Book: Thy Will Be Done – Rockefeller and the Conquest of the Amazon

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 511 [SIL, OCR scanning error] 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 19 74, 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. …

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