H-Diplo Article Review 983 on Kohl. “Between Louisiana and Latin America: Oil Imperialism and Bolivia’s 1937 Nationalization.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 983

8 October 2020

Mira Kohl.  “Between Louisiana and Latin America:  Oil Imperialism and Bolivia’s 1937 Nationalization.”  Diplomatic History 44:2 (2020):  210-236.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Dayna Barnes | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Nicole Pacino, University of Alabama in Huntsville

Mira Kohl’s article, “Between Louisiana and Latin America,” analyzes how rumors about Standard Oil’s financial support to Bolivia during the Chaco War (1932-1935) fostered the anti-imperial and nationalist sentiment that paved the way for the first oil nationalization in Latin America. What she calls an “oil-driven narrative” (211) of the Chaco War, which alleged that Standard Oil was financing the war for its own benefit, became a rallying cry for resource sovereignty and propelled Bolivia to the forefront of nationalization movements in the region. In developing this argument, Kohl analyzed the speeches by Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long before Congress that denounced Standard Oil involvement in the Chaco War, articles in United States and Latin American-based newspapers, writings by Bolivian intellectuals, diplomatic cables, and State Department records to show how the oil-driven narrative played out in U.S. and Latin American political and discursive spaces. In this well-written and engaging article, she demonstrates that Bolivia’s 1937 oil nationalization was caught between Louisiana and Latin America.  She argues that the nationalization decree itself, while the product of distinct national circumstances in Bolivia, was also influenced by events and discourses emanating from Louisiana, the United States, and the Latin American region more broadly.

One strength of Kohl’s article is that she underscores that Bolivia’s nationalization is underappreciated, usually eclipsed by Mexico’s expropriation of U.S. and Anglo-Dutch oil holdings the following year, in 1938.  Mexico may have mattered more to U.S. political and business interests than Bolivia, as it was closer to the United States and its oil production far outpaced that of Bolivia.  However, Kohl points out that Bolivia was a catalyst for other nationalization decrees because it “was the laboratory in which other Latin American governments could observe the price nationalization might carry” (230).  Bolivian history is often overlooked in the historical literature in favor of that of countries like Mexico, even when events in Bolivia served as benchmarks in the region or inspired similar actions in other Latin American countries.  Therefore, Kohl’s emphasis on the 1937 oil nationalization as a spark for subsequent events in Latin America is both refreshing and important.

A related strength of the article is the explanation of Bolivia’s 1937 oil nationalization as a product of transnational/hemispheric discourses rather than the result of solely national events or bilateral U.S.-Bolivian relations.  As Kohl explains, “tracing the transnational circulation of an oil-driven narrative showcases how Bolivian expropriation emerged from a multilateral Latin American public sphere, an important contribution to scholarship that has heretofore maintained a more-narrowly Bolivian national or U.S.-Bolivian bilateral perspective” (211).  The focus on dialogue between Latin American countries to better understand an emerging nationalist sentiment in Bolivia places the 1937 decree in a new light—it was not just a national or bilateral event, but one that was hemispheric in nature.  To develop this point, Kohl consulted an array of newspapers from eight Latin American countries ranging from Brazil to Mexico, not in an effort at exhaustiveness, but rather as a survey of general attitudes about Long’s accusations about Standard Oil’s role in the Chaco War.  This approach is particularly exciting as South-South interactions and inter-Latin American dialogues are a growing research trend.

If anything, this transnational analysis should be more of a focal point of the article.  The author weaves the discourses that are prominent in the Latin American newspapers into the overall narrative and identifies ways in which Latin American countries banded together in the aftermath of the nationalization decree.  Yet the bulk of the article focuses on the history of Standard Oil (also called Jersey Standard) in Bolivia and Latin America and Long’s repeated accusations towards the company, and draws mainly from U.S.-based sources, mostly Congressional and State Department records. This detailed account includes extensive evidence and fascinating analysis, and is mostly centered on Long’s Congressional testimonies and the resulting fallout for the State Department and the Good Neighbor Policy in the United States as well as the Bolivian government during the Chaco War.  The author suggests that Long’s rumors were baseless, citating scholars who have refuted his claims, and indicates that Long used the moment to promote his own political ambitions and drum up support for isolationist policy.  The author also notes Long’s romanticization of the Monroe Doctrine and the way that he ignored its more imperialistic overtones in favor of a paternalistic view of the United States as the big brother protecting Latin America from outside aggressors.  The interplay between these ideologies and Long’s personal ambitions could have been probed a bit more to explain how and why Long used Latin America as a prop for his own political stagecraft.  It would have been interesting to situate this episode within broader hemispheric discourses about U.S. officials’ visions of Latin America, and how Latin Americans pushed back against these ideas.

After the extensive discussion of Long’s accusations and their repercussions, Kohl devotes a few pages to discussing the connections Bolivia fostered with other Latin American countries in the wake of expropriation.  As the author asserts, “for landlocked Bolivia, the risk of undertaking the incendiary act of nationalization would only be possible by cultivating connections with neighboring countries” (229).  Examples include Bolivia negotiating access to Atlantic ports with Brazil and Argentina and deepening diplomatic ties with Mexico following its1938 expropriation.  Kohl asserts that Latin American actors “perceived and framed these actions within an integrated framework that set Latin American sovereignty against U.S. private imperial interests.  To the chagrin of the U.S. government, this Latin American approach challenged U.S. attempts to legitimize and solidify a more inclusive ‘American’ hemisphere with the United States decisively at the helm” (234).  This latter point is made more in passing than in detail.

Overall, Kohl engages the existing literature on U.S.-Bolivian and U.S.-Latin American relations while attempting a more transnational approach with the laudable goal of centering Bolivian history in the conversation.  She relies heavily on Stephen Cote’s work on the history of Bolivia’s oil industry while also carving out her own niche by placing conversations about the 1937 decree in a transnational framework.[1]  Additional engagement with recent scholarship on Bolivian history, beyond Cote’s work, would have benefitted the article overall.[2]  In particular, the author could have more purposefully discussed Kevin Young’s research; she does cite his book and use the concept of “resource nationalism,” and a more detailed look at how her work overlaps with or challenges his argument about the period before and after the 1952 National Revolution would have been a welcome addition.[3] Kohl also cites the literature on the Chaco War, including some more recent works and some older ones, mostly for background information, and it would have been worth considering new conversations about how the Chaco War illuminates various aspects of Bolivian history, including, for example, the environment, race and ethnicity, nationalism, and national belonging. Elizabeth Shesko’s work would have been a useful inclusion.[4]

The final question raised is how the 1937 oil nationalization impacted Bolivian history and international relations beyond the 1930s and 1940s.  In the conclusion Kohl refers to Bolivian president Evo Morales, who in 2006 named a “supreme decree renationalizing Bolivia’s hydrocarbons ‘Heroes of the Chaco’” (234), but another important chapter in nationalization in Bolivian history—the 1952 National Revolution—is only referred to in passing. The revolution is mentioned briefly in the context of how the “Chaco Generation,” including intellectuals who were supportive of the 1937 decree, went on to be founders of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) and agitators for revolutionary change.  Given that the MNR nationalized the tin mining industry in 1952 and embraced the language of economic sovereignty and resource nationalism (at least rhetorically, if not always in practice), additional discussion of the link between 1937 and 1952 would have been useful.  How did the events of the 1930s shape the subsequent generation of political leaders and advocates for resources nationalization?  What parallels are evident between 1937 and 1952?  What are the key differences?  Given that the revolution came only fifteen years after the oil expropriation, even a brief discussion of its legacies for the events of the 1950s would have been instructive.

Kohl’s article is a welcome addition to scholarship on U.S-Latin American relations and Bolivian history.  The author’s underscoring of importance of the 1937 nationalization for subsequent events in Latin American history and her attempt to frame the decree as part of a transnational narrative shed new light on an often overlooked but important chapter in Latin American history. 


Nicole Pacino is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.  She has an M.A. in Latin American and Iberian Studies and a Ph.D. in Latin American History, both from the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Her work examines the extension of public health programs into the Bolivian countryside in the aftermath of the 1952 National Revolution to explore how health care programs created and/or undermined state legitimacy in rural regions.  She is the author of numerous publications in venues based in the United States, Latin America, and Europe, including: “Bringing the Revolution to the Countryside: Rural Public Health Programmes as State-Building in Post-1952 Bolivia,” Special Issue: New Perspectives on the History of Rural Health in Latin America, Bulletin of Latin American Research 38:1 (2019): 50-65; “Liberating the People from Their ‘Loathsome Practices’: Public Health and ‘Silent Racism’ in Post-Revolutionary Bolivia,” special section on public health policy in Latin America and the Caribbean, História, Ciências, Saúde—Manguinhos (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) 24:4 (2017): 1107-1124; “Stimulating a Cooperative Spirit? Public Health and U.S.-Bolivia Relations in the 1950s,” Diplomatic History 41:2 (2017): 305-335; and “Creating Madres Campesinas: Revolutionary Motherhood and the Gendered Politics of Nation Building in Bolivia in the 1950s,” Journal of Women’s History 27:1 (Spring 2015): 62-87. A chapter on the strategic value of medical education will appear in the edited collection Peripheral Nerve: Health and Medicine in Cold War Latin America, due out with Duke University Press in August 2020.


[1] Stephen Cote, “A War for Oil in the Chaco, 1932–1935,” Environmental History 18:4 (2013): 1–21.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/emt066; Cote, Oil and Nation: A History of Bolivia’s Petroleum Sector (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2016); and Cote, “Bolivian Oil Nationalism and the Chaco War” in The Chaco War: Environment, Ethnicity, and Nationalism, ed. Bridget Maria Chesterton (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017): 157-175.

[2] For a few examples, see Robert L. Smale, “I Sweat the Flavor of Tin": Labor Activism in Early Twentieth-century Bolivia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010); Thomas C. Field Jr.,  “Ideology as Strategy: Military-led Modernization and the Origins of the Alliance for Progress in Bolivia,” Diplomatic History 36:1 (2012): 147-183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.2012.01013; Ben Nobbs-Thiessen, “Reshaping the Chaco: Migrant Foodways, Place-making, and the Chaco War,” Journal of Latin American Studies 50:3 (2018): 579-611, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022216X17001225; and the other essays in Bridget Maria Chesterton, ed., The Chaco War: Environment, Ethnicity, and Nationalism (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).

[3] Kevin A. Young, Blood of the Earth: Resource Nationalism, Revolution, and Empire in Bolivia (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017); Kevin A. Young, “From Open Door to Nationalization: Oil and Development Visions in Bolivia, 1952–1969,” Hispanic American Historical Review 97:1 (2017): 95-129, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1215/00182168-3727400.

[4] Elizabeth Shesko, “Mobilizing Manpower for War: Toward a New History of Bolivia's Chaco Conflict, 1932–1935,” Hispanic American Historical Review 95:2 (2015): 299-334, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1215/00182168-2870800.