Four Strike Ike: Sixty Years Of Blowback


It has been sixty years since Dwight D. Eisenhower became president of the United States. Eisenhower presided over a period of American innocence and optimism. Considered one of the last great presidents, he often makes it onto lists of best presidents in America. Cast in the mold of George Washington, Eisenhower was the great war general turned president who never told a lie–or, in Eisenhower’s case, only ever told one lie, which he later called his greatest regret. Even later Democrat presidents would consult Eisenhower.

But not everything Eisenhower did was innocent and open. He used nuclear weapons and covert action to deter and roll back the Soviet Union. During his two terms, Eisenhower presided over the launch of one hundred and seventy major covert CIA operations in forty-eight different countries. Sixty years later, some of the operations he launched are still stirring up the waters of the White House. As Obama gets sworn in for his second term as president, some of the most troubled regions and the most troubling decisions he will face are, at least in part, the resultant wake of the actions launched by the president who was sworn in sixty years before.

In January of 2013, the biggest issue confronting Obama is Iran. That issue was created sixty years earlier, in 1953, by Eisenhower in his first year in office.

The story of Iran begins, not in America, but in Britain. Through its Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), Britain totally controlled Iranian oil in the first half of the twentieth century. The AIOC held exclusive rights to extract, refine, ship and sell Iranian oil. And though they did pay Iran a small amount for these rights, the AIOC made ten times what it paid Iran while also systematically cheating the Iranians out of additional billions.

So in 1951, Mohammad Mosaddeq surged to power in Iran, propelled by a wave of Iranian nationalism determined to recapture their oil so that the profits could be used for the benefit, not of the British people, but of the Iranian people. Mosaddeq was enormously popular, a genuine democrat and nationalist and the first democratically elected leader of Iran.

But democracy meant losing control of Iran’s oil. Mosaddeq immediately started trying to nationalize Iran’s oil, and, in April 1951, the Iranian parliament nationalized the oil industry. In May, Mosaddeq was elected Prime Minister and signed the bill into law. Britain responded by clamping a crushing embargo on Iran. The AIOC led an international boycott of the new Iranian oil industry. Then Britain began diplomatic and covert actions against Mosaddeq. But Mosaddeq was wildly popular and the people supported his moves. According to the U.S. State Department, he had the support of a full 95-98% of Iranians. He easily won a huge referendum victory.

So Britain tried to overthrow him. She failed. Miserably. Mosaddeq responded by shutting down the British embassy in Iran, and when all the diplomats were purged, all the spies were flushed out with them. England had no one in Iran to overthrow the Prime Minister.

So Britain turned to America. But then President Harry Truman was not willing to use the newly created CIA to overthrow a foreign government. But when Eisenhower came to power, everything changed. Initially, Eisenhower was reluctant too and briefly considered stabilizing Mosaddeq instead of toppling him. But he decided instead to pursue a more aggressive covert path than his predecessor had been willing to walk. Eisenhower was willing, and he agreed to do Britain’s dirty work. On either July 11 or August 8 of 1953, depending on the source, Eisenhower gave the CIA the presidential approval it had been waiting for. And in an incredible story of intrigue, Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, would take the helm of Operation Ajax, and in August of 1953, in the very first CIA coup, the American advised Iranian military, completed the CIA and M16 inspired and organized coup and overthrew Mohammad Mosaddeq.

With that America ended a flowering and promising period of Iranian democracy because it threatened her interests and reinstalled the Shah of Iran who would carry out his many years of savage and repressive dictatorship. The Shah would repress opposition media, political parties, unions and other groups. He would bring in SAVAK, that most notorious and murderous secret police and their hellish torture chambers. This decision of Eisenhower’s set in motion historical tides that would carry Iran through a revolution, an American Embassy hostage taking and, eventually, to the international showdown that Obama faces sixty years later.

Back on this side of the ocean, in what would notoriously become America’s backyard, as Eisenhower had delivered the first CIA coup in Iran, so he delivered the first in a long line of CIA coups in South and Central America. Eisenhower’s removal of Jacobo Arbenz from power in Guatemala in 1954 would set off a series of American coups in Latin America that would stretched through virtually every administration. In the next administration, Kennedy would remove Goulart from power in Brazil while undertaking a political action to encourage the removal of Cheddi Jagan from power in Guyana. Most famously, Kennedy would commit all of his energy to bringing “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba in an attempt to remove Castro from power. After Kennedy, Nixon would brutalize Chile with the coup against Salvador Allende, and Reagan would take out Panama’s Manuel Noriega amongst his other Latin American activities. The Latin American coups would continue through Bush’s unpopular and short lived 2002 removal of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, right up to the Obama administrations interference and coup cooperation in Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela and Paraguay.

This history of American interference in the domestic affairs of Latin American and of American opposition to democracy and support for brutal dictatorships has led to Obama’s current struggle to regain influence over a Latin American backyard that is newly and energetically independent. This independence is, perhaps, best witnessed in the formation of the new thirty-two Latin American nation strong organization that excludes The United States and Canada and that balances out the US dominated Organization of American States.

The first modern link in the chain that led to Obama’s struggle with Latin America was forged by Eisenhower in Guatemala in 1954. A few years earlier, in November of 1950, a majority of Guatemalans had elected Jacobo Arbenz president. Arbenz set out to transform Guatemala from a dependent, semi-colonial country into a genuinely independent one. He took on United Fruit, who owned about 20% of the land in his country and redistributed it. He also regulated major U.S. companies in Guatemala, including United Fruit. Like Mosaddeq, he was a nationalist who wanted his own people to benefit from their own country’s wealth. So, in 1954, as in Iran, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to overthrow Arbenz. And in late June that year, blaming “a cruel war” undertaken by “The United Fruit Company, in collaboration with the governing circles of the United States”, Arbenz gave up the power that his people had democratically bestowed upon him.

But initiating the chain of coups in Latin America was not Eisenhower’s only contribution to current US policy in that region. As the embargo on Cuba goes cruelly on, responsibility for the Cuban crises is usually credited to Kennedy, and his Cuban struggles are usually at the center of the telling of his story. But history often neglects to report that it was much earlier, in December of 1959, that Allen Dulles, head of Eisenhower’s CIA, first gave the go ahead for the “removal from Cuba” of Castro. In January of 1960, Dulles ordered the creation of a special force to overthrow Fidel Castro. And on May 2, 1960, Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, was briefed by Dulles on what the CIA was doing in Cuba, including economic warfare, sabotage, propaganda and more. Two weeks after that briefing, Eisenhower approved covert action on Castro. CIA expert John Prados has also shown that it was Eisenhower, and not Kennedy, who first approved and started the plan for the invasion of Cuba.

So in many ways, as with Iran, the seeds for the contemporary struggle in Latin America were sown by decisions Eisenhower made sixty years ago. But not only two of today’s most turbulent physical hot spots roil in the wake of Eisenhower’s actions, so too for America’s psyche. The scar on the American psyche left by the ugly nature of, and by the shocking defeat in, the quagmire of Vietnam has partly contributed to the determination to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan seemingly indefinitely in order to avoid slinking away with yet another defeat and continuing the humiliating blow to American confidence of the Vietnam Syndrome. And this too was born in the decisions of Eisenhower six decades ago.

When Eisenhower took office in 1953, the war of independence in Vietnam had reached its climax, and, exhausted by years of war, France was finally ready to relinquish her colonial grip on that country. So 1954 found the willingness for negotiation. France pulled out and Vietnam was temporarily divided into two halves: the communists would get the northern half. The division was meant to be temporary. It was to be ended in two years when, in July of 1956, a nationwide election would be held, the country would pick one leader, and the north and south would be reunited.

But the promised reunification of Vietnam presented a problem for America. The communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, was by far the most popular leader in Vietnam. A free election would see the people of Vietnam choosing a communist government. Eisenhower knew this. He said that “possibly eighty percent of the population” would vote for Ho Chi Minh. So, determined to avoid a Vietnam unified under a communist government, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the CIA set out to destroy the negotiated agreement and make the temporary division permanent, preserving half of Vietnam as a noncommunist haven. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles then encouraged Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S. appointed leader of South Vietnam not to hold the promised unifying election. To avoid communism in North Vietnam, Eisenhower treacherously created two nations in Vietnam. A partition negotiated temporarily to avoid conflict was wrenched into a permanent partition that assured one. So, not unlike Cuba, Vietnam was, at least causally in part, Eisenhower’s war and not Kennedy’s. Eisenhower’s actions would plant the causes for the Vietnam War, and the effects of the Vietnam War would come to influence the decisions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Obama would inherit six decades later.

Cuba and South America, Iran and Vietnam: three actions launched by Eisenhower in his first term that would send turbulent eddies well into Obama’s second term. But there was one more decision made by Eisenhower at the end of his second term that has contributed to one of the hugest, yet least discussed, disasters of today: the Congo.

Patrice Lumumba was elected as leader of the Congo in the first free democratic elections that country had ever held. That democracy had come to the Congo should have made America happy. But, as with Vietnam, the problem with democracy is that the people get to choose who they want and not who America wants. Lumumba was a nationalist. The Belgian colonial power had been plundering Congo’s vast natural wealth for herself. Congo’s diamonds and gold, ivory, rubber, timber, palm oil, copper and other minerals had been flowing into Belgium and not into the coffers of the Congo. Lumumba, like Mosaddeq and Arbenz before him wanted the resources of the land to benefit the people of the land. So, like Mosaddeq and Arbenz, he had to go. And, like Ho Chi Minh, Lumumba also had to go because, according to the Americans, he was a communist.

So, on what would turn out to be a very busy day for Eisenhower, only hours after he gave the final go ahead on the removal of Castro from Cuba, Eisenhower gave the order to remove Lumumba from the Congo. According to the senate testimony of National Security Council note taker Robert Johnston, Eisenhower flatly told Allen Dulles to eliminate Lumumba. Dulles sent a cable to Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief in Congo, telling him that “In high quarters here it is clear-cut conclusion . . . that his removal must be an urgent and prime objective”. In secret testimony, Devlin would later say, “I asked on whose orders these instructions were issued”. He said the answer was “the President”.

So, in 1960, Project Wizard, the plan to eliminate the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba went into effect. Along with Belgium, who contributed six million to the effort, the U.S. funded and armed the anti-Lumumba resistance, and CIA surveillance reports helped in his capture by Joseph Mobutu, the man the CIA had selected as the new ruler of Congo. Mobutu delivered Lumumba into the hands of, what Larry Devlin calls, his “sworn enemy”. Lumumba was beaten and killed on January 17, 1961. Belgian officers participated in his murder. The Congolese official who signed his arrest warrant was on the payroll of the CIA.

Lumumba’s assassination led to three decades of dictatorship under Joseph Mobutu that left a disintegrated and divided wreck from which the Congo has still not recovered. John Prados has said that “Exorcising [Lumumba’s] ghost in the Congo required years of fighting, never to be fully accomplished”. Since the 1990’s alone, an incomprehensible six to ten million Congolese have died. Underlying the war in the Congo are minerals like coltan, which is used in laptops and cell phones, and the thirty percent of the world’s diamonds that lay under her ground. The rapacious competition for those minerals has taken a country with perhaps more mineral wealth than any other nation on the planet, and returned the lowest per capita gross domestic product of any nation in the world. And that was precisely the inequity that Patrice Lumumba was attempting to resolve when Eisenhower had him killed.

Sixty years after the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower in January 1953, many of the most troubled regions on earth, many of the most turbulent problems of the day–from Iran to America’s relations with Latin America and Cuba to the legacy of Vietnam and the genocidal wars of the Congo–that stir the waters of the Obama White House arrive in the wake of decisions made by Eisenhower all those years ago.

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