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Wycliffe and the CIA

The Summer Institute of Linguistic Connection SIL and the CIA

NELSON ROCKEFELLER and Evangelism in the Age of Oil by Gerard Colby with Charlotte Dennett
Harper Collins, 1995. 960 pages

reviewed by Carmelo Ruiz

Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican journalist and research associate at the institute for Social Ecology, email ise@ at Goddard College, Vermont.

Connect: email: carrneloruiz@hotmailcom

In 1976, reporters Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett traveled to Brazil as part of a journalistic team to write stories about the work of Christian missionaries in the Amazon basin.

High on Colby and Dennett's list of priorities was to learn about a mysterious missionary organization called the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). This outfit, also known as the Wycliffe Bible Translators, had gotten kudos from both conservatives and liberals for translating the Bible into hundreds of indigenous languages in Central and South America and helping native peoples cope with the intrusion of Western civilization into their lives.

However, Colby and Dennett had heard of a darker side to SIL.

Numerous critics had alleged that SIL was the vanguard of the destruction of both the rainforests and their native inhabitants.

They had heard from Latin American acquaintances that SIL was, in military fashion, a scouting party that surveyed the Amazonian hinterlands for potential sources of opposition to natural resource exploitation (read cattle ranching, clearcutting and strip mining) among native peoples and that it employed a virulent brand of Christian fundamentalism that relied on linguistics to undermine the social cohesion of aboriginal communities and accelerate their assimilation into Western culture.In addition to all this, numerous articles in the Latin American press accused SIL of being funded by the American intelligence community.

That last charge sounded particularly believable, since the authors' trip took place in the wake of recent revelations by the Church Committee of the US Senate, which investigated the activities of US intelligence agencies. It bears mentioning that Colby was by then no stranger to corporate and political intrigue. In 1974, writing as Gerard Colby Zilg, he published Dupont: Behind the Nylon Curtain, a 600+ page tome that narrated the Dupont family's corrupt history, from its profiteering on gunpowder sales to its manufacture of ozone-depleting gases. However, don't expect to see it in bookstores. When a Dupont PR representative said the book was scurrilous and actionable, publisher Prentice Hall was intimidated into letting Dupont go out of print. (In 1984, an expanded and updated 900 page-long edition of the book was published, which included, among other things, the Dupont's little-known connection to the Nicaraguan contras. Unfortunately, it met the same fate as the previous edition.)

Dennett was also a veteran journalist, having recently been stationed in Beirut, where she covered the civil war then raging in Lebanon. The authors found SIL a veritable empire whose missionary activities spanned every country in the Amazon basin, with a network of bases that look more like picket-fenced American suburbia than the frontier outposts for the global economy that they actually are. SIL even has its own air force and communications system, the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS), which permits it to act virtually independently from the governments of the countries where it operates. After years of research, Colby and Dennett found a number of irrefutable links between SIL and US counterinsurgency operations. Among these, SIL agressively denied that the native peoples of Brazil and Guatemala were being slaughtered by the military regimes of their countries; it allowed its base in the Ecuadoran Amazon to be used by Green Berets who were combing the Western Amazon for signs of armed insurgency; and it assisted the Peruvian air force, which had napalmed the Mayoruna and Campa Indians.

If Colby and Dennett had limited themselves to just exposing SIL, Thy Will be Done would still have been a formidable journalistic achievement. But the authors went on to research the American institutions, private and governmental, that provided support for SIL's mission. These included Standard Oil of New Jersey; the Pew family, creators of the Sun Oil Company (Sunoco) and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the US Agency for International Development, and the US military through its donations of surplus military equipment. Although they could find no smoking gun directly linking the CIA to SIL, they did find several circumstantial and indirect links, such as financial support from a foundation that was later exposed as a CIA front and the fact that JAARS's top pilot, Lawrence Montgomery, was on the >Agency's payroll.

In the course of their investigation, the authors learned that SIL had a big debt to institutions and individuals associated with the Rockefeller family. SIL founder William Cameron (Cam) Townsend was inspired by the antihookworm and antimalaria campaigns of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, and his linguistics methods owed much to the work of linguist Edward Sapir of the University of Chicago, an institution that was also supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Another influence on Townsend was Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gameo, whose interdisciplinary studies on native peoples were sponsored by the University of Chicago, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund and the Social Science Research Council. The last two were run by Beardsley Ruml, a member of the inner circle of the Rockefeller family. One thinker who had a great influence on Townsend's approach to native cultures was John Mott, one of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s most trusted envoys. Mott was a millenarian who hoped to evangelize the world in his generation, but rather than embracing fundamentalism, he rejected it in favor of a broad-minded science-based approach. In a report he co-authored in 1932 called Rethinking Missions, Mott called for more cultural tolerance and social concern on the part of missionaries working abroad and less reliance on vociferous evangelical proselytizing. Such an approach, he argued, would win more converts in the long run and neutralize the nationalistic and communist revolts then brewing in what years later would come to be called the Third World.

The authors follow Nelson Rockefeller's consuming interest in Latin America: his days in Venezuela working for Standard Oil subsidiary Creole Petroleum, where he developed his concepts of corporate social responsibility; his tenure as coordinator of the CIAA; his brief stint as Assistant Secretary of State, in which he was a key behind-the-scenes player in the international negotiations that led to the founding of the United Nations and the Organization of American States; his formation of IBEC, his service to the Eisenhower administration as special assistant for cold war strategy, a position in which he was briefed on top secret CIA operations, including coup d'etats and the infamous MKULTRA mind control experiments, his membership in president Nixon's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board at a time when the CIA was destabilizing Salvador Allende's democratic socialist government in Chile, and much more.

Of special interest to Colby and Dennett were a series of by-invitation-only seminars hosted by Nelson under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) in Quantico naval base during the Eisenhower administration. The Quantico seminars, known officially as the RBF Special Studies Project, advocated increased military spending and a more confrontational policy towards the Soviet Union. The participants included men who would later become instrumental in developing the Kennedy administration's counterinsurgency doctrine, such as Eugene Rostow, Edward Lansdale, Paul Nitze, Adolf Berle, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger and Dean Rusk (who was then president of the Rockefeller Foundation and would become Kennedy's Secretary of State).

The book only skims through Nelson's deeds as governor of New York, although it does mention his ignominious performance during the Attica prison uprising. Colby and Dennett focus instead on his presidential ambitions, which came to a climax with his botched attempt to beat Barry Goldwater to the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, and his international activities, such as his disastrous 1969 tour of the Americas. Nelson's crowning political achievement was getting appointed to the vice presidency of the United States in 1974. Unelected Vice President Rockefeller was then called on by unelected President Ford to chair a commission to investigate CIA abuses. As the authors point out, no one could have been less qualified for that last job.

Those who may feel tempted to dismiss Thy Will be Done's conclusions as conspiracy theory will have a hell of a time trying to refute the book's arguments and conclusions. The 830 pages of text, 92 pages of footnotes and bibliography and dozens of charts, graphs, photographs and maps eloquently document and support every single charge made by the authors. It is precisely in order to placate the skeptics that Colby and Dennett adopted this mindbogglingly exhaustive approach. In spite of this, the book is amazingly readable and does not come across as stuffy and academic.

Those who read books on American foreign policy in search of titillating revelations of sensational CIA covert operations while neglecting to study the social, political and historical context in which they are embedded will find this book a difficult, even annoying, read. Conspiracy buffs may have an encyclopedic knowledge of CIA intrigues and scandals, but they're not interested at all in doing the hard intellectual work of learning about the nature of the system of corporate profit and exploitation which intelligence agencies were created to serve. They will undoubtedly be frustrated by the book's scholarly dose of anthropology, linguistics and history, and will probably skim through the pages in search of startling revelations of covert intrigue and secret wars. The authors' implicit message to the self-proclaimed conspiracy researchers is clear: that all the muckraking investigative journalism in the world will not bring about social change if it is not accompanied by a critical analysis of the economic, political and historical context of the times we're living.

Upon a superficial examination, one would tend to think that the book will appeal to the Bible-thumping, right-wing populists of the John Birch fringe who despise the Rockefellers. This band of the American political spectrum, which has been known to publicize bizarre allegations of a Rockefeller--orchestrated plot to create a socialist world government, will be baffled and perplexed by one of Thy Will be Done's chief conclusions: that they've been had. According to Colby and Dennett, far from being a threat to the Machiavellian power of the Rockefellers, the Christian fundamentalists were extremely useful in furthering the global designs of the heirs of the Standard Oil fortune.

On the other hand, left-leaning liberals will find the book's conclusions even harder to swallow, since the Rockefeller philanthropies (which include the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund) are among the main funding sources of liberal political activism in the US, including civil liberties, feminism and the environmental movement. Beneficiaries of Rockefeller charitable giving in recent years have included groups like Essential Information, the ACLU, the Ms. Foundation, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, Environmental Action, the Student Environmental Action Coalition, the Center for Responsive Politics, the NAACP who are much more likely to say, "Wait, you're being a little unbalanced. Sure, they've done terrible things in the past, but they're funding some really terrific stuff nowadays." As much as one may try to rationalize the embarassing predicament of taking money from the ultra-rich to finance social change, the question remains: What are the prospects for an American progressive agenda when it is heavily dependent on funding from a philanthropic system that owes its fortune to commercial activities that destroy ecosystems worldwide, erode biological diversity and create a holocaust for indigenous peoples? Colby and Dennett do not pose that question to readers, but it will certainly hover ominously over the mind of any American reader whose political beliefs are at least five degrees to the left of National Public Radio or The New Republic.

Thy Will be Done is a very challenging and deeply disturbing book. Although much lip service has been paid to the concept of holistic thinking, Colby and Dennett do actually put together the pieces of the macabre puzzle of the destruction of the Amazon rain-forest and the genocide of its indigenous dwellers and reach conclusions that are unsettling for conservatives and liberals alike. All or most environmentalists agree that the destruction of the Amazon rainforest can't be seen as separate from a host of social, political and economic factors in South America as well as in industrialized countries like the US, but it takes nothing less than a book like Thy Will be Done to show what this actually means.

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