Eric Roorda’s The Dictator Next Door is a publication that deals with diplomatic history, studying the United States’ foreign affairs with the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1945. Highlighted problems with United States support for an undemocratic dictator Rafael Trujillo and his foreign policy presented issues that the U.S. encountered regularly during this time. Roorda also entails how the Good Neighbor Policy, which claimed to endorse unity and peace among western hemisphere nations, allowed dictators in Latin America to conduct business in their countries as long as they followed U.S. foreign policy. This idea of Latin American Dictators is presented by Roorda as “to run their countries however they pleased, so long as they maintained common enemies with the United States: first the fascists, then the communists” (1). Roorda displays how the U.S. tolerated and supported dictatorships, although many diplomats disagreed about the support of dictator in hopes of globally spreading democracy. Roorda’s main argument concentrates on how the tyrant Trujillo presented the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations with problems. Trujillo was far from embedding the ideal “Order and Predictability” that the U.S. was seeking. Hard to control and a recurring embarrassment to the U.S., Trujillo had few friends in the State Department, but the U.S. military and political officials continued to support him to prevent the spread of fascism and communism to the Western Hemisphere.. Roorda recalls the history of Dominican-U.S. relations and expresses how United States influence on the island was conducted for years before Trujillo’s rise. After the crumble of Spanish rule over the Dominican Republic, the Dominican Republic was occupied by Haitian forces until independence in 1844, while a strong military control and foreign powers battled for influence there. United States concerns increased from 1860-1904 resulting in a show of power in 1915, a military takeover by U.S. marines in the Dominican Republic. United States military forces began training and educating Dominican men for service in the constabulary and army. Undergoing training by one of the worlds rising super powers, Trujillo emerged as a top student in the teaching of the American military system. Trujillo was educated on fighting tactics and strategy from the U.S. Military and earned an Army commission during this time, despite a history of criminal activity, including rape and extortion (for which he escaped punishment), and rose above his peers to the rank of general. Trujillo was not the United States’ first choice as the Dominican Republic’s leader. Trujillo timing of rallying the army to stage a coup in 1930 was masterful considering the events that would follow. The coup was three years before the Good Neighbor policy was introduced, and was helped by the Hoover administration’s nonintervention policy, which preferred commerce over militarism as a means of promoting good will. Roorda consistently maintains that Hoover’s desire to redeem the United States’ image in Latin America, as well as the administration’s reluctance to back his ambassador (who distrusted Trujillo and refused to recognize him), helped Trujillo maintain its control. Cautious of Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s employment of “gunboat diplomacy,” the Hoover administration recognized Trujillo for the reasoning that he seemed likely to protect U.S. economical and commercial interests furthermore it was more politically efficient to recognize dictatorial regimes that provided order and stability. Roorda explains how Trujillo cleverly played the U.S. political force against its military, who favored Trujillo from the time spent training. Critical of American actions in Latin America, Roorda states that “in the history of U.S. relations with its closest neighbors . . . the rhetoric of solidarity and protection against European aggression ran counter to the brutal logic and increasing momentum of U.S. territorial expansion and imperial ambitions” (23). While U.S. policy makers promoted friendship with Latin America (which emerged into popular culture during the 30s and 40s), Latin American intellectuals were less than pleased because it relied on United States authority and kept authoritarian regimes in power. When the Great Depression hit, Trujillo strengthened his power further despite the Dominican economy’s near-collapse. Receiving additional U.S. economic aid, mainly due to his promises to protect U.S business interests, he soon became “the greatest source of instability in U.S.-Dominican relations. . . . As U.S. officials found out, the benefits of a ‘stabilizing’ dictatorship could be canceled out by an unreliable dictator” (87).
Roorda maintains that the Good Neighbor policy itself was an empty, nebulous policy created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he characterizes as “a master of innuendo, ambiguity, paradox, and the manipulation of disparate personalities” (89). In chapter four, Roorda characterizes Trujillo as a shrewd, image-conscious manipulator of public opinion on a par with FDR, but with total control of an intimidating military that crushed any opposition. Trujillo flouted his authority by renaming geographical features, parks, and even the capital city for himself, surrounding his rule with public spectacle, and assuming total control of the Dominican press in order to glorify his regime and even deify himself. One telling newspaper quote deemed him “so necessary that [the people give] him permanent power” and somehow dubbed his regime “super-democracy” (95). The U.S government, meanwhile, was aware of Trujillo’s transgressions, yet played into his hands, even assisting his censorship campaign and public-relations efforts. While the United States was not fooled, Roorda implies, it played along in an effort to heed the Good Neighbor policy’s claim to support national sovereignty and thus allowed Trujillo a free hand. The entire book centers on a single recurring theme: the foolishness of a democracy supporting dictators. Roorda maintains that “the dependence on dictators to attain the traditional U.S. goals of stability and cooperation in Latin America meant having to ignore those instances when the strongmen themselves incited unrest and conflict” (146-147). The U.S. military is partly to blame, since it trained Trujillo and treated him as a favored protégé, while diplomats saw through the dictator’s pageantry and disapproved of his methods (Trujillo returned their contempt). Roorda places heavy blame on the Roosevelt administration for allowing Trujillo to remain in power for the simple reason that Trujillo represented stability (even though his conduct at home and his occasional bloody attacks against neighboring Haiti disrupted Dominican-American relations). Roorda describes U.S. logic with Trujillo as “Dominican stability made him practical to deal with,” even if that meant not questioning the ethics of backing brutal regimes that did not threaten American dominance or prosperity. Roorda uses abundant detail and careful research in describing the United States’ paradoxical relationship with Trujillo, relying heavily on government documents, personal papers, the contemporary press, and a large number of secondary sources. While The Dictator net Door assertions are not groundbreaking (recent diplomatic history is harshly critical of U.S support for brutal dictators), it is well-written, with concise prose and well-constructed arguments. On the whole it is an excellent diplomatic history. For scholars seeking an explanation of U.S. relations with Latin America, and who do not mind its sharp criticisms of U.S. foreign policy’s ethical lapses and oversights, The Dictator Next Door is well worth one’s time.