Banana Wars.

            “Yankee ingenuity… is inventive improvisation, adaptation and overcoming of shortages of materials.”[1]  Basically, opportunity-seeking and -seizing.  Lorenzo Baker (1840-1908) typified Yankee ingenuity.  Raised on pre-resort, hard-scrabble Cape Cod, by age 30 he was master of a small schooner trading between New England and the Caribbean.  In 1870, he brought back a load of bananas to see if anyone would buy.  They would, in quantity and at a 1000 percent profit.  Henry Meiggs (1811-1877), another Yankee, and his nephew Minor Keith (1848-1929) came at the banana trade from another direction.  They were building railroads in Central America, receiving vast tracts of land from the government and employing lots of laborers.  They turned their land grants into banana plantations, mostly for export.  In 1899, Dow’s company joined with Keith’s company to form the United Fruit Company.[2]  How did this lead to wars? 

            Bananas contain a lot of potassium.  “Potassium fends off a sense of existential dread.”    Hence the American interest in Central America and the Caribbean.[3]  Alternatively, for decades, American business had a lot of drag with the United States government.  In the Caribbean and Central America, the Marines supported the United Fruit Company and other businesses when troubled by local unrest.[4]  “Which will you have?” 


            1898: The Spanish-American War left Cuba under American control and Puerto Rico and the Philippines as American possessions.  The US occupied Cuba from 1898 to 1902, from 1906 to 1909, in 1912, and from 1917 to 1922. 

            1899-1902: Philippine-American War, a bloody “counter-insurgency.” 

1903: Panama “seceded” from Columbia,[5] then signed a treaty with the United States.  The treaty allowed the US to build a Panama Canal and gave the US sovereignty over the route. 

1903: US troops landed in Honduras to protect American lives and property.  They came back in 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, and 1924-1925. 

1912: US troops landed in Nicaragua to protect American lives and property. 

1914: US troops landed in the Mexican port of Vera Cruz. 

1915-1934: US troops occupied Haiti, waging small wars against anti-American forces. 

1916-1917: US troops entered northern Mexico in a fruitless[6] hunt for Pancho Villa. 

1916-1924: “disorder” in Santo Domingo led the US to occupy the country for eight years, fighting anti-American forces out in the bush for much of the time. 

1927-1932: US troops intervened in a civil war in Nicaragua in 1927, then hung around until 1932.  From 1930, President Herbert Hoover wound-down interventions. 

            “US troops” mostly meant the Marines.  Operations involved much improvisation and adaptation.  Rich experience led to the USMC’s “Small Wars Manual” (1940).  Presciently, Jim Mattis urged his officers to read it before invading Iraq. 

[1] Yankee ingenuity – Wikipedia 

[2] See: United Fruit Company – Wikipedia  Now Chiquita.  The life of Henry Meiggs offers a fascinating view of the “Well, it warn’t illegal when I done it” phase of American business history. 

[3] I borrow the syllogism from Robert Stone, A Flag for Sunrise (1981). 

[4] Lester D. Langley, The Banana Wars: An Inner History of American Empire, 1900–1934 (1983). 

[5] Wanna buy a bridge? 

[6] HA!  Eeez pun, yes? 

The gun that made the Nineties roar.

The story of the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle can stand in for the history of the Soviet Union more generally. First, there is the story of its designer. Timofey Kalashnikov was a “kulak” (one of the well-off peasants who had profited from the pre-revolutionary regime’s “wager on the sober and the strong”). In 1919 Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov was born. His parents nurtured him through the Russian Civil War. In 1921 the Bolshevik Revolution ran up against the resistance to “common ownership of the means of production” by the peasant-proprietors like Timofey Kalashnikov. The Bolsheviks settled for control of the “commanding heights” of the economy, while allowing peasants and shopkeepers to retain possession of their property. They didn’t like doing this, but they recognized reality. Then Stalin came to power. In 1928 he launched the transition to real Communism. He ordered the “collectivization” of agriculture, by seizing the lands of the kulaks, and by plowing resources into building industry. The Kalashnikov family had their farm seized, then were deported to Siberia. Old Pa Kalashnikov soon died. An older brother mouthed off and got slammed into the Gulag. So Mikhail Kalashnikov grew up in fear and hardship. In 1938 Kalashnikov got drafted and learned to drive a tank; in June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union; in October 1941 Kalashnikov was badly wounded. While in hospital he became interested in weapons design and managed to get transferred to a design unit for the rest of the war. No Stalingrad for him. At the end of the war the Allies captured a bunch of German designers. The US got the great rocket scientist Werner von Braun; the Russkies got the great arms designer Hugo Schmeisser. Taken to Russia, Schmeisser “helped” design the AK-47, which—oddly—bears a marked resemblance to his own earlier design for the Wehrmacht’s “Sturmgewehr” assault rifle. So, what did Mikhail Kalashnikov add?

That question brings us to our second theme, the Soviet system of industrial production. There was a Soviet-era joke that ran: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Even the best-rewarded Soviet workers weren’t always delighted with their situations. A lot of people did sloppy, crude work, chipping at the vodka bottle during the work day. As a result, the AK-47 is garbage by Western engineering standards. It isn’t very accurate: it has an effective range of only 200-300 yards. It is crudely made, rather than engineered so that the pieces fit tightly together. Perversely, herein lies one of its virtues. You can get it dirty; you can forget to oil it; and you can blaze away at something without cleaning out the carbon build-up: it still fires. Then, it is stubby, especially with the butt-stock folded forward, and light, only about ten pounds. Herein lies a second virtue. Short and light made it the weapon-of-choice for both child-soldiers and terrorists. Short, light, and reliable made untrained, even moronic, soldiers a deadly enemy. In sum, it is a weapon perfectly adapted for war in the Third World.

Third, there is the story of the Communism versus Capitalism. Colt only manufactured as many M-16s as the market demanded. The Soviets manufactured stuff to keep their workers employed, without any regard for what the market wanted. As a result, there are 10 million M-16s, but there may be 100 million AK-47s. The Soviets gave the surplus arms away to “movements of national liberation” all around the globe during the Cold War. Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are awash in these things.

As for Kalashnikov, he had all the rewards and special privileges reserved for a “Hero of the Soviet Union” heaped upon him: he was rich enough to buy a vacuum cleaner, a refrigerator, and even a car. All were built on the same lines as the AK-47. No wonder the place folded up.

See: C.J. Chivers, The Gun (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).