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Sanctimonious History Overthrown in Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq
People like to feel good about themselves, and Americans are no exception; so only a relative handful of scholarly Americans are even aware of their government’s direct historical responsibility for a century of violent regime changes in fourteen countries from Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Honduras, to South Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Kinzer offers a compelling case that, without exception, all this violent meddling has worked against the overall best interests of Americans, and—with the possible exception of Grenada—against the citizens of all these exploited nations.
Kinzer’s brilliant decision to summarize the colorful particulars of who-what-when-where-how leading up to, during, and following each overthrow, give range to his best journalistic talents, while reducing his biographer’s breadth and historian’s bounty of facts, figures, places, and times into fourteen short, lively, memorable tales of derring-do, intrigue, overreaching, ignorance, prejudice, greed, and mayhem.
Reading Overthrow brought to mind the darker aspects of Margaret Meade’s assertion, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” while adding credibility to the mounting evidence that the tragedy of today’s Middle East is indeed directly traceable to the benighted machinations of a few dedicated, powerful, and sorely misguided neocons in Washington, D.C. For each case of regime change, Kinzer implicates a small group of daring individuals usually acting for corporate interests, and always acting with presidential authority.
Kinzer’s reasonable-length history is backed by over twenty pages of end notes, as well as an impressive international, multilingual twentieth-century bibliography of nearly five hundred on-the-spot memoirs, biographies, government documents and news accounts, and a twenty-page index. Kinzer definitely entertains, but more importantly, he connects the dots and fills in the necessary details of significant historical events which many would prefer to erase, to our nation’s peril.
I’m very grateful for the years of persistent and generous scholarship necessary to produce this readable summary which surely deserves wide consideration. Overthrow fills in the many gaps and blanks left by incomplete reporting-at-the-time, and offers an opportunity for synthesis, analysis, and reconsideration of the patterns, results, and morality of our past violent involvements in the political, economic, and social lives of people in faraway nations, as well as their implications for the present and future:
“There is no stronger or more persistent strain in the American character than the belief that the United States is a nation uniquely endowed with virtue…. This view is driven by a profound conviction that the American form of government, based on capitalism and individual political choice, is, as President Bush asserted, ‘right and true for every person in every society.’…By implication, it denies that (culture) changes only slowly, and that even great powers cannot impose their beliefs on others by force… For more than a century, Americans have believed they deserve access to markets and resources in other countries. When they are denied that access, they take what they want by force, deposing governments that stand in their way. Great powers have done this since time immemorial….When the United States intervenes abroad to gain strategic advantage, depose governments it considers oppressive, or spread its political and religious system, it is also acting in its commercial self-interest….Most American-sponsored ‘regime change’ operations have…weakened rather than strengthened American security. They have produced generations of militants who are deeply and sometimes violently anti-American; expanded the borders that the United States feels obligated to defend, thereby increasing the number of enemies it must face and drawing it ever more deeply into webs of foreign entanglement; and emboldened enemies of the United States by showing that despite its awesome power, it has a soft and vulnerable underbelly….Most of these adventures have brought (Americans), and the nations whose histories they sought to change, far more pain than liberation.”
These are important lessons we need to learn, and Kinzer has assembled the foundational stories, facts, and figures necessary to establish their credibility.
Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent with reporting experience in more than fifty countries on four continents, including service as New York Times bureau chief in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua. He has previously written four well-received histories focusing on Iran, Turkey, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
Kinzer prefers patient diplomacy to violent regime-change, pointing to the efficacy of our productive continuing dialogues with China, the former Soviet Union, South Korea, and countries in South Africa. While he asserts that nations always act in their own self-interest, I wish he had also concluded that, on today’s tiny, interconnected, fragile blue planet, everyone’s national self-interests are irretrievably tied to the interests of everyone else, everywhere else. Pragmatically, we can no longer afford to think in terms of “them,” but only “us.”
I pray that President Bush will soon decide to become presidential, Christian, politically astute, humble, and visionary enough to boldly shift from a doomed-to-fail, self-centered foreign policy based on international competition, to one of enlightened, self-interested global cooperation. Neither approach is simple, obvious, or guaranteed, but only one has any chance of succeeding.
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