Stephen Kinzer presents a thesis that is stark in both its simplicity and the breadth of its implications. In short, he argues that since the late nineteenth century when the American frontier disappeared from North America, the United States has pursued a policy of overthrowing foreign governments whenever it is expedient for American interests.
Furthermore, “American interests” have been defined essentially as the interests of the riches American corporations. Kinzer even goes on to show in several of examples that other contributing factors that might be considered American interests–the spread of democracy or national security in its military sense–have often coincided with such overthrows but were never sufficient until corporate interests became heavily involved.
The view of “the American century” that Kinzer’s work offers is not especially flattering: the American government is essentially a hit man for its richest, most ambitious, and most ruthless businessmen, and the American people are culpably self-deluding in continuing to believe that our foreign interventions are ever motivated by the ideals of freedom and justice that are espoused in the run-up to such operations.
The radical turn in American foreign policy from the relative isolationism of the Monroe Doctrine to the belligerent interventionism of the later twentieth century began with the plot of some missionaries turned businessmen in Hawaii. Through the cooperation of the American diplomat accredited to Hawaii, the businessmen who wanted to annex Hawaii to the U. S. (to get better access to markets for sugar) were able to get the support of the U. S. military. (Kinzer, 2006, p. 24).
However, the landing of troops in support of Lorrin Thurston’s conspiracy was preceded by the earlier deployment of 150 U. S. Marines as a private bodyguard for the Hawaiian king after making a very unpopular concession of power to the U. S. government (p. 14). Violence was not necessary to secure the takeover of Hawaii; like the rooster of Buddhist lore, who’s transcendentally superior training enable him to win all fights without fighting by awing his challengers into submission, the U. S. presented a show of force that made resistance sufficiently untenable as to never begin.
The overthrow of Hawaii offers a typology of how such interventions would continue to proceed during what Kinzer calls the imperial era. First, American investment in foreign countries would either be allowed whatever operating rules they wanted by that government, or the U. S. would intervene to secure the business environment they desired. Second, the presence of American troops for any reason–even at the request of the foreign government–was also an invitation for overthrow. Once deployed, an American military presence was difficult to be rid of and historically would only increase.
Third, once military presence began to accumulate it would aim to reach the level of overwhelming force that enable governments to be deposed without the cost of a real war. The main expenses of the imperial era regime changes were in transportation and recruitment, rather than lives and munitions. The war in the Philippines, however, gave some idea of the kind of indigenous guerilla resistance, and the horrific tortures used by all sides, that would be met in Cold War conflicts like the war in Vietnam.
Without the backing of the Soviet Union, and with a show of amazing bravado, the war in Philippines was ultimately winnable for the U. S. , but once local populations began to be supplied with the weaponry and tactical knowledge of the Soviet Union the wars of the covert action period would be less demonstrably successful. With the polarization of world power during the Cold War, the U. S. could not openly engage with Soviet forces for fear of starting a third world war. Instead, both sides funded proxy parties to play out their rival quests for world domination.
Though it sounds like a cliche and an exaggeration, this is exactly what both sides sought). The overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and the instatement of Mohammed Reza Shah illustrates the dynamics of the covert period and sows the seeds of anti-American sentiment that would unfurl later in the century. As in the imperial period, the overthrow of Mossadegh was driven by a few deeply committed persons, most especially John Foster Dulles, rather than by a consensus of experts or the will of the American people.
Kinzer writes that Foster “had been shaped by three powerful influences: a uniquely privileged upbringing, a long career advising the world’s richest corporations, and a profound [Christian] religious faith” (p. 115). As in Hawaii and other colonial-proselytizing missions, America’s version of Christianity would justify incredible intolerance of other peoples’ right to self-determination. In retrospect there is a dark humor in this: today conservative critics point to the religious fundamentalism of the Middle East, but at the source of the American-Middle East conflict in the Cold War the U. S. as guided by a radically faith-driven individual to overthrow liberal humanist elected leaders like Mossadegh.
On the other hand, Dulles acted to combat atheism and communism, which continue to be viable boogeymen for inspiring intervention. Dulles represented a perfect figure for directing the Protestant work ethic into a Protestant war spirit. Capitalist expansion and religious destiny are equally expressed in his crusade against communism, as well as his privileged disregard for the peoples of the countries that he treated as pawns in this conflict. The break-up of the Soviet Union was instrumental in allowing the U. S. o resume overt military operations, but the first of these was Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983.
Because Grenada was very small and distant from the Soviet Union, and the onset of the war very quick, the U. S. was able to deploy troops without encountering Soviet forces. The purpose of this war, Kinzer argues, was basically to rebuild military stature and confidence after Vietnam. This pattern would continue in the invasion period: wars that did not make America safer, or richer, or more popular (though Kinzer does not that the invasion of Grenada is considered a success by the population there) but demonstrated our military prowess.
The genealogy of American regime change allows us a useful perspective for picking out the salient and relatively permanent fixtures of this worldview. First, from McKinley to George W. Bush, Christian faith has supplanted empirical knowledge of other cultures. Second, American corporate interests have operated in an unelected capacity through influence on lawmakers. Third, these wars have always been trumped up in the name of democracy and freedom. With this in mind, a fairly clear typology of resistance emerges as well.
First, do not support religious leaders. Do not engage in discussions where religion can exert a determining force. Do not typify other nations or peoples in terms of their religion; rather, talk about the material coordinates of their cultures and beliefs. The second and third recommendations are part of a single structure of concealment and pronouncement. Do not speak of freedom and democracy as goals; do not ask the government to pursue these through foreign policy. When the U. S. government claims to advance these ideals it is invariably lying.
Rather, demand to know what is never spoken: the economic costs and benefits of such interventions. Which corporations have investments there? How much will the war cost? Who pays and who profits? By ignoring claims to advance religion and freedom we can avoid the perverse effects these have had on our national history; by shedding our pretended innocence of all things crudely economic, we can unmask the base motives we fear to confront. At least, these are the lessons to be drawn from Kinzer’s report.