Missionary capitalist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 18 12:38:22 MST 2002

Darlene Rivas. Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela.
The Luther Hartwell Hodges Series on Business, Society, and the State.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xiv + 290 pp.
Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN
0-8078-2684-7; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8078-5350-X.

Reviewed by Mark F. Proudman, Department of Modern History, Oxford.
Published by H-Diplo (November, 2002)

Financial Philanthropy, or the Perils of Doing Good

Darlene Rivas has written a narrative account of Nelson Rockefeller's
involvement with Venezuela from 1935, when he first became involved with
Creole Petroleum (which operated there) until the mid-1950's, when
Rockefeller began his elective political career. During this period
Rockefeller visited Venezuela on numerous occasions, formed enduring
relationships with important Venezuelan figures, and became a tireless
advocate of Latin American concerns in Washington.

Rivas's narrative stays close to Rockefeller; it is primarily the story
of his aspirations, experiences and frustrations over a twenty-year
period. As such, it follows Rockefeller back and forth between his
business enterprises, his private philanthropic initiatives in
Venezuela, and his intermittent career as an adviser and appointed
official within the Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower administrations.
While focus can be an asset in a historian, this focus is so close that
the historian often falls into first name familiarity with "Nelson," her

The book is based upon a number of primary sources, including the
relevant U.S. government records, interviews with various participants,
and most particularly the Rockefeller Archives at Tarrytown, New York. I
have no idea if Missionary Capitalist began as a Ph.D. thesis, but it
might have, given its length, its precise focus and its relentless

The theme of this personal narrative is dual: on the one hand, it shows
the difficult position of a self-consciously enlightened and
philanthropic businessman, who was determined to conduct himself in an
exemplary manner while still making a good return on his capital. On the
other, it illustrates the contradictions of U.S. policy towards a region
of secondary importance during the crises of World War Two and the early
Cold War, contradictions that led to a yawning gap between rhetoric and
action. The story ends in the mid-1950s, when Rockefeller entered active

One of the merits of Missionary Capitalist is to show that Rockefeller's
eponymous "Rockefeller Republicanism"--a type of centrist,
difference-splitting, programmatically anti-ideological, managerial
republicanism that eventually left Rockefeller isolated within his
party--was not a position opportunistically taken. The sense of noblesse
oblige was strong in Rockefeller and his awareness that he was the
grandson of the robber baron chief of that first and greatest of trusts,
Standard Oil, was almost painful. At the same time, and as Rivas shows
with some element of contradiction, Rockefeller wished to project
himself as the embodiment of American success.

Rockefeller's sense of duty was an attitude that could be literally
patronizing towards others and that ultimately did as little to win
Rockefeller goodwill in Latin America as it did in middle America. The
book's cover features a picture of a young Rockefeller, hoe in hand and
a grin on his face, alongside a Venezuelan peasant farmer; one wonders
what the Venezuelan peasant thought about this fresh-faced fellow in a
white shirt. Two decades later, in the late 1960s, Rockefeller's Latin
American enterprises were being firebombed, and his "fact-finding"
ambassadorial tour of Latin America on behalf of Richard Nixon became an
embarrassing failure. Venezuela, the country in which Rockefeller had
invested so much time and hope, cancelled his visit.

full: http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=188311040238747


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