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From the Halls of Montezuma ...

Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq By Stephen Kinzer Times Books. 384 pages. $27.50.

When I started becoming politically aware, one of the first things that caused me to sit up and take notice was the CIA's role in bringing about "regime change" around the world. During the Iranian hostage crisis, Time magazine once carried a single-line mention of the 1953 CIA-directed removal of Mohammed Mossadegh that surprised the hell out of me. In the early 1980s, when Missing came to New Delhi, a newspaper dealt with the U.S. role in the ouster of Salvador Allende in Chile, a further shock to me. And then there were the repeated assertions of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi about the intrigues of a "foreign hand" against her--not-so-subtle references to the CIA. Those of us who disliked her dismissed her mutterings. Only later did I learn that her accusations--exaggerated as they may have been--were based in part on the Pinochet takeover and the 1975 overthrow and killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh next door in a U.S.-approved coup.

Now Stephen Kinzer examines fourteen instances where the United States has been the major force behind the removal of governments around the world.

Kinzer is well qualified to write this book. A former New York Times bureau chief, he co-wrote Bitter Fruit and wrote All the Shah's Men, invaluable accounts of the CIA-orchestrated coups against the Arbenz and Mossadegh administrations in Guatemala and Iran, respectively. Apparently, Kinzer thought it best to enlarge his scope and publish a "comprehensive" guide to U.S. ouster of governments since the turn of the last century.

"The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not an isolated episode," writes Kinzer. "It was the culmination of a 110-year period during which Americans overthrew fourteen governments that displeased them for various ideological, political, and economic reasons."

One problem with this important book, though, is the number fourteen--and the way Kinzer arrived at it. His basis for inclusion is so narrow that he omits several obvious candidates. William Blum, for instance, in Killing Hope, cites dozens of cases just since World War II where the United States played a prominent destabilizing role.

"This book treats only cases in which Americans played the decisive role in deposing a regime," Kinzer states. "Chile, for example, makes the list because, although many factors led to the 1973 coup there, the American role was decisive. Indonesia, Brazil, and the Congo do not, because American agents played only subsidiary roles in the overthrow of their governments during the 1960s. Nor do Mexico, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic, countries the United States invaded but whose leaders it did not depose."

Even granting Kinzer his narrow definition, three overlooked instances come readily to mind.

In the 1850s, adventurer William Walker, with the support of tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, seized power in Nicaragua. He ruled for two years (and was granted recognition by the Franklin Pierce Administration), before being booted out and finally executed. His exploits have inspired two movies, with Marion Brando portraying him in Queimada! (Burn!) and Ed Harris in Walker. By omitting this example, Kinzer maintains the fiction that U.S. meddling abroad began in the 1890s.

In the early 1960s, the CIA, acting through the AFL-CIO, worked to foment race riots and unrest in British Guiana (on the verge of attaining freedom) to oust democratically elected Marxist Cheddi Jagan. The result, as detailed in the recently published U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story, by Stephen Rabe, was to condemn independent Guyana to the kleptocratic racist dictatorship of Forbes Burnham, which lasted two decades.

Then there is the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. Here, the effect of the intervention was to install the military-backed Joaquin Balaguer and to block the restoration of the previously overthrown elected administration of Juan Bosch. It was technically not the ouster of a government, but certainly does warrant inclusion in Overthrow.

Kinzer has a very snappy writing style, but how much readers get out of this book depends on their knowledge of the particular cases he dwells on. Personally, I am so overdosed on the Iran, Guatemala, and Chile episodes (as well as the Iraq invasion) that I learned little new in these instances. Conversely, my knowledge of earlier regime changes--such as in Hawaii and Nicaragua--was sketchier, and the details proved more useful. But even with events that have been covered extensively, Kinzer provides really juicy quotes and anecdotes.

"Not a nut or bolt will be allowed to reach Chile under Allende," Ambassador Edward Korry threatened Allende's defense minister. "We shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chilean people to utmost deprivation and poverty."

Kinzer makes several valuable arguments, all the more so since they come from someone who worked at the citadel of The New York Times.

First, he says, crass pecuniary purposes underlie U.S. meddling abroad.

"Each time, it cloaked its intervention in the rhetoric of national security and liberation," Kinzer states. "In most cases, however, it acted mainly for economic reasons--specifically, to establish, promote, and defend the right of Americans to do business around the world without interference." To this end, Kinzer includes the detailed scheming of multinationals-United Fruit in Guatemala, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Iran, and ITT in Chile--to oust governments inimical to their interests.

Second, Kinzer reveals the racism of American lawmakers, journalists, and troops against the people whose lands they have conquered, from Cuba and the Philippines onward. American policy-makers "believed Latin Americans and Asians to be as they were portrayed in editorial cartoons: ragged children, usually nonwhite, who had no more idea of what was good for them than a block of stone," Kinzer writes. This isn't something confined to history, unfortunately. A common term of disparagement among American troops for the Iraqis is "hajjis," turning a term of description for someone who has performed the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca into a pejorative. The racism directed at invaded nations and their populations has frequently been a prelude to U.S. troops committing atrocities, with the Philippines providing the prime example for Kinzer. But Abu Ghraib and Haditha show that we don't have to reach back a century for such cases.

Third, the United States has quickly lost interest in the countries it has targeted (unless it has made them a part of the United States, such as with Hawaii and Puerto Rico).

"In three and a half torturous years of war [in the Philippines], 4,374 American soldiers were killed, more than ten times the toll in Cuba," Kinzer writes. "About sixteen thousand guerrillas and at least twenty thousand civilians were also killed. Filipinos remember those years as some of the bloodiest in their history. Americans quickly forgot that the war ever happened."

Fourth, U.S. interventions have almost invariably made things worse in the recipient countries. With the arguable exception of Grenada, most every nation that has been invaded by the United States has had an awful history to follow. Guatemala not only suffered the derailment of its democratic experiment, but it was also saddled with a near-genocidal regime that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of its citizens, mostly Mayan Indians, in the next few decades. Iran had to suffer the Shah; Cuba got Batista; the Philippines, Marcos.

Fifth, U.S. interventions, Kinzer asserts, also ended up harming U.S. interests by often ensuring that anti-American sentiments propelled leaders to power who were hostile to the United States. Two major examples are Ayatollah Khomeini and Fidel Castro ("Cuba is not Guatemala!" was one of Castro's favorite taunts), who rose in direct reaction to U.S.-imposed regimes and ended up being prime challengers to the United States in their regions.

The U.S. embassy seizure in Iran can also be partly attributed to the Mossadegh overthrow, Kinzer argues. Iranian militants feared that CIA agents in the embassy were planning something similar again. "Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible," a militant involved in the takeover recalled afterward. "We now had to reverse the irreversible." Kinzer then recapitulates his argument from All the Shah's Men that the September 11 attacks can be traced back to the Mossadegh ouster. This, in my view, is a bit of an overreach.

The most obvious example of blowback is U.S. support for the mujahedin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Kinzer quotes a secular Afghan exclaiming to the Americans who were funding the Afghan resistance: "For God's sake, you're financing your own assassins!"

Lastly, for me, the most important thread that runs through he book, alas too infrequently, is how compliant the American media has been in U.S. interference abroad. Kinzer says that the American people are basically altruistic (a contention I am willing to accept) and that high-sounding false reasons have had to be made up by U.S. Administrations to fool the citizenry. But why have the media been so obsequious? Unfortunately, Kinzer does not do a systematic analysis. He sporadically cites instances of how slanted the media coverage was, for instance, in Guatemala and Iran. (As an interesting aside, Kinzer mentions that The New York Times reporter in Guatemala, Sydney Gruson, was removed at the behest of John Foster Dulles for the crime of being insufficiently anti-Arbenz.) But Kinzer doesn't develop this point enough. If the media were doing their job properly as watchdogs, it would be much harder for successive Administrations to dupe the American public time and time again. Repeatedly, Americans are sold a bill of goods regarding a particular intervention, followed by collective amnesia once the intervention is over. And, sadly, this acquiescence is not a thing of the past.

The role of Kinzer's former colleague Judith Miller of The New York Times in funneling propaganda for the Iraq War onto the front pages of that paper is but one example. Another is the way both The New York Times and The Washington Post editorially applauded Colin Powell's February 2003 U.N. speech that falsely detailed Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction. And a third is the approval the Times and the Chicago Tribune gave to the U.S.-supported 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez's government in Venezuela.

In many senses, the Bush Administration is not that different from past U.S. Administrations. But there is continuity, and there is change. Instead of a direct lineage with the previous Administration (here, Bush gets his wish of being the un-Clinton), the Bush Administration is a throwback rather to those of William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt a century ago, when the United States could engage in brazen "gunboat diplomacy" to bully countries. The end of the Cold War has allowed U.S. power to reassert itself, as Kinzer points out. So it is fitting that, as Kinzer notes, President Bush rehearsed his Iraq invasion speech in the Treaty Room beneath a portrait of McKinley.

Amitabh Pal is the managing editor of The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer
Author:Pal, Amitabh
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Previous Article:If You Knew.
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