A Break in the History of the World

excerpted from the book


America's Century of Regime Change from Haiti to Iraq

by Stephen Kinzer

Times Books, 2006, paper


historian Charles Beard
"A free opportunity for expansion in foreign markets is indispensable to the prosperity of American business. Modern diplomacy is commercial. Its chief concern is with the promotion of economic interests abroad."

For at least a century, many people in the United States had believed it was their "manifest destiny" to dominate North America. Most cheered when, in 1898, they were told that this destiny was now global and entitled them to influence and dominate lands beyond their own shores. An outspoken band of idealists, however, denounced this change of national course as a mean-spirited betrayal of the American tradition. Among these protesters were university presidents, writers, several titans of industry including Andrew Carnegie, clergymen, labor leaders, and politicians of both parties, including former president Grover Cleveland. They condemned America's interventions abroad, especially the war against nationalist guerrillas in the Philippines, and urged Americans to allow other nations the right to self-determination that they themselves so deeply cherished. One of these critics, E. L. Godkin the crusading editor of The Nation, lamented that by new standards, no one was considered a "true-blue American" who harbored "doubts of the ability of the United States to thrash other nations; or who fails to acknowledge the right of the United States to occupy such territories, canals, isthmuses or peninsulas as they may think it is desirable to have, or who speaks disrespectfully of the Monroe Doctrine, or who doubts the need of a large navy, or who admires European society, or who likes to go to Europe, or who fails, in case he has to go, to make comparisons unfavorable to Europe."

This kind of talk drove expansionists to distraction. Theodore Roosevelt denounced Godkin as "a malignant and dishonest liar." The anti-imperialist's as a group, he wrote in a letter to his friend Lodge, were "futile sentimentalists of the international arbitration type" who exhibited "a flabby type of character which eats away at the great fighting features of our race." On another occasion he described them as "simply unhung traitors."

The first wave of American "regime change" operations, which lasted from 1893 to 1911, was propelled largely by the search for resources, markets, and commercial opportunities. Not all of the early imperialists, however, were the tools of big business. Roosevelt, Lodge, and Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan were moved by what they considered to be the transcendent imperatives of history. Expanding, they believed, was simply what great nations did. In their minds, promoting commerce and defending national security fused into what one historian has called "an aggressive national egoism and a romantic. attachment to national power." They considered themselves nothing less than instruments of destiny and Providence.

Americans have a profoundly compassionate side. Many not only appreciate the freedom and prosperity with which they have been blessed but fervently wish to share their good fortune with others. Time and again, they have proved willing to support foreign interventions that are presented as missions to rescue less fortunate people.

When President McKinley said he was going to war in Cuba to stop "oppression at our very doors," Americans cheered. They did so again a decade later, when the Taft administration declared that it was deposing the government of Nicaragua in order to impose "republican institutions" and promote "real patriotism." Since then, every time the United States has set out to overthrow a foreign government, its leaders have insisted that they are acting not to expand American power but to help people who are suffering.

This paternalism was often mixed with racism. Many Americans considered Latin Americans and Pacific islanders to be "colored" natives in need of guidance from whites. In a nation whose black population was systematically repressed, and where racial prejudice was widespread, this view helped many people accept the need for the United States to dominate foreign countries.

After Franklin Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1933, he decided that the Machado dictatorship had become an embarrassment and encouraged the Cuban army to rebel. It did so, and out of the ensuing turmoil emerged a sergeant named Fulgencio Batista. By the mid-1930s he was master of Cuba, and he shaped its fate for most of the next quarter century.

Batista broke diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, cracked down on the Communist Party, and invited American military advisers to train his army. He later encouraged American investors, including prominent gangsters, to build what became a spectacularly lucrative tourism industry based on prostitution and casino gambling. His most lasting legacy, however, may have been his cancellation of the congressional election that was to have been held in 1952. Among the candidates was Fidel Castro, a charismatic young lawyer and former student leader. Castro might have gone on to a career in electoral politics, but after Batista's coup made that impossible, he turned to revolution.

For an astonishingly long time, American policy makers deluded themselves into believing that all was well in Cuba. In 1957 the National Security Council reported that Cuban-American relations faced "no critical problems or difficulties." A year later Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told a congressional hearing that there was no likelihood of Soviet influence growing anywhere in Latin America. Blithe assurances like these suggest the shock that many Americans, especially those in Washington, felt when Batista fled the country on January 1, 1959, a few steps ahead of Castro's rebels.

The day after Batista's flight, Castro descended from his mountain stronghold to Santiago, the city that the Americans had prevented General Calixto Garcia from entering at the end of the Spanish-American War. In the central plaza, which is named for Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, another nineteenth-century rebel leader, Castro made his first speech as leader of the victorious revolution. He said nothing about his political plans but made a solemn promise. It was one that would have puzzled most Americans, but it thrilled the Cuban soul.

This time the revolution will not be frustrated! This time, fortunately for Cuba, the revolution will achieve its true objective. It will not be like 1898, when the Americans came and made themselves masters of the country.

The Cuban revolution, and especially Castro's turn toward anti-Yankee radicalism, baffled most Americans. Few had any idea of how the United States had treated Cuba in the past, so naturally they could not understand why Cubans wished so fervently to break out of the American orbit. Many were astonished, just as their grandparents had been in 1898, to learn that "liberated" Cubans were ungrateful to the United States. President Dwight Eisenhower was among the baffled:

Here is a country that, you would believe on the basis of our history, would be one of our real friends. The whole history... would seem to make it a puzzling matter to figure out just exactly why the Cubans and the Cuban government would be so unhappy when, after all, their principal market is here, their best market. You would think they would want good relationships. I don't know exactly what the difficulty is.

Castro's government confiscated foreign corporations, banned capitalist enterprise, and steered Cuba into a close alliance with the Soviet Union. In 1961, exiles sponsored by the CIA invaded Cuba in an attempt to depose him but failed miserably. Eighteen months later, after the Soviets deployed offensive missiles in Cuba, Soviet and American leaders brought their countries to the brink of nuclear combat in the most terrifying showdown of the Cold War. Successive American presidents vowed to bring Castro down, and at several points the CIA tried to kill him. He not only survived but devoted much of his life to undermining United States interests from Nicaragua to Angola. That made him an icon of anti-Americanism and a hero to millions around the world.

Castro was a pure product of American policy toward Cuba. If the United States had not crushed Cuba's drive to independence in the early twentieth century, if it had not supported a series of repressive dictators there, and if it had not stood by while the 1952 election was canceled, a figure like Castro would almost certainly not have emerged. His regime is the quintessential result of a "regime change" operation gone wrong, one that comes back to haunt the country that sponsored it.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson began a major escalation of the American war effort in Vietnam, giving Subic Bay and Clark a greater strategic importance than ever. In that same year, an ambitious politician named Ferdinand Marcos was elected president of the Philippines. The combination of these two factors-the bases' growing importance and the emergence of Marcos-shaped the next quarter century of Philippine history.

During Marcos's two four-year terms as president, dissatisfaction with his callous indifference to the injustices of Filipino life set off a series of armed rebellions. In 1971 he declared that since only a strong government could contain the growing insurgencies that his misrule provoked, he had no choice but to impose martial law. He closed Congress, suspended the constitution, canceled the forthcoming presidential election, and ordered the arrest of thirty thousand opposition figures. For the next fourteen years, he ran one of the most corrupt regimes in Asia. Through a maze of government-protected cartels and monopolies, he and his comrades stole billions of dollars. The country, which had been progressing slowly toward prosperity and freedom, slid backward into repression and poverty.

None of the American presidents who dealt with Marcos during his period of absolute power held him in much esteem. His personal and political style repelled Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter could not abide the campaigns of torture, rape, and murder by which he maintained his regime. Ronald Reagan, who had a warm spot for anti-Communist dictators, heard complaints about him from American businessmen who could no longer make money in the Philippines because the ruling clique was taking it all. Despite these reservations, however, the United States maintained its friendship with Marcos until the end. It gave his regime billions of dollars in military aid, much of which he spent on violent campaigns against both rebel insurgencies and peaceful opposition movements. The reason was clear. Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station had become foundations of American military power in Asia, and the United States was willing to do whatever was necessary to hold on to them.

Corazon Aquino, who became president after Marcos fled, returned to her people the civil rights and public freedoms Marcos had taken from them. Her government failed to make substantial progress toward resolving the country's huge social and economic problems, but restoring democracy was not its only achievement. It also negotiated an epochal agreement with the United States that led to the closing of American military bases in the Philippines. The last American soldiers left Clark and Subic Bay at the end of 1992.

The story of Washington's rule over the Philippines, first direct and then indirect, is above all one of lost opportunity. Americans waged a horrific war to subdue the islands at the beginning of the twentieth century, but once they won, their brutality ended. They did not impose murderous tyrants the way they did in much of Central America and the Caribbean. The parliamentary election they organized in 1907, although hardly democratic by modern standards, was the first of its kind in Asia. In the years that followed, they treated their Asian subjects no worse than the British did, perhaps better than the Dutch treated Indonesians, and certainly better than the Japanese treated people in the countries they occupied during World War II. When France was fighting to hold on to Indochina in the 1950s, the United States had already granted independence to the Philippines.

During their decades of power in the Philippines, however, Americans never sought to promote the kind of social progress that might have led the country toward long-term stability. As in other parts of the world, Washington's fear of radicalism led it to support an oligarchy that was more interested in stealing money than in developing the country. The United States did bequeath to the Filipinos a form of democracy, but when the archipelago was finally allowed to go its own way, in the 1990s, it was as poor as it was unstable.

Nearly a decade passed between the time the United States subdued the Philippines and its next "regime change" operation. During that time, it adjusted its approach. President Taft adopted a policy he called "dollar diplomacy," under which the United States brought countries into its orbit through commercial rather than military means. He assured foreign leaders that they had nothing to fear as long as they allowed free rein to American businesses and sought loans only from American banks. The first to reject those conditions was President José Santos Zelaya of Nicaragua.

Nicaraguans remember Zelaya as a visionary who dared to imagine that his small, isolated country could reach greatness. His sins-impatience, egotism, an autocratic temperament, and a tendency to mix public funds with his own-were and are common traits among leaders in Central America and beyond. Few others, however, have matched his reformist passion or his genuine concern for the downtrodden.

Nicaraguans never accepted their country's role as a protectorate the United States. At the end of 1912, Benjamin Zeledón, a fervent admirer of Zelaya, launched a futile but heroic rebellion. He died while fighting the United States Marines. Among those who saw his body being dragged to a cemetery near Masaya was a teenager named Augusto César Sandino. It was a decisive moment.

"Zeledon's death," Sandino later wrote, "gave me the key to understanding our country's situation in the face of Yankee piracy."

Fourteen years later, with United States Marines still occupying his country, Sandino launched a rebellion of his own. At first the State Department sought to dismiss his guerrillas as a "comparatively small body" made up of "lawless elements" and "ordinary bandits." That view became steadily harder to sustain, and finally, in 1933, President Herbert Hoover decided the United States had shed enough blood in Nicaragua and ordered the marines home.

With the Americans gone, Sandino agreed to talk peace. He traveled to Managua under a guarantee of safe conduct, and in remarkably short order agreed to end his rebellion and rejoin the country's normal political life. That settled the matter for everyone except the ambitious young commander of the American-created National Guard, General Anastasio Somoza Garcia. He correctly saw Sandino as a threat to his ambitions and arranged for him to be assassinated. Soon afterward, General Somoza seized the presidency for himself.

Shortly before Sandino was killed, he prophesized that he "would not live much longer," but said that was fine because "there are young people who will continue my fight." He was quite right. In 1956 an idealistic young poet assassinated President Somoza. Soon afterward, a group called the Sandinista National Liberation Front, named for Sandino, launched a rebellion against the dynastic Somoza dictatorship. It seized power in 1979, formed an alliance with Fidel Castro's Cuba, and proclaimed a nationalist program that directly challenged American power. President Ronald Reagan responded by sponsoring another round of war in Nicaragua's mountains and jungles. This turned Nicaragua into a bloody battlefield of the Cold War. Thousands of Nicaraguans died in a conflict that was in part a proxy fight between the United States and Cuba. American-sponsored rebels did not achieve their main goal, the overthrow of the Sandinista regime, but in 1990, two years after the war ended, Nicaraguans voted the Sandinistas out of office. The country remained deeply polarized, however, and one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

In few countries is it possible to trace the development of anti-American sentiment as clearly as in Nicaragua. A century of trouble between the two nations, which led to the death of thousands and great suffering for generations of Nicaraguans, began when the United States deposed President Zelaya in 1909. Benjamin Zeledon took up arms to avenge him. Zeledón's death inspired the young Sandino, who, in turn, inspired the modern Sandinista Front.

For all his faults, Zelaya was the greatest statesman Nicaragua ever produced. If the United States had found a way to deal with him, it might have avoided the disasters that followed. Instead, it crushed a leader who embraced capitalist principles more fully than any other Central American of his era.

That terrible miscalculation drew the United States into a century of interventions in Nicaragua. They took a heavy toll in blood and treasure, profoundly damaged America's image in the world, and helped keep generations of Nicaraguans in misery. Nicaragua still competes with Haiti to lead the Western Hemisphere in much that is undesirable, including rates of poverty, unemployment, infant mortality, and deaths Lm curable diseases.

In 1958 the Liberal Party ... finally returned to power [in Honduras]. Its leader, Villeda Morales, took over a country in which United Fruit was the biggest company, the biggest landowner, and the biggest private employer. He called it "the country of the seventies-seventy percent illiteracy, seventy percent illegitimacy, seventy percent rural populations, seventy percent avoidable deaths." Villeda tried to pass a land reform law, but was forced to withdraw it under intense pressure from United Fruit. When his term was about to expire in 1963, the Liberal candidate who was nominated to succeed him vowed to revive the law, and also to curb the power of the army. That combination disturbed some powerful Hondurans. Ten days before the election, the army staged a coup, installed General Oswaldo Lopez Arellano in the presidency, dissolved Congress, and suspended the constitution. Military officers ruled Honduras for the next eighteen years. During this period, the fruit companies' grip on the country weakened

Honduras held its next election in 1981, and Roberto Suazo Cordova, a country doctor and veteran political infighter, emerged as president. True power, however, remained with the military, specifically with the highly ambitious army commander General Gustavo Alvarez. That suited the United States, because Alvarez was a fierce anti-Communist who detested the Sandinista movement that had recently come to power in neighboring Nicaragua. When the Reagan administration asked him to turn Honduras into a base for anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras, he eagerly agreed. Soon hundreds of contras were operating from camps along the Nicaraguan border, and thousands of American soldiers were flying in and out of the ballooning Aguacate air base nearby. From 1980 to 1984, annual United States military aid to Honduras increased from $4 million to $77 million. Once again, it had surrendered its national sovereignty to Americans.

Rivals forced General Alvarez from power in 1984 but did not dismantle his repressive machine. It had two purposes: supporting the contras and repressing dissent within Honduras. To achieve this latter goal, the army established a secret squad called Battalion 3-16, trained and supported by the CIA, that maintained clandestine torture chambers and carried out kidnappings and killings. The most powerful figure in the country during this period was the American ambassador, John Negroponte, who studiously ignored all pleas that he try to curb the regime's excesses.

While the contra war raged, progress toward democracy in Honduras was impossible and citizens faced a frightening form of government-sponsored terror. The war had another effect, which did not become clear until years later. Thousands of poor Honduran families, submerged in grinding poverty and fearful of the military, fled the country during the 1980s. Many ended up in Los Angeles. There, large numbers of Honduran teenagers joined violent street gangs. In the 1990s many of these youths were deported back to Honduras, where they faced the same lack of opportunity that had forced their parents to flee. Soon they established in their homeland a replica of the bloody gang culture they had absorbed in Los Angeles.

These awful turns in Honduran national life were in part the result of United States intervention, and they symbolize the unimaginable consequences that "regime change" operations can have. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans deposed a government in Honduras in order to give banana companies freedom to make money there. For decades, these companies imposed governments that crushed every attempt at national development. In the 1980s, when democracy finally seemed ready to emerge in Honduras, the United States prevented it from flowering because it threatened the anti-Sandinista project that was Washington's obsession.

... the United States has been the overwhelming force in Honduran life for more than a century.(Second) Honduras today faces a nightmare of poverty, violence, and instability. Hondurans bear part of the blame for this heartrending situation, but Americans cannot escape their share.

Theodore Roosevelt
"All that this country desires is that the other republics on this continent be happy and prosperous, and they cannot be happy and prosperous unless they maintain order within their boundaries and behave with a just regard for their obligations toward outsiders."

Nationalists reflexively rebel against governments they perceive as lackeys of foreign power. In the twentieth century, many of these rebels were men and women inspired by American history, American principles, and the rhetoric of American democracy. They were critical of the United States, however, and wished to reduce or eliminate the power it wielded over their countries. Their defiance made them anathema to American leaders, who crushed them time after time.

The course the United States followed brought enormous power and wealth but slowly poisoned the political climate in the affected countries. Over a period of decades, many of their citizens concluded that democratic opposition movements had no chance of success because the United States opposed them so firmly. That led them to begin embracing more radical alternatives. If the elections of 1952 in Cuba had not been canceled, and if candidates like the young Fidel Castro had been allowed to finish their campaigns for public office and use democratic institutions to modernize Cuba, a Communist regime might never have emerged there. If the United States had not resolutely supported dictators in Nicaragua, it would not have been confronted with the leftist Sandinista movement of the 1980s.

In the quarter century before 1898, much of the world suffered through a series of economic crises. The United States was not exempt, passing through depressions or financial panics in the mid-1870s, mid-1880s, and early 1890s. Political leaders saw overseas expansion as the ideal way to end this destructive cycle. They believed it would answer the urgent questions raised by two epochal developments that changed the United States at the end of the nineteenth century: the closing of its frontier and the greatly increased production of its farms and factories. Successive presidents embraced the "open door" policy, which they described as a way of bringing all nations into a global trading system. It might better have been called "kick in the door," because in reality it was a policy of forcing foreign nations to buy American products, share their resources with the United States, and grant privileges to American businesses, whether they wanted to or not.

American leaders clamored for this policy because, they said, the country desperately needed a way to resolve its "glut" of overproduction. This glut, however, was largely illusory. While wealthy Americans were lamenting it, huge numbers of ordinary people were living in conditions of severe deprivation. The surplus production from farms and factories could have been used to lift millions out of poverty, but this would have required a form of wealth redistribution that was repugnant to powerful Americans. Instead they looked abroad.

By embracing the "open door" policy, the United States managed to export many of its social problems. The emergence of markets abroad put Americans to work, but it distorted the economies of poor countries in ways that greatly increased their poverty. As American companies accumulated vast sugar and fruit plantations in the Pacific, Central America, and the Caribbean, they forced countless small farmers off their land. Many became contract laborers who worked only when Americans needed them, and naturally came to resent the United States. At the same time, American companies flooded these countries with manufactured goods, preventing the development of local industry.

The first American "regime change" operations had effects that rippled across the country and around the world. Within the United States, they brought together a nation that was still divided by the legacy of the Civil War; secured the power of the sensationalist press, especially its most ardent exponent, William Randolph Hearst; and convinced most Americans that their country was destined for global leadership. They also robbed Americans of an important measure of their innocence. The scandal over torture and murder in the Philippines, for example, might have led Americans to rethink their country's worldwide ambitions, but it did not. Instead, they came to accept the idea that their soldiers might have to commit atrocities in order to subdue insurgents and win wars. Loud protests followed revelations of the abuses Americans had committed in the Philippines but, in the end, those protests faded away. They were drowned out by voices insisting that any abuses must have been aberrations and that to dwell on them would show weakness and a lack of patriotism.

American presidents justified these first "regime change" operations by insisting that they wanted only to liberate oppressed peoples, but in fact all these interventions were carried out mainly for economic reasons. The United States annexed Hawaii and the Philippines because they were ideal stepping-stones to the East Asia trade; took Puerto Rico to protect trade routes and establish a naval base; and deposed the presidents of Nicaragua and Honduras because they refused to allow American companies to operate freely in their countries. In none of these places was Washington prepared for either the challenges of rule or the anger of nationalists.

Why did Americans support policies that brought suffering to people in foreign lands? There are two reasons, so intertwined that they became one. The essential reason is that American control of faraway places came to be seen as vital to the material prosperity of the United States. This explanation, however, is wrapped inside another one: the deep-seated belief of most Americans that their country is a force for good in the world. Thus, by extension, even the destructive missions the United States embarks on to impose its authority are tolerable. Generations of American political and business leaders have recognized the power of the noble idea of American exceptionalism. When they intervene abroad for selfish or ignoble reasons, they always insist that in the end, their actions will benefit not only the United States but also the citizens of the country in which they are intervening-and, by extension, the causes of peace and justice in the world.

Two other facts of geopolitical life emerge from the history that Americans made between 1893 and 1913. One is the decisive role that presidents of the United States play in shaping the course of world events. There is no limit to the number of "what if" scenarios to which this evident fact can give rise. If the anti-imperialist Grover Cleveland had not lost the election of 1888 to Benjamin Harrison (Cleveland won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College), the United States would certainly not have supported a revolution against the monarchy in Hawaii. If someone other than William McKinley had been president in 1898, he might have decided to set Cuba and the Philippines on the path to independence after the Spanish-American War. If the strongly probusiness William Howard Taft had not won the presidency in 1908 and named the corporate lawyer Philander Knox as secretary of state, Washington might not have insisted on crushing the Zelaya government in Nicaragua and, with it, the hope for modernization in Central America. Since presidents can so decisively shape the fate of foreign nations, it is no wonder that non-Americans sometimes wish they could vote in American elections.

A second fact that jumps from the history of this era is the absolute lack of interest the United States showed in the opinions of the people whose lands it seized. American leaders knew full well that most Hawaiians opposed the annexation of their country but proceeded with it anyway. No representative of Cuba, the Philippines, or Puerto Rico was present at the negotiations in Paris that ended the Spanish-American War and sealed their countries' fates. In Nicaragua and Honduras, even American diplomats conceded in their dispatches to Washington that the Liberal reform project was far more popular than the oligarchic regimes the United States imposed. The idea that the victorious power should listen to public opinion in these countries would have struck most Americans as absurd. They believed Latin Americans and Asians to be as they were portrayed in editorial cartoons: ragged children, usually nonwhite, who had no more idea of what was good for them than a block of stone.


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