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Book Review

Blaring Contradictions in Cold War Narratives: An Analysis of Hunter S. Thompson’s "The Rum Diary"

  • New York
  • Simon and Schuster
  • 1998

Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary provides a complex account of the political and social attitudes of the mid-twentieth century. Set in 1958 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which had by then by most accounts become a tourist town for American interests, the novel follows the narrative of Paul Kemp, an American journalist. Pursuing the lives and opinions of American journalists abroad in their attempt to publish an English-language newspaper in a Spanish-speaking region, the novel reinforces the traditional Cold War context of the 1950s: a clear dichotomy between capitalism — likened to white persons, democracy, and superiority — and communism — likened to uncivilized and colored peoples and undemocratic principles, as well as the idea that American intrusion into foreign affairs was necessary in order to spread the attributes of the American character abroad.

However, throughout The Rum Diary there exist noticeable tensions between these American-promoted views of anti-communism and issues of foreign cultural imperialism, raising questions regarding America’s place in the world. Thompson extends traditional ways of thinking about Cold War attitudes on politics, race relations, and foreign affairs, complicating the stories about capitalism, communism, racism, and imperialism in American history. He shows — through meaningful interactions among Americans abroad and between Americans and natives — that American Cold War attitudes, though reflecting the traditionally held political beliefs of the era, were not necessarily based so much in the issue of communism as the matter of American imperialism and perceived superiority. While indicating Americans’ self-proclaimed right to intervene in foreign affairs in the name of capitalism, democracy, and civility, backlashes by natives against Americans — “arrogant Yankees” as many Puerto Ricans saw them1) — and a questioning by American characters of their supposed national ideals indicate significant tensions as to how Americans saw themselves in the world at the outset of the Cold War era.

One of Thompson’s more apparent points is to illustrate the attitudes of American journalists within traditional American Cold War constructs — particularly the stark dichotomy between capitalism, or civility, and communism. Ed Lotterman, owner of the English-language newspaper — “The Daily News” — is a self-proclaimed ex-communist, constantly paranoid of being castigated if he does not adamantly oppose communism. After hearing that a group of Puerto Ricans is demonstrating against the newspaper outside its office, he proclaims that one of his men “just had a scrape with those communist bastards outside. They’re savage — they should be locked up.” The fact that he feels pressured to react so fervently against communism for fear of scrutiny by anti-communists indicates the tense political atmosphere indicative of the capitalist-communist dichotomy of the 1950s. Moreover, his immediate likening of the native Puerto Ricans to savages and communists indicates another prevailing attitude among Americans in the mid-twentieth century — the racial inferiority of colored peoples. The lack of civility that Americans promoted as a condition of communism served as a link between colored peoples and communism among American viewpoints.

The illustration of colored peoples in America as unrefined, uncivilized savages was already a prevalent cultural norm. Colored citizens were already subject to a wide range of social and political restrictions, and were required to essentially shed themselves of any native or ethnic culture and to adhere to white cultural rules in order to be accepted socially. Likewise, America had previously established itself as an international police power of sorts, taking on the proclaimed responsibility of civilizing barbaric nations. Theodore Roosevelt’s “A Strenuous Life,” a speech given in 1899, indicates the American political right’s belief in the country’s right and duty to intervene in the affairs of uncivilized nations on the basis of racial and cultural superiority:

“In the West Indies and the Philippines alike we are confronted by most difficult problems. It is cowardly to shrink from solving them in the proper way; for solved they must be, if not by us, then by some stronger and more manful race…Personally, I am far too firm a believer in the greatness of my country and the power of my countrymen to admit for one moment that we shall ever be driven to the ignoble alternative.”2)

American foreign policy initiatives in the early twentieth century painted Americans essentially as the sole cultured and morally just nation, contrasted with the unrefined savages of the colored world — which, as they existed, stood as facilitators to the spread of communism.

In accordance with these prevailing American attitudes, Thompson firmly establishes the outlooks of Americans as racially and culturally superior to the natives of Puerto Rico. While traveling through the island’s rural landscapes, American journalists Kemp and Robert Sala comment on the barbarity of the natives: “Once we passed a pack of naked children stoning a dog beside the road…‘Jesus,’ he muttered, ‘look at those vicious little bastards! We’ll be lucky to get out of here alive.’” Clearly, the overt context of The Rum Diary promotes the traditional Cold War attitudes prevalent among Americans in the 1950s. In accordance with those American foreign policy views, Thompson paints a picture of foreign barbarity in San Juan, serving to justify the pronounced American presence there.

In fact, the very title of the novel — The Rum Diary — seems to imply that Kemp’s narrative is some sort of intoxicated pleasure trip — an opportunity for the American traveler to stake his claim in what was widely viewed to be the backyard of the United States, a place for Americans to establish their presence and cultivate their interests on their own terms. As Kemp put it, “I could see myself in Caracas and Bogotá and Rio, wheeling and dealing through a world I had never seen but knew I could handle because I was a champ.” His words exemplify the attitude that he as an American was not only entitled but well-suited to inject himself and his culture onto foreign societies. His narrative echoes parallels to countless accounts of the beliefs Americans held of their culture, for example that of Henry Luce, a prominent American writer: “[Americans] have failed to play their part as a world power — a failure which has had disastrous consequences…And the cure is this: to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity…to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”3) Thus, Thompson overtly conveys a message historically intact with conventional American attitudes supporting their policy of capitalist imperialism.

Relegating the place of foreign nations to one of weakness and savageness, The Rum Diary appears to indicate that American interventionism and even imperialism is justified, which is essentially in adherence to the prevalent attitudes of the time. In addition to exemplifying America’s place in the world through diplomatic, social, and racial terms, Thompson overtly makes the political implications of the American Cold War narrative clear as well. Zimburger, a staunchly pro-American ex-Marine who often passes time with some of the American journalists, represents the far-right anti-communist attitudes prevalent in the 1950s:

“Zimburger had never got over the fact that he had been a captain in The Corps…He would pace around the porch or living room, snarling and denouncing the ‘cowards and the back-dusters in Washington for not sending the Marines into Cuba. ‘I’ll go!’ he would shout. ‘Goddamn right I’ll go! Somebody has to stomp them bastards and it might as well be me!’”

Thompson’s illustration of the adamantly anti-Communist Zimburger — appropriately as a Marine and supporter of the armed forces — fits the traditional framework for American attitudes at the beginning of the Cold War era. By the 1950s, the position of the American government and the prevalent attitude among American people was epitomized in the NSC-68, a U.S. National Security Council plan created in 1950, which declared that the success of containing the communist threat through foreign intervention on the Soviet periphery hung “ultimately on recognition by this Government, the American people, and all free peoples, that the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.”4) Thompson’s illustration of an overarching American attitude promoting foreign intervention as a necessity directly parallels the NSC-68’s proclamation of similar sorts. The Rum Diary overtly establishes a social and political context which is very much in line with traditional right-wing American viewpoints at the outset of the Cold War era of racial, moral, and political superiority.

Implicitly, however, Thompson indicates significant tensions among American characters’ stances on their place in the world. As the novel unfolds, the gung ho attitude ex-Marine Zimburger is not the only viewpoint on the issue to be heard. In speaking of Puerto Rico, Kemp remarks that the Americans there “saw themselves as heroes and missionaries, bringing the holy message of Free Enterprise to the downtrodden jíbaros. They hated commies like they hated sin.” His deeming of American “missionaries” of capitalism and anti-communism as “they” implies that he — like other Americans viewing their country from the outside in — views himself as separate from the capitalist imperialism indicative of American foreign policy and right wing politics. His character, as well as those of other Americans in The Rum Diary, indicates the tensions that Americans abroad held in their opinion of their country’s place in the world. On one hand, he views himself as a wheeler and dealer of foreign society and sees locals as “thieves” and “savages,” and on the other, he is careful to remain apart from and objective to the matter of American imperialism.

Other events in the novel offer further insight into the tensions that complicate our view of America’s role in the world. After a brief argument in a local bar, the arrogance of Fritz Yeamon, an American journalist for the Daily News, causes him to insult the manager and refuse to pay his bill. Shortly thereafter, a gang of locals along with police mercilessly beat Yeamon and his friends, one of them uttering, “Thief! You think gringos drink free in Puerto Rico?” The ill-treatment of the Americans by locals and police indicate the contempt which they hold for the perceived superiority of American visitors.

Though obviously on a lesser scale, backlashes against American imperialism in Puerto Rico can be likened to events such as the Boxer Rebellion, in which armed rebel movements arose to contest the notion of American superiority and intrusion into China. As Yeamon and the other journalists are brought before a judge following the altercation, he pleads for English translation of the testimony against them, but response by locals is harsh and inflammatory: “The judge smiled contemptuously. ‘You forget where you are,’ he said. ‘What right do you have to come here and cause trouble, and then tell us to speak your language?” Here, Thompson illustrates the tensions in viewpoints of Americans’ place in the world. Far from the traditional American Cold War views of superiority and justified imperialism espoused earlier in the novel, Thompson highlights the negative effects of foreign intrusion on local peoples, and implies the notion that the policy on the part of the United States of cultural imperialism was not entirely welcome.

These alternative interpretations of The Rum Diary’s political and social messages are far more in line with left-wing, anti-imperialist views on America’s role in the world than the right-wing, capitalistic, and imperialistic views indicative of the American foreign policy and of Thompson’s initial portrayal of prevalent attitudes of Americans at the time. Though he establishes a clear atmosphere of anti-communism and pro-imperialism from the American viewpoint, he raises significant questions about foreign policy that parallel the works of left-wing writers such as Mark Twain: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”5)

Thompson’s portrayal of Puerto Rican locals, police, and judicial officials indicates their wholehearted disagreement with the idea of American superiority that the journalists in The Rum Diary represent to them. The subjugation of Puerto Rico by American interests and cultural imperialism are made readily apparent — a notion that raises significant tension with the novel’s initial atmosphere of American and capitalist superiority over their impediments. Interpretations of Thompson’s work as an anti-American, anti-imperialist entity become possible as he highlights the inconsistencies among American foreign policy, American beliefs of moral and racial excellence, and the negative effects of foreign imperialism.

Thompson raises other questions as to the supposedly prevalent attitudes that identify capitalism and moral superiority with America. In pondering his boss’s constant talk of freedom of the press and the blessings of capitalism, he speaks to the supposed notions of American moral superiority: “Freedom, Truth, Honor — you could rattle off a hundred such words and behind every one of them would gather a thousand punks, pompous little farts, waving the banner with one hand and reaching under the table with the other.” Clearly, Thompson paints a portrayal of the American character as critical of the conception that those moral ideas of freedom, truth, and honor — which had come to be regarded as inherently American characteristics — were exemplified in American action abroad. The viewpoints of some of The Rum Diary’s American characters are often denouncing of the notions of racial and moral excellence that Theodore Roosevelt stressed as an integral part of the American character in his speech, “The Strenuous Life.” Clearly, Thompson indicates through this atmosphere of constant tension between the political right — epitomized by anti-communism, imperialism, and racism—and the political left — indicative of anti-imperialism and the espousal of self-determination of foreign peoples — that the social and political viewpoints at hand were subject to various conflicts as well.

Correspondingly, within The Rum Diary there exist tensions that work against Thompson’s overarching portrayal of Americans as necessarily racist. As Kemp ponders over his fellow journalist’s article written about why so many Puerto Ricans leave their home, he reflects on the similarities he shares with people he believes to be — or at least once believed to be so different and so inferior to him:

It occurred to me that the real reason these people were leaving this island was basically the same reason I had left St. Louis and quit college and said to hell with all the things I was supposed to want…Somehow they got the idea that by getting the hell away from where they were they could find something better…In the end it was a story of why a man leaves home in the face of ugly odds.

Kemp realizes that the Puerto Ricans that he reflects upon need and desire the very same things in life that he does — perhaps not necessarily in an aesthetic sense, but in an overall sense of what they want and how they live. Although there is no question that most of the American characters possess traits of racism against colored peoples, Thompson seems to signify an element on their part of identifying with and relating to foreigners that they come into contact with—a notion that exemplifies conflicting opinions regarding the place of Americans as superior to other peoples. Kemp’s narrative in this aspect clearly raises tensions with other ideas espoused in the novel — the likening of foreigners to savages and savages to communists and the overall moral justifications for American foreign imperialism. Thompson raises the notion that the issues of capitalism, communism, attitudes on race and race relations, and of America’s role in the world are far too complex to reduce to the simplistic Cold War narratives of the era.

Clearly, the mid-twentieth century was not necessarily a period of distinct dichotomies in opinion on America’s place in the world — between capitalism and communism, whites and colored peoples, and culture and lack of civility — as is often indicated as the traditional conception of the American Cold War narrative. On one hand, Hunter S. Thompson indicates the prevalence of the American rightist narrative of moral, racial, and political superiority over foreign nations; on the other, he shows the lack of congruity between those supposedly American ideals and the world which American imperialism creates in foreign lands. The Rum Diary’s American characters possess both racist beliefs and the capacity to identify with colored peoples. The novel raises points that appear to justify American intrusion into foreign lands while simultaneously indicating its unfavorable effects. These tensions regarding the place of America in the world signify the very same tensions that existed in this era of social and political disharmony. Thus, Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary serves as an innovative and accurate portrayal of the social and political contexts of the mid-twentieth century, extending the traditional framework for thinking about American history.

1) Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).
2) Theodore Roosevelt, “The Strenuous Life.” Hamilton Club, 10 April 1899.
3) Henry Luce, “The American Century.” 1941.
4) “NSC-68.” The Cold War in Europe and the Near East.
5) Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War, Ed. Jim Zwick (New York: Syracuse University Press).

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