Overthrow: Looking beyond the rhetoric


Stephen Kinzer has previously authored or co-authored definitive studies on the CIA’s overthrow of democratic governments in Iran (1953) and in Guatemala (1954). Now in his latest work, “Overthrow,” Kinzer widens the scope of his investigations to include a study of over a century of U.S.-organized or led coups, covert actions and invasions leading to regime changes in 14 nations. He believes that these actions have “weakened rather than strengthened American security.”

Our tale begins with the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in a rebellion organized by the American ambassador to Hawaii on behalf of American sugar planters in that island nation, and it concludes with the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Kinzer observes that the United States overthrew the governments because they displeased our government for “various ideological, political, and economic reasons,” and these are all clearly cases “in which the United States arranged to depose foreign leaders.” The author charges that no other nation has engaged in such actions “so often, in so many places so far from its shores.”

Three eras of regime change

The author divides the regime changes into three eras: 1) the imperial era, beginning in the 1890s, 2) covert actions during the Cold War and 3) invasions ranging from Grenada in 1983 to Iraq in 2003.

The American imperial era “was propelled largely by the search for resources, markets and commercial opportunities,” and it resulted in the nation’s emergence as a world power. The era began with the theft of the Hawaiian Islands and ended with the spoils won in the Spanish-American War in 1898 — the seizure of the Philippines and Puerto Rico and American domination of Cuba, with little or no regard for the viewpoint of their inhabitants.

In the Philippines, the U.S. openly betrayed its former ally against Spain, the Filipino independence movement, and fought a bloody war (1899-1903) to crush any sentiments for independence. The war resulted in 4,500 dead American soldiers along with the deaths of 36,000 Filipino civilians and guerrillas.

Corporate power and imperialism

Kinzer points out how American expansion was greatly influenced by the rise of corporate power and its merger with political power. Corporations came to expect the government “to act on their behalf, even to the extreme of overthrowing uncooperative foreign leaders.” The author also explains how U.S. presidents normally explained the American role in the regime changes. They would either obscure the real reasons and insist they were protecting national security and liberating “suffering natives,” or they would simply deny U.S. involvement. Our leaders were never candid with Americans who expected their country to act out of pure motives.

Covert actions during the Cold War marked the second era of U.S regime changes. These acts were heavily influenced by anti-communist ideology and included the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran, Guatemala and Chile (1973). Kinzer notes that “each of these coups was launched against a government that was reasonably democratic” and each “led to the installation of a repressive dictatorship.” The author asserts that the United States made the great error of assuming that nationalist challenges were part of “the Soviet threat.”

In addition, Kinzer explains the economic motives of the U.S. leading to the covert overthrows of these governments. First, in Iran a democratic government had nationalized British oil interests in 1951 (U.S. oil companies later received a large share of the holdings). Second, in Guatemala another democratic government had redistributed unused land owned by the American-owned United Fruit Company to thousands of landless peasants. Third, in Chile, two U.S.-owned copper companies as well as the national telephone company had been nationalized by the democratic administration of Salvador Allende. In all three countries, the American imperial reply was similar: the violent overthrow of each government followed by years of bloody, repressive dictatorships.

Disposable allies

Finally, Kinzer examines a third period of American regime changes: the invasions from 1983 to 2003 which included Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. The author believes that these invasions should be understood both within the context of a century of regime changes as well as exemplifying the idea “that Americans have a right and even an obligation to oppose regimes they consider evil.” And of course, the U.S. media demonized the leadership of these nations while conveniently ignoring the fact that Noriega in Panama and Saddam Hussein in Iraq had once been very close allies of the U.S. government, and American oil interests had ignored the atrocious human rights violations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, while lobbying for the rights to lay an oil pipeline across that country.

Kinzer has written an informative and hard-hitting expose of the hidden motives driving American foreign policy during the past century. Readers who are unaware of the duplicitous policies and explanations for U.S. diplomacy are in for a rude awakening. The work exposes the carefully woven layers of lies surrounding American ruling-class actions of regime change, and is especially useful due to the wide scope of events that are covered.

The book deserves a place on the bookshelves of every student of history and activist — especially alongside a copy of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq
By Stephen Kinzer
Times Books, Henry Holt and Company,
2006, hardcover, 384 pp., $29.95