Book Review: OVERTHROW

November 7, 2011

Alan Shapiro reviews Stephen Kinzer's compelling account of "America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq."

Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq
By Stephen Kinzer
Henry Holt and Company
384 pages

"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made... "
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

One of President George W. Bush's favorite rooms in the White House," Stephen Kinzer writes in Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, is the Treaty Room. In it hangs an imposing painting, The Signing of the Protocol of Peace Between the United States and Spain on August 12,1898, by the French artist Theobald Chartran. This is where on March 19, 2003, President Bush rehearsed his speech announcing that the United States was about to begin an invasion of Iraq.

"He and McKinley, sitting symbolically together," Kinzer writes, "represented the continuity of American policy during the long 'regime change' century. Bush's decision to invade Iraq was no break with history but a faithful reflection of the same forces and beliefs that had motivated McKinley and most of the presidents who would later sit in his shadow beneath Chartran's historic painting."

In little more than a century the U.S. played "a decisive role" in the overthrow of 14 foreign governments, by Kinzer's count: Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq. Kinzer says his book brings all these together "to find what they have in common... and tries to answer two fundamental questions. First, why did the United States carry out the operations? Second, what have been their long-term consequences?"

U.S. involvement in these "regime changes" has often been explained to the American public with words like freedom, national security, humanitarianism and anti-communism. Kinzer argues that these words masked the economic reasons for the U.S.'s actions.

Sometimes the U.S. intervened for both economic and ideological reasons—such as in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). Kinzer writes that the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, John Foster Dulles, "had two lifelong obsessions, fighting communism and protecting the rights of multinational corporations." He convinced President Eisenhower that there was a serious potential for a communist takeover of Iran and its immense oil reserves if the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, were removed from power. Forestalling that potential event required a CIA operation to remove him, Dulles argued.

That Mossadegh "rigorously excluded Communists from his government" made no difference to Dulles. What made a difference was Mossadegh's leadership in ending British control of Iran's oil by nationalizing the industry (with compensation to Britain) to make Iranian development possible. The successful CIA operation resulted in the jailing of Mossadegh. The U.S. supported the installation of the shah as Iran's ruler. Under the shah's rule, U.S. companies got a 40% share in Iran's oil riches.

The long-term consequences of the U.S.'s interference in Iran reverberate to this day. Iranians resented the shah's 26 years of autocratic rule and his brutal secret police. In 1979, they mounted a revolution that resulted in Islamic clerical rule under the Ayatollah Khomeini. Since then, Iran's leaders have been hostile to the U.S. The regime is currently pursuing a controversial nuclear program and is considered by Bush to be part of an "axis of evil."

The emergence of an Islamic Iran also led to growing Soviet concern over the potential for Muslim dissidence in its southern republics and contributed to the Soviets' decision to invade bordering Afghanistan in 1979. The U.S. responded by supporting (with money, weapons and intelligence) the successful Muslim resistance to the Soviets. Eventually, the Taliban government came to power, laying the groundwork for the rise of Al Qaeda and, later, 9/11.

Then there is the case of Guatemala in 1954. After the democratic election of Jacobo Arbenz, a social reformer, as president of Guatemala, Secretary Dulles determined to overthrow him as well. Arbenz had tried to combat Guatemalan poverty through a land reform program that threatened United Fruit's immense holdings in the country. But Dulles was less concerned about land reform than about his "deep conviction" (untainted by any evidence) that Arbenz was a tool of Soviet interests. Dulles' brother Allen, the CIA chief, used CIA pilots in bombing and strafing missions and hired Guatemalan army officers and fighters for land operations.

When President Arbenz was forced into exile, the U.S. installed a former army officer, Carlos Castillo Armas, who extinguished Guatemalan democracy. After a guerrilla movement against the government developed, the Guatemalan army, supplied with hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid, kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands for the next 30 years. The U.S. invasion had another long-term consequence, Kinzer says: It convinced Cuba's Fidel Castro and Che Guevara "that the United States would not accept democratic nationalism in Latin America." Revolution ensued.

Again and again, the pattern continues: American leaders perceive a threat to U.S. interests—economic, ideological, national security or some combination thereof. They present the issue to the American public with verbiage about the "threat" mixed with lofty appeals about freedom, liberation, humanitarianism and peace. Then, they intervene, usually successfully, through covert action and/or a military invasion. Sooner or later, the U.S. disappears from the scene, leaving behind "far more pain than liberation," in Kinzer's words.

President McKinley informed Methodist missionaries that the U.S. took control of the Philippines "to educate the Filipinos and uplift them and Christianize them" (blissfully ignorant that most were already Catholics). He didn't mention the U.S.'s plan to build a naval base or to provide U.S. business interests with a stepping stone to East Asia trade.

Similarly, President Bush has informed Americans that the U.S. invaded Iraq to bring it the blessings of democracy, "to spread liberty around the world" and "to make the world more peaceful and more free." According to the president, the invasion had nothing to do with instructing the world about U.S. power, nothing to do with creating a power base for the U.S. in the Middle East. And as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reiterated, it had "literally nothing to do with oil."

In the Philippines from 1899-1902, the U.S. military fought an insurgency far from the lives and minds of most Americans. It resulted in the deaths of 4,374 U.S. soldiers, about 36,000 Filipinos, more than half of them civilians, and American atrocities. Afterwards, writes Kinzer, "Washington's fear of radicalism led it to support a succession of oligarchies that was more interested in stealing money than in developing the country." Its grant of independence in 1946 eventually led to the Ferdinand Marcos regime (1965-1986), which "stole billions of dollars."

So far the Iraq War has resulted in the deaths of some 2,500 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis, many of them civilians. There have been American atrocities at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Sixteen months after the Iraq invasion in a venture into self-criticism, President Bush declared, "Had we to do it over again, we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success."

Will Americans awaken from their dream of America as a nation of benevolence that sponsors only virtuous interventions to promote freedom and democracy? Or from the belief that everyone wants to embrace American culture?

U.S. newspapers and TV news programs now run "Why They Hate Us" features. Teachers of American History, American Studies, and Problems in American Democracy who really want to understand why they hate us—and help their students understand it—would do better to read Kinzer. Kinzer's book may also help us overcome the political, social, and cultural ignorance that led Americans to support leaders who robbed Cuba of its freedom, created decades of misery in Nicaragua and Honduras, led the U.S. into the Vietnam quagmire, and fomented the "catastrophic success" that is Iraq.


This book review was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org