetics within an urban context.

Learn More >

Matrix On Point


Published March 15, 2021

Pandemic Lessons: Assessing Educational Inequalities in the Wake of COVID-19

Presented by the University of California, Berkeley's Social Science Matrix on March 9, 2021, this video features an online panel discussion addressing what we have learned about educational inequalities after a year of pandemic-related school closures.

Learn More >

Solidarity and Strife


Published February 28, 2021

The True Costs of Misinformation: Producing Moral and Technical Order in a Time of Pandemonium

Recorded on February 19, 2021, this video features a lecture by Joan Donovan, Research Director for the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Learn More >