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Review: "The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War"

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Book review and discussion

Book review and discussion

The Last Colonial Massacre Summary

Throughout historian Greg Grandin’s book, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War, the author provides a detailed analysis of Guatemalan history in the years and decades that followed World War Two. Grandin’s work highlights the fundamental changes (economic, social, and political) that Guatemala experienced during the Cold War, as well as the key role that American forces (particularly the CIA) played in the destabilization of Guatemalan society for its own political purposes.

Although Guatemala possessed democratic and liberal ideals in the early years of the postwar era, Grandin argues that this form of democracy proved largely incompatible with the interests and ideological pursuits of the United States. This, he argues prompted the Americans to intervene in the region with the use of covert operations that aimed to cause political and social chaos through the disruption of day-to-day affairs in Guatemalan society (Grandin, 5). Through this direct intervention, Grandin argues that the United States succeeded in creating a bulwark against Soviet expansion in Latin America. Yet, ironically, it also helped to establish (and promote) a government that relied heavily on mass repression, torture, and genocide to achieve law and order; actions that ran counter to the supposed ideals and principles of the United States during its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Thus, as Grandin argues, intervention unknowingly succeeded in the “destruction of one of the last, and arguably the most influential, democracies established in…1944-46” (Grandin, 5).

Personal Thoughts

Grandin’s work is both informative and compelling with its overall arguments. Moreover, his work is both well-researched and scholarly with its approach and relies heavily on a wide array of primary sources that include: interviews, oral testimonies, newspapers, government documents (from both the CIA and Guatemala), as well as letters, correspondences, diaries, and memoirs. A major highlight of Grandin’s work is his ability to synthesize such a large span of Guatemalan history into a relatively brief and easy-to-read format. In addition, his incorporation of oral testimonies is particularly interesting as they help to provide a “bottom-up” perspective on this period of Guatemalan history; thus, giving his readers a unique and profound perspective of the events that occurred during the postwar years. One downside to this work, however, lies in Grandin’s lack of background information in regard to Guatemalan politics, social issues, and its pre-World War Two history. This, in turn, makes this book a challenging read for individuals with no prior knowledge of Guatemalan history. Moreover, additional information pertaining to America’s role in the destabilization of Guatemala would have been beneficial, particularly since the title of Grandin’s work (The Last Colonial Massacre) implies that a significant portion of his book revolves around the issue of American intervention in the region.

All in all, I give Grandin's work 5/5 stars and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the Cold War or modern Latin American history. Grandin's work sheds light on a forgotten era of history that should not be ignored. Definitely check out this book if you get the opportunity.

Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion:

1.) What would have happened to Guatemala in the years and decades following World War Two if the United States had avoided intervention in the region? More specifically, would Guatemala have continued its pursuit of democratic and liberal ideals that it originally developed in the postwar years?

2.) Did intervention in Guatemala benefit the United States in a profound manner? If so, then how?

3.) Do you agree with Grandin's main argument(s)? Did you find his thesis to be persuasive? Why or why not?

4.) Was there any material in this work that Grandin did not address? How could the author have improved this book?

5.) Does Grandin's book contribute to modern scholarship in a profound manner?

6.) What type of primary source materials does the author rely upon? Does this help or hinder his overall arguments? Why or why not?

7.) Would you recommend this book to a friend or family member?

8.) Did the author organize the contents of this work in a logical manner?

Works Cited:

Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

© 2018 Larry Slawson