Stephen Kinzer: The 14 Governments the US has Overthrown

Roundup: Talking About History

[Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow recounts the 14 times the United States helped overthrow foreign governments. Kinzer is a reporter at the New York Times.]


HAWAII: In 1893, a group of sugar planters and descendants of missionaries, most of them of American stock, worked with U.S. officials to overthrow the queen of Hawaii and take power for themselves. Five years later, they brought Hawaii into the United States. This action destroyed a culture and has led to lingering bitterness, expressed today in a “sovereignty” movement that seeks special rights for native Hawaiians.

CUBA: In 1898, the U.S. Senate voted to help Cubans overthrow Spanish colonialism, and promised that American troops would withdraw as soon as the rebellion was won. Soon after the Spanish were defeated, however, the United States changed its mind. It refused to withdraw troops from Cuba, turned the island into a protectorate, and for the next half century supported a series of repressive rulers there. This fed an anti-American form of nationalism that ultimately produced Fidel Castro—an example of how it often takes many years for the negative results of “regime change” to become clear.

PHILIPPINES: Americans seized the islands in 1898, hoping to turn them into a platform for trade with China. The U.S. Army fought a brutal three-year war against insurgents there, and its widespread use of torture led to outrage in the United States. The insurgency was finally crushed, but it quickly reemerged. A low-level civil war has been under way in the Philippines ever since. Rebels have recently joined forces with Al Qaeda, and today the Philippines is one of the most unstable countries in Asia.

PUERTO RICO: Citizens had just elected their first autonomous government when, in 1898, American troops invaded and placed Puerto Rico under military rule. Many Puerto Ricans still resent the United States for its actions. The Bush administration recently proposed that Puerto Ricans hold a referendum to decide their future—another reminder of how uncomfortable the United States feels about owning a colony.

NICARAGUA: In 1909, the United States overthrew the most formidable leader Nicaragua ever had, José Santos Zelaya, because he refused to allow American lumber and mining companies to operate freely in his country. This began a cycle of rebellion and intervention in Nicaragua that has lasted for nearly a century. In no other country has the United States intervened so often, over so long a period of time.

HONDURAS: This stage-managed “revolution” was launched by an American banana planter who was angry at President Miguel Davila’s efforts to limit his land holdings and tax his exports. It was planned, in part, at the May Evans bordello in the Storyville section of New Orleans. American troops arrived to assure its success, and by early 1911, Davila had been forced into exile. Honduras, like Nicaragua, remains poor and unstable.


IRAN: The first time the CIA overthrew a government was in 1953. Its target was Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran, who had outraged the West by nationalizing his country’s oil industry. Kermit Roosevelt, a CIA agent who was a real-life James Bond, snuck into Iran, spent large sums of money to bribe military officers, politicians, and journalists, and then hired street gangs to spread chaos on the streets of Tehran. This operation ended democracy in Iran, and has had terrible long-term consequences not only for Iran itself but for the United States and the rest of the world.

GUATEMALA: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was so pleased with the success in Iran that he ordered another coup a year later. This time the victim was President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, who supported a land-reform program that affected the United Fruit Company. The company used its great influence in Washington to set the coup in motion. After Arbenz was overthrown, Guatemala plunged into a thirty-year civil war that took hundreds of thousands of lives.

SOUTH VIETNAM: In 1963, American leaders decided that President Ngo Dinh Diem, who the United States had placed in power a decade earlier, was becoming an unreliable ally. Diem resisted American efforts to escalate their war against Communist forces, and wanted to seek a negotiated peace instead. The coup against him ended with his murder, which deeply shocked President Kennedy.

CHILE: Known as the strongest democracy in Latin America, Chile turned leftward after Salvador Allende was elected president. Allende nationalized his country’s copper industry, which was dominated by two American corporations, Kennecott and Anaconda. Business leaders persuaded President Nixon to order his overthrow. The 1973 coup brought the Pinochet dictatorship to power, and led to the torture and murder of thousands.


GRENADA: President Reagan came to office pledging to restore American power in the world after the defeat in Vietnam, and he seized the chance to invade this tiny Caribbean island after militants there rebelled and assassinated Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. The crisis could probably have been resolved peacefully, but officials in Washington were eager for a military victory somewhere in the world.

PANAMA: General Manuel Noriega was on the CIA payroll for more than thirty years. He was such a valuable asset that the United States even tolerated his deep involvement in the drug trade. Noriega finally became too defiant, however, and in 1989 President George H. W. Bush, fighting the “wimp factor,” sent troops to overthrow him.

AFGHANISTAN: After the 9/11 attacks, the United States hired an Afghan militia, the Northern Alliance, to depose the Taliban regime. Rather than consolidate victory, however, the Bush administration immediately turned its attention to Iraq. Afghanistan’s transition from failed state to world center of narco-terrorism is proceeding with alarming speed.

IRAQ: Some critics point to the invasion of Iraq as the episode that tore the United States away from a long tradition of cooperative diplomacy. But as President George W. Bush rehearsed his speech announcing the invasion, the image of President McKinley, who launched the “regime change” era by seizing Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, was looking down at him from a painting on the wall. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was no break with history, but a faithful reflection of the same forces that motivated McKinley and many other American presidents.