H-Diplo Article Review 760 on “Ecuador’s Early No-foreign Military Bases Movement.”

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Article Review

No. 760

25 April 2018




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


Marc Becker.  “Ecuador’s Early No-foreign Military Bases Movement.”  Diplomatic History 41:3 (2017):  518-542.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhx031.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR760


Review by Ronn Pineo, Towson University

This essay makes a good contribution to knowledge, showing the role that social movements, in this case the left and especially the Communist Party in Ecuador, can play in key foreign policy matters. Marc Becker’s article adds to our understanding of the history of Ecuadorian-United States relations and to foreign policy theory construction. As such, this works adds to the historiography in two important ways, first, by filling gaps in our understanding of Ecuadorian-U.S. relations, and, even more significantly, by offering a fine example of how to study the interaction between less powerful political groups and government in the making of a nation’s foreign policy.


Becker writes on the history of U.S. World War II air bases in Ecuador, one on the Santa Elena peninsula at Salinas, and another on the Galapagos Islands, exploring the reasons for the U.S. release of the bases after the war, in 1946 from Salinas, and in 1948 pulling a remaining military technical support team from the Seymour Island base. Becker argues against the standard view that the U.S. no longer needed the bases and just let them go. Instead Becker credits leftist social movements in Ecuador, led by the Ecuadorian Communist Party, for forcing the U.S. out (530, 534, 537). This is “untold and forgotten story” (520) Becker argues, demonstrating how an aroused population, eager “to defend the country’s national sovereignty,” (521) could act to “change … international policies” (520), providing example and inspiration to anti-imperialists everywhere. 

Becker’s well-researched and argued piece will arouse some controversy among Ecuadorian foreign policy historians, at least on some points of emphasis in interpretation.


It is worth considering the wider context for Ecuadorian foreign policy in the early 1940s. Ecuador was invaded by Perú in 1941, its military swiftly swept from the field. In the resulting disastrous treaty it signed, Ecuador gave up half of its national territory. Understandably, Ecuadorian leaders continued to fear that Perú might soon come back for more, perhaps in cooperation with imperial Japan. Ecuadorian leaders therefore had realistic reason to want help, especially since the people living in the invaded El Oro province, along the southern coastal border with Perú, had done so very little to oppose the invasion. Accordingly, the placement of U.S. troops in the Galápagos might have been a very positive development for Ecuador, helping to assure that Ecuador’s real enemy, Perú, would not be coming next for the Galápagos. Ecuador might have welcomed the injection of U.S. military might into this situation, at least in the immediate aftermath of its overwhelming defeat in the war with Perú.


Actually, what most angered Ecuadorians about the United States was its perceived role in the 1942 peace treaty ending the war with Perú, the Rio Protocol. Under this accord Ecuador ceded much of its claims to Amazonian territory to Perú. Ecuador signed under duress: Peruvian forces occupied a large chunk of the southern coastal region at the moment, and there was much support in Lima for Peruvian forces to just keep moving north and take Ecuador’s largest city and leading port, Guayaquil, and maybe even more. At the Rio meeting, however, the United States was focused on lining up Latin American support for the Allied World War II effort; the U.S. thus had no free attention for helping Ecuador with its troubles with Perú. Ecuadorians, probably unfairly, nevertheless widely blamed the U.S. for forcing them to sign the Rio Protocol. But this was not true. Ecuador’s military defeat forced them to accept the treaty.


In the nation’s history, Ecuador’s leaders had repeatedly considered selling the Galápagos, something certain to always fire up patriotic opposition. Any hint that this might again have been in the offing would have aroused a critical nationalistic popular response. While the small Communist Party (some 5,000 members) was outspoken in opposing any base deal that would include the possibility of alienating the islands, the communists were hardly alone in feeling this way. The Ecuadorian Communists Party leadership was making what was already a popular argument. Therefore, we probably should be suspicious of Communist Party boasts claiming credit for beating back American imperialism, even if the United States FBI documents usually did seek to blame them. U.S. officials routinely exaggerated the extent of Communist influence, in Ecuador and throughout the hemisphere.


In any event, many Ecuadorians liked the idea of the United States paying to at least continue to use the bases, if not outright annex them, especially if this could mean a multi-million dollar windfall ($20 million was the number most people seemed to have in mind) for the nation.[1]


As for the United States, after Pearl Harbor it had thought that air bases in Ecuador, at Salinas and on the Galápagos, would be necessary for the forward defense of the Panama Canal. After the U.S. victory at Midway in June 1942, however, the bases seemed far less vital, the threat to the Panama Canal much more distant. The American plane patrols operating out of Ecuador never spotted anything. After the war, opinion was initially divided in U.S. foreign policy circles about the continued utility of the Ecuadorian bases. But once U.S. policymakers began to realize the price that Ecuador wanted paid for continued use of the bases, the U.S. lost interest, closing Salinas, and then the Galápagos bases in short order. The U.S. did not need the bases and had no interest in paying anything close to what Ecuador expected.[2]


Becker has certainly succeeded in showing how the Ecuadorian Communist Party leadership “moved the leasing of the bases from a backroom deal to the realm of public debate” (532). “Although it is difficult to measure … the degree of influence that the communist campaign … had,” Becker admits, “the constant pressure did push the country” to “expel [the] foreign troops” (541). Perhaps, or maybe the base closings were, as Becker notes, just part of a wider U.S. policy “during the short period between the end of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War” when the “U.S. military shuttered about half of its wartime bases as part of peacetime demobilization” (541). The debate over why the U.S. left will doubtless continue, but now informed and greatly enriched by Becker’s excellent scholarship.


Ronn Pineo earned his Ph.D. in Latin American History from the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Ecuador and the United States: Useful Strangers and Social (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2007) and Economic Reform in Ecuador: Life and Work in Guayaquil, 1870-1925 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997). He also worked as contributing co-editor with James A. Baer for Cities of Hope: People, Protests, and Progress in Urbanizing Latin America, 1870-1930 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998). Pineo is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a six time Fulbright recipient, with awards for lecturing and study in Mexico, Ecuador, and Perú. Currently, he is writing a piece on Cuban public health care for a special edition of the Journal of Developing Societies, for which he will be serving as guest editor.


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[1] Ronn Pineo, Ecuador and the United States: Useful Strangers (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2007), 128.

[2] See Melvyn P. Leffler, “The American Conception of National Security and the Beginning of the Cold War, 1945-48,” American Historical Review 89:2 (April 1984): 349-357; Elliott V. Converse III, Circling the Earth:  United States Military Plans for a Postwar Overseas Military Base System, 1942-1948 (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama:  Air University Press, 2005); and Paolo E. Coletta and K. Jack Bauer, United States Navy and Marine Corps Bases Overseas (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985).