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Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow
I n the last installment of a multi-part series, entitled “The Partisans of Ali,” NPR correspondent Mike Shuster noted, in regards to Shia and Sunni conflict in the Middle East, that there seemed to be “little awareness in Washington of the potential for such sectarian conflict.” Shuster also quotes Ay- man Shaheen, professor of political science at Gaza’s Al Azar University, who puts the case directly: “You worked against history. [There’s] never [been] a Shiite government in the Arab world, through 14 centuries. Shiites will never govern in the Arab world. And this is your fatal mistake. That’s why you will pay a big price.” And further, notably repeating his basic claim: “You did not recognize the history of the region. So if you want to build a new thing, even your new policy should be based on history. Your policy was based on nothing.” As Shuster himself concludes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that nations that involve themselves in these conflicts, without the benefit of a deep understanding of history, do so at their own peril.”
This is exactly the problem, though writ much larger, that Stephen Kinzer’s latest book, Overthrow: America ’s Century of Regime C hange from Hawaii to Iraq , looks to counter by drawing out the pattern that emerges when we do, in fact, attend to the history of U.S. intervention in governments around the world.
Kinzer’s O verthrow provides detailed accounts of, as the author states, “the most direct form of American intervention, the overthrow of foreign governments,” covering the roughly hundred years from the U.S.-backed toppling of Hawaii’s monarchy in 1893 to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The conclusion that Kinzer arrives at is that “almost every American overthrow of a foreign government has left in its wake a bitter residue of pain and anger.” With the historical knowledge that Overthrow provides, however, we gain not just an understanding of the past, but, more importantly, an understanding of the present and of the future. We begin to see instances of U.S. intervention “as a continuum,” as Kinzer explains, “rather than a series of unrelated incidents.”
The early chapters of Kinzer’s book do sometimes feel too much like individual histories; however, the further along the historical narrative we get, the more the connectedness of the incidents becomes clear. Chapter 4, for example, “A Break in the History of the World,” provides a coda to the previous chapters on U.S. interventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also becomes increasingly obvious as the book proceeds that with even the least bit of historical awareness, the present Administration should have had a much clearer picture of what intervention in the Middle East, especially of the vicious kind that took place, would produce. As Kinzer writes in his final chapter, “The blessings of freedom that [President] McKinley said he wanted to bestow on Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos, that William Howard Taft said the United States would bring to Central America, and that later presidents claimed they were spreading from Iran to Grenada are the same ones that George W. Bush insisted his invasion of Iraq would bring to people there.”
Kinzer, having spent the bulk of his professional career as a foreign correspondent in places from Germany, to Turkey, to Latin America, looks to invest the term “regime change” with the important historical resonance it seems now to have lost, falling prey as it has to the political nothing-speak that so dangerously divests language of meaning. Kinzer’s book is most successful for the degree to which it provides an historical account of American intervention in a wide geographical range of foreign governments—intervention to the point of actually toppling those governments—and across a broad sweep of time. Kinzer writes specifically that “The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not an isolated episode” and that “‘regime change’ did not begin with the administration of George W. Bush.” Overthrow is timely particularly because Bush and his cronies seem to see their current historical moment as somehow unique in history, somehow even divinely scripted for them and perhaps, as Kinzer writes, “beyond the reach of history” altogether.
Kinzer’s book begins with what he identifies as the first American intervention in a foreign government, an intervention whose stated aim was to topple that government: the case of Hawaii, 1893. Hawaii was then an independent state ruled by a monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. Kinzer details the various political and economic motives behind this early example of American military power, or merely the threat of it, being ultimately used to destabilize and ultimate overthrow a foreign power that was not deemed to be complying with U.S. interests. Kinzer is careful to outline the economic imperatives that are so often at the root of political upheavals; in the case of Hawaii, it is white interest in the massive profits to be made from sugar. The relation between economic and political forces as they played out in the case of Hawaii at the end of the 19th century set the pattern, Kinzer argues, for the numerous interventions that would follow over the next 100 years. Fast-forward to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: as Kinzer notes, “Giant American Corporations stood to make huge profits from this war and its aftermath.” Among the prime beneficiaries were Halliburton, Bechtel, and the Carlyle Group, all with ties to the Bush administration and all major contributors to Bush’s presidential campaigns.
Overthrow takes us up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, with chapters devoted along the way to the misnamed Spanish-American war in Cuba, American intervention in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries, along with U.S. involvement in southeast Asia and the Middle East. What emerges from the various chapters is an obvious case of variations on a theme. As Kinzer writes, “History does not repeat itself, but it delights in patterns and symmetries.”
Each of the cases that Kinzer documents has been ably covered in depth, sometimes by Kinzer himself, in numerous other studies, and Overthrow is much more a popular than a scholarly history. This results in a less cumbersome book than might have otherwise been the case, and as such reads easily, moving with a quick energy from event to event. One could turn for a full, book-length discussion of U.S. meddling in Iran to Kinzer’s own All the Shah’s Men : An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (2003). Equally compelling is his detailed analysis of the U.S. backed revolution in Guatemala that unfolded in the 1950s, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (with Stephen Schlesinger, first published in 1982 and subsequently updated).
So while Overthrow may not provide the depth that a more narrowly focused analysis could achieve, it does provide the very clear historical pattern of U.S. intervention in foreign governments that is so instructive for the current situation in Iraq. Kinzer’s avowed aim is to have his readers understand the political, and especially the economic, motivations behind this history of interventions in order that we see the current situation for what it is: not a moment somehow divinely ahistorical, but rather as another in a long line of similar situations. By historicizing the present moment, Kinzer argues, we can more easily predict and understand what are to be the likely outcomes of specifically military intervention around the world.
O verthrow is written with an intensity that speaks to Kinzer’s passion for his subject, and it certainly reflects his belief that the work of writing books of this kind is an important element in the social and cultural movements that look to curtail what often seems the blind power of a privileged elite that is destined to repeat the errors of the past. In covering a wide historical sweep, Kinzer is careful to bring the players in each drama to life, identifying individual motivations and decisions within the larger framework of political and economic structural pressures. Too often histories can become about either deterministic forces beyond the individual or they can become simply about “bad” people, with little sense of how systemic and structural arrangements make unethical choices seem like the right ones for those involved. Further, an assortment of black and white photos in Overthrow , collected in the middle of the book, provides a useful visual element to the narrative.
Kinzer is equally sensitive to the kinds of documentary evidence that do not necessarily form part of the official histories but that are actually more evocative of a particular time and place than those grand histories can be. He often turns, for example, to the minutia of letters and personal diaries, long forgotten books, and obscure journal articles to give even the broadest historical overview a tangible specificity. One finds reference to primary source material like the Honolulu Daily Bulletin of January 17, 1893, and an editorial in the New York Evening Post on February 1, 1901 in the chapter, “A Hell of a Time Up at the Palace,” for example.
A particularly interesting conclusion that Kinzer’s various histories point to is that U.S. intervention often causes the very problems it had ostensibly aimed to solve, and that the rhetoric of acting in America’s “best interests” as the pretext for global intervention need not be entirely cast aside. On the contrary, America’s best interests might actually be most ably served by non-interventionist measures. We often hear that U.S. intervention around the globe is undertaken to preserve “freedom” or “safety.” This is the frightening language that is deployed to justify preemptive military action. What is clear, however, is that such action does little to deter the supposed threat it was mobilized to counter; rather, the opposite is too often true. Intervention, almost always motivated as much by economic as by political forces, tends to cause or worsen the very danger it was to oppose. What more clear example of this than Iraq might we need?
A notable subtext in the book, and one that Kinzer might have drawn even more to light, is the consistent role played by the media in deferring to the wishes of U.S. administrations that are bent on foreign involvement; these are “shameful episodes in the history of the American press,” as Kinzer calls them. He points, for example, to the case of the William Randolph Hearst newspapers, including the New York Journal among others, and the zeal with which they printed entirely fictitious accounts of the Spanish commander, General Valeriano Weyler, whom the U.S chose as the necessary villain during the Spanish-American War. (The king of Spain was 14-year-old Alphonso XIII.) “There is nothing to prevent his carnal, animal brain from running riot with itself in inventing tortures and infamies of bloody debauchery,” runs one account that Kinzer quotes. Ironically, the notice of Weyler’s death that ran in the New York Times of October 21, 1930 admits that while Weyler’s methods were severe in Cuba, he was “the most caricatured man in the United States, figuring in American news headlines as ‘The Butcher’.”
T he mainstream media is currently no less guilty of playing the part of administration mouthpiece; particularly grim was the run-up to the Iraq invasion. However, it is perhaps too easy to paint the media in such broad strokes, for even throughout Kinzer’s discussion there are examples of media voices critical of U.S. policy. Just days after the overthrow of Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, for example, an item in the New York Evening Post declared it “revolution on a strictly cash basis.” In fact, the media in its role as alternately mouthpiece or critic is complex and even self-contradictory. So while reports of the election of Mohammed Mossadegh to the premiership of Iran in the spring of 1951 often dubbed him “extremist,” and drew attention to his age (the “septuagenarian nemesis”) and his penchant for oratorical histrionics, he would be named Time’ s Man of the Year for 1951. However, the Time article could hardly be called congratulatory.
On the contrary, according to the article, Mossadegh is, by Western standards, “a caricature of a statesman.” The closing paragraph of the long piece is equally derogatory: “In its leadership of the non- Communist world, the U.S. has some dire responsibilities to shoulder. One of them is to meet the fundamental moral challenge posed by the strange old wizard who lives in a mountainous land and who is, sad to relate, the Man of 1951.” (We note the rhetoric of morality echoed some 50 years later as Bush declares repeatedly that his “war on terror” is “a conflict between good and evil.”)
Kinzer’s Overthrow will be perhaps most valuable for what we can learn and apply from the lessons the book supplies. At times, Kinzer speculates about what alternate histories may have developed had the U.S. not intervened so drastically in foreign governments: “What would have happened if the United States had not seized the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century?” or “If Nicaragua had been left to develop in its own way, it might have become prosperous, democratic, and a stabilizing force in Central America.” These speculations are probably less useful than confronting the histories that did unfold. As Kinzer writes, “No one can know what might have happened in Honduras if the United States had never intervened there. Two facts, however, are indisputable. First, the United States has been the overwhelming force in Honduran life for more than a century. Second, Honduras today faces a nightmare of poverty, violence, and instability.”
So are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and live with the consequences that we could have seen coming? Or is there the possibility for a more historically aware political machine? Kinzer draws the epigraph for his book from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in
And time future contained in
the time past.
This is the sense of a living history that runs through Overthrow : a past that is very much a part of the present and that has much to teach us about the future. The closing lines of Eliot’s Four Quartets bring us nicely full circle to the epigraph to Kinzer’s Overthrow and to the thesis that it presents:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Jason Snart is an associate professor of English at the College of DuPage in Illinois.
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