Overthrow: A Pre-emptive History of the United States

The book traces the themes of resources, power and ideology to fourteen countries across the globe leading from Hawaii to Iraq in a collection of adventurous, insidious and very human vignettes. Kinzer brings the reader to each situation with a critical eye on who the key players were, why they did what they did, and the usually unexpected and undesirable long-term consequences they created.

One of the most provocative analyses Kinzer carries out is a critique of the American Political Psyche. Kinzer describes the dangerous and easily abused American idea that our foreign interactions are implicitly good, that as far as politics goes, what works for us should work for them, and that we have a right to foreign markets and resources. Kinzer identifies the acts of regime change as the failures of diplomacy before the conflict, and a lack of nation building plans after. These short, violent interventions leads to chaos, violence, poverty, and an anti-Americanism that comes back to bite the US later on, when we again misinterpret nationalism as anti-Americanism.

Kinzer is in an interesting position to be an authority on the subject. As a foreign correspondent in Latin America for the Boston Globe, and then in Turkey, Germany and Nicaragua for the New York Times, he has reported in over 50 countries in North America, South America, the Middle East and Europe. However, writers Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky used Kinzer´s pro-Contra reporting during the Sandinista and Contra conflict in Nicaragua as an example of the media propaganda machine in their book Manufacturing Consent, published in 1988. ("[The opposition is] only 9 percent of the population [but] they have 100 percent of Stephen Kinzer," they write. Chomsky also critiques Kinzer’s reporting from Turkey in 1999, writing that Kinzer underreported widespread ethnic cleansing of Kurds by the Turkish government in the mind ´90s. He quotes Kinzer´s report for the New York Times "Some [Kurds] say they have been oppressed under Turkish rule, but the Government insists that they are granted the same rights as other citizens." In response, Chomsky asks: "One may ask whether this really does justice to some of the most extreme ethnic cleansing operations of the mid ’90s . . ." The stories told in Overthrow, however show that if Kinzer didn´t know or didn´t want to tell what he knew at the time, he is much more willing to now.

In an interview with Terry Gross on her show "Fresh Air," in April of 2006, Kinzer described the difference between being an author and being a reporter as the difference between telling the facts and making meaning of those facts. As an author Kinzer is at greater liberty to discuss information and its greater meaning in the continuum of history without the censorship of self, editors, governments, time or print space. The titles of Kinzer’s other books: "All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror," "Crescent and Star: Turkey between two worlds," "Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua," and "Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala" (Coauthored), imply that Kinzer has often been motivated to write the "big picture" stories to resolve his unhappiness with this gap between news and analysis. In light of those titles, "Overthrow" presents itself as an endeavor to unite those stories in a historical continuum that must have become all too evident to Kinzer over the years. Still, his descriptions stick most strictly to the story of the overthrow at hand, not always taking the time to mention widespread atrocities committed by American forces or American stooges in power. This narrow focus may frustrate some readers with wider knowledge of American involvement around the world.

Cast, Crew and Set . . .

The main function of a historian is to show facets of continuity and change over time of his or her object of study. While Overthrow shows the continuity of US involvement in foreign regime changes, the book is divided into three chronological "parts," each of which, Kinzer argues, was framed by different ideological motivations and carried out using different strategies. The main players: presidents, administrators, business men and military leaders, fight for their interests and ideals on both sides, though US military force keeps the upper hand, at least to begin with.

One of the most helpful sections of the book, besides the table of contents, index and bibliography, is a 16 page section of annotated black and white photos in the center of the book, which give much needed faces to the plethora of names included in the chapters. In fact, more graphics, such as annotated timelines, photos and maps placed within the chapters could only have reinforced the reader’s understanding of events. A second printing, which a book of this caliber will surely have, might make an effort to include more graphics and graphic organizers to make events more easily referenced.

As well as a concise historian, this book demonstrates Kinzer’s talented ability to synthesize reporting, history and pure storytelling. His main tool in this end

eavor is the heavy use of oral records and personal communications as his primary documents. By referring to quotes from transcripts and interviews to tell the story of each intervention, Kinzer creates a more human portrayal than the usually opaque presentation of historical characters like presidents and administrators. In the vignettes presented by Overthow, historical figures are neither entirely deified nor completely demonized, but rather humanized by the exposure of the circumstances that motivated them to make the decisions that they did. Kinzer also manages to keep his credibility as a historian while exposing the often brutal ignorance, racism and corporate interests of policy makers with the power of their own words.

Kinzer makes a tactical decision to name his chapters after some of the more disturbing assertions made by pro-regime change policy makers. For example: Chapter 7 is named "Not the preferred way to commit suicide," referring to the US claim that South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem somehow peppered himself with American bullets on November 1, 1963. Chapter 8 claims that "We’re Going to Smash Him," and Chapter 12 asserts that "They Will Have Flies Walking Across Their Eyeballs." These headings emphasize the angry and violent attitudes of policy makers in a way that Kinzer addresses only matter-of-factly in the text.

All Roads lead to Iraq . . .

Though it’s easy to get lost in the drama and characters in the first 11 chapters of the book, Kinzer is by no means circumspect about where he wants the reader to end up: "The invasion of Iraq in 2003," he writes in the second paragraph of the introduction, "was not an isolated episode. 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." Furthermore, Kinzer asserts, though these operations, including Iraq, are often seen as "victories" in the short term, the vast majority have "had terrible unintended consequences." This pronouncement is made devastatingly clear in the histories of Hawaii, Cuba, the Phillipines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Chile, Panama and Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time the story turns to Afghanistan and Iraq, the first 11 chapters begin to seem like a rock-solid introduction to the argument that Kinzer really wants to make. And by that time, statements like the following, which might be easy for pro-interventionists to condemn as the ravings of a leftist conspiracy theorist, are chillingly well-proven: ""Fateful misjudgments by five presidents had laid the groundwork not simply for the September 11 attacks but for the emergence of the world-wide terror network from which they sprung," (275).

Manifest Destiny and Capturing the Hemisphere . . .

Part One, "The Imperial Era," is framed by the rise of American power and the ideological pulls of Manifest Destiny and Evangelical Christianity, as well as the economic motivation of industrialization and the need for "open door" control over foreign markets.. "Expansion," writes Kinzer, "presented the United States with a dilemma that has confronted many colonial powers. If it allowed democracy to flower in the countries it controlled, those nations would begin acting in accordance with their own interests rather than the interests of the United States . . ." (p 104). That would then negate the effort made to intervene in the country in the first place.

The four chapters in the section deal with US military occupation of and regime change in former Spanish colonies in Central America and the Caribbean, as well as the Philippines and Hawaii. These overt operations from 1883 – 1911, often took the shape of an American military presence that arrived purportedly to give aid in a war for independence and then forgot to leave. It is in these chapters, under the administrations of Presidents Mckinley, Taft and Roosevelt, that US corporate interests in the form of fruit plantations, natural resources and monetary control become the main motivations for regime change.

This is perhaps the least controversial section because the history it tells is one that has few witnesses left, and therefore is less emotional. By dissecting the motivations of these early imperial ventures, Kinzer begins his quest to undermine the great myth of the United States of America’s selfless motivation and military benevolence abroad. Kinzer also introduces the reader to three themes that continue in subsequent parts. The first is the binary motivations leading to the regime changes: usually the main pressure for regime change is an economic pressure from a business that stands to lose profit due to a nationalization of resources, then, in order to gain public support for the project, propaganda is created to promote the idea that by changing a foreign regime, the United States is civilizing or liberating the people of the country, and thus saving the world from a source of evil.

The second reoccurring theme that Kinzer introduces is that of administrators who want to hold a regime change in order to create an image of victory and success, especially after previous "victories" have started to look like failures, and the belief deep seated in the American psyche that "their country is a force for good in the world. . . . When they intervene abroad, for selfish or ignoble reasons, they always insist that in the end, their actions will benefit not only the United States but also the citizens of the country in which they are intervening – and, by extension, the causes of peace and justice in the world," (107). This idea has been cultivated and made useful to American political and business leaders time after time. Kinzer describes successive administrations motivated by power and a desire for publicly perceived success, such as that in Puerto Rico in 1898. This has strong repercussions in later chapters as modern politicians discuss the invasion of Grenada as a feel-good and easy invasion, of Afghanistan in 1979 as an easy way to score a victory against the Soviets, and the first invasion of Iraq as an attempt by Bush Sr. to escape the "wimp factor." All of these invasions served economic and public relations purposes for leaders.

The third theme, and perhaps the most instructive, is the chain reaction that interventions can set off. "Nationalists reflexively rebel against governments they perceive as lackeys of foreign power," writes Kinzer, and once the United States intervened in a foreign government, it made sure that new leaders were pro-U.S., even if that meant that they seemed to be against their own people. This modus operandi did not and has not met with success, rather it has created more violent and damaging conflicts in the future.

"If the United States had been more farsighted, it might have found a way to embrace and influence reformers in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Phillippines, Nicaragua and Honduras. That could have produced fairer social order in those countries, with two results. First, ita would have improved that lives of many who have instead lived and died in poverty. Second, it would have eased festering social conflicts that periodically exploded into violence and dragged the United States into new rounds of intervention." (p. 105). Kinzer gives the examples of the suppressed Cuban elections in 1952, which lead candidate Fidel Castro to pursue a revolution instead of democratic elections, as well as support of dictators in Nicaragua that lead to the Sandinista movement of the 1980’s.

These historical examples are of interest to readers who support the Cuban Revolution and the Sandinista movement, and who do not see these movements only in terms of radical reactions to and "problems" for the U.S. However, the point that Kinzer makes most eloquently through these examples is that if the main goal of the U.S. is to retain control over foreign governments, then the installation of repressive dictators is not their best strategy. It is the creation of democracy and nationalism in a country that leads most inevitably to stability.

Instead, the "open door" economic policy prevented the development of local industry and established the idea in the American psyche "that their solders might have to commit atrocities in order to subdue insurgents and win wars." Protests of such atrocities committed in the Philippines were "drowned out by voices insisting that any abuses must have been aberrations and that to dwell on them would show weakness and a lack of patriotism," (106). Kinzer doesn’t have to mention the present here to make his point.

It Was The 60’s, And Everything Was Really Secretive . . .

Part Two, "Covert Action" skips into more recent territory: the Cold War years from 1953 – 1973, in which regime changes in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam and Chile were motivated by the ever present corporate interests as well as a rabidly anti-communist paranoia. Under the influences of secretary of state John Foster Dulles and national security adviser Henry Kissinger and the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon and, American leaders hysterically overestimated the threat of Soviet influence around the world and misinterpreted "developing" countries’ nationalistic impulses to own and control their own resources as evidence of Soviet control and Communist tendencies. This is one of the tragedies at the heart of Kinzer’s historical continuum: Americans, and mainly American corporations interpretation and reinterpretation of a country’s nationalistic desire for self sufficiency and self determination as anti-Americanism.

This misinterpretation was facilitated by the convenience of the anticommunist doctrine, which allowed the wealthy a religious excuse to consolidate their own power "for the greater good." In the case of Foster Dulles, an important protagonist in this chapter, the Soviet threat was actually a beneficial tool that could allow the U.S. to expand its power and coerce Americans into helping to preserve the rights of multinational corporations. These "covert actions" used American money, weaponry and strategies to create artificial, CIA run "revolutions" to "out" undesirable leaders. Like earlier coups, the Cold War regime changes occurred "only when economic interests coincided with ideological ones."

The entrance of the CIA as a political tool and actor is both prevalent and surprising in this chapter. The CIA has been perceived as a dastardly, corrupt and sometimes autonomous force during the Cold War, leading administrations in the fight against civil liberties and rebellion. Kinzer brings to light an interesting parallel between that event and the role of the CIA in the Chilean coup against Salvador Allende in 1973. Though the CIA did what they were told in Chile, Kinzer presents several instances where CIA employees warned against the intervention as a huge mistake. Not only was the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet proof of this sentiment, but when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigated the coup in years after, it found president Nixon, not the CIA, most responsible. The committee’s report describes CIA information as accurate, but "at best, selectively used or, at worst, disregarded by policy makers when the time came to make decisions regarding U.S. covert involvement in Chile," (213). It is here that another constructive function of the book acts on the reader. Though the first section of the book sets the stage for events to come, it is the exposure of the covert regime changes of the Cold War Era that change the way the reader sees the present, even before Kinzer gets there.

Kinzer saves comparisons to the future for later chapters, but the reader is welcome to wander there. The emphasis on misuse of CIA intelligence brings to mind the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq. For this reason, the Bush administration was under even higher fire when the news that CIA agents (excluding director George Tenet, who was too adept for his own good at telling the president what he wanted to hear) had reported, as deputy CIA director John McLaughlin did, that they had "no evidence of any active Iraqi terrorist threat against the U.S.," (286). That wasn’t enough to stop a president with his mind made up, even when chief counter terrorism specialist Richard Clarke declared that "having been attacked by Al Qaeda , for us to go bombing Iraq in response would be like invading Mexico after . . . Pearl Harbor," (288).

In this chapter Kinzer lays a foundation for his critique of the present. By exposing the "covert actions" of history more recent and emotional in the American memory, Kinzer critically undermines the textbook versions of history that we as Americans are most familiar with. Again, the use of personal letters and oral documents allows the reader to hear from an angry President Nixon’s lips that "We’re going to smash him," and from Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia that "Our American friends are remarkable organizers, brilliant technicians and excellent soldiers. But their incontestable realism stops short of the realm of politics, where the attitude of the ostrich seems to them to conform best to their interests." (210).

History Repeats Itself in the Present:

Part three explores, "Invasions," of Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq from 1979 to the present, and transition from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Focusing on the presidential administrations of Reagan, George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush, the accounts of Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq show when past American interventions started to come back to haunt them, especially in Afghanistan. An emphasis in this chapter is the short memory of Americans in terms of their invasions. To many political leaders and American citizens, the forgotten fact that the U.S. helped to destroy Afghanistan in the 80’s has no connection to present day anti-Americanism. Kinzer also uses the story of failed nationalist Abdul Haq as a frame for other, more farsighted choices that leaders could have made.

The most provocative argument for understanding the present situation of American military forces in the Middle East is found here. In this section, in no uncertain terms, Kinzer emphasizes that the invasions of Afghanistan, and the 1979 anti-Soviet intervention, which he claims supported, if not created the growth of terror organizations that lead to September 11th and to the 2001 US invasion against the Taliban. Kinzer’s main point in this section is that, not only did the US help create, fund, and strengthen the terror network with their Cold War inspired invasion in 1979, but that by ignoring Afghanistan later on, and by not remaining as an occupying force in 2001, but by going into Iraq for reasons that Kinzer says remain unclear even to members of the administration itself, the United States has put itself in an even more dangerous position in support of the terrorist networks.

It is in these last chapters that Kinzer becomes more of a journalist and less of a historian, almost certainly due to the emotionally charged nature of present events. He describes the Iraq war as "the only conflict Americans ever fought with out truly knowing why," (285), a statement which seems contradictory in light of the 14 other invasions detailed in this book. While Kinzer creates a scene of confused White House officials bullied blindly by George W. Bush’s desire to get back at "the guy that wanted to kill my Dad," he also generates a list of nine researched reasons why different political leaders wanted regime change in Iraq. Though a "main reason" might not surface in the near future, it is safe to say that Americans have fought many if not all past wars both without "truly knowing why," and without knowing the truth about whose interests they were protecting.

Interestingly enough, Kinzer argues that, given the fact that our 1979 invasion helped to create the Taliban as well as Al Qu’aida networks, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was necessary, and that the US should have stayed to occupy and nation build there, instead of turning to Iraq. Almost contrary to earlier sentiments, Kinzer implies that, since September 11th was a product of US abandonment of Afghanistan, and since The US has already invaded and destroyed Iraq, then if Americans don’t finish what they started in Iraq, it too will become a terrorist Mecca, and put them in even more danger. The expression of this sentiment might lead subscribers to the "Troops Out Now" camp of present day anti-war activism want to dismiss Kinzer. However, Kinzer is not in any way promoting occupation and invasion, but rather making a harsh critique of politicians’ understandings of what regime change achieves.

What We Don’t Know (Yet):

Though the book suffers no lack of examples to prove Kinzer’s point, some of the excluded examples are clearly controversial. Kinzer admits that the book is limited in scope to the examples in which the US directly deposed a foreign leader, and names Indonesia, Brazil and the Congo in the 1960’s, and Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic as countries with regime changes supported by US influence, but not directly caused by it. However, the decision to include Chile where "the American role was decisive," and exclude Haiti signifies a border area in which access to information, and the test of time plays a key role. Where exactly is the line between "influential" and "decisive" in American actions against foreign leaders, and is that information always available?

Whereas Kinzer was able to access transcripts and recordings of Nixon and Kissenger’s meetings with other key players in the over throw of Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973, information about the American role in the overthrow of Haitian president Jacques Bertrande Aristide is not yet so forthcoming. However, according to Aristide himself, American congress member Maxine Waters, Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based attorney who has served as General Counsel to the Haitian government since 1991, and Emmanuel Constant, a member of the FRAPH paramilitary death squad in Haiti, the US had a great deal to do with the supposed "resignation" of the president. According to interviews and reports collected by Democracy Now!, "Aristide did not resign as President and was instead kidnapped by US officials, ushered onto a plane at gunpoint and brought to the Central African Republic where he held and surrounded by US military." [1] Though Kinzer gives the reader a place to start, a truly complete story of American regime changes in the last century might add a few to the list. Still, the book is obviously well researched, and the page by page endnoted bibliography makes the chapters rich jumping off places for researchers looking to find out more about a particular regime change.

Are Americans Unique in their Terribleness?

Are Americans the Biggest, Baddest Super Villains in the History of the World? "Yes and no," Kinzer seems to think, but he says "Yes" frequently especially toward the end of the book. In the concluding chapter "Catastrophic Success," he asserts that Americans "are the only ones in modern history who are convinced that by bringing their political and economic system to others, they are doing God’s work," (315). Which Americans is he describing? Does he mean leaders or corporations, or the average Joe on the street? First of all, I know many Americans who would take issue with being included in that group belief, and second of all, depending on when "modern history" begins Kinzer would have to include other countries such as the Soviet Union, Multinational Corporations and religious fundamentalists as well.

Kinzer tries to back up later by saying that though "Americans" think they deserve access to markets and resources and use force to get them when they need to, "great powers have done this since time immemorial." However, he slips back into a "presentist" mindset: "What distinguishes Americans from citizens of past empires is their eagerness to persuade themselves that they are acting out of humanitarian motives." The veracity of this statement depends on the interpretation of what the "humanitarian motives" of the past were. Past invasions like that of the Crusades sought to Christianize the world, an arguably "humanitarian motive" of the Middle Ages. While Kinzer denounces "Americans," he does not return to the propaganda campaigns and autonomous decisions made by political and business leaders beyond control of the average "American."

While Kinzer has no mercy on "Americans," he does seek, at the very end of the book, to put the situation back into context. "Countries that have the power to interfere in foreign lands almost always do so," he admits, referring to writings by Greek military historian Thucydides, (318). The United States "by using its might to overthrow foreign governments, . . . acted not in a new or radical way but in accordance with a long established law of history," (319). While Kinzer does well not to invite readers to feel too comfortable with the history he is telling, he has to admit that in the end, the United States is an empire like any other.

Where Does That Put Us?

In spite of the disturbing tale it tells, Overthrow is work that has the power to liberate and reconcile, as well as anger and activate. Knowing the past and present character of American foreign policy is much more empowering than the confusion that arises when citizens are caught in the dichotomy between filtered news, rumors and propaganda. A deeper understanding of the past not only helps us understand how we got here, but gives us clues about what to do about it. Understanding of the past anchors us back in the present with the conviction that we can move forward. While Kinzer does not offer concrete solutions to the reader, the message is loud and clear: "Don’t believe the hype!" This next invasion, or continued invasion, what ever it is, will not be different from past ones; it will be fought for corporate interests, and initiated by politicians who will try to make us think that we are bombing a country to smithereens in order to save it and humanity.


April Howard is a history teacher and journalist currently living in Bolivia. Email April.m.howard@gmail.com 

End note:



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