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Stephen Kinzer's history of regime change
U.S. Empire 101

Review by Annie Levin | August 25, 2006 | Page 9

Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. Times Books, 2006, 400 pages, $27.50.

WHAT DO Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Iran, Grenada, Chile, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq have in common? At some point in the last 110 years, the U.S. has intervened to overthrow their governments.

Anyone who thinks that the Bush administration invented the "pre-emptive strike" or has taken us on a massive detour from the history of U.S. foreign policy needs to read this book.

In Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Stephen Kinzer destroys the justifications for these wars that we learned in high school history class, and exposes the raw imperialist interests that drove each intervention and the horrific suffering that the U.S. inflicted on these countries.

Kinzer never tries to reassure us that these are cases of good U.S. intentions gone awry, or the actions of a rogue administration. He states in the first chapter, "the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not an isolated episode...Throughout the 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st, the United States repeatedly used its military power, and that of its clandestine services, to overthrow governments that refused to project American interests.

"Each time, it cloaked its intervention in the rhetoric of national security and liberation. In most cases, however, it acted mainly for economic reasons--specifically to establish, promote and defend the right of Americans to do business around the world without interference."

Kinzer groups the invasions into three phases of U.S. imperialism. 1893-1945 is the "imperial phase," when the U.S. as a rising capitalist power began to throw its imperialist weight around the world, particularly in Latin America and the Pacific. He begins in 1893 when the American Minister to Hawaii organized to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy to protect interests of sugar plantation owners.

In 1898, U.S. imperialism made its real debut with the Spanish American War, in which it seized Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. As with all U.S. wars, its planners hid its real intentions from the American public behind a veil of lies, fabricated provocations and racist ideology.

As Kinzer argues, "Spreading democracy, Christianizing heathen nations, building a strong navy, establishing military bases around the world, and bringing foreign governments under American control were never ends in themselves. They were ways for the United States to assure itself access to the markets, resources, and investment potential of distant lands."

As the military governor of Cuba after the American victory, Gen. Leonard Wood wrote in 1900, "People ask me what we mean by stable government in Cuba. I tell them that when money can be borrowed at a reasonable rate of interest and when capital is willing to invest in the island, a condition of stability will have been reached."

The U.S. military campaign in the Philippines was carried out with staggering brutality. The attack on the Filipino village of Balangiga carried out by Col. Jacob Smith, was the Haditha or My Lai massacre of its day.

"Smith arrived, took charge of the remaining garrisons, and ordered his men to kill everyone over the age of ten and turn the island's interior into a "howling wilderness. I want no prisoners," he told them. "I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and the more you burn, the better you will please me."

Tens of thousands of Filipinos were slaughtered by U.S. forces, which ruled directly over the Philippines until 1946 when the U.S. put power into the hands of its collaborators. Then it funded the Marcos regime's vicious assault on all opposition. Kinzer writes, "It gave his regime billions of dollars in military aid, much of which he spent on violent campaigns against both rebel insurgencies and peaceful opposition movements. The reason was clear. Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval state had become foundations of American military power in Asia, and the U.S. was willing to do whatever was necessary to hold on to them."

Two years later in Honduras, one individual American capitalist, Sam Zemurray, who almost single handedly controlled the Honduran banana trade, organized the overthrow the President Miguel Davila, because Davila was trying to impose higher taxes and limitations on the amount of land foreigners could own.

While the new pro-American president was being sworn in, U.S. Marines stood guard over the wharf used by American fruit companies. The new president even paid Zemurray $500,000 to cover his out of pocket expenses for the "revolution."

Over the following decades, the U.S. government backed a series of brutal military dictatorships in Honduras that put down all popular movements in the interest of preserving the power of U.S. capital. And in the 1980s, the U.S. used Honduras as the CIA base from which it trained and organized death squads to deploy in its war on Nicaragua.

The end of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War ushered in a second phase of "regime change." Open military intervention threatened pulling the U.S. into a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union. So began the era of overthrow through covert CIA operations.

In Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam and Chile, the CIA organized behind the scenes to overthrow the governments and put in their place brutal client regimes that tortured and murdered their own populations. Only in Vietnam was the national liberation struggle able to ultimately defeat the U.S., at a terrible cost to the people of South East Asia.

In 1951, the CIA, in partnership with the multinational United Fruit, overthrew the democratically elected popular government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. The U.S. installed and supported the bloody police state of Carlos Castillo Armas.

"Between 1960 and 1990, the United States provided Guatemala with hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid. Americans trained and armed the Guatemalan army and police, sent Green Beret teams to accompany soldiers on anti-guerrilla mission, and dispatched planes from the Panama Canal Zone to drop napalm on suspected guerrilla hideouts." Over 200,000 Guatemalans died in the 30-year civil war.

The third phase of U.S. imperialism started with the decline of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and overcoming the Vietnam Syndrome, which has allowed the U.S. to return to direct military intervention to impose "regime change."

Much of this history will be more familiar to readers of Socialist Worker--the invasion of Grenada and Panama, the CIA support for the mujahadeen in Afghanistan that led to the rise of al-Qaeda, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But it is worth reading because Kinzer shows how these events fit in with the longer historical patterns of U.S. imperialism.

The book has some weaknesses--for example, it doesn't discuss U.S. intervention in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, East Timor and some others, except for a brief disclaimer at the beginning of the book.

And Kinzer's focus is almost exclusively on the individuals at the top of society who "made" this history. Ordinary people in the countries attacked by the U.S., or in the U.S., don't really make an appearance, except as helpless victims or consenting subjects.

Finally, the book ends with an oddly pat appeal for a "thoughtful foreign policy" that uses "combinations of incentives, threats, punishment and rewards," to deal with "dangerous" regimes. It's a strange way to conclude, since the entire weight of the preceding history tells us otherwise.

At stake in each invasion is the interest of U.S. government to preserve the rights of U.S. capital to go anywhere and do anything, and to prevent any upstart nation from setting an example of resistance to the U.S.

Don't be put off. Overthrow has a wealth of insights for those who fight U.S. imperialism from within the belly of the beast.

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