Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq
George Bush and Dick Cheney may get your vote as the worst, the dumbest, the most venal, and the most dangerous bunglers in foreign affairs in U.S. history. But this book will show you that their equals have appeared before.
Overthrow is an infuriating recitation of our government’s military bullying over the past 110 years—a century of interventions around the world that resulted in the overthrow of 14 governments—in Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Chile, Iran, Grenada, Afghanistan, and … Iraq.
Stephen Kinzer, who spent years on various front lines for The New York Times, calls these regime changes “catastrophic victories,” but of course some were more catastrophic than others.
Most of these coups were triggered by foreign combatants and then taken over and finished by us. But four of them, in many ways the worst of the lot, were all our own, from conspiracy to conclusion. “American agents engaged in complex, well-financed campaigns to bring down the governments of Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile. None would have fallen—certainly not in the same way or at the same time—if Washington had not acted as it did.
“Each of these four coups was launched against a government that was reasonably democratic (with the arguable exception of South Vietnam) …. They led to the fall of leaders who embraced American ideals, and the imposition of others who detested everything Americans hold dear. They were not rogue operations. Presidents, cabinet secretaries, national security advisers, and CIA directors approved them …. The first thing all four of these coups have in common is that American leaders promoted them consciously, willfully, deliberately, and in strict accordance with the laws.”
For all 14 regime changes, Kinzer assigns blame to the smug American belief that we are the most righteous people in the world and that we are obliged to force our version of righteousness on nations we judge to be backward—especially if they have a bountiful supply of minerals that our corporations want (i.e., oil in Iran, copper in Chile). In short, our military conquests have been launched under the glorious banner of Bible-thumping Christian capitalists.
Yes, of course, you immediately think of George Bush, but he is just the last of a long line.
Though World War I is beyond the scope of this book, it must be mentioned simply to bring in the pronouncement of President Woodrow Wilson as he prepared to lead us into that war: “There is a mighty task before us…. It is to make the United States a mighty Christian nation, and to Christianize the world.” (Some of the more radical senators of that era doubted his piety and were convinced he wanted to help England and France win so that they could pay their huge debts to our arms merchants.)
Of the four regime changes launched independently by the United States, two were concocted in the sedate office of John Foster Dulles. (That office, as Kinzer reminds us, has been moved and reconstructed, down to Dulles’ silver tea set, at the University of Texas, at the Harry Ransom Center.) Of this book’s several candidates for the title Most Dangerous Nutcase, my odds-on favorite is Dulles, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state. His influence over Ike in foreign affairs seems to have been as strong as Cheney’s influence over Bush.
Dulles was the grandson and son of preachers, and, being exceedingly devout himself, he would have gone into the clergy if he had not decided to enter an even more suspect profession: law. For years he worked for some of the world’s richest corporations, and as secretary of state he continued to serve them.
In 1953 the brutal, venal shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was pushed into exile by Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister.
“Modern Iran has produced few figures of Mossadegh’s stature,” Kinzer says.
Iranians loved Mossadegh. He made clear that his two ambitions were to set up a lasting democracy and to strengthen nationalism—by which he meant get rid of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., which had been robbing Iran for half a century. Indeed, the British company had been earning each year as much as all the royalties it paid Iran over 50 years. Mossadegh intended to recapture those riches to rebuild Iran.
In a scheme to get rid of Mossadegh, the British enlisted Secretary of State Dulles; he in turn enlisted his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and what ensued was a truly masterful piece of skullduggery. First came a propaganda campaign to convince the West that Mossadegh was a communist, which in the U.S. of the 1950s put him on the level of a child molester. Actually, Mossadegh hated communists, but most of our press swallowed the lie. Time Magazine had previously called Mossadegh “the Iranian George Washington” and “the most world-renowned man his ancient race had produced for centuries.” Now it called him “one of the worst calamities to the anti-communist world since the Red conquest of China.”
The propaganda program on the outside was followed by a bogus “revolution” inside Iran, with a CIA agent-provocateur hiring such a huge army of thugs and terrorists to roam the streets of Tehran that the town fell into violent anarchy. The CIA plotters ousted Mossadegh and restored the shah to his Peacock Throne.
For Secretary of State Dulles and his old law clients—including Gulf Oil Corp., Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey, Texaco Inc., and Mobil Corp., who were subsequently allowed to take 40 percent of Iran’s oil supply—the shah’s return was a happy and very lucrative event. But, Kinzer reminds us, “The shah did not tolerate dissent [to silence some, he simply killed them] and repressed opposition newspapers, political parties, trade unions, and civic groups. As a result, the only place Iranian dissidents could find a home was in mosques and religious schools, many of which were controlled by” radical fundamentalists. So when the revolution against the shah finally broke out in 1979, it was inevitable that these clerics led it.
They then went on to sponsor acts of terror from Saudi Arabia to Argentina, mostly to humiliate the United States, and “their example inspired Muslim fanatics around the world, including those who carried out the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. None of this … might have happened if Mossadegh had not been overthrown.”
At roughly the same time Secretary of State Dulles was destroying democracy in Iran, he was also busy destroying democracy in Central America, and once again it was on behalf of a renegade industry: United Fruit Co. If any bureaucrat deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison for conflict of interest, it was Dulles. And several of his bureaucratic buddies would have been right there beside him breaking rocks.
“Few private companies have ever been as closely interwoven with the United States government as United Fruit was during the mid-1950s,” writes Kinzer. For decades, Dulles had been one of its principal legal counselors. (At one time Dulles negotiated an agreement with Guatemala that gave United Fruit a 99-year lease on a vast tract of land, tax free.) Dulles’ brother—Allen, the CIA Director—had also done legal work for the company and owned a big block of its stock. So did other top officials at State; one had previously been president of United Fruit. The head of our National Security Council was United Fruit’s former chairman of the board, and the president of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development was a former board member.
These fine chaps and their numerous colleagues in our government were, not surprisingly, very upset when between 1944 and 1954, Guatemala entered what would be known as its “democratic spring,” denoting the presidencies of Juan José Arevalo and—after the first peaceful transfer of power in Guatemalan history—Jacobo Arbenz.
What those two did was nothing less than breathtaking. Under Arevalo, the National Assembly was persuaded to establish the first social security system, guarantee the rights of trade unions, fix a 48-hour workweek, and even slap a modest tax on the big landholders—meaning three American companies: a huge electric monopoly, a rail monopoly, and, of course, United Fruit, which controlled the other two.
Arbenz was even bolder. He persuaded the National Assembly to pass the Agrarian Reform Law, which gave the government the power to seize and redistribute uncultivated land on estates larger than 672 acres. United Fruit owned more than 550,000 acres, about one-fifth of the country’s arable land, but cultivated less than 15 percent—while many thousands of Guatemalans were starving for land. So in 1953, Arbenz’s government seized 234,000 uncultivated acres of United Fruit’s land, for which the government offered in compensation (one can imagine the vengeful hilarity this must have stirred in Arbenz’s circle) a paltry $1.185 million—the value United Fruit had declared each year for tax purposes.
That did it. The Dulles gang back in Washington, all “products of the international business world and utterly ignorant of the realities of Guatemalan life, considered the idea of land redistribution to be inherently Marxist,” writes Kinzer. So they began using the same techniques as in Iran, although much more elaborately played out—first portraying Guatemala as having fallen into the hands of Communists, a falsehood that was supported by the U.S. press, including a series in The New York Times. Dulles even got Francis Cardinal Spellman, the most powerful and most hysterically anti-communist priest in America, to recruit Guatemala’s Catholic clergy to “rise as a single man against this enemy of God and country.” Then the CIA launched a bogus “invasion” by an “anti-Communist” force, followed by a bogus “revolt.”
Arbenz was forced into exile and replaced by Col. Carlos Armas, who promptly canceled reforms and established a police state. He was soon assassinated, but bedlam continued. By overthrowing Arbenz, writes Kinzer, “the United States crushed a democratic experiment that held great promise for Latin America. As in Iran a year earlier, it deposed a regime that embraced fundamental American ideals but that had committed the sin of seeking to retake control of its own natural resources.”
The dismantling of Arbenz’s administration was named, with the usual buffoonery of our undercover government, “Operation Success.”
When Guatemalans saw that democracy was dead, thousands revolted, took to the hills, and, inspired by Fidel Castro’s victory in Cuba, formed guerrilla bands. “To combat this threat,” writes Kinzer, “the Guatemalan army used such brutal tactics that all normal political life in the country ceased. Death squads roamed with impunity, chasing down and murdering politicians, union organizers, student activists, and peasant leaders. Thousands of people were kidnapped… and never seen again. Many were tortured to death on military bases … This repression raged for three decades, and during this period soldiers killed more civilians in Guatemala than in the rest of the hemisphere combined.” A United Nations commission put the toll at 200,000.
It was a great victory for Dulles’ side; today 2 percent of the people in Guatemala still own half the arable land.
To maintain that status quo, the United States from 1960 to 1990 gave Guatemala hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, including training and arming its death squads. Guatemala didn’t need an air force; we dispatched our own planes from the Canal Zone to drop napalm on suspected guerrilla camps.
“This bloodiest of all modern Latin American wars would not have broken out if not for Operation Success,” writes Kinzer. “Operation Success taught Cuban revolutionaries—and those from other countries—that the United States would not accept democratic nationalism in Latin America. It gave them a decisive push towards radicalism.”
Never mind the regime change in Vietnam. The heart of it was simply the stupidity and administrative paralysis of the Kennedy administration. At the very moment when a close watch on the turmoil in South Vietnam was vitally needed (hey, it was supposedly “our” government), Kennedy and his important cabinet members were out of town, playing golf, sailing, or at a baseball game. In their absence, lesser officials sent word to dump Ngo Dinh Diem, our unpopular puppet president of South Vietnam. (Diem, by the way, was another protégé of Dulles and Francis Cardinal Spellman.) When the Kennedy insiders returned to their duties, they dithered for four days, largely agreeing that the dumping was a bad idea, but doing nothing to cancel it.
Nor, writes Kinzer, were any of the counselors bright enough to suggest that it might be a perfect time to walk away from the mess and leave it all to the Vietnamese. “That,” writes Kinzer, “would probably have led to the establishment of a Communist… rule over the entire country, but that is what ultimately happened anyway.” And a withdrawal at this point “would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives… and spared the United States its greatest national trauma since the Civil War.”
Once dumped, Diem was assassinated. With a bizarre measurement of historical events, this seemed to bother Kennedy the most. Historian Ellen Hammer writes that he was “shaken and depressed” to realize that “the first Catholic ever to become a Vietnamese chief of state was dead, assassinated as a direct result of policy authorized by the first American Catholic president.”
What a pleasure it is to move away from sheer stupidity and back to sheer meanness, supplied by the man many love to hate, Henry Kissinger, and his part in Kinzer’s fourth featured regime change, in Chile. Misplaced piety cannot be blamed for any part of this. The motivation was entirely capitalistic. “For us there are two sorts of people in the world,” Dulles once said. “There are those who are Christian and support free enterprise, and there are the others.” Leaving out the Christians, Kissinger would have agreed.
The Chilean foreign minister once accused him of knowing nothing about the Southern Hemisphere. Kissinger nodded, saying, “And I don’t care … The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance.”
Unless it carried the odor of Soviet influence. And Kissinger, then secretary of state, was certain he detected the odor of communism in the election of Salvador Allende Gossens to the presidency of Chile. “Kissinger would be more directly responsible for what happened in Chile than any other American,” writes Kinzer, “with the possible exception of Nixon.”
Chile was one of the most stable countries in South America, with a high literacy rate, a relatively large middle class, and a strong civil society. But millions of its people lived in desperate poverty, and Allende made no secret of his ambition to lift that class—and to do it by controlling some of the giant corporations operating in Chile but owned by yanquis.
Topping his hit list, besides consumer-product companies like PepsiCo Inc., were the world’
two largest copper mining companies,
Kennecott Corp. and Anaconda Mining Co., and International Telephone and Telegraph Co., all owned by U.S. interests. Allende wanted the Chilean government to take them over.
The men running these outfits, along with swingers like Kissinger’s close friend David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan Bank, which had multibillion-dollar interests in South America, struck back and got all the help they needed. Banks were persuaded to put a devastating credit squeeze on Allende’s government. The CIA (though some of its officers wanted nothing to do with these dirty tricks) was turned loose, hiring assassins, paying for strikes that caused severe shortages of food, gasoline, electricity, and other materials. “Within two years, one-third of Chile’s buses and 20 percent of its taxis were out of service due to lack of spare parts.” Much, but not all, of the Chilean military was corrupted. Ditto the Chilean press.
Kinzer’s account of these rebellious years ends with the death of Allende in La Moneda, the presidential palace and traditional seat of Chilean democracy. He had been president for 1,042 days. He refused an offer of free passage out of the country and committed suicide.
So Kissinger and Nixon and Rockefeller and their friends got what they wanted: a Chile run by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who took office after the coup of September 11, 1973. His first act was to order a nationwide roundup of tens of thousands of leftists and other supporters of the Allende regime. Thousands were tortured in prison. Many were never seen again.
In 1976, Kissinger met privately with Pinochet in Santiago to assure the dictator that although his upcoming speech to the Organization of American States “would include a few perfunctory references to human rights, it was ‘not aimed at Chile …’ We are not out to weaken your position.'”
Okay, so after that depressing encounter with Kissinger, you need to get back to someone who can offer you piety, comedy, and, well, brutality of a different sort. Meet the inflated president, William McKinley, elected by midwestern industries. He launched the Spanish-American War in 1899, which brought Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines into the U.S. kennel. Later he would admit he saw the war as “a commercial opportunity,” but at first he peddled the war as a sacred duty, telling a group of Methodist missionaries that while he wrestled with the question of taking the Philippine archipelago (which he at first had trouble finding on the map), he fell to his knees in the White House on several evenings and “prayed Almighty God for light and guidance. One night late, it came to me that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift them and Christianize them.”
Kinzer points out that McKinley obviously didn’t realize that most Filipinos were already practicing Catholics. Nor did he have a clue as to the natives’ feelings about being “saved” by force. McKinley’s missionary invasion ended only after three and a half years ofhorrific fighting (deaths: 4,374 American soldiers, 16,000 guerrillas, and at least 20,000 civilians) in which both sides engaged in wholesale torture. Abu Ghraib was a cakewalk compared with some of the things our soldiers did in that war. “The most notorious was the ‘water cure,’ in which sections of bamboo were forced down the throats of prisoners and then used to fill the prisoners’ stomachs with dirty water until they swelled in torment. Then soldiers would jump on the prisoner’s stomach to force the water out.”
Actually, the people of the Philippines and Cuba didn’t need our help to whip Spain. The natives of those places had been hitting their Spanish overlords so hard for so many years that Spain was already willing to give Cuba home rule. The chief organizer of the rebellion at that stage, José Martí, encouraged his fighters to push on, not only to win freedom from Spain but “to prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies and falling, with that added weight, upon other lands of our America.”
Uh oh. That kind of talk scared the devil into American businessmen who had more than $50 million—big bucks in those days—invested in Cuban agriculture. Obviously a war to pre-empt the Martí crowd was needed. That was nicely cooked up by a “friendly” visit of the U.S. battleship Maine to the Havana harbor, where an explosion killed 250 of its sailors, and the Hearst newspapers were filled with mendacious stories fixing the guilt on Spain. Hearst and his loud crowd called for all-out war. McKinley enthusiastically complied.
But there were enough members of Congress, touched by the Cubans’ long fight for freedom, who refused to back a pro-war resolution until McKinley agreed to an amendment promising that at war’s end, we would leave the government and control of the island to its people. When the promise was made, our military’s brief, Hollywood-style part in the liberation of Cuba took place. Kinzer tells us, “in three one-day battles, the most famous being one in which [Teddy] Roosevelt, dressed in a uniform he had ordered from Brooks Brothers, led a charge up Kettle Hill” and “American cruisers destroyed the few decrepit Spanish naval vessels anchored at Santiago” in a single day.
“Just 385 Americans had been killed in action, barely more than Sioux Indians had killed at Little Big Horn in the country’s last major military engagement, twenty-two years before.” No wonder the American statesman John Hay called it “a splendid little war.”
As for our promises to let Cuba rule itself, we quickly backed off on that. Republicans in Congress and much of the press greatly exaggerated our part in whipping Spain and argued, successfully, that Cubans had little to do with it and deserved to rule themselves only so long “as they allowed the United States to veto any decision they made.” Castro was still a long way off.
A couple of Kinzer’s regime changes are pure comic opera.
Grenada for example—a tiny, former British colony in the Caribbean. On October 21, 1983, eager to get away from Washington for a few rounds of golf at Augusta, President Reagan hurriedly signed an order for a naval task force heading for Lebanon to change course and go to Grenada to … Well, nobody was exactly sure, but apparently a couple of wacky “Marxist” cliques were in a shooting donnybrook to see who would have political control down there. And maybe a couple of hundred American students at a medical school on Grenada were in danger. Actually, when polled by their dean, 90 percent of the students said they felt perfectly safe. But the naval task force steamed on.
The invasion—named Operation Urgent Fury—would not be easy. The Pentagon had no up-to-date maps of Grenada, so some of our troops had to use photocopies of tourist maps. About 6,000 troops landed in Grenada, “at least twice the number needed for the job,” writes Kinzer. A mental hospital was accidentally bombed, killing more than a dozen patients. Several dozen others stumbled away, dazed, and some were still wandering days later. Oops! Neither Reagan nor any other American official had told the Brits what we were up to. “The United Nations General Assembly overwhelming passed a resolution ‘deeply deploring’ … a flagrant violation of international law.”
But Representative Dick Cheney of Wyoming said the invasion made “a lot of folks around the world feel we are more steady and reliable than heretofore.”
Reagan was doggone proud, too. In a speech to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in New York, he proclaimed, “Our days of weakness are over! Our military forces are back on their feet, and standing tall.”
Except for the 250 Marines who had been killed by a bomb in Lebanon at the same time we were invading Grenada.
And finally we musn’t forget our very first regime change, in 1893, when a few dozen sugar planters and descendants of missionaries, wanting more control of island commerce, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii. It wasn’t a fair fight. The sugar planters got the help of 162 American Marines and sailors who were passing through. The queen’s “army” consisted of the Honolulu police chief.
Longtime Observer contributor Robert Sherrill’s most recent book is First Amendment Felon : The Story of Frank Wilkinson, His 132,000 Page FBI File and His Epic Fight for Civil Rights and Liberties (Nationbooks, 2005).