Disciplinary Conquest: U.S. Scholars in South America, 1900-1945. Duke University Press, 2016, 329pp.
Ricardo D. Salvatore
This work by Ricardo D. Salvatore, professor of history at the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, presents five case studies of scholars from the United States who worked in South America during the first decades of the twentieth century—archaeologist Hiram Bingham, putative “discoverer” of Machu Picchu; historian Clarence Haring, founding figure of Latin American studies in the United States; political scientist Leo Rowe, director general of the Pan American Union from 1920 to 1946; geographer Isaiah Bowman, who supervised the first complete mapping of the South American continent; and sociologist E. A. Ross, whose studies in social conflict in South America and Mexico then took him to China and Russia. as he pioneered a new subfield in sociology in comparative study of developing countries. The central five chapters detail the intellectual trajectories of these scholars.
Many interesting details illustrate their contributions to knowledge and to the growth of the United States as a global power. At the beginning of the twentieth century, most U.S. academics looked at South America as still “terra incognita,” a place where almost any effort could yield rich finds. In part because South Americans knew quite a bit about the places where they lived and were initially open to sharing what they knew with inquisitive visitors. Hiram Bingham, for example, entered Machu Picchu in 1911 because residents of nearby Cuzco took him there, as well as to numerous other preconquest sites well known to the indigenous communities of the Peruvian highlands. The Peruvian government and Peruvian academics also knew of these sites, but they had few resources, and perhaps little feeling, for ancient Peruvian history. Bingham proposed that Yale University take over protecting antiquities in the country, an offer of money and international prestige that the government accepted. The agreements enraged Peruvian nationalists. Antiquarians in Cuzco petitioned for funding to establish a center for Inca studies in the city, where excavated objects could be stored and made available for study and display, possibly with scholars from Yale as collaborators but working under Peruvian leadership. Bingham and his collaborators rejected this as an impractical solution in a country with little infrastructure already in place for protecting sites being looted regularly. Indeed, the most effective opposition came from “looters,” the huaqueros (“excavators”), indigenous entrepreneurs who had been making good money selling artifacts taken from preconquest sites to collectors and museums in North America and Europe. They also fabricated fake antiquities for sale internationally. Bingham’s proposal directly challenged their profitable participation in the world market, by promising to restrict access to sites and by establishing scientific standards for evaluating objects. The hauqueros banded together to fund an extensive and expensive three-year campaign against foreign involvement in antiquities. In 1916, they succeeded in forcing the national government to cancel its agreement with Yale. Collections already in New Have stayed at Yale, but Bingham left Peru never to return. He and his students remained for many years, the world’s leading experts on ancient Peru and, because of new research Bingham commissioned into contemporary native communities, Peru’s place in the story of the “peopling of America.” As Salvatore notes, one of the features of academic life is that projects are successful to the degree that they collect information raising new questions and spawning multiple new projects.
The collapse of Bingham’s work in Peru was untypical. The other figures discussed in the book developed long-lasting connections sustaining their work and that of their students. By 1940, many U.S. universities and research institutions had centers for study of the hemisphere. Given the abundance of resources U.S. institutions enjoyed, the most prestigious centers conquered the authority to define a “region” and its “problems” in ways that most scholars and certainly most philanthropies, businesses, and government agencies took as their common sense starting points. Even in the twenty countries that for convenience were increasingly discussed as a unit even though the scholars most involved understood well that the nations had distinct histories and often starkly contrasting political and socioeconomic formations.
In 1937, Clarence Haring, professor of history at Harvard, where he taught the history of the Spanish empire, established the first professional society dedicated to Latin American studies. The bylaws excluded amateur scholars from membership, assuring that academics alone shaped a fast-growing field. Haring arranged for his Ph.D. students to work in institutions critical for the new field, like the Hispanic Reading Room at the Library of Congress and the Handbook of Latin American Studies, an annual publication that summarized and evaluated new publications from all twenty-one member states of the Pan American Union. He also helped his students find positions at foundations supporting research in western hemisphere topics. As academic institution builders, Haring and his students had outsized influence on which books from Latin America were translated into English, which books on Latin America were reviewed in major periodicals, which projects received funding, which scholars from Latin America were invited to work in the United States. During the Good Neighbor Policy period, many of the staff, particularly in leadership positions, working for the State Department and the White House on Latin America came by way of Haring’s recommendations.
The font of “imperiality” in the careers Salvatore examines was academic ambition. Building on Bruno Latour’s theorizing of knowledge as embedded in institutional activities, Salvatore argues that success as a scholar requires identifying and defining a problem and then proposing explanations that suggest solutions. The policies emerging from investigation only incidentally solve the identified problem; they are first and foremost tests of explanations. Whether the experiment confirms, complicates, or falsifies an explanation is secondary to the generation of a more complex picture that stimulates yet more theoretical and experimental work. U.S. scholarship on Latin American typically proposed an oversimplified picture of Latin American society and politics, but those pictures were open to complication through more extensive research. The utility for a hegemon constructing an informal empire was the relocation of the authority to put forward propositions about Latin American reality to universities and learned societies in a wealthy, industrialized countriy with the resources and the personnel to engage in extended work that may not be immediately productive of practical results. In the process, academics from the hegemon take possession of local knowledge. Peripheral countries serve as repositories of evidence that foreign academics take the lead in interpreting. Complex and diverse societies under observation transform into “a platform for comparability” (55). Expert knowledge clarifies and simplifies instituting new structures for governance relying on an obligatory foreign reference that influences every aspect of public and private action, including the resistance that quickly emerges. Salvatore summarizes Haring’s conclusions derived from Latin American studies relevant to the responsibilities of the United States was assuming as a global power: “the ‘American empire’ was a composite blueprint for doing things: government, architecture, roads, education, agriculture, public health, and so on. Empires were to Haring laboratories of learning” (228). Isaiah Bowman recommended study of the Inca empire in the Andes as an important model for the United States as its influence expanded internationally. Inca rulers had also ruled over a heterogeneous group of diverse peoples, but unified them by teaching them how to build canals and how to choose the best crops for each altitude. Bowman concluded that “the Incas established a benevolent empire committed to the provision of public goods. Indigenous peoples obeyed Inca rulers because they received from them good roads, wise laws, irrigation canals, food security, low taxes, and relative peace” (167).
Despite the Orientalist/exoticizing (and excessively self-congratulatory) tendencies ubiquitous to this generation of scholars, Salvatore’s argument is considerably more subtle than typical claims that U.S. scholars misrepresented the countries they studied by recreating their subjects as exotic “Others.” Stereotyping was a problem that U.S. scholars understood they needed to identify and critique, if only because conceptions of absolute difference undermined the project of turning Latin America into a steady stream of stimulating “problems” that U.S. scholars could solve, but only if difference were read as a variation on rather than as an opposition to the progressive standards they imagined defined their society. Salvatore concludes, “The problem with the emerging field of Latin American studies was therefore not its excessive generalizations and lack of attention to difference, but its constant projection of U.S. understandings into the territory of the other” (56).
Nor did scholars, with some dramatic exceptions, typically act directly as servants of empire, striving to aid business and government in their efforts. Salvatore demonstrates that his five characters quickly adopted an oppositional and critical approach to their area of study, important if scholarship was needed to make the U.S. position in the world more effective. They all spoke out against the Monroe Doctrine and unilateral claims that the United States had a right to protect the western hemisphere. They all identified racial inequality as a primary contradiction undermining American societies. They were, with the single exception of Ross, critical of U.S. business practices overseas and the alliances made with corrupt national politicians. They demanded the State Department stop acting as an overseas agent for U.S. business and other private interests. They argued that foreign policy leaders should represent U.S. society as a whole, particularly the ideals the nation had developed. Haring and Ross spoke purely as scholars, but the three others held important public positions. Bowman was a close adviser to Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Latin American affairs, as well as serving in the U.S. delegations to the conferences concluding both World War I and World War II. Bingham represented the state of Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. Leo Rowe helped establish the U.S. colonial regimes in Puerto Rico and the Philippines by rewriting Spanish laws to conform more closely to U.S. legal principles and establishing the procedures for implementing elected local governments and, some years later, elected colonial legislatures. Rowe then worked for the U.S. government in Panama, where he revise that country’s land laws, before serving as director general of the Pan American Union for twenty-five years.
Even given this impressive cross-over of academic and public service, Salvatore argues that the academy was “a semi-autonomous force that participated in the construction of the various problematics and policies of informal empire.” Scholars contributed to the project of building an empire with insights grounded in the uncertainties of inquiry. Their activities privileged “paradoxes, unanswered questions, or puzzles” that intensified debate, sharpened conceptual frameworks, and led to collection of ever more evidence, the most valuable being that which is often most contradictory and most difficult to synthesize into firm conclusions (15). Organized debates created and then strengthened institutional centers attracting scholars, students, resources, funding. They became centers to which governments and businesses turned, initially to solve pressing problems, but quickly to learn what they might do if they reimagined the world in which they operated to include the new concepts and evidence that universities produced. The operation of U.S. international influence came to rely on academics, whose advice expanded the scope of U.S. engagement/intervention in other countries. Academic leadership took for granted that budgets, prestige, and power grew whenever an organized field reshaped the terrain within which state and capital operated. Salvatore’ concludes that academic participation did not merely serve the project of global expansion but played an epistemologically grounded constitutive role in U.S. conceptions of global governance.
In discussing the nature of U.S. imperiality, Salvatore notes that the university, a central institution during the nation-building phase of U.S. history, claimed a central role for itself in the exercise U.S. global power. Scholars took and continue to take possession of knowledge from other countries. They instruct the people of the world, literally and directly given the tens of thousands of foreign students attending U.S. schools, but also through organization of research projects, international learned societies, academic journals, and research funding. Salvatore suggests that without the academy, it is hard to imagine the U.S. empire in its present form, or how an empire based in the Pentagon and Wall Street would differ from an unsustainable garrison state. Salvatore acknowledges that research and instruction has been important for other modern empires as well, but he asks us to ponder how intellectual work has been existentially central for U.S. domination in the same way that commerce was typically the entry point for British takeover of a new possession or protectorate.
 Ross’s praise for U.S. business is perplexing since, of the five, he was the only one who identified as a socialist. In his writings in the 1920s on the Russian revolution, Ross argued that the Bolshevik Party, centrally controlled but recruiting cadres from all sectors of the population, could exercise the social controls needed to guide resistant rural communities into modernity. In the absence of effective socialist movements in Latin America other than in Mexico and Argentina, he may have viewed U.S. corporations as best placed to play a revolutionary role in societies held back by Spanish colonial legacies, latifundism, and subaltern populations as yet unable to create their own revolutions. Salvatore does not explore the contradictions in Ross’s particular arguments, but he does discuss U.S. scholars concluding that landowning elites were the primary source of backwardness in the region. The natural allies of the United States were the subalterns whose servile labor supported the landowning families’ monopoly on wealth and political power. The southern cone countries (Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile) were partial exceptions because they had had significant immigration and were developing sizable middle classes that could support a modern economy and democratic institutions.
About the Reviewer
Richard Cándida Smith is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He has published seven books, most recently Improvised Continent: Pan-Americanism and Cultural Exchange (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) and over forty essays in publications from the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Britain. His work has explored arts and literary networks, movements, and institutions in the United States, with an emphasis on international connections and exchange. Long active in oral history, for the last six years he has been working with Voices of Contemporary Art offering two-day workshops on the artist interview. He sits on several editorial boards and committees. He has been helping organize U.S. participation in the [email protected] Cultures: A Digital Platform for Transatlantic Cultural History (1700 to Now) an international project under the direction of historians from France and Brazil bringing together scholars from every part of the world. He is a contributor to Ekphrasis, an interdisciplinary, international project based in the Netherlands exploring the poetics of text and image.