Stephen Kinzer Traces a Century of Destabilization

by Tom Cornell, The Catholic Worker

OVERTHROW: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq
by Stephen Kinzer
Times Books, Henry Holt & Co., New York 2006

From the Introduction: “Why does a strong nation strike against a weaker one? Usually because it seeks to impose its ideology, increase its power or gain control of valuable resources. Shifting combinations of these three factors motivated the United States as it extended its global reach over the past century and more. This book examines the most direct form of American intervention, the overthrow of foreign governments… [I]t focuses only on the most extreme set of cases: those in which the United States arranged to depose foreign leaders. No nation in modern history has done this so often, in so many places and so far from its own shores.”

Then, chapter by chapter with some review to illustrate a point or fill out an argument, Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow takes us through a series of fourteen case histories.

Th estudy starts with the overthrow of the of the Hawaiian monarchy and the incorporation of the Hawaiian Islands into US territory for commercial interests. “The influence that economic power exercises over American foreign policy has grown tremendously since the days when ambitious [American] planters in Hawaii realized that by bringing their islands into the United States, they would be able to send their sugar to market without paying import duties.” This first chapter, “A Hell of a Time up at the Palace,” reads like a good thriller. The writing is vivid and fast-paced and sets a tone for the rest of the book. The Hawaii take-over was a brazen “seat of the pants” operation, which nevertheless formed a template for future subversions of increased complexity and sophistication.

From Hawaii, Stephen Kinzer takes us to the US seizure of the remnants of the Spanish Empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands, then to Central America—Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama. We all know of the Monroe Doctrine from grammar school days, but few have heard of the 1904 (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary which asserted the right of the US to intervene in any country in the Western hemisphere where its interests are threatened or where, in the eyes of the US power elite, the natives don’t yet know how to order their affairs. Can we now speak of a “Bush Corollary” to extend to the whole world?

Kinzer stresses economic interests but he does not neglect cultural aspects, racism, or “the White man’s burden.” He cites excerpts of speeches on the floor of the House and Senate in support of Theodore Roosevelt’s military campaigns by Rep. Charles Cochrane of Mississippi, who invoked “the onward march of the indomitable race that founded the Republic,” and the prediction of “the conquest of the world by the Aryan races.” Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana described expansion as part of the natural process, “the disappearance of debased civilizations and decaying races before the higher civilization of the nobler and more virile types of man.” These brought ovations from the chambers.

Americans must believe that whenever we intervene in the affairs of other nations, we do so for the highest motives, for their own good. In fact, the conquered seldom benefit and the victors lose as well, by the inexorable law of unexpected consequences, as Kinzer clearly demonstrates. Many have drawn parallels between President McKinley’s war in the Philippines and the war in Vietnam, or between Vietnam and Iraq, but this is the first study to trace the arc of military intervention for regime change from the beginning of the 20th century to the present, with all its sorry consequences.

The cast of characters over this century is fascinating, and none more so than John Foster Dulles. If you think Dick Cheney has connections, consider John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state. Both his grandparents and his uncle had served as secretaries of state-for Benjamin Harrison and Woodrow Wilson. His son is the revered theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles. His father was a Presbyterian missionary, and (Kinzer does not note this) the family trace their ancestry to Charlemange. John Foster “spent decades working for some of the world’s most powerful corporations… It was Dulles who ordered the 1953 coup in Iran to make the Middle East safe for American oil companies. A year later he ordered another coup, in Guatemala, where a nationalist government challenged the power of United Fruit, a company his old law firm had represented.” As the century progressed, captains of industry and commerce not only influenced national policy, they made it.

The study in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran under Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 is particularly thorough and detailed while still reading like a thriller. Kinzer had already published All the Shah’s Men on the subject in 2003. At the beginning of the Eisenhower administration, the Cold War was at a high point and England this country’s closest ally. Britain’s “ability to project military power, fuel its industries and give its citizens a high standard of living depended largely on the oil it extracted from Iran. Sinec 1901, a single corporation, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, principally owned by the British government, had held a monopoly on the extraction, refining and sale of Iranian oil. Anglo-Iranian’s grossly unequal contract…required it to pay Iran just sixteen percent of the money it earned from selling the country’s oil. It probably paid even less than that, but the truth will never be known, since no outsider was permitted to audit its books. Anglo-Iranian made more profit in 1950 alone than it had paid Iran in royalties over the previous half century.”

Mohammad Mossadegh, twice designated prime minister by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, determined to nationalize Anglo-Iranian (now British Petroleum). President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles saw in this a tilt towards socialism and the Soviet Union. They sent Theodore Roosevelt’s son Kermit and the CIA to overthrow the government in Iran to protect British oil interests. Needless to say, they did not foresee the chain of events that would lead from the Shah’s imposition of an authoritarian regime-the backlash and eventual triumph of the Shi’ite Islamic revolution.

Bringing the arc to the present state of turmoil in the Middle East and West Asia, Kinzer writes, “Fateful misjudgements by five presidents had laid the foundation, the groundwork not only for the September 11 attacks but for the emergence of the worldwide terror network from which they sprang. Jimmy Carter launched the covert CIA project in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan spent billions of dollars to arm and train anti-Western zealots who were fighting the Soviets there. George HW Bush further inflamed Muslim radicals by establishing permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia… Bill Clinton failed to grasp the scope of the threat…and during his presidency, guerillas who had been trained and armed by the United States a decade earlier completed their transformation into terrorists.”

Many Americans still find it hard to grasp that their leaders might not be motivated by the highest ideals. Kinzer points out many times in many ways, the founding myth, that this country is uniquely blessed by God and that it has been divinely appointed to bring peace, freedom, prosperity and enlightenment to the lesser races. He cites President McKinley’s stated intent to bring Christianity to those poor benighted people of the Philippines-unaware that over 90 percent of its population outside the southern island of Mindanao is Roman Catholic. American power is exerted “for their own good,” even if that entails murder and theft on a monumental scale. In the 21st century, the crime is worse than that. It is a crime against peace itself.

This book is a very valuable teaching tool and may help to bring the US back into the community of nations subject to international law. That is the only hope for lasting peace.

This story originally appeared in the January-February edition of the Catholic Worker, 36 East First St. New York, NY 10003


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Feb. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution