Carleton Beals was among America’s most distinctive foreign correspondents. His colourful, combatively critical reporting of U.S. intervention in Latin America had a fearless energy and authority that won him millions of readers. He interviewed the Nicaraguan rebel leader Sandino in the camp from which he fought thousands of U.S marines in 1928, covered two revolutions in Cuba (1933 and 1959), and interpreted the Mexican Revolution for American readers. Beals’s dispatches and features appeared regularly in the Nation, New Republic, Current History and the Progressive, and often in the New York Times. Time magazine called him “the best informed and the most awkward living writer on Latin America.”
Forty books, including chronicles, political analysis and novels, drawn mostly from his travels and wide-ranging contacts in what he called “America South” made that characterization apt. But Beals was also an eyewitness reporter on Mussolini’s rise in Italy. He wrote on U.S. topics too, such as Louisiana’s Huey Long, and the environmental damage and rural migration in the 1930s caused by emerging agri-business in America’s South and West. Many of his books were best-sellers, their evidence-based assessments earning at least grudging respect even among those who took issue with his indictments of U.S. economic and government elites.
At once biography and analytical history, The Rebel Scribe tells the story of a fiercely independent non-conformist. It probes Beals’s interactions with political leaders, democrats, demagogues, populists and revolutionaries, and reveals how his ability to immerse himself in their societies gave his accounts a palpable authenticity and, time has shown, a prescience that is almost prophetic. Christopher Neal’s layered narrative traces how Beals identified patterns of political behavior and concepts that later became fully-fledged schools of thought, such as the idea of a Third World, dependency theory, U.S. neo-imperialism, and aspects of critical theory. His story sheds light on the evolution of U.S. foreign policy and intervention, from Mexico and Nicaragua in the 1920s, to Cuba and Vietnam in the 1960s. It reveals the fraught trail that faced—and still faces—contrarian journalists who challenge conventional assumptions, while also showing how probing journalism drives change.