what i'm reading: overthrow by stephen kinzer

Long ago, several wmtc readers recommended I read Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. I'm about halfway through it now. This book should come with a warning. I might need a chiropractor before I'm done, straining my neck from shaking my head so much.

During the run-up to the US's 2003 invasion of Iraq, I was often frustrated by progressive people calling those events "unprecedented", when in fact they were exactly the opposite. The invasion of Iraq followed a well-worn pattern, in keeping with more than a century of US foreign policy. I remember thinking there were stark parallels between 2003 and 1898, and went back to Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States to check. Now I'm learning that I was more correct than I knew.

One obvious parallel is the role of a compliant media selling a war to an ignorant public. We all have a tendency to portray the mainstream media "these days" as having gone off the rails, abdicating its traditional adversarial role with government. In fact, the mainstream media is doing what it always has done, with a few notable but isolated exceptions. The New York Times didn't start printing government lies to sell wars in 2003. 1903 would be closer to the truth. At least now we have access to other sources and we can quickly disseminate the facts. In the past, citizens had to wait for the truth to leak out, too little, too late.

Kinzer is very clear about placing responsibility for the actions of the US government with the people of the US. I appreciate that, yet I keep thinking, "Yes, but..." The history Kinzer writes of is hidden from most Americans. They aren't taught this in school, and they don't see it reflected in their media. Unless they have a special interest in "alternative" (translation: real) history, they would never know any of this.

Americans hear about world events completely devoid of context. The US intervenes in a foreign country. This touches off a chain of events that, seven steps later, ends with an attack on an American or an American embassy. US citizens then hear about an unprovoked attack. They get no context, and believe there's a justifiable pretext to war.

Even the attack itself is often later proved to be the work of US operatives.

(At the risk of this thread going grossly off-topic, I'll add that this gives me hope that one day, the truth about September 11 will be known.)

For most Americans, the words "the American Empire" are meaningless. There's only one country, right? Fifty states, no colonies. How can that be an empire? Yet a country that controls the governments of dozens of other countries around the globe can only be called an empire. Americans are, for the most part, totally ignorant of their country's history of forced "influence" and "intervention".

Overthrow is not just extremely eye-opening, it's very enjoyable reading. Kinzer tells the story of each "regime change" in narrative form, giving a feel for the suspense and intrigue of the times. Nothing dry or academic here; this history is bright and alive.

From the introduction:
The United States uses a variety of means to persuade other countries to do its bidding. In many cases it relies on time-honoured tactics of diplomacy, offering rewards to governments that support American interests and threatening retaliation against those that refuse. Sometimes it defends friendly regimes against popular anger or uprisings. In more than a few places, it has quietly supported coups or revolutions organized by others. Twice, in the context of world wars, it helped to wipe away old ruling orders and impose new ones.

This book is not about any of those ways Americans have shaped the modern world. It focuses only on the most extreme set of cases: those in which the United States arranged to depose foreign leaders. No nation in modern history has done this so often, in so many places so far from its own shores.

The stories of these "regime change" operations are dazzlingly exciting. They tell of patriots and scoundrels, high motives and low cynicism, extreme courage and cruel betrayal. This book brings them together for the first time, but it seeks to do more than simply tell what happened. By considering these operations as a continuum rather than as a series of unrelated incidents, it seeks to find what they have in common. It poses and tries to answer two fundamental questions. First, why did the United States carry out these operations? Second, what have been their long-term consequences?

Drawing up a list of countries the United States has overthrown is not as simple as it sounds. This book treats only cases in which Americans played the decisive role in deposing a regime. Chile, for example, makes the list because, although many factors led to the 1973 coup there, the American role was decisive. Indonesia, Brazil and the Congo do not, because American agents played only subsidiary roles in the overthrow of their governments during the 1960s. Nor do Mexico, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic, countries the United States invaded but whose leaders it did not depose.

That US citizens can travel abroad at all, without being murdered every time they step foot out of the US, speaks to the goodwill of most ordinary people. For the most part, people do distinguish between a country's government and its individual citizens, and Americans should thank their lucky stars for that.

Now to get that Canadian passport!

No comments: