Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq
"The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not an isolated episode. It
was the culmination of a 110-year period during which Americans
overthrew fourteen governments that displeased them for various
ideological, political, and economic reasons."
Democracy Now! - Broadcast date: 04/21/06
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kinzer joins us today in Chicago.
He is a veteran New York Times foreign correspondent,
author of several books, including All the Shah's Men and
Bitter Fruit. He has just recently left the New York
Times. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
STEPHEN KINZER: It’s great to be with you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It's good to be in your city, Stephen.
STEPHEN KINZER: Love it!
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you are looking at 14 coups that
the U.S. was involved with. What was the primary reason for the
U.S. government's involvement in overthrowing other countries'
STEPHEN KINZER: A lot of these coups have been studied
individually, but what I'm trying to do in my book is see them
not as a series of isolated incidents, but rather as one long
continuum. And by looking at them that way, I am able to tease
out certain patterns that recur over and over again. They don't
all fit the same pattern, but it's amazing how many of them do.
You ask about the motivations, and that is one of the
patterns that comes through when you look at these things all
together. There’s really a three-stage motivation that I can see
when I watch so many of the developments of these coups. The
first thing that happens is that the regime in question starts
bothering some American company. They start demanding that the
company pay taxes or that it observe labor laws or environmental
laws. Sometimes that company is nationalized or is somehow
required to sell some of its land or its assets. So the first
thing that happens is that an American or a foreign corporation
is active in another country, and the government of that country
starts to restrict it in some way or give it some trouble,
restrict its ability to operate freely.
Then, the leaders of that company come to the political
leadership of the United States to complain about the regime in
that country. In the political process, in the White House, the
motivation morphs a little bit. The U.S. government does not
intervene directly to defend the rights of a company, but they
transform the motivation from an economic one into a political
or geo-strategic one. They make the assumption that any regime
that would bother an American company or harass an American
company must be anti-American, repressive, dictatorial, and
probably the tool of some foreign power or interest that wants
to undermine the United States. So the motivation transforms
from an economic to a political one, although the actual basis
for it never changes.
Then, it morphs one more time when the U.S. leaders have to
explain the motivation for this operation to the American
people. Then they do not use either the economic or the
political motivation usually, but they portray these
interventions as liberation operations, just a chance to free a
poor oppressed nation from the brutality of a regime that we
assume is a dictatorship, because what other kind of a regime
would be bothering an American company?
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kinzer, I want to begin where you
do in the book, and that is, with Hawaii.
STEPHEN KINZER: Many Americans I don't think realize
that Hawaii was an independent country before it was brought
into the United States. In brief, this is the story. In the
early part of the 19th century, several hundred American
missionaries, most of them from New England, sailed off to what
were then called the Sandwich Islands to devote their lives to,
as they would have put it, raising up the heathen savages and
teaching them the blessings of Christian civilization.
It wasn't long before many of these missionaries and their
sons began to realize that there was a lot of money to be made
in Hawaii. The natives had been growing sugar for a long time,
but they had never refined it and had never exported it. By
dispossessing the natives of most of their land, a group that
came from what was then called this missionary planter elite
sort of left the path of God, went onto the path of Mammon and
established a series of giant sugar plantations in Hawaii, and
they became very rich from exporting sugar into the United
In the early 1890s, the U.S. passed a tariff that made it
impossible for the Hawaiian sugar growers to sell their sugar in
the U.S. So they were in a panic. They were about to lose their
fortunes. And they asked themselves what they could do to
somehow continue to sell their sugar in the U.S.
They came up with a perfect answer: We’ll get into the U.S.
How will we do this? Well, the leader of the Hawaiian
revolutionaries, if you want to call them that, who were mostly
of American origin, actually went to Washington. He met with the
Secretary of the Navy. He presented his case directly to the
President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison. And he
received assurances that the U.S. would support a rebellion
against the Hawaiian monarchy.
So he went back to Hawaii and became part of a triumvirate,
which essentially carried out the Hawaiian revolution. He was
one part of the triumvirate. The second part was the American
ambassador, who was himself an annexationist and had been
instructed by the State Department to do whatever he could to
aid this revolution. And the third figure was the commander of
the U.S. naval vessel, which was conveniently anchored right off
the shores of Honolulu.
This revolution was carried out with amazing ease. The leader
of the Hawaiian revolutionaries, this missionary planter elite,
simply announced at a meeting one day, “We have overthrown the
government of Hawaii, and we are now the new government.” And
before the queen was able to respond, the U.S. ambassador had
250 Marines called to shore from the ship that was conveniently
off the coast of Honolulu and announced that since there had
been some instability and there seemed to be a change of
government, the Marines were going to land to protect the new
regime and the lives and property of all Hawaiians. So that
meant that there was nothing the queen could do. The regime was
immediately recognized by the United States, and with that
simple process, the monarchy of Hawaii came to an end, and then
ultimately Hawaii joined the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: The queen called in ambassadors from
other countries for help?
STEPHEN KINZER: The queen was a little bit shocked by
all this, as were her cabinet ministers. In fact, they appealed
to the United States and asked, “What instability is there?
Who's in danger? Tell us, and we'll protect them.” The queen had
about 600 troops at her disposal. That was the whole Hawaiian
military force. And her cabinet ministers actually called the
ambassadors from foreign countries in Honolulu -- there were
about a dozen of them then -- and said, “What should we do? Do
you think we should fight the Marines?” And the ambassadors
quite prudently told her that that would be foolish. “You should
just accept it and then try to regain your throne by some other
means.” That never proved possible. But even then, it was clear
to the ruler of this small, weak country that there was no hope
in resisting U.S. military intervention.
AMY GOODMAN: It still took a few years before Hawaii
was ultimately annexed.
STEPHEN KINZER: It's a very interesting story.
Immediately after the revolution, the revolutionaries went back
to Washington and, sure enough, President Harrison, as he
promised, submitted to the U.S. Congress a law to bring Hawaii
into the U.S., but there was a great resistance to this when it
was understood how the coup was organized and on whose behalf it
was organized, so the Congress did not immediately approve the
annexation of Hawaii.
And right at that time, the presidency changed. The
Republican, Benjamin Harrison, was out of office, and the new
president, a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, came in. He was against
annexation. He was an anti-imperialist. He withdrew the treaty.
And that meant that Hawaii had to become an independent country
for a few years, until the next Republican president came into
office, McKinley. And then, at the height of the
Spanish-American War, when the U.S. was taking the Philippines,
Hawaii was presented to the U.S. as a vital midway station
between California and the Philippines. And it was at that time,
five years after the revolution, that Hawaii was actually
brought into the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Stephen Kinzer. So,
first came the missionaries, then came the Marines.
STEPHEN KINZER: Yeah, exactly. Sometimes we hear the
phrase “Business follows the flag.” But in my research, I found
that it's actually the opposite. First comes the business
operations, then comes the flag. It's the flag that follows
AMY GOODMAN: We're going to take a break, and then
we're going to come back to this discussion about, well, the
title of his book is Overthrow: America's Century of Regime
Change from Hawaii to Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: We're broadcasting from Chicago, where
Stephen Kinzer is based, longtime foreign correspondent for the
New York Times, author of a number of books, including
All the Shah's Men, about Iran, Bitter Fruit, about
Guatemala. His latest is Overthrow: America's Century of
Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. He just recently left the
New York Times. You talk about 14 countries that the U.S.
intervened in: Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico,
Chile, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Afghanistan,
Iraq, Panama. Let's talk about Cuba. What happened?
STEPHEN KINZER: The Cuban story is really a
fascinating one, partly because it illustrates one of the main
themes of my book, and that is how these interventions in the
long run always produce reactions and ultimately lead to the
emergence of regimes that are much more anti-American than the
regimes we originally set out to overthrow. Here was the story
in Cuba. Americans have had their eye on Cuba for a long time,
ever since Thomas Jefferson was president. But it was in 1898
that this attachment to the cause of Cuba Libré really seized
the hearts of many Americans.
Bear in mind that in 1898, the Cuban economy was totally
dominated by Americans. It was a big sugar producer, and all the
sugar plantations in Cuba were owned by Americans. Also, it was
a very big market for American manufactured goods. About 85% of
anything you could buy in Cuba had been made in the United
States, so American business had very big interests there.
Now, Cuban patriots spent much of the late 19th century
rebelling against Spanish colonial rule. In 1898 they seemed
very close to succeeding. This was a little bit troubling to
some of the American interests in Cuba, because the
revolutionaries were also social reformers. They advocated land
reform, which would have meant breaking up the big sugar
plantations owned by Americans. They also supported a tariff
wall around Cuba to allow the growth of domestic manufacturing,
which would have made it more difficult for American companies
to export their goods to Cuba.
AMY GOODMAN: And what year was this?
STEPHEN KINZER: These are in the late 1890s. So in
1898, the American press, in some ways excited by whisperings
from American businessmen active in Cuba, began a campaign to
portray Spanish colonial rule in Cuba as the most unspeakably
brutal tyranny that could be imagined, and the American public
was whipped up into a fervor about this. The fervor intensified
when the U.S. battleship, Maine, was blown up in Havana
harbor. “Our Warship Was Blown Up by an Enemy's Infernal
Machine.” That was the headline in the New York Journal
that I reproduce in my book. Actually, it wasn't until 75 years
later that the Navy convened a board of inquiry, which turned up
the fact that the Maine was actually blown up by an
internal explosion. The Spanish had nothing to do with it, but
we didn't know that then, and the press seized on this to
intensify the anger in the U.S.
Now, the Americans then decided we would send troops to Cuba
to help the patriots overthrow Spanish colonialism, but the
Cuban revolutionaries were not so sure they liked this idea.
They didn't know if they wanted thousands of American troops on
their soil, because what would happen after the victory was won?
In response to this concern, the U.S. government, the Congress,
passed a law, the Teller Amendment, which said very explicitly,
“We promise Cuba that the moment independence is won, all
American troops will be withdrawn, and Cuba will be allowed to
become fully independent.”
After that law was passed, the Cuban rebels agreed to accept
American aid. American soldiers went to Cuba, including,
famously, Teddy Roosevelt, who had his own uniform personally
designed for him by Brooks Brothers in New York. In the space of
essentially one day of fighting, the Spanish colonial rule was
dealt its final death blow, Spain surrendered Cuba, and Cuba
prepared for a huge celebration of its independence.
Just before that celebration was about to be held, the
Americans announced that they changed their mind, that the
Teller Amendment had been passed in a moment of irrational
enthusiasm and that actually Cuban independence was not a very
good idea, so the American troops were not withdrawn. We
remained in Cuba for some decades, ruling it directly under U.S.
military officers, and then, for a period after that, through
Now, flash forward to 1959. That was when Fidel Castro's
revolution succeeded. Castro came down from the hills and made
his very first speech as leader of the revolution in Santiago,
and in that speech, which I quote in my book, he does not talk
about what kind of a regime he's going to impose, but he makes
one promise. He says, “This time I promise you it will not be
like 1898 again, when the Americans came in and made themselves
masters of our country.”
Now, any Americans who might have read a report of that
speech, I'm sure, would have been very puzzled. In the first
place, they would have had no memory of what happened in 1898,
but secondly, they would wonder, “What could an event 60 years
ago possibly have to do with this revolution in Cuba today?”
What they had failed to realize is that resentment over these
interventions burns in the hearts and souls of people in foreign
countries and later explodes violently.
It's quite reasonable to say today that had we not intervened
in Cuba and prevented Cuba from becoming independent, had we
carried out our explicit promise to the Cubans in 1898, we would
never have had to face the entire phenomenon of Castro communism
all these last 40 years. Now, of course, we would love to have
back a moderate democratic regime like the one that was going to
come to power in Cuba in 1898, but it's too late for that, and
it's an example of how when we frustrate people's legitimate
nationalist aspirations, we wind up not only casting those
countries into instability, but severely undermining our own
AMY GOODMAN: Now, something we see today, for example,
in Iraq, is the critical role, not only of the U.S. government
perhaps protecting U.S. corporations, but the role of the media
in all of this. Going back to Cuba, what was the role of the
STEPHEN KINZER: The press played a really shameful
role in the run-up to the Spanish-American War. The Americans
had never been particularly fond of the Spanish rule in Cuba,
but it wasn't until the press, actually in a circulation war,
decided to seize on the brutality, as they called it, of Spanish
colonial rule in the summer of 1898 that Americans really went
Now, there's one very interesting aspect of the Cuban press
campaign that I think we see repeated periodically throughout
American history, and that is, we never like to attack simply a
regime. We like to have one individual. Americans love to have a
demon, a certain person who is the symbol of all the evil and
tyranny in the regime that we want to attack. We've had this
with Khomeini, with Castro, with Qaddafi, various other figures
Now, in the case of the Spanish-American War, we first
thought we'd like to demonize the king of Spain, but there was
no king of Spain. There was a queen, who was actually an
Austrian princess, so she wouldn't work. The regent, her son,
was actually just a 12-year-old kid, so he wouldn't work,
either. So then, we decided to focus on the Spanish general, who
was the commander of Spanish troops in Cuba, General Weyler, and
for a time, Weyler was thought of as the epitome of all the
carnal brutality that we attributed to Spanish colonialism.
We see this pattern again coming right up to the modern age,
when we're always looking for some individual to point at. The
idea behind this is that the natural state of all people in the
world is to have U.S.-style democracy and to be friendly to the
United States. If they're not, it must mean that there's only
one person or one tiny clique that is preventing the people in
this country from being the way they naturally would be, and if
we could only just remove this one individual or this tiny
clique, the people in that country would return to the normal
state of all people, which is to wish to have the U.S. system of
government and politics and economics and to embrace the United
AMY GOODMAN: William Randolph Hearst, was he a key
STEPHEN KINZER: Hearst was a crucial figure, who very
cleverly realized that he could push the circulation of his
newspaper dramatically higher if he hammered away on jingoistic
issues by pointing at foreign nations as constantly seeking to
undermine the United States. There's an undercurrent, which
we're still seeing today, of seeing the world in this very
Hobbesian way, that there are terrible dangers everywhere, and
it's very important for the U.S. to go out and attack here and
attack there before those dangers come to shore. Clausewitz, who
I read a lot while I was researching my book, had a great phrase
for this. He called it, “suicide for fear of death.” You are so
afraid of what's happening to you in the world or what might
happen to you that you go out and launch operations, which
actually produce the result that you were afraid might happen if
you didn't do these things.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about John Foster Dulles,
who he was, his role in these interventions, Guatemala, and just
before that, Iran?
STEPHEN KINZER: One of the things I do in my book that
I haven't done in my previous books is focus a lot on Dulles. I
really believe that Dulles was one of the key figures in shaping
the second half of the 20th century, and I devote some time to
try to analyze him and figure out why he played this role. First
of all, Dulles spent almost all of his adult life as America's
most successful and most highly paid corporate lawyer. He
represented all of the giant multinational corporations in
America, not just United Fruit, but International Nickel and all
sorts of resource conglomerates all over the world. So the whole
way he saw the world was economics. He thought that American
policy in the world should be oriented towards protecting
Dulles also came from a family of clergymen. He was a deep
religious believer. His father was a preacher. His grandfather
had been a missionary in India, and this gave him another
strain, which is very important in the American regime-change
era, and that is this sense of religious mission, this belief
that since the United States has been blessed with prosperity
and democracy, we have, not just the right, but perhaps even the
God-given obligation to go to other countries and share the
benefits of all we have with them, particularly to countries
that may not even be advanced enough to realize how much they
want our political system. So Dulles saw the world in a strictly
He saw, at that time, a communist conspiracy all over the
world as working relentlessly to undermine the United States.
For example, he opposed all cultural exchanges with any
communist country. He tried for years to keep U.S. reporters
from visiting China. He was against summit meetings of all
kinds. He didn't want agreement with communist countries on any
subject, because he thought any agreement would be just a trick
to get America to lower its guard.
Now, when Iran nationalized its oil industry, when Guatemala
tried to restrict the operations of United Fruit Company, Dulles
did not see this as a reflection of a desire by people in a
foreign country to control their own resources. He rather saw it
as an anti-American move, undoubtedly manipulated from the
Kremlin, which had a much more profound goal than simply
bothering an American company. This was just the beginnings of
an anti-American attack.
Now, one of the things I ask in my book is: Why did we so
tragically misjudge nationalist movements in developing
countries, like Iran and Guatemala and later Chile? Why did we
interpret them as part of an international conspiracy, which, as
documents later proved, they were not?
I think it was for this reason. American statesmen and
diplomats who study the history of diplomacy are actually
studying the history of European diplomacy. We're very
Eurocentric. Our diplomats and our statesmen are very well
versed in European political traditions. They're familiar with
alliance politics and wars of conquest and big powers that use
small powers secretly for their own means, but the desire of
poor people in poor countries to control their own natural
resources has never been a part of European history. It's not a
syndrome that Americans who study Europe are familiar with, and
that, along with an instinctive desire to protect American
companies, I think led them to misjudge nationalist movements
and misinterpret them as part of a global conspiracy to
undermine the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Or perhaps not care, but care about U.S.
companies, as in Guatemala, United Fruit being able to have free
STEPHEN KINZER: I think it was very much a sense that
the companies must know what's best for the United States in
those countries, but in addition, we managed to persuade
ourselves that a government that was bothering American
companies must also be harassing and oppressing its own people,
and this is an argument that I think is very well tailored to
the American soul. You know, we really are a very compassionate
people, and Americans hate the idea that there are people
suffering in some faraway country. American leaders who want to
intervene in those countries for very ignoble reasons understand
this, and they use that motive, they play on the American
compassion to achieve support for their interventions.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about what fuels Iran today, the
feeling Iranians have for America, based on the coup the U.S.
was involved with in 1953.
STEPHEN KINZER: It's hard to believe today that we
could even use the word “Iran” and “democracy” in the same
sentence, but the fact is Iran was a functioning, thriving
democracy in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Because Iran
nationalized its oil industry, rather than allow it to continue
being exploited by foreigners, Iran became a target for foreign
intervention, and the U.S. did overthrow the democracy of Iran
in the summer of 1953.
We placed on the throne the Shah. He ruled for 25 years with
increasing repression. His repression produced the explosion of
the late 1970s, the Islamic revolution. That revolution brought
to power a fanatically anti-American clique of mullahs who began
their regime by taking American diplomats as hostage, has then
spent 25 years oppressing its own people and doing whatever it
could, sometimes very violently, to undermine American interests
in the world, and that is the regime with which we are now
approaching a very serious world crisis regarding the nuclear
Now, had we not intervened in 1953 and crushed Iranian
democracy, we might have had a thriving democracy in the heart
of the Muslim Middle East all these 50 years. I can hardly wrap
my mind around how different the Middle East might be now. This
regime that's now in power in Iran would never have come to
power, and the current nuclear crisis would never have emerged.
This is a great example of how our intervention ultimately leads
us to regimes much worse than the ones we originally set out to
Now, how do you think that people in Iran react when
Americans point a finger at them and say, “You’re a tyranny over
there. You’re a brutal dictatorship. You should have a
democracy. You should have a free regime”? Well, they say, “We
had a democracy here, until you came in and overthrew it.” Now,
the United States today has some very legitimate complaints
against the Iranian government, but we have to understand that
Iranians also have some very legitimate complaints against us,
and that should be a recognition that would lead us into
negotiations with them at this point.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kinzer, we’re going to have to
leave it there for today, but next week, part two of this
discussion on Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change
from Hawaii to Iraq, looking at 14 coups of the last more
than a century that the U.S. was involved with.
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