Lester Langley’s purpose in The Banana Wars is to trace the major United States military and fiscal interventions into Cuba, Mexico, the two republics of Española, and portions of Central America—really Nicaragua—in the years from the Platt Amendment to the Good Neighbor. Most of his material will be familiar to Latin American historians, but Langley fleshes out his work with interesting accounts or observations gleaned from oral histories and private papers of some of the participants. The use of these materials is probably the book’s most significant contribution.

In many ways The Banana Wars reminds one of the works of Dana Gardner Munro on the Caribbean. The periodization and regions covered as well as much of the approach are about the same. Munro gave us more detail and relied more on the State Department for documentation, while Langley looks more into the problems of the men in uniform. (I am not sure that it would work, but a noble effort would have been to treat the topics solely as military history. That, however, was not Langley’s purpose.) The result is a solid summation of the three decades of active, overt intervention—accurate, objective, marked by only a few “gee-whiz” discoveries, such as the old unsubstantiated charge that Henry Stimson could not pronounce Nicaragua correctly.

The book’s title is taken from an old marine term and is only partially correct; in spite of certain amounts of shooting, “wars” did not take place in all of these interventions by any means. The subtitle is more accurate but less catching. The book is too detailed for a textbook in inter-American relations, but it would make the handiest of supplemental readings.

We are bombarded today by ill-founded polemics written by instant specialists on the Central American and Caribbean areas, and—perhaps needlessly—I would stress that Langley’s work is careful and it is fair. The author concludes that the United States military fought in the banana wars with reluctance, that they were not brutish, and they fought for “community well-being,” not for the House of Morgan or some economic stake. Where the United States military and the people they represented failed was as “rulers of conquered places.” We could not teach self-government, and the assumption that we could and should was in itself denigrating to the Caribbean peoples. Langley clearly believes that interventions are evil and probably fruitless. He has little to say about the alternative.