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Reviews of Battleship Vieques: Puerto Rico from World War II to the Korean War

“Ayala (UCLA) is one of the rising stars in Puerto Rican studies, and Battleship Vieques is an excellent and important addition to his growing body of work (much of it, like this book, co-authored with others in evidently quite productive collaborations). Using documentary and interview sources, the authors masterfully weave together the political, economic, military, and personal historical dimensions that have entwined the US and Puerto Rico in the small island of Vieques through the naval base established there at the beginning of WWII, only recently closed down after protracted protests in all three locales. The impressive detail may be a bit overwhelming for readers not comfortable with economic history and/or island history, but the writing is clearer and much more enjoyable than much work in the genre, and the story and narrative are compelling. The book nicely complements recent studies of the protests (e.g., Katherine T. McCaffrey’s Military Power and Popular Protest, CH, Jan’03, 40-2968a, and Mario Murillo’s Islands of Resistance, 2001). An important addition in military/naval history and US military policy as well as Caribbean and Puerto Rican studies. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.” — F. W. Gleach, Cornell University, CHOICE

“For most of the twentieth century, American military strategy perceived that bases in the Caribbean were necessary to defend the entire hemisphere, and nowhere is that idea better illustrated than in a book by César J. Ayala and José L. Bolívar, Battleship Vieques: Puerto Rico from World War II to the Korean War. According to these authors, during the early decades of the century, the United States maintained bases in Puerto Rico which they had taken from the Spanish at the end of the Spanish-American War. However, it was not until the beginning of the Second World War when German activity raised fear in the hemisphere that the United States made efforts to acquire additional bases in Puerto Rico and on several other islands in the Caribbean. The one that inspired this book was planned for Vieques, an island that is politically part of Puerto Rico, but whose social, cultural, and economic background was very different.

“What Ayala and Bolívar describe, using a vast array of Spanish- and English-language statistics and documents, is the chronic flaw of colonial powers. Not only did American military strategists violate several social and cultural taboos in Vieques, but they also enraged the islanders by introducing policies that denied them equal treatment based on their race and ethnicity. In addition, the authors maintain that whereas the American on-again/off-again occupation of most of the island was in response to a perception of threat to the hemisphere, US policy crippled the economy of Vieques. The establishment of the base transformed the local society and economy, reducing the island to a dependency of the United States Navy, and its population to an angry, hostile community.

“Ayala and Bolívar are historians of the Puerto Rican experience, and the strength of this book lies in their willingness to place their investigations in historical context and to craft their narrative using their familiarity with evidence in English and Spanish. The authors emphasize the uniqueness of the history of Vieques and show how different it was from the history of Puerto Rico. Vieques, for most of its colonial period, had been an unoccupied, frontier community on the edge of Spanish settlement in the Caribbean—an island that was closer geographically to the British-, French-, and Danish-owned islands than it was to Puerto Rico. It was not until the nineteenth-century plantation boom that the island was settled as a slave-based society. By the twentieth century, it developed into a classic plantation economy dominated by American and Puerto Rican landowners, and characterized by landless workers—black descendants of slaves or black migrants from the eastern Caribbean islands, which exported sugar and imported food. Like typical laborers in plantation societies, the people of Vieques had traditional rights to occupy land on the island. They were given house plots on the plantations where they worked and each family was also given a subsistence plot to plant food crops or to raise animals. These traditional rights of the workers were not recognized when the US Navy began expropriating land to build the base in 1941. By 1943, the navy had taken over about two-thirds of the island. Initially, islanders were mollified for a time because base construction provided an economic boost to local workers.

“These good feelings, however, did not last. Islanders lost their jobs, their houses, their subsistence plots, and their animals. The locals experienced ‘the overwhelming political power of the navy as a total and arbitrary outside force over which they had absolutely no influence’ (p. 53). In compelling chapters in which they use testimony from newspapers, navy reports, and oral sources, Ayala and Bolívar explain that while former sugar industry laborers found jobs in base construction, the introduction of racial elements altered the relationship between US Navy personnel and the people of Puerto Rico. On Vieques, workers realized that the US Navy drew distinctions between different types of American citizens based on race and ethnicity. Continentals, Puerto Ricans, and Virgin Islanders, all American citizens, were treated very differently in terms of their housing options and pay scales. As a result of overt discrimination on the base, there were a number of strikes and other violent incidents, which created ‘a residue of hostility’ among the islanders (p. 110). Another source of hostility was created by the initial reluctance of the military branches to recruit Puerto Ricans. According to Ayala and Bolívar, even when the military began accepting Puerto Ricans, they separated recruits into white and black ratios, and ‘used about four whites to one black,’ and the rejection rate was higher in Puerto Rico than anywhere else (p. 117). By late 1942 as the United States Army attempted to acquire recruits to replace continental soldiers on other Caribbean bases, some Americans referred to the program as ‘a glorified WPA (Works Project Administration)’ or ‘WPA in Uniform’ (pp. 111, 121).

“A compelling part of the story of Vieques, according to Ayala and Bolívar, is how the shifting demands of the war affected the people on the island. By 1943, construction on the Caribbean bases was reduced as war planners shifted their interests to the Pacific. The economy of Vieques plummeted and workers soon found themselves without jobs and without land on which to either rebuild their homes or to plant food crops. The US Navy used the island for target practice for short periods and, between 1943 and 1946, actually closed the naval base and returned the land to the government of Puerto Rico, which attempted to establish an agricultural enterprise. But in 1947, the rumblings of the Cold War dictated that Vieques would again become a naval base. The navy occupied the island, the agricultural enterprises were stopped, and once again the islanders were conflicted. In this new/old Vieques, there were few opportunities for work, and those that existed demanded a continuing subservience to US Navy personnel. The island’s economy had become dependent on the money introduced by the soldiers and marines who came to the island. But this money was accompanied by ‘drunkenness, the emergence of prostitution, and periodic outbursts of violence,’ which violated the sensibilities of the islanders (p. 147). Resentment continued to build and eventually erupted in massive protests both on the island and elsewhere. By 2003, new military technology made bases obsolete and the US Navy gave up the base in Vieques.

“What Ayala and Bolívar have done is to demonstrate that the US Navy takeover of the island of Vieques disconnected the island from political and other changes that were taking place in Puerto Rico. They use the language of colonialism to describe the advent of a nationalist movement in Puerto Rico, which coincided with the naval occupation of Vieques. The nationalist movement sought political, economic, and social improvements on the island, and by the Cold War era, on the one hand, Puerto Ricans had begun to notice some progress. In Vieques, on the other hand, there was a “historical regression,” and old colonial structures seemed to be reinforced (p. 7). At a time when so many were throwing off the trappings of colonialism, on Vieques, these trappings seemed to bind the people more firmly. It was only a matter of time before the islanders challenged the colonial structure of the US Navy. Battleship Vieques: Puerto Rico from World War II to the Korean War is an instructive, useful book that deepens our understanding of the social and cultural ramifications and consequences of interaction between military and civilian populations.” — Annette Palmer, Morgan State University, on H-War (January 2016)

Battleship Vieques: Puerto Rico from World War II to the Korean War is a critical close study of the repercussions of the U.S. Navy’s decision to essentially take over the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. When German U-boats sank more ships in the Caribbean than anywhere else, the American government resolved to turn the island of Vieques into an ‘unsinkable battleship’; the navy appropriated two-thirds of the island’s land, ignoring the cultural traditions of the local Puerto Rican population, forcibly relocating residents, introducing racial discrimination, and destroying the local economy. Battleship Vieques scrutinizes the ruthless occupation during and after World War II in fine detail, exploring the roots of the demonstrations that would eventually force the U.S. Navy out in 2003. A brief survey of long-term consequences of the Vieques occupation rounds out this sober and eye-opening account, highly recommended especially for world and naval history shelves.” — The Midwest Book Review

“This book exposes the plight of a defenseless population, the inability of the government of Puerto Rico to act, and the impunity with which an island was destroyed over six decades. Included are an epilogue, a bibliography, tables and charts, and an index. … This [is a] well documented and well written book.” — El Nuevo Día

Battleship Vieques: Puerto Rico from World War II to the Korean War is a detailed history of the U.S. Navy’s establishment of its Caribbean training ‘crown jewel’ on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques within the context of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. It offers a regional context and documents the profound impact of military occupation upon the social, economic, and cultural life of the people of Vieques. That occupation, while devastating in multiple ways, also provided the seeds of resistance that culminated in a massive non-violent civil disobedience movement that captured global attention and forced the Navy to leave in 2003.

“Following the introduction, the book is divided into seven chapters. Chapters One and Two set the regional and local contexts for the militarization of Vieques during World War II. Chapter One provides a regional overview of the German navy’s activities in the Caribbean during World War II, including a blockade and attacks on oil refineries. Among other problems, the war severely disrupted shipments of foods, fuel, and other materials between Puerto Rico and the U.S. The authors discuss the importance of war-related shortages as part of the ruling Popular Democratic Party’s (PPD) strategies to consolidate power through land reform (especially the breakup of large farms with absentee owners), and targeted, state-sponsored industrialization. Faced with the dire scenario of possible starvation of an ‘essentially rural population’ where overspecialization in sugar cane production forced it ‘to rely on food imports’ (p. 19), wartime militarization through construction and expansion of U.S. military bases provided some economic relief. This chapter also discusses base construction during the 1930s in San Juan, where the Navy’s propensity for excluding local contractors and dislodging residents foreshadowed its much larger construction projects during World War II in Puerto Rico, including Vieques. The authors note that while many historians ‘have emphasized the role of the insular government’ in the transformation of Puerto Rico’s economy during the 1940s from plantation agriculture to rapid industrialization, federal government expenditures during the same period—particularly related to the military—’had a profound transformative effect’ (p. 25).

“Chapter Two offers a brief summary of Vieques’ history, from colonial ‘frontier’—with Spain struggling to maintain control despite constant attacks and settlement attempts by its European rivals—to ‘plantation society.’ The latter began with sustained nineteenth-century development of a mainly sugar cane and cattle-based economy, encouraged by land grants to Europeans and dependent on formerly enslaved labor from eastern Puerto Rico and the eastern Caribbean. The authors emphasize that the extreme concentration of land ownership in few hands—unlike most of Puerto Rico (p.45), but typical of the sugar cane regions (Berman Santana 1996)—greatly facilitated expropriation by the U.S. Navy.

“Chapter Three provides considerable detail regarding the evictions and expropriations of land in most of the western and eastern sections of Vieques, as part of the Navy’s plan to convert the island (along with nearly all of Ceiba’s coast across the Vieques Sound and Culebra Island) into a giant military fortress during World War II. In this chapter, the authors are careful to distinguish between the formal expropriations (which affected relatively few because of the extreme land concentration) and the actual evictions. Nearly overnight, the latter drove thousands of small property owners and workers with long-held land use rights out of their homes, dumping them onto barren lands also taken by the military. Besides lacking amenities or sources of sustenance, the newly homeless families lived constantly under threat of possible new evictions, should the Navy decide to expand again. The Navy’s account focuses on what they called ‘fair value’ of the price paid to the major landowners, and those transactions are well documented in this chapter. However, numerous testimonies (recorded in books and studies referenced here) tell of the most devastating tragedy to befall the people of Vieques—the overnight disappearance of entire communities coupled with the realization that no one could or would help them to resist such injustice. In fact, this defining moment of being ‘cast out of paradise’ and isolation from the rest of Puerto Rico continues to mark Viequenses in many aspects of lives. While the initial employment created by base construction did help to replace jobs and income from the loss of so much land, its effects were merely temporary until the Navy halted construction in 1943.

“Chapter Four—appropriately named ‘Interlude’—briefly describes efforts by the Puerto Rican government to address the serious economic crisis in Vieques, which was caused first by expropriations and then by the drying up of Navy construction jobs. In great part, the administrative transfer of unused Navy property to the Department of the Interior (and then to the Puerto Rican government) allowed it to be leased to the Puerto Rico Agricultural Company (PRACO) for a variety of agricultural projects, which ‘restored some jobs and alleviated some of the extreme poverty of 1943-1946’ (p. 86).

“However, such progress was short-lived, for as Chapter Five recounts, the Navy used the Cold War to justify its return to Vieques with a vengeance. This time it retook all of the lands previously ‘transferred,’ expropriated even more land and imposed military occupation upon the island through ever-intensifying war games, weapons experiments, and the virtual destruction of economic activities not directly associated with satisfying the needs of thousands of soldiers in training. The imposition of and resistance to U.S.- style racial segregation in Vieques and Puerto Rico as part of renewed militarization is described in Chapter Six, while Chapter Seven recounts the destruction during the 1950s of what remained of Vieques’ pre-Navy economy—but also, of the social powder keg thus created that would fuel resistance to military occupation. Indeed, the situation in Vieques—effectively a society under direct and callous military occupation—called into question the true nature of ‘so-called “decolonization” brought about by the creation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’ (p. 147).

“Chapter 8 is an epilogue entitled ‘Long-Term Effects.’ While acknowledging that an account of the long-term effects of Navy occupation until the base finally closed in 2003 is beyond the scope of the book, the authors touch on issues such as population loss, economic development, and health. The latter in particular deserves much more attention than is devoted in this final chapter, since the negative ecological and social effects of military toxins will continue to multiply for generations to come. References for further research in this last chapter are sketchy, and would have been enhanced by including more fieldwork-based publications (see, for example, Berman Santana 2006).

“Throughout the book, the authors emphasize the Navy’s interest in Vieques as taking shape during World War II, and continuing throughout the Cold War. As such, there is a tendency to minimize U.S. military designs beforehand. For example, they argue ‘no new major base construction had been undertaken in Puerto Rico since 1898…the only new major naval presence was…in Culebra that was acquired in 1899…but had not been developed or fortified’ (p. 21). Some readers may interpret this as an argument that the social and economic impact of U.S. military presence from the 1898 invasion of Puerto Rico until World War II was fairly minimal. However, such an impression would contradict both the historical record and the well-documented perceptions of the local population. For example, the Navy arrived on Culebra in 1901 and forcibly removed the population from most of the island, in order to develop their base and practice ranges; this event is still referred to by Culebrenses as a collective trauma (Pérez Vega 2005). President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Culebra Naval Reservation in 1903; although military exercises varied in intensity during the next thirty years, there is little doubt that by 1939, bombing practice was a regular feature of life on Culebra. As for Vieques, Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1919 conceived the idea of a huge naval complex in eastern Puerto Rico, including Vieques and Culebra (Global Security 2005). As president, he personally supervised naval exercises in 1938 and 1939, which included temporarily removing Vieques residents from the eastern lands for bombing practice. The death in 1940 of two eastern Vieques residents from an explosive left over from military exercises offers graphic evidence that the island was indeed used by the Navy for military maneuvers before World War II (Giusti 2000). In 1939, Roosevelt appointed Admiral Leahy as Governor of Puerto Rico with orders to design the new complex and prepare Puerto Rican and federal legislation to expropriate the lands. While one might agree with Ayala and Bolivar that FDR was preparing the way for his ‘Caribbean Gibraltar’ with a view toward eventual entry into World War II, it is clear that such plans predated the war by several decades. One might alternatively argue that the militarization of Vieques, Culebra, and much of Puerto Rico’s eastern coastline was a logical extension of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s nineteenth-century plan to make the United States a global naval power (1890). Indeed, by 1926, Puerto Rican newspapers were already reporting on Navy plans to establish a base in Vieques (Meléndez 1982).

“Nonetheless, these are relatively minor issues when considering the value of this study. In Battleship Vieques, Ayala and Bolívar have produced a study rich in detail and nuanced with all the complexities of colonialism, militarism, and social change, and it deserves careful reading and analysis.” — Centro Journal, Volume XXIV, Number II, 2012