For God (And the CIA)

The Conquest of the Amazon:
Nelson Rockefeller & Evangelism in the Age of Oil
by Gerard Colby with Charlotte Dennett
Harper Collins, New York, 1995, $35

by Bill Weinberg

A century ago, the first John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil completed the conquest of the American west. After the Cavalry had pacified the Plains and Rockies, the missionaries had brought the light of civilization--and a new Indian that understood the values of private property, buying and selling. It was thanks to the groundwork laid by the missionaries that the Rockefeller empire had a domesticated leadership to deal with as railroads penetrated Indian territory and vast mineral resources were discovered.

Ironically, Christian fundamentalists saw the Rockefellers, who were sinking money into universities and "modernizing" Protestant institutions, as a sinister force of liberal, urban ways. Even today, the family is thought by many on the radical right to be at the center of the Eastern Liberal conspiracy.

But in THY WILL BE DONE, The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller & Evangelism in the Age of Oil, spanning a century in 960 pages, co-authors Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett present the case for the existence of a de facto cooperative arrangement between the Rockefeller empire and the most effective, ambitious and zealous fundamentalist missionary group. The common challenge was the post-World War II pacification of the new frontiers of the developing world--especially the Amazon rainforest.

THY WILL BE DONE charts the interaction of two men: Nelson Rockefeller, John D.'s politically ambitious grandson, and William Cameron (Cam) Townsend, founder and mastermind of America's biggest fundamentalist missionary group, Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Wycliffe, with its affiliated Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Jungle Aviation & Radio Service (JAARS), maintains globe-spanning operations and develops the foremost scholars of indigenous languages. In the Amazon and elsewhere, Wycliffe missionaries are sometimes the first to contact remote indigenous peoples--even before the local national government. With cutting-edge linguistic and anthropological work fueled by a millennial vision of having translated the Bible into every tribal tongue on earth by the year 2000, Wycliffe is uniquely skilled in cracking native languages. Ostensibly funded by small donations from supporters, Wycliffe in fact receives grants from private foundations, government agencies, corporations and universities.

The overlapping worlds of government, industry and religion follow each other across the globe as the needs of counterinsurgency, development and saving souls demand: Wycliffe entered the Philippines in the 1950s as the CIA combatted the peasant Huk rebellion, then moved to South Vietnam in the '60s, where the Rockefellers planned a massive development effort around a series of Mekong River hydrodams. But the greatest prize was the vast resources in the continental interior of the traditional US influence sphere, Latin America.

Cam Townsend began as a missionary among the Maya Indians of the Guatemalan highlands in the 1920s, while Rockefeller was directing private disease-eradication efforts in the region. In the 1930s, Townsend launched his own operation and won the heart of Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas, then seeking to break the grip of the Catholic Church over Mexico's Indians. SIL and Wycliffe gained a first Latin beachhead in the revolutionary nationalist Mexico of Cardenas, ironically. But the Mexico operations were only a training ground for Townsend's real destiny--to bring light to the "green hell" of the Amazon, where whole peoples had yet to be "contacted."

Nelson Rockefeller also charted his course to global power through Latin America. In World War II, President Roosevelt appointed him chief of his own office, the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA). After a turf war with Bill Donovan's Office of Strategic Services, Nelson's CIAA won exclusive rights to anti-Axis propaganda and espionage--as well as mapping and securing of vital resources for the war effort--in Latin America. CIAA disease-eradication and education projects were directed to those regions where oil, minerals, rubber and other resources needed to be exploited. But a compliant labor source also needed to be secured. Perhaps underestimating the actual degree of Axis intrigue in Latin America, the authors portray a CIAA that merely used anti-fascism as a cover for suppression of indigenous and labor struggles. Clearly there were such instances--as when striking Indian miners in Bolivia were brutally put down in 1942, at a cost of hundreds of lives.

Nelson also saw his operations in these years as a mere prelude to post-war ambitions. Beyond the mines and oilfields of Mexico and the Andes lay the untapped riches of South America's remote interior--the Amazon.

From these beginnings emerged a web of powerful men moving back and forth from the worlds of Rockefeller foundations and the top levels of government power. Rockefeller companies and ranches penetrated the Amazon as Wycliffe began operations there. Through tortuous routes of universities and foundations, Rockefeller money found its way into Wycliffe operations. So did money from US aid and intelligence agencies.

Rockefeller Brothers Fund analysts would find themselves in the Cabinet and CIA (successor to the wartime OSS) of even such postwar presidents as Kennedy, an open Rockefeller rival. One such analyst and close Nelson crony, Adolf Berle, was ambassador to Brazil during what Colby and Dennett call America's "first Cold War coup"--in October of 1945 against President Getulio Vargas, who sought to nationalize the country's oil. Vargas resurrected the dream upon returning to power in 1950. Four years later, after founding the state oil company Petrobras, he shot himself in the head, leaving behind a suicide note accusing "international economic and financial groups" of undermining his nationalist regime.

Vargas' labor boss, protege and eventual successor Joao Goulart picked up the torch. In the early 1960s, as the US corporate presence in the Amazon burgeoned, Goulart eyed nationalization of Brazil's mineral resources. CIAA veteran-turned-high-level CIA spook JC King was the agency's pointman for the coup against Goulart--launched in 1964, after Nelson's friend Lyndon Johnson had assumed the throne from the dead Kennedy. This second coup ushered in two decades of brutal military dictatorship in Brazil--and made the industrial opening of the Amazon national policy.

As the mines and ranches ate into the jungle, the suddenly-threatened biodiversity itself became an exploited and coveted resource. JC King, a former Johnson & Johnson VP, scoured the rainforest on behalf of his Amazon Natural Drug Company, collecting samples of poisons and hallucinogenic flora and fauna used by Indian hunters and shamans which might have a profitable application in the medical, pharmaceutical or agricultural industries. Secretly, he remained in the pay of the CIA, who received his specimens for their MK-ULTRA mind-control experiments. Contemporary ethnobotany actually owes much to King's efforts and CIA largesse.

Colby and Dennett document the co-optation of academia in the interests of pacification of native peoples resisting industrial encroachment. King was on the scene when the government of Peru, under CIA direction, launched a counter-insurgency drive against the Indian peasants of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) in the 1960s, just as the Rockefellers' Standard Oil was moving into the country. Dr. James Perkins, president of New York's Cornell University, was also a director of the Rockefellers' Chase Manhattan Bank and Nelson's International Basic Economy Corporation (IBEC). Under his leadership, Cornell received CIA funds for anthropological and linguistic field programs among Peru's Indians. We can be certain these programs were closely monitored by the agency to streamline the counter-insurgency effort. Cam Townsend's domain was also part of the academia-intelligence network. One Cornell graduate in those years, Donald Burns, would go on to become Wycliffe's top Quechua translator.

The Rockefeller family's own youthful academic indulgences followed the industrial empire's nose. Nelson's son Michael was dispatched to Dutch New Guinea in 1960, ostensibly to collect "primitive art" from the indigenous peoples of the remote rainforest region; simultaneously Standard Oil of New Jersey (later Exxon) won joint mineral exploration rights there with Royal Dutch Shell. Michael was killed by headhunters: by offering a high price for painted human skulls he was encouraging internal warfare, and this was realized by tribal leaders who apparently ordered that his own skull be stripped and painted. But neither Michael's death nor the subsequent annexation of Dutch New Guinea by Indonesia slowed the corporate exploitation of the region. The native peoples there, having lost most of their land, are still fighting the international oil and mineral interests today--including Chevron, western wing of the Rockefeller Chase Manhattan investment empire.

Nelson Rockefeller's IBEC investment network in ranching, oil and minerals fueled the destruction of the Amazon in the 1960s. Colby and Dennett document the massacres, forced relocations and atrocities committed against native peoples in the Amazon by goons in the pay of ranchers and industrial interests in this period. The Brazilian dictatorship's Indian agency was itself coopted into an instrument of counter-insurgency, even firing on Indians.

The backlash finally emerged in the late 1960s and '70s, as urban guerilla movements were spreading from Guatemala to Buenos Aires. Nelson, on a 1969 tour of Latin America on behalf of President Richard Nixon, was met with violent protests in almost every city. Wycliffe, meanwhile, faced accusations of complicity in genocide and CIA intrigues, and was even kicked out of Mexico. Wycliffe's doctrine of hard work, individual salvation and obedience to authority itself came to be seen as a tool of pacification. With its own airfleet and radio network, Wycliffe had virtual autonomy over the remote Indian villages it colonized. Latin Catholic leaders of the emergent Liberation Theology current as well as progressive anthropologists protested Wycliffe's degree of social control in Indian communities--and the organization's silence in the face of atrocities against its flock. At a 1971 hemispheric World Council of Churches conference in Barbados, anthropologists warned that the age of genocide may be just beginning.

Cam Townsend and Nelson Rockefeller are both gone, but Wycliffe carries on its global work, while Nelson's younger brother David of Chase Manhattan is a global advocate of free trade. The embattled Amazon rainforest is but a fourth its former size, and the destruction continues. Democracy has been restored to Brazil, but free trade dogma reigns throughout the hemisphere (save a particular Caribbean island). Everywhere, resources are being privatized. The revolutionary movements of Central America have been beaten back. Satellites scan the jungle floors for mineral deposits.

The final paragraphs of THY WILL BE DONE note the emergence of the Zapatista rebel movement in the Mexican state of Chiapas, where the Wycliffe whiz-kids had cut their teeth in the 1930s. The Lacandon rainforest of Chiapas is where Townsend established a "jungle camp" to train his missionaries for the adventure that lay ahead in the Amazon. This wild frontier--now ravaged by peasant relocation programs, cattle ranches and military and oil operations--is today the stronghold of the Maya Indian guerillas.

Among the most challenging obstacles the Zapatistas faced in forging their movement was the fundamentalist obedience ethic which had taken hold among many Indian families--the legacy of Wycliffe and their cohorts. The divisions between Catholics and evangelical converts has recently been a source of internecine violence among the Maya of Chiapas--which the Zapatistas have condemned.

NAFTA, and the envisioned subsequent carving of the entire hemisphere into interlocking free trade zones, is the final legacy of the Rockefeller project. But the official free trade utopianism that reigned in Washington and Mexico's Federal District was dealt a blow on New Years morning of 1994 as NAFTA took effect. The Zapatistas simultaneously launched their revolt, unequivocally demonstrating that, despite the dismantling of nationalist state structures, despite the fall of Communism, despite the lure of Coca-Cola and MTV, and despite the most desperate of odds--resistance would continue.

As the last barriers between resources and corporate power go down from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, the indigenous peoples who have always stood to lose the most from the relentless march of development continue to find ways to fight back. From the Amazon to Indonesia, indigenous peoples have been reduced from self-sufficiency in their forest homeland to ostracized and despised shanty-town dwellers in the space of a few years. Whole languages and peoples have disappeared. Those which have survived battle hunger, prostitution and disease. Like the Chiapas Maya, Indians in the Amazon are now saying that enough is enough, and organizing against the industrial rape of their lands. The question remains of whether they will find effective allies among those of us who dwell within the industrial system. In one short paragraph in a book overwhelmingly laden with facts, Colby and Dennett conclude by asking whether future generations will accept the destruction of indigenous peoples as God's will--reminding us of our responsibility not to be complicit with genocide through our silence.
Appeared in The Nation, March 4, 1996