Stephen Kinzer: Interviewed About American Imperialism

Historians in the News

Your book is about the fourteen times the United States has overthrown a foreign government. Why do we do this so often?

Americans consider their country to be a force for good in the world. We believe we have found the way to success as a nation, and we want to share our blessings with the world. This belief that we are an exceptional nation, one with a global or even a cosmic mission, is fundamental to our national character. Sometimes it turns to arrogance. It leads us to think we have the right—or even the obligation—to recast the world in our own image.

What tactics does the United States use to overthrow foreign leaders?

At the beginning, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, we carried out these operations openly, through military power. During the Cold War, that was no longer possible because an invasion or direct intervention against a foreign government might bring a reaction from the Soviet Union. So in the early 1950s, a new organization, the CIA, was given the job of clandestinely overthrowing governments. It did so four times, in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile.

In recent decades we have returned to the original way of overthrowing governments: by military invasion. During this period we have overthrown four governments, those of Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Most of these overthrows seemed successful at first. What has been their long-term impact in the countries where they were carried out?

A few of these operations, like the ones in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, have turned out reasonably well because the United States took responsibility for the countries that were seized. Most, however, have turned out very badly.

Our 1954 intervention in Guatemala, for example, set off a thirty-year civil war in which hundreds of thousands were killed. Our overthrow of President Allende in Chile led to the imposition of a bloody dictatorship. If we had not overthrown President Diem of South Vietnam in 1963, we might have avoided the entire Vietnam War.

Our overthrows of foreign governments have led to the establishment of dictatorships, turned millions of people against the United States, and cast whole regions of the world into violent instability.

Many people have described the recent invasion of Iraq as breaking with an American tradition of cooperative diplomacy. You write that it is just the opposite, simply the latest in a long series of “regime change” operations. What does our overthrow of Saddam Hussein have in common with our overthrows of other leaders during the past century?

Like many past American interventions, the one in Iraq

• was based on very unclear and inaccurate information
• was planned with the assumption that local people would welcome it
• was launched in part to assure American control of a valuable resource
• was aimed at spreading the American political and economic system, which American leaders believe is ideal for every country in the world
• was based on the view that Americans can achieve anything they put their minds to
• threw a reasonably stable country into violent upheaval
• seemed like a success at first, but ultimately came to look terribly misconceived

You write that American intervention in Cuba in 1898 helped bring Fidel Castro to power sixty years later. How?

In 1898 the United States sent troops to Cuba to help Cuban patriots overthrow the Spanish. The Cubans agreed to welcome these soldiers only after the U.S. Senate promised by law that they would be withdrawn as soon as the war was won.

After the victory, however, we reneged on that promise. We kept Cuba under military occupation, turned it into a protectorate, and imposed a series of dictators who protected our interests. In 1952, one of those dictators canceled an election in which the young Fidel Castro was running for Congress. That led Castro to take up the idea of revolution.

In Castro’s first speech after his victory, he promised that the future “will not be like 1898, when the Americans came and made themselves masters of the country.”

You devote a chapter to the CIA coup in which the government of Iran was overthrown in 1953. Did that episode help create the radical Iran we see today?

The United States was beloved in Iran until 1953. In that year, we overthrew the only democratic government Iran ever had. This was the beginning of Iran’s drift toward radicalism.

The CIA coup in Iran brought the Shah to power. His increasingly repressive rule ultimately set off the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That revolution brought bitterly anti-American clerics to power and inspired Islamic radicals around the world.

Had we not overthrown the Iranian government half a century ago, Iran might be a mature democracy today, and the Middle East might look very different.

Americans have been quite willing to support their government when it sets out to overthrow foreign leaders. Why?

Americans have a strong compassionate side. They eagerly support foreign interventions that are presented as “rescue missions” to save people from tyranny or oppression. Presidents realize this, and when they plan interventions for ignoble reasons, they always cloak the interventions in the rhetoric of liberation.

Should the United States simply stop intervening in other countries?

For better or worse, the United States is going to continue to be an interventionist power. Our position in the world makes this inevitable. And since we’ve overthrown fourteen governments over a little more than a century, we will probably try to do it again.

So the question is not whether we should continue to intervene, but how we can do it more effectively, in ways that promote stability rather than instability. If we look back at our past interventions, we can understand why many of them have gone so terribly wrong. That should help guide us for the future.

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