Overthrow: 100 Years of U.S. Meddling and Regime Change, From Iran to Nicaragua to Hawaii to Cuba
As special counsel Robert Mueller continues his probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, we take a look back at Washington’s record of meddling in elections across the globe. By one count, the United States has interfered in more than 80 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. And that doesn’t count U.S.-backed coups and invasions. We speak to former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: As special counsel Robert Mueller continues his probe into Russian meddling into the 2016 election, we take a look back at Washington’s record of meddling in elections across the globe. By one count, the United States has interfered in more than 80 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. And that doesn’t count U.S.-backed coups and invasions. Former CIA Director James Woolsey recently joked about the U.S. record of meddling overseas, during an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News.
LAURA INGRAHAM: Have we ever tried to meddle in other countries’ elections?
JAMES WOOLSEY: Oh, probably. But it was for the good of the system, in order to avoid the communists from taking over.
LAURA INGRAHAM: Yeah.
JAMES WOOLSEY: For example, in Europe in ’47, ’48, ’49, the Greeks and the Italians, we—CIA—
LAURA INGRAHAM: We don’t do that now, though? We don’t mess around in other people’s elections, Jim?
JAMES WOOLSEY: Well, mmm, yum, yum, yum, never mind. Only for a very good cause.
LAURA INGRAHAM: Can you do that—let’s do a vine video and—as former CIAdirector. I love it.
JAMES WOOLSEY: Only for very good cause—
LAURA INGRAHAM: OK.
JAMES WOOLSEY: —in the interests of democracy.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: The list of countries where the U.S. has interfered is long. In 1893, the U.S. helped overthrow the kingdom of Hawaii. Five years later, in 1898, the U.S. invaded and occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico. A year later, it was the Philippines. Early 20th century interventions included Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, all in the 1910s.
AMY GOODMAN: In 1953, the U.S. helped overthrow the Iranian government. A year later, in 1954, U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala, overthrowing the democratically elected leader of Guatemala, Jacobo Ãrbenz. Then, in the '60s, the list grew to include, once again, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia and the Congo. And that's just a partial list. Even with the end of the Cold War, U.S. interference overseas did not end. Next week marks the 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple the government of Saddam Hussein.
We now go to Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, who writes about world affairs for The Boston Globe. He’s the author of a number of books, including Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. He’s written the book Bitter Fruit about the coup in Guatemala. And his latest book is The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.
Stephen Kinzer, we welcome you back to Democracy Now! to talk, sadly, about the very same issue. I’m not quite sure where to begin, whether to go back to the beginning, but let’s start, since it was 65 years ago, in Iran, in 1953, in March of 1953. The U.S. was in full swing making plans for overthrowing the government of the democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Can you talk about what the U.S. did in Iran then? So well known throughout Iran, but most people in this country have no idea.
STEPHEN KINZER: Early in the 20th century, the people of Iran began moving towards democracy. It was a very difficult struggle. It was back and forth. But finally, after the Second World War, democracy did emerge in Iran. It was the one parenthesis, the one period of real democracy that we’ve had in Iran over the last hundred years. So, the problem came when the Iranians chose the wrong leader. They did something that the United States never likes: They chose a leader who wanted to put the interests of his own country ahead of the interests of the United States. And that alarmed the West, and particularly the United States.
Mosaddegh’s first move was to nationalize Iranian oil. We thought this would be a terrible example for the rest of the world. We didn’t want to start this process going in other countries. So, in order to set an example, the United States decided we would work with the British to overthrow the elected democratic government of Iran. We sent a senior CIA officer, who worked in the basement of the American Embassy in Iran organizing the coup. The coup finally succeeded in the summer of 1953. Mosaddegh was overthrown.
And, more important, the democratic system in Iran was destroyed forever. This was not just an attack on one person, but an attack on democracy. And the reason why we attacked that democracy is the democracy produced the wrong person. So, we like elections and democratic processes, but they have to produce the candidates we like; otherwise, our approval disappears.
AMY GOODMAN: And the person he sent—that the U.S., the Dulles brothers, sent in to Iran with the suitcases of money to begin the process, Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson?
STEPHEN KINZER: That’s right. Sometimes I wonder if there’s something genetic in the Roosevelt family that predisposes them toward regime change. It is a kind of a quirk of history that the person who effectively projected the United States into the regime change era at the beginning of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt, had a grandson who went to Iran in the 1950s and carried out a regime change operation there. And there were similarities—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go—
STEPHEN KINZER: —between the operations that they carried out.
AMY GOODMAN: Before you go on, Stephen, I wanted to go to a part of a trailer from an upcoming documentary titled Coup 53 about the 1953 British-American coup in Iran and the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, directed by the Iranian physicist-turned-award-winning-documentary-filmmaker Taghi Amirani.
TAGHI AMIRANI: This man, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, he was our first democratically elected prime minister.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Nobody knows who Mosaddegh was. Democratically elected prime minister of Iran.
TAGHI AMIRANI: In 1952, Time magazine named him Man of the Year, because he had nationalized Iranian oil and kicked the British out.
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Mosaddegh came along and threw them out. They were gone. Gone! Gone!!
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] The Iranian people had rejected the Shah’s rule with blood, with blood, and bare hands in front of tanks.
INTERVIEWER: You had a million dollars in cash to run the coup, right?
KERMIT ROOSEVELT: That’s right.
DAVID TALBOT: Kermit Roosevelt was prepared to do whatever he had to do, when he was given this mission by Allen Dulles to overthrow the democratic government of Iran.
ALLEN DULLES: But may I say this? At no time has the CIA engaged in any political activity or any intelligence activity that was not approved at the highest level.
AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, Allen Dulles, head of the CIA from 1952 to 1961. At the time, his brother—his brother, Secretary of State Dulles, was secretary of state. We’re talking about the overthrow of Iran for the British oil company that would later become British Petroleum. Is that right, Stephen Kinzer?
STEPHEN KINZER: Yes. That company is now called BP. So, you’re seeing long-term effects of these interventions, and what you’re seeing in Iran today 100 percent ties back to what we did in 1953. We like to have this idea that these operations are discreet, they’re not going to have any long-term effects. We’ll remove one government, place another favorable government in power, and anything will go fine. Everybody will forget it, and it won’t have any long-term effects. But if you look around the world, you can see that these kinds of operations to interfere in other countries’ politics, what the CIA calls “influence operations,” actually not only often wind up devastating the target country, but, in the end, undermine the security of the United States.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Stephen Kinzer, I’d like to move to another part of the world: Nicaragua. Most people are familiar, obviously, with the Reagan-era attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government or the period during the Roosevelt era of the attempts to get rid of Sandino as a force in Nicaragua. But, further back, JosÃ© Santos Zelaya, at the beginning of the 20 century, could you talk about the efforts of the U.S. government to overthrow Zelaya?
STEPHEN KINZER: Zelaya was a fascinating figure, certainly the most formidable leader Nicaragua ever had. He was a slashing reformer. He was a liberal, a progressive. He built ports and roads, tried to build up a middle class in Nicaragua. He brought the first automobile into Nicaragua, the first streetlights. He organized the first baseball league. He was a true modernizer.
But he had one characteristic the United States really didn’t like. And that is, he wanted Nicaragua to have an independent foreign policy. When he needed to raise money for a planned railroad across Nicaragua, rather than seek loans from the Morgan bank in the United States as we wanted him to do, he floated the loan offers in London and in Paris. The United States tried to get those governments to forbid the offering of those loan agreements, but they refused. Sure enough, the money was raised. And America became very alarmed. Nicaragua was trying to diversify its international relations. It didn’t want to be just under the power of the United States. And that was a fatal decision by Zelaya.
Once he decided that he wanted to pull Nicaragua out from under the thumb of the United States, he became a target. And we did overthrow him in 1909. That was the beginning of a century of American interference in Nicaragua. I think you can argue that there’s no country in the world where the cycle of American intervention—imposition of a dictator, rebellion, repression, and a return of American power to impose another leader—is so clear, over such a long period of time, the way it is in Nicaragua.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, now writes the world affairs column for The Boston Globe.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about another invasion that is rarely talked about these days: the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 by Lyndon Johnson and the efforts of the United States, again, to control the affairs of the Dominican Republic over many, many years, because, obviously, there were two invasions of the Dominican Republic. There was one at the early part of the century that led to the rise of Trujillo, and then there was one after the fall of Trujillo to attempt regime change against President Juan Bosch, who had been elected into office.
STEPHEN KINZER: You have placed it very well, because if we remember this operation at all, we remember the American Marines landing on the beaches in the Dominican Republic. But the cause of that intervention was the foolish mistake of the Dominican people of electing a leader who was unpalatable to the United States. Juan Bosch was a figure a little bit like Zelaya had been half a century earlier in Nicaragua. He didn’t want the Dominican Republic to be under the thumb of the United States. He wanted it to be an independent country. And this was something the U.S. couldn’t tolerate.
All these movements in the Caribbean Basin have been—have had, as a fundamental part of their political program, measures to limit the power of foreign corporations in their countries, and often measures to limit the amount of land that foreigners can own in their country. These are the kinds of measures that are hateful to the American corporations that have gotten so rich from taking the resources of the Caribbean Basin, and leaders who promote those policies always find themselves in Washington’s crosshairs.
This is not just ancient history. We had an episode in Honduras in 2009 where a president who was very much in this line, trying to pull Honduras away from subservience to the United States, was overthrown in a coup by the military, dragged out of his house in the middle of the night in his pajamas, sent into exile. The U.S. was so happy, members of Congress even went to Honduras to congratulate the leader of the coup. And then, just last year, a new election was held to ratify the results of the coup. The election was so fraudulent that for the first time in the history of the Organization of American States, the OAS called for a new election. And the leader of the OAS, Almagro, had to do it, because he had been denouncing attacks on democracy in Venezuela and figured he couldn’t just stand by while something even worse was done in Honduras. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have that kind of shame, and we cheered that election. We refused the call for a new election. And Honduras today is under the rule of a regime that is the product of a coup, supported by the United States, against an elected government.
So, this is not something that we used to do in ancient history. This is something that’s happening right now. And that’s why those of us familiar with this history roll our eyes a little bit when we hear these outraged allegations that Russia has been doing something so dastardly as to try to influence our politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kinzer, can you take us on a brief, kind of thumbnail journey from the overthrow of Hawaii, the Spanish-American War, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines—all before the turn of the 20th century?
STEPHEN KINZER: This was a fascinating period, and it really was the moment when the United States went from being what you could call a continental empire—that is, inside North America—to being an overseas empire, a crucial moment of decision for the United States. That was not inevitable, but that was the choice we made.
So, in 1893, at the behest of sugar growers in Hawaii, the United States promoted the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. The idea was that Hawaii would then immediately become part of the United States. That didn’t happen, because there was a change of presidency in Washington, and the new president, Grover Cleveland, hated that intervention and didn’t want to take Hawaii in. Then, five years later, in 1898, when Grover Cleveland was gone, the Spanish-American War broke out. The United States became interested in the Pacific, because we destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. Then we decided we should take the Philippines for ourselves. We became interested in the China market. This was a real, fantastic Fata Morgana out there for American business. The American press was full of stories about how many nails we could sell in China, if we could get the Chinese to use nails; how much cotton we could sell there; how much beef we could sell there, if we could get the Chinese to eat beef. So, we decided we needed stepping stones to China. And that was the moment when we decided, “Let’s take Hawaii as we’ve taken the Philippines.”
So, that happened at the same time the United States was consolidating its rule over Cuba and Puerto Rico. In Cuba, we staged a presidential election, after we consolidated our power there in 1898. We found a candidate that we liked. We found him in upstate New York. He spoke good English, which is always essential for the people that we promote. We brought him back to Cuba. As soon as it became clear that the campaign was rigged, the other candidate dropped out. He became president of Cuba. Sure enough, six years later, the United States had to send troops back to Cuba to suppress protests against him. They occupied Cuba for three more years. Then they left. They had to come back again about six or seven years later, in 1917, because again the Cuban people had had the temerity to elect a leader who was unpalatable to the United States. So, this was a great model for an idea, a concept, that has reverberated through the whole period since then, which is: Have your elections, but you must elect someone we like; otherwise, we’re going to go to Plan B.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to come back with Stephen Kinzer and talk about James Woolsey’s latest comment. When asked on Fox if the U.S. is still interfering with people’s elections, he chuckles and says, “Only for a good cause.” Yes, we’re talking with Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, now writing a world affairs column for The Boston Globe, has written many books, one on the coup, U.S. overthrow of Guatemalan democratically elected government, called Bitter Fruit, one called Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, one specifically on Iran, All the Shah’s Men, and his latest book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Nicaragua” by Bruce Cockburn, here on Democracy Now!. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan GonzÃ¡lez. Our guest is Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, now writes for The Boston Globe. He’s author of a number of books, his latest, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. Juan?
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the Spanish-American War and, of course, of the bitter guerrilla war that developed in the Philippines in the 1899, 1900, the birth of the Anti-Imperialist League in the United States—it was a widespread movement of Americans opposed to this overseas empire. Could you talk about some of the figures and the impact of the Anti-Imperialist League? Because we don’t see that kind of organization these days, even though the U.S. empire continues to grow and make itself felt around the world.
STEPHEN KINZER: The story of the Anti-Imperialist League is a central part of my new book, The True Flag. And I like my books always to be voyages of discovery. I’m always looking for some really big story that shaped the world but that we don’t know about. And this really is one. Here’s a story that has almost completely dropped out of our history books.
But the Anti-Imperialist League was a major force in American life in the period around 1898, 1900. It was based in Boston, later moved to Washington, had chapters all over the United States. Some of the leading figures in the United States were members. The leaders of the Anti-Imperialist League included billionaires like Andrew Carnegie and social activists like Jane Addams and Samuel Gompers, Booker T. Washington. Grover Cleveland was a member. It was really a remarkable group. It staged hundreds of rallies, published thousands of leaflets, intensely lobbied in Washington, and actually had quite an impact.
This was a debate that seized the attention of the entire American people: Should we begin taking territories outside North America? Or should we now stop, now that we’ve consolidated our North American empire? Everybody in the United States realized this was a huge decision. It dominated newspaper coverage. When the treaty by which the United States took the Philippines and Guam and Puerto Rico was brought before the Senate, there was a 34-day debate. That’s the center of my book. In this debate, you will see every argument, on both sides, that has ever been used, for the last 120 years. Every argument about why intervention is a good idea or a bad idea starts there. And the Anti-Imperialist League played a great role in that debate. And interestingly enough, that treaty, that set us off on the path of global empire, was passed in the Senate by a margin of one vote more than the required two-thirds majority.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And, of course, the—
STEPHEN KINZER: And when it was challenged in the Supreme Court, it was five to four.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And, of course, the most eloquent spokesman—the most elegant spokesman for the Anti-Imperialist League was none other than Mark Twain, no?
STEPHEN KINZER: This is another discovery I made while I was writing my book. I grew up with what I now realize was a partial, a kind of false, image of Mark Twain. I always thought of him as Mr. Nice Guy. He’s a sweetheart. He’s everybody’s favorite old uncle, who has nice curly white hair and rocks on his porch and tells nice, funny stories that everybody laughs at. This is not correct! This is not the real Mark Twain.
Mark Twain was an eviscerating anti-imperialist. He was militant. He was intent. He used to write that Americans fighting in foreign wars were carrying a polluted musket under a bandit’s flag. And he even wanted to change the flag of the United States, to change the stars to skull-and-crossbones symbols. So, I now realize that we have sort of sanctified and bleached Mark Twain for public consumption. Many of the quotes I use from Twain in my book do not appear in many biographies or anthologies. That part of Twain has been dropped out of his legacy, and I’m trying to recover it, because he speaks to us today.
AMY GOODMAN: Makes me wonder if his books will start to be taken out of libraries around the country.