Dirty Wars, Nasty Reviews (post 2 of 2)

In the previous post, I discussed the film Dirty Wars and a response to it in the context of my own dissertation research on counterinsurgency and police assistance. In the mailbox when I got home from seeing that film was the new issue (June 2013) of the American Historical Review, which contains a review of the recent book Modernizing Repression by Jeremy Kuzmarov.


The reviewer is Seth Jacobs, Associate Professor of history at Boston College. Modernizing Repression is the first book about the globe-spanning activities of the Office of Public Safety (and several decades of counterinsurgency precursors) based on recently opened archival material, some of which I am using for my dissertation. It is not the first book that concerns OPS. Several books, articles, and dissertations have preceded it, including Mike Klare’s War Without End, AJ Langguth’s Hidden Terrors, Martha Huggins’s Political Policing, and Tom Lobe’s United States National Security Policy and Aid to the Thailand Police. More recently, William Rosenau published US Internal Security Assistance to South Vietnam, which also draws on recently available archives and other obscure sources.1 Unlike these other books, which either focus narrowly on one national case or cover matters beyond police assistance, Kuzmarov's is a compendious history of US police assistance across the globe in the twentieth century. At least one more book on OPS, by my dear friend Micol Seigel, is in the pipeline. Finally, there are two books on OPS by its members, Adolph Saenz and Don Bordenkircher, but they are not scholarly works.

Kuzmarov is an Assistant Professor of history at the University of Tulsa. He and I have corresponded a few times and chatted in person. Although I think his book is important and necessary, I do have some criticisms of it. But I was unprepared for how scathing a review it would receive in the AHR. (The review of it in the other flagship history journal, The Journal of American History, was not very positive either, lamenting that it is "polemical.") 

I had never read anything by Jacobs before this review of Kuzmarov, but I’ve been aware of his well-regarded book on how Diem became the United States’ favored leader of South Vietnam. He argues, from what I can tell, that Diem’s Catholicism, more so than anything else, was the key attribute anticommunist US officials sought. Jacobs’s scholarship has been lauded because he provides a strong argument for the importance of culture and religion in some aspects of the history of US foreign relations. Coming from American Studies, that’s a no brainer for me. Because of approaches like his, though, the history of US foreign relations is actually a vibrant field today and full of exciting work that has a freshness to it that even the relentlessly frontier-pushing field of American Studies sometimes lacks (here is a recent expression of reservation about that the unacknowledged politics of that relentless innovation). I criticize Jacobs’s review of Kuzmarov with some trepidation. He is an important professor in the field, and I’m just a graduate student with nothing but my future ahead of me. In the spirit of self-professionalization and collegial discussion, though, I’ll act like a peer and go for it.

Because I cannot reproduce the review in full and it’s hidden behind a paywall, I will give some snippets. My major concern is that Jacobs disagrees with Kuzmarov's politics but uses criticism of his style and tone, as well as an insistence that he is obligated to be more "balanced," to make it seem like the criticism is not political. My secondary concerns are entangled with the first but relate to criticisms about Kuzmarov's use of archival sources and other citations.


Most important is Jacobs’s criticism of Kuzmarov’s politics. He writes: 

Kuzmarov subscribes to the devil theory of U.S. diplomacy, taking as given the premise that Washington is responsible for most of the injustice in the world, that the moral calculus always favors America’s rivals, and that, idealistic rhetoric notwithstanding, American policymakers act on the lowest of motives. Scholars tending to confirm this view—Gabriel Kolko, Alfred McCoy, Noam Chomsky, and other apostles of the New Left—receive a respectful hearing; those who refute or complicate it are de-emphasized or ignored. Modernizing Repression is not a balanced appraisal of U.S. police training programs from 1901 to 2012; it is a case for the prosecution.

It is passing strange, in my view, to make such a blatantly political critique in the name of “balance.” How someone who has written extensively on Diem can deny that Washington is responsible for injustice (most? some? does it matter?) is beyond me. The man cultivated US support and hence was installed as president of a fictitious entity called South Vietnam; he refused planned elections soon thereafter and became too much of an autocrat whose repressive regime was too ineffective for the US to keep supporting him; and then the US allowed a coup that saw him murdered in the back of an armored personnel carrier. Maybe President Kennedy didn’t see the assassination coming, but more experienced operators in this field, like CIA Director John McCone, likely did. Idealistic rhetoric is never sufficient, and, frankly, “motive” is not very interesting or useful as an explanatory device when talking about something as complex as the state. Individual motive is not determinant. Moreover, following the brilliant scholarship of historian Paul Kramer, the investigation of motive has largely been superseded by inquiry into effect when it comes to talking about the imperial.

There is also a sleight of hand at work here that confirms some of my suspicions about the word “complicate” when applied to history-writing. My main beef with the word “complicate” is that social life is extremely complicated and it is scholars’ job to make it more easily apprehensible. A Borgesian map of history would be useless. Additionally, “refute” and “complicate” should be two very different scholarly operations. The implied equivalence here suggests that the latter is a surrogate for the former that shrouds its politics. Scholars may enjoin peers to "complicate" analyses, but they mean to say "change the politics of" analyses. Plus, refutation is far from complicated. It’s monochromatic. Outside quantitative approaches refutation can rarely be done to anything but the most specific and narrow questions. If there were a shade of grey to be seen in the overall history of police assistance, that would not refute what Kuzmarov shows the historical record to depict. The documents are clear: OPS officials themselves were often uneasy about what was going on. And no scholarly secondary source has made such a refutation. Even Hal Brands's effort to shift blame from the United States to Leftist revolutionaries in what he calls Latin America's Cold War must avoid discussing OPS, except for the assassination of Public Safety Advisor Dan Mitrione 

I am reminded of what the brilliant Marilyn Young wrote about an article by John Coatsworth on US dirty wars in Central America (which grew out of the OPS experience): “At no point does Coatsworth attempt balance where none is possible.”

And this goes to the heart of my critique: I find it hard to believe that anyone in 2013 still thinks that the historian’s task is balanced, value-free, or objective narrative. The name of this blog is itself an allusion to a line by the sociologist Terence Hopkins about objectivity. (I hope to write a post explaining it in the future.) The point is that the necessary separation of one’s observations from the world one observes that would enable “objectivity” is epistemologically impossible. It was possible for historians to subscribe to “that noble dream” for a time, but today the dream seems far less noble and much more tawdry, itself a veil used to hide or disavow political commitments. It is revealed here to be a political device. Moreover, knowing that the dream of objectivity is itself an historical artifact, emergent from contingent historical circumstances, why the ahistorical or anachronistic attachment to it?

I’m not making an argument for tendentiousness. But nowhere does Kuzmarov claim he is giving a balanced account of OPS, unless entry into the historians' guild means ipso facto that one must do so (the reason women and people of color were long excluded from it?). I don’t think he believes there is any use in trying to be "balanced." A more useful critique that I would make of his book is that he is not as careful to question the assumptions embedded in the historical record as he could be. 

Kuzmarov’s chief argument is that the United States, in the name of geopolitical urgency, allied with unsavory, authoritarian regimes who used their civil police for nefarious ends, and OPS was the primary source of support for these police forces. Honestly, what OPS officer would disagree with this account? They would say that, yes, the United States did have them training otherwise unprofessional police, and their goal was to get them to stop committing torture, corruption, and extrajudicial activities. Their success, however, was limited.

What interests me is to question what exactly policing itself is. Is there actually a link between policing and prevention of crime? And what is crime? What is subversion? What is security? How do these practices and concepts become operative? How does racial subjugation fit into them? These types of critical theoretical questions are not ones that Kuzmarov asks. They are also not questions the vain search for “balance” could answer. And what would balance look like? Would it be a table depicting crime statistics, or membership in Communist parties, in countries receiving police assistance? I bet the former increased and the latter eventually, bloodily decreased. But I also am highly skeptical that the first was not a proxy for the second in this case. OPS officials knew, to some degree, that these terms were fungible, socially constructed, as it were, but do historians? 


At the outset, Jacobs compliments Kuzmarov in a backhanded way. He notes:

Kuzmarov provides valuable information on . . . police programs, and he introduces a range of fascinating figures, notably the peripatetic Byron Engle, who rivaled Edward Lansdale when it came to orchestrating covert skullduggery but who had been lost to history until Kuzmarov began digging into his career as head of the U.S. government agency charged with training law enforcement officers in allied nations. There is grist for a significant monograph here.

I agree that Engle, OPS's Director, is a fascinating figure. I also agree that there is much to be said about him. (Stay tuned for my dissertation.) But grist alone does not a historical monograph make. Simply put: the archives do not exist.2 Although Engle's office’s papers are in College Park, there is no file series anywhere in the National Archives, or anywhere else, called “Personal Papers of Byron Engle.” 

What is more, although he is an interesting character, and although I have already made the case in conference presentations that he is second only to J. Edgar Hoover in importance for twentieth-century law enforcement on a global scale, his relative anonymity means he is not comparable to Lansdale, who insistently cultivated his own legend (chronicled in the excellent Edward Lansdale’s Cold War). It is not clear to me that a biography of Engle is what the historical record demands. A biography of the National Security Council's maverick Robert Komer, who kept Engle in the OPS driver’s seat despite buffeting bureaucratic winds? Sure. I’d be the first to buy it. But Engle was a company man among company men.3 Jacobs’s critique seems unwarranted, that somehow the book could be more significant if it focused on Engle or more closely on the “fascinating figures.” That is not the point of the book, nor is it a task made available by the existing archives.4

NARMIC Supplement to Police on the Homefront

Also, Jacobs throws in a totally gratuitous snipe, in the guise of correcting a reference mistake, at a long-defunct New Left antiwar organization called NARMIC or National Action-Research on the Military-Industrial Complex. Again, is it 2013? And besides, without organizations like NARMIC, which worked to spread the liberated FBI documents proving COINTELPRO’s existence (pictured), we might still never have learned about COINTELPRO. Instead, today, we’d simply be reading balanced histories of the FBI.


Jacobs’s review disparages Kuzmarov’s prose in a really mean-spirited way, as if tone and style supersede analysis. His prose is repetitive, we’re told. Well, so was police assistance! In fact, I have found a document in which an OPS official insists that its goal was to find a way to promulgate a serially replicable policing doctrine for all “less-developed countries.” Sure, Kuzmarov could have benefited from a proactive copy editor, and, hey, we can all pretend that we live in a world of lavish resources, well-funded university presses, generous tenure clocks, and no demands on one’s time other than perfecting one’s prose. Sounds a bit like creeping socialism to me, but what do I know? In seriousness, a critique of prose style is fair game, even a mean-spirited one, but it is necessary to distinguish between, even if they overlap, failures of styles and failures of analysis. Jacobs does not.


In conclusion, I offer Jacobs’ own words in response to a roundtable of reviews of his book America's Miracle Man in Vietnam. To the critique that he himself was a bit unbalanced, drew only on US sources, and left little room Diem’s or other Vietnamese people's agency in the construction of the Diem regime, he says:

Diem owed his elevation to high office to the United States. He moreover depended upon Washington to sustain him in that office, as became blindingly obvious in 1963 when the Kennedy administration withdrew its support and Diem’s government collapsed. To state these facts does not disempower Diem or reduce him to a “caricature.” It simply recognizes that he, like any other historical actor, operated under certain constraints, and that one of these was his neocolonial relationship with the United States, a relationship he resented—he often snubbed American advice in order to prove his independence—but one that he was never able to throw off.
These words offer a rough approximation of how I would contend that US empire works—it is the certain constraints under which actors far afield from (and within, my dissertation argues) the United States must operate. It is the inherited structure that limits ideals of autonomy. But if the history of the US war in Vietnam shows us anything it is that the subaltern can change the structures into which they are enrolled. The idea that Kuzmarov’s work somehow offers some radically different account—the “devil theory”—is unfair and mistaken. Instead, he sheds light on one of the main, but largely forgotten, mechanisms of constraint that formed the set of global relationships characterizing the Cold War in the Third World. I do think he could have gone further, to ask more deeply what that fabrication of order on a US or British model meant for the development of a certain form of capitalism in those zones; what the relationship between policing, governance, and capitalism is; and how the use of police assistance channeled resistance into certain political forms that had deep consequences for the futures of the polities and state-formation processes of these areas down the road. If anything, the answers would probably be more depressing than the statistics on people imprisoned, tortured, and killed that he offers, and that seem to give Jacobs the sense that he is a wild-eyed polemicist—for these answers would show the abiding political and social constraints, the heteronomy, under which nominally free people, liberal subjects, must labor, love, and live.

1. Jacobs reviewed Rosenau’s monograph positively in the journal Cold War History.
2. I have looked at a large percentage of the US government documents that Engle touched that are now available in archives. Kuzmarov certainly looked at ones I have not because he delved into the OPS country files, and he accessed Engle’s vanishingly small record from his time in the Kansas City police. Additionally, I have looked in other places that Kuzmarov did not. And the upcoming book by Micol Seigel I mentioned above is based on archival material otherwise almost unobtainable that she collected herself.
3. We may never quite get a full grasp on why OPS men looked up to him so admiringly, other than that they saw him as their protector and advocate. One question the archives may never fully answer is the degree to which OPS was a CIA front and thus whether Engle, so esteemed by his men, had to deceive them about their true mission. Almost everything written on OPS makes the pro forma claim that the CIA pulled its strings, based largely on a couple lines in the suppressed Pike Committee report, but absent CIA records we do not really know how that worked. (Huggins has a few really interesting pages on this topic too.)
4. Notably, Langguth, Lobe, and other PhDs and reporters interviewed OPS members, including Engle, during OPS’s existence and soon after its demise. None of these interview transcripts or recordings, according to what they have told me, remains extant today. Oral histories with OPS members other than Engle are held in some archives.



Submitted by Stuart on Mon, 06/24/2013 - 16:19

Well, I guess I lied. I was not first in line to buy a biography of Robert Komer. It came out in March, but I only found out about it last weekend at the SHAFR annual meeting.

Here is the Amazon page. It's published by the Naval Institute Press.

The author also has an earlier article on Komer in Parameters.


Upcoming Talks

Tuesday, November 28, 2017 - 4:00pm
Robinson Hall Lower Library, Harvard University
Sponsored by: Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History

© 2017 Stuart Schrader