Amazon Crude : THY WILL BE DONE: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil, <i> By Gerard Colby with Charlotte Dennett (HarperCollins: $35; 794 pp.)</i>
Recent news revelations that the CIA has maintained a substantial covert intelligence operation in Guatemala since the 1950s, that the CIA financed the assassination in 1992 of a rebel leader married to an American lawyer, and that the agency is currently deeply implicated in the rise to power of Efrain Rios Montt, a ruthless military dictator who is also a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, will come as no surprise to readers of “Thy Will Be Done.”
Just as the current situation in Guatemala is multidimensional, this 900-page book comprises numerous intertwined narratives. One is the political and financial life of Nelson Rockefeller, from his late boyhood in the 1920s to his death in 1979. Throughout his life, Rockefeller’s personal financial interests, like those of his family’s major holding, Standard Oil, were wedded to the economic development of Latin America.
Rockefeller’s love affair with the Amazon began in 1937 when, as a young man, he cruised Venezuela’s Orinoco river on Standard Oil’s 90-foot yacht, acquiring native crafts for his mother’s New York Museum of Modern Art and inspecting his father’s vast oil interests in Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil. Subsequently, Rockefeller became President Franklin Roosevelt’s assistant secretary of state for Latin America and the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. He was President Eisenhower’s personal liaison to the CIA as special assistant for Cold War strategy and psychological warfare. Later, notwithstanding his family’s multimillion dollar financial matrix in the region and personal holdings that included a 1,030,000-acre ranch in Brazil, along with partnerships in vast processing plants, commercial banks, factories and mines, Rockefeller was Latin American adviser to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Another layer within “Thy Will Be Done” is the life of William Cameron Townsend, founder of the fundamentalist Wycliffe Bible Translators and leader of the group’s field organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). Starting with the peasants of Mexico and Central America, Townsend’s lifelong mission was to bring the Bible to all the Bibleless peoples of the world, in their own languages, no matter how isolated, and to reach especially the supposed thousands of indigenous tribes of the Amazon jungle. Early on, Townsend realized that access to these tribes required that he court authoritarian regimes in South America along with those political and multinational corporations in the U.S. that supported the predominantly right-wing juntas in the region. He readily accepted large cash donations from individuals and agencies inside and outside the federal government, for whom Christianity, capitalism and anti-communism were identical battlefields. Other gifts to SIL included surplus U.S. aircraft, illegally transferred to the missionaries by the military to help the SIL penetrate the deepest parts of the jungle.
Townsend’s alliances came with a price. By the time Townsend’s Christian linguists entered their 1,000th tribe in 1984, the SIL was heavily implicated with spying for the CIA, from Vietnam and Laos to Amazonia, and, at the very least, with remaining silent for decades in the face of policies that encouraged genocide among those very tribes Townsend’s missionaries zealously wished to convert. Townsend and the SIL denied all such charges.
Another narrative within “Thy Will Be Done” concerns the Amazon itself: the tragic effects of exploitation of the rain forest’s resources and native peoples by missionaries, politicians and international businessmen. This horrific narrative remains unfinished. It includes the burning of irreplaceable rain forest ecosystems at the rate of an acre a minute--half the area of California every year. Huge hydroelectric dams, such as Tucurui on the Tocantins River and Balbina on the Rio Uatama, have flooded hundreds of square miles of rain forest and left behind decomposing barrels of chemical defoliant. Gold miners have stripped the hills, and iron miners are burning down acres of trees to make charcoal to run their pig-iron smelters.
This part of the book’s narrative describes the even more tragic assimilation of thousands of indigenous peoples removed from their traditionally held lands and, when they resist removal, the murder of entire tribes. In Brazil alone, according to Brazilian anthropologist Darcey Ribeiro, from 1900 to 1957 more than 80 tribes were deculturated and destroyed by economic expansion. In that time, the indigenous population of Brazil fell from 1 million to less than 200,000. A Brazilian government report in 1968, conducted by attorney general Jader Figueiredo and filling 20 volumes, testified to state-sponsored persecution of indigenous Brazilians: the “massacre of whole tribes by dynamite, machine guns and sugar laced with arsenic,” the deliberate introduction of infectious diseases, the prostitution of girls and mass enslavement. Commonly, these atrocities were carried out in the name of Brazil’s “economic miracle.” In 1976, Elie Wiesel joined other human rights advocates and scientists in protesting the world’s silence concerning such genocidal programs. Today, stories continue to surface from Latin America of “ethnocide"--we would call it “ethnic cleansing” if it were in Europe--and these stories are still met predominantly with silence by the international press.
“Perhaps this is the real historical meaning of William Cameron Townsend’s reaching every tribe with the Word and Nelson Rockefeller’s reaching them with ‘development,’ ” authors Colby and Dennett conclude. “Both were destructive to tribal ways of communal sharing and respect for the land. Both stories told of the same result: It was not God being brought to tribal cultures, but an alien culture of possessive individualism grown to such a giant corporate scale, with its own rapacious, competitive needs, that it could only devour them.”
Colby and Dennett acknowledge in their introduction the unwieldy complexity of their book. They note that at first it did not include Rockefeller and the extensive political and economic web that his involvement in Latin America adds to the volume’s narrative. To some extent, the book’s architecture cannot support so many players and intrigues, the dealings that entwine them across 100 years and three continents--from corrupt policies in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in New Mexico in the 1920s to the massacre of Brazil’s Yanomamo Indians in 1993, from assassination plots against JFK to the conflict in Vietnam and the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Chiapas, from Billy Graham and Henry Kissinger to Pope John Paul II and NAFTA. And in between, the plotting of Cuban revolutionaries, oil barons, Chase Manhattan Bank officials and cocaine cartels.
The schemes are so intricate and detailed in “Thy Will Be Done” that there’s no room to explore the motivations of Rockefeller or Townsend, much less those of the book’s other equally zealous players. Colby and Dennett call Townsend, for example, “a paradox of naivete and hard-nosed diplomacy . . . innocent in purpose yet deliberately aimed.” But this is as deeply as we’re allowed to see into the man. Similarly, we learn of Nelson Rockefeller’s dyslexia, his father’s meager dispensation of emotional rewards and the household’s authoritarian discipline. We are told that these early circumstances formed him, but Rockefeller’s character remains unexamined in any depth. Of both men in the beginning, the authors say their roads were “paved with good intentions,” but it’s not easy to understand their intentions at midlife or at the end.
Given the length of “Thy Will Be Done,” it is difficult to ask for more. Already this well-documented, clearly written book alerts us to the immense suffering and damage in the Amazon and elsewhere caused by multinational corporate greed and ultraconservative religious ardor, headquartered in the United States and abetted by covert foreign policies. The systematic violations against human dignity and ecological integrity continue and can only be stopped by being brought to light. To that end, this book does a highly commendable job.