Swans Commentary » swans.com July 14, 2008  



US Exploitation Of The World
Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Kinzer, Stephen: Overthrow: America's Century Of Regime Change From Hawaii To Iraq, Times Books/Henry Holt & company ISBN-13: 987-0-8050-7861-9, 384 pages.


(Swans - July 14, 2008)   In l893, a cabal made up of local planters and landowners headed by Lorin Thurston and abetted by John L. Stevens, the American minister to Hawaii, plotted to unseat Queen Liliuokalani, the rightful ruler of the country. With the threat of American intercession in the form of a US gunboat filled with marines, the Queen yielded to "the superior force of the United States whose minister plenipotentiary John L. Stevens had caused the United State troops to land at Honolulu...." "Lorin Thurston," writes author Stephan Kinzer, "overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy with a core group of fewer than thirty men ... Without the presence of Stevens or another like-minded American minister, however, they might never have even attempted it. A different kind of minister would have reprimanded the rebels in Hawaii rather than offer them military support." But from the start, the acquisition of Hawaii was an objective of President Benjamin Harrison's and so the overthrow of the fragile native government was an inevitable outcome.

America had discovered its muscle and from then on would deploy a variety of strong-arm tactics and similar threats to continue its expansion as the supreme power in the West. "The search for influence abroad," writes Kinzer "gripped the United States in l898. Spreading democracy, Christianizing heathen nations, building a strong navy, establishing military bases around the world, and bringing foreign governments under American control were never ends in themselves. They were ways for the United States to assure itself access to the markets, resources and investment potential of distant lands."

The pattern is frighteningly consistent. From Cuba to the Philippines, to Puerto Rico, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Chile, and Grenada, vested corporate interests to secure their profits and their continued exploitation of the native population have infiltrated the governments of independent nations, supported American-backed dictators and nationalist suppressions, which blatantly ran counter to the principles of democracy espoused by the United States. There never was a full-scale military action, with the exception of World War II, that wasn't motivated by carnivorous capitalist intentions.

Reading Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq is so spellbinding and infuriating one is tempted to toss aside the conventional impulse to review and simply insist that everyone buy the book and devour the story for oneself. In the face of such an appalling but mesmerizing narrative, all criticism can do (as Ezra Pound once suggested) is "to point" -- that is, to direct readers to experience the saga for themselves. It is the kind of book that, if it were prescribed in every high-school and college course in America, would open the eyes of the nation to some of the scummiest maneuvers in American history and expose the deliberate treacheries that underlie capitalist expansion in our benighted land.

One of the more documented villains of American regime change revealed in the book deals with John Foster Dulles, a corporate lawyer representing the interests of foreign capital in several of the countries that overthrew duly elected political leaders and installed American puppets. Dulles was Eisenhower's secretary of state and his brother Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA -- a nefarious partnership that colluded together with unchecked unanimity. Their dealings throw a disparaging light on the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower forcing us to confront some of the general's more hefty moral lapses. Dulles, among other intrigues, was instrumental in overthrowing the legitimately elected president Jacobo Guzman Arbenz believing (wrongly) that he was a tool of the Soviet Union. Kinzer makes clear that several American leaders were motivated by the hysterical fear of Communist infiltration in Latin America and that this obsession colored almost every political tactic adopted by the Eisenhower administration. Dulles was the forerunner to the fatal fallacies espoused by Donald Rumsfeld after 9/11 and it would seem that behind every American president there is always some malevolent Richelieu leading him, and the American people, astray.

Overthrow shines a blinding white light on the present situation both in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as recent events have proven (viz. the invitation to global oil companies to return to Iraq to "assist" with oil production) places them into a withering new perspective. In 2003 and afterwards, we scoffed at the idea that America was in Iraq "because of the oil." Now that is a rumor which has become a self-evident truth confirming the worst fears of those "radical hotheads" who predicted it from the start.

The book is alight with perceptions that incline the reader to underline passages as a way of affirming their veracity. On the Middle East, Kinzer writes:

During the entire modern era, the United States has been able to use the territory of a large Middle Eastern country to project power through the region. For a quarter of a century that was Iran but Iran was lost to the West after the Islamic Revolution of l979. The United States then chose Saudi Arabia as its regional proxy but, by the end of the twentieth century, many in Washington were worried about Saudi Arabia's long-term stability. They thought a pro-American Iraq would be an ideal replacement.... Bush and his aides also saw the Iraq war as a way for the United States to show the world how strong it had become. A swift, overwhelming victory in Iraq, they believed, would serve as a powerful warning to any real or potential foe.

At the end of one of the most disastrous presidencies in American history with a frightening Iranian nuclear threat and renewed insurrections in Afghanistan, we see how misguided that belief was.

Kinzer's book puts the Bush-Iraq fiasco into historical perspective. There are nations out there with natural resources, which America both requires and desires. Any pretext is sufficient to infiltrate such nations and, in the name of democratic reform, appropriate the goods and resources we need to keep capitalism growing at home. It's a simplex solution, determined by a philosophy that needs to be wrapped in political rhetoric that conceals the fact that it is contrary to the social and philosophic precepts on which America itself was founded. It abandons traditional American principles such as individual freedom, dissent, equality, etc. in order to service our economic needs which promote prosperity by appropriating goods from weaker countries that cannot resist American might. The rubrics of Freedom and Democracy are essential factors in withdrawing democracy and freedom from those nations that resist our appropriation of their natural resources. That has certainly been the case since the end of the l9th century, and to attack what has become "The American Way" or try to reverse it is perceived as being deeply un-American. In short, suppressing or disguising the fundamental rights that created America has become the method by which America attempts to maintain its supremacy. So long as there are well-touted shibboleths around to cover our tracks, our true intentions will always be hidden from sight.

Kinzer lucidly defines the nation's megalomania that justifies these oppressions. He writes:

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. Americans consider themselves to be, in Herman Melville's words, "a peculiar, chosen people, the Israel of our times." In a nation too new to define itself by real or imagined historical triumphs, and too diverse to be bound together by a shared religion or ethnicity, this belief became the essence of national identity, the conviction that bound Americans to each other and defined their approach to the world. They are hardly the first people to believe themselves favored by Providence, but they are the only ones in modern history who are convinced that by bringing their political and economic system to others, they are doing God's work.

In short, it is not only evangelicals who believe America has a god-given duty to rescue the world from damnation but an idée-fixe in the minds of the general populace.

Kinzer's book is a finely-reasoned, utterly lucid and fact-based account of our national sins. One that by inflicting shame on our recent past may just possibly steer us to the high road of redemption.


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Published July 14, 2008