The Voice of Latin America: William Benton. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 21s. 204 pp.

The only people left in the world who sincerely and enthusiastically admire the United States and are obviously trying to imitate them, are the Russians. I forget who told me this, but reading Mr. Benton’s book on Latin America the uncomfortable idea that there is more than a grain of truth in this wild assertion came repeatedly to my mind. Twin souls, a cynic could say. And Mr. Benton’s book, which is a great deal more patronising than it should be, does nothing to dispel this notion.

The main thesis of the book is that the Russians are coming. This is the Alpha and Omega of everything he says. Poverty is bad because it breeds Communists. Illiteracy is bad because ignorant peasants might become Communists. Lack of housing, hunger and unemployment are bad because frustration and hopelessness are the best encouragement to Communism. Therefore, he suggests, the United States should put an end to poverty, reform institutions, spread education, build or help to build houses, hospitals and schools, not—one imagines—because these things are good, but because they stop Communism. According to T. S. Eliot, the worst temptation of all is “to do the right deed for the wrong reason” and this can very well be applied to Mr. Benton’s brand of sincere and candid concern for other people’s welfare.

The Russians—it’appears—are up to more or less the same things. Mr. Benton himself tells us that “this obsession with the United States as the supreme enemy is the most ominous aspect” of Soviet policy. Yet a few chapters further on he explains gloomily that “the Communists are the United States’ principal problem and enemy in Latin America—as they are throughout the world.” So Communists and Americans don’t like each other and they are both very keen on using Latin America as a springboard for this and that and the only people who do not really have much to do with all this are the Latin Americans themselves. Mr. Benton’s book is supposed to tell us about what Latin Americans are saying—the title is explicit enough—but it does not. It tells us what Mr. Benton is saying and what his friends told him and how convinced he is that reforms are needed and that the United States should help to change institutions, distribute land and make everybody prosperous and happy.

But then, all this is very new. A few years ago the best defence against Communism was resistance to reform. If a Latin American intellectual had written a book like Mr. William Benton’s (Born 1st April, 1900, founded an advertising agency in New York, became Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, was elected Democratic Senator and, in 1960, accompanied Mr. Adlai Stevenson on a tour of Latin America) he would have been vociferously accused of being a Communist of a fellow-traveller. The best friends of the United States were the staunchest defenders of the established order and Perez Jimenez, Rojas Pinilla, Trujillo, Odria, Somoza, Batista and Vargas and every petty dictator or general with napoleonic ambitions who pronounced the ritualistic anti-Communist slogans was immediately accepted into the United States’ rewarding company. Now all this is but an embarrassing memory and Mr. Benton can write books in which he joyfully announces as rather startling discoveries things which have been said, shouted and written during 20 years by the democratic left-wing in Latin America. The great trouble now is that, even granting that the United States’ intentions are crystalline and sincere, popular support for these initiatives is going to be very hard to find.