In the 19th century it was the British empire, today it's Soviet communism--but the tendency to see indigenous politics as the result of foreign interference has been a mainstay of American attitudes toward Central America. So says Cornell historian LaFeber (The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective), surveying the history of US involvement in Costa Pica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. In view of current realities, some of his observations are more interesting than others--like the fact that the Salvadoran elite had the most independent control of their economy in the region, while poorest, least-developed Honduras never had control of its meager wealth. US policy toward Central America began in earnest in the late 19th century, and was marked by repeated use of gunboats and marines to safeguard US firms. The structure of the relationship first changed when soon-to-be Secretary of State Henry Stimson hit on the idea of training local military forces to act as independent sources of authority. The US military presence shrunk, but a new pattern was set when Somoza, who had taken over the Nicaraguan National Guard, promptly ordered the murder of the guerrilla leader Sandino (namesake of the Sandinistas who eventually overthrew the regime of Somoza fils). Guerrilla movements proliferated, spurred by economic inequalities, and these were not helped in the post-WW II period when the US ignored Central America as an economic problem. In 1954 American forces were back to aid in the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala--because his economic reformism smacked of communist subversion. The doggedness of US support for the region's oligarchs had by then produced a system so corrupt that when JFK and LBJ launched the Alliance for Progress, it just made the rich richer and the poor poorer. LaFeber doesn't credit any administration with justifiable policies, including Jimmy Carter's, since he used his human rights concerns selectively to buttress traditional US interests. The outlook is gloomy because the revolutions will not go away as long as US policy remains as it is, and as long as the guerrillas are there, US policy will not change. Undeniably the best source for bringing Central America-and-the-US up to date.