H-Diplo Article Review 712 on “Missionary Critiques of Empire, 1920-1932: Between Interventionism and Anti-Imperialism.”

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Article Review
No. 712
8 September 2017

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

Geneviève Dorais.  “Missionary Critiques of Empire, 1920-1932:  Between Interventionism and Anti-Imperialism.”  The International History Review 39:3 (2017): 377-403.  DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2016.1230767.

URL: http://tiny.cc/AR712

Review by Mark Petersen, University of Dallas

In her recent article, Geneviève Dorais makes an important contribution to the history of inter-American relations, cultural internationalism, and anti-imperialism in the interwar period. Dorais examines the work of two transnational missionary networks that operated from the United States (U.S.) and in Latin America in the first decades of the twentieth century: the Committee of Cooperation in Latin America (CCLA) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). She draws inspiration from recent calls to reconsider the missionary in the narrative of U.S. empire, and casts her subjects as agents with multiple agendas, proselytizers of both religion and political ideology. The CCLA and FOR, despite their own cultural intervention in Latin America, explicitly rejected U.S. imperialism and fostered links with anti-imperialists throughout the hemisphere. This distinguished them from contemporaneous actors—such as the financial advisors or the technological modernizers studied by Emily Rosenberg and Ricardo Salvatore, for example—who pushed U.S. interests and economics into Latin America with a “missionary impulse.”[1] Moreover, Dorais suggests that the CCLA and FOR acted as “reverse missionaries,” disseminating Latin American anti-imperialism within the United States (397).

These arguments are presented clearly in a straight-forward structure of three sections and a conclusion. The first section details the emergence of the New York-based CCLA from an American milieu of Social Gospel Protestantism and internationalist progressivism. Drawing on the CCLA’s archives and its monthly publication, La Nueva Democracia, Dorais situates this expanding network of missionaries and Latin American Protestants within the context of contested Pan-Americanism. As Dorais demonstrates, the CCLA was a major critic of military intervention and commerce-centered (or materialistic) Pan-Americanism. The CCLA advocated instead a hemispheric movement for mutual understanding similar to other interwar cultural internationalist efforts.[2] Linking hemispheric intellectuals, including the United States’ Samuel Guy Inman and Argentina’s Ernesto Nelson, the CCLA provided a platform for advocacy of “a truly democratic Pan Americanism” based on culture and faith (386).

In the following section, Dorais turns her focus to FOR missionaries and their plans to be “effective emissaries of peace” in Central America (387). In practice, this meant opposing U.S. intervention during the 1920s, especially in Nicaragua. Like the CCLA, the FOR linked its pacifist anti-imperialism to Social Gospel imperatives and did not shy from direct action. Dorais again deftly uses organizational archives to gain insight in the missionaries’ activism, including their determined, though ultimately unsuccessful, effort to mediate between Washington and Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino. The episode offers an insightful and engaging anecdote, complete with exasperated diplomats and frustrated missionaries traipsing through the jungle conflict zone.

The final section, “Opening dialogue with Latin American anti-imperialists,” offers further analysis of the CCLA and FOR’s impact. It provides a needed critique of the missionaries’ activism, especially its paternalism and lack of self-awareness. Their denunciation of geopolitical or economic imperialism did not lead to critical reflection on their own efforts to intervene in Latin American societies. The missionaries’ activism also seemed to have had little impact on U.S. policy. Historians could potentially see these actors and organizations as insignificant do-gooders. Dorais convincingly argues against such easy dismissal by pointing to one of their more enduring achievements: constructing inter-American networks of anti-imperialist intellectuals. Through use of correspondence and La Nueva Democracia, Dorais provides a map of the burgeoning networks. She demonstrates how personal and institutional relationships fostered by missionaries and utilized by Latin American intellectuals brought the latter’s anti-imperialist philosophies to audiences in the United States. Public lectures, reading lists, and organizational literature helped to publicize the ideas of anti-imperialist luminaries such as Cuba’s José Martí, Mexico’s José Vasconcelos, and Peru’s Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre. Like other forms of cultural relations, then, these transnational networks worked as a two-way street of cultural transfer. Given the context of U.S. hegemonic aspirations, the stakes of this exchange were high.

Dorais usefully situates her analysis within wider efforts to reconsider hemispheric relations and hemispheric approaches to the history of the Americas. This is important work. Emphasizing the use of hemispheric frameworks by activists and intellectuals can build bridges between histories that are often limited by national or regional focus. Hopefully, work like Dorais’s article will encourage further dialogue between historians of anti-imperialism in the United States and Latin America. The circulation of individuals and ideas around the Americas, as highlighted by Dorais, also suggests that the hemisphere as a category of analysis is both valid and significant.[3] Historians must take seriously the existence of a hemispheric public sphere, and the decision of historical actors to participate in it, even while remaining conscious of the complex power relationships and diverse agendas within hemispheric initiatives.[4] This hemispheric approach should complement continued national and emerging global approaches to history. 

In addition, the missionaries’ hope of improving international relations via cultural approximation offers another example of complex and frequently contradictory interwar cultural internationalism. The history of U.S.-Latin American relations in the early twentieth century, long dominated by images of intervention and imperialism, must make room for internationalism. This is not a new insight, but one that gains force through detailed studies like this article. Dorais’s portrayal of Pan-Americanism as a means for articulating and advancing cultural internationalism is significant.  Previous scholarship—on women’s activists, tourism promoters, and lawyers, for example—has explored that use of Pan-Americanism.[5] While Dorais only partially engages this scholarship, and leaves relationships between the missionaries and fellow cultural Pan-Americanists largely unexplored, her work nonetheless contributes to it.

Dorais’s article, moreover, has implications for studies of the cultural history of U.S. empire, cultural diplomacy, and cultural transfer. For example, it helps to shade in the grey areas between the anti-imperialist and interventionist arguments in early twentieth-century America. It also furthers ongoing efforts to recover Latin American agency in inter-American affairs, particularly Latin American negotiation of U.S. hegemonic aspirations through cooperation, international law, and cultural relations.[6] Readers could benefit from a more direct conversation with these broad historiographies. The focus of the article is on the missionaries, however, and so Dorais has only enough room to entice further consideration of this point.

In terms of sources and methodology, Dorais adds further evidence that civil society organization archives can be rich mines for historians of international relations. Her use of the CCLA and FOR archives is superb, pointing to further opportunities for research. Dorais is able to map networks between individuals, but more work could be done to uncover the extent of institutional relationships between U.S. civil society organizations and Latin American anti-imperialist ones. Did these institutions affect each other in terms of organization or methods of activism?  Diplomatic sources, which are conspicuously absent in this article, might also be a next step in Dorais’s project. The missionaries clearly hoped to influence foreign policy and had direct contact with diplomats and foreign dignitaries. Sources produced by these diplomats and dignitaries, then, could be illuminating. Such sources could demonstrate whether the missionaries, like other internationalists of the period, made an attempt to sway policy through direct appeal to policymakers. At the very least, diplomatic and governmental records could provide another perspective on the activism’s significance, or lack thereof. As such, the relationship between this form of anti-imperialism of the 1920s and the broader policy context, especially the shifts that ushered in the Good Neighbor, remains a point for future research.

Finally, the religious context of these figures’ anti-imperialism needs further attention. Passing references to the Social Gospel and a desire for ecumenism provide important background, but the doctrinal and denominational underpinnings of the missionaries’ internationalism could use more consideration. Oddly missing in the article, given the dominant Roman Catholicism in Latin America, is mention of Catholic opinions toward Protestant anti-imperialism. How did U.S. Catholic groups react to the Protestant missionaries’ use of anti-imperialism to further their incursion into Catholic territory? How did Latin American Catholic groups, some of which pursued their own versions of internationalism, relate to these Protestant organizations? And what of that inherently transnational organization, the Roman Catholic Church?

These questions suggest not a weakness of the article, but rather its thought-provoking strength.  Dorais’s analysis connects a number of developing historiographies and offers a solid case study of missionaries, transnational social movements, and hemispheric networks that is written in an engaging and approachable style appropriate for undergraduates. Overall, Dorais succeeds in bringing attention to previously unheard historical voices that add an interesting and important counterpart to studies of contemporaneous missionary-like agents of imperialism. Students of the cultural history of U.S. empire will do well to listen.


Mark Petersen is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he teaches Latin American and U.S. history. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Oxford with a dissertation titled Argentine and Chilean Approaches to Modern Pan-Americanism, 1888-1930. His research interests focus on the history of inter-American relations, cultural and public diplomacy, and foreign policymaking in the Southern Cone.  His publications include “The ‘Vanguard of Pan-Americanism’: Chile and Inter-American Multilateralism in the Early Twentieth Century” in Cooperation and Hegemony in U.S.-Latin American Relations: Revisiting the Western Hemisphere Idea, edited by J.P. Scarfi and Andrew Tillman (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016) and a forthcoming chapter on Chilean foreign policy since independence.

© 2017 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License


[1] The phrase “missionary impulse” is drawn from David Barton Castle’s “Leo Stanton Rowe and the Meaning of Pan-Americanism” in Beyond the Ideal: Pan-Americanism in Inter-American Affairs, edited by David Sheinin (Westport: Greenwood, 2000).  For the examples mentioned, see Emily Rosenberg, Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy, 1900–1930 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), and Ricardo Salvatore, “Imperial Mechanics: South America’s Hemispheric Integration in the Machine Age” American Quarterly 58:3 (2006): 662-691.

[2] Akira Iriye, Cultural Internationalism and World Order (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

[3] In this, Dorais joins a diverse field of scholars, including Stephen M. Park, The Pan American Imagination: Contested Visions of the Hemisphere in Twentieth-Century Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), Ricardo Salvatore, “The Making of a Hemispheric Intellectual-Statesman: Leo S. Rowe in Argentina (1906-1919)” The Journal of Transnational American Studies 2:1 (2010): 1-36, and Juan Pablo Scarfi, The Hidden History of International Law in the Americas: Empire and Legal Networks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[4] The existence of a hemispheric public sphere has long been a feature of scholarship on literature in the Americas; see, for example, Anna Brickhouse, Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[5] Megan Threlkeld, Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Dina Berger, “Goodwill Ambassadors on Holiday: Tourism, Diplomacy, and Mexico-U.S. Relations” in Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters, edited by Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010; and Scarfi, The Hidden History.

[6] See, for example, David Sheinin, Searching for Authority: Pan Americanism, Diplomacy and Politics in United States-Argentine Relations, 1910-1930 (New Orleans: University Press of the South, 1998), Max Paul Friedman and Tom Long, “Soft Balancing in the Americas: Latin American Opposition to U.S. Intervention, 1898-1936.” International Security 40:1 (Summer 2015): 120-156, and Juan Pablo Scarfi, “In the Name of the Americas: The Pan-American Redefinition of the Monroe Doctrine and the Emerging Language of American International Law in the Western Hemisphere,” Diplomatic History 40:2 (2016): 189-218.