Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow reviews a century of America’s overthrowing governments from Hawaii to Iraq. Overthrow is simply one of the most consequential books I have ever read about American foreign policy. Given what is happening in Syria and Chile and the reality of the 2020 election, people interested in politics would do well to read Overthrow now.
I consider myself a reasonable student of history. Since I had previously read Bitter Fruit, a book Kinzer worked on about the US overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala, I had an idea Overthrow would be an educational, sometimes infuriating read. I’m glad to say Overthrow didn’t disappoint on either account. In order to better understand, we must be willing to confront and accept truths government tries so hard to hide.
The most important thing reenforced to me by Overthrow was the reality that while America regularly touts the good it does in the world, its support for human rights, and its encouraging of democracy, the truth is America has a long history of promoting corporate exploitation, brutal oppression, and spectacular inequality. Specifically, America has shown a willingness to destroy foreign lands, exploit people of color, ignore thousands of murders, rapes, and kidnappings so American corporations can make more money.
Reading Overthrow, as other books have done, caused me to think about the falsity of American history as it is taught and understood in America. Americans love talking about World War II. Sometimes, they talk about World War I. Those discussions allow America and Americans to promote the myths of America as a champion of human rights and democracy. Of course, those discussions overlook the segregation of the US military, the internment of the Japanese, and the number of Jews denied entrance to America who wound up being murdered in the Holocaust. But the idea behind World War II, at least, plays relatively well to the narrative every American is supposed to believe.
If Americans talked more about Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, and others, Americans would have to accept the fact that American history isn’t what Americans want American history to have been.
Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii was overthrown because she was working toward a constitution that reestablished the rights of native Hawaiians and on land reform that would have robbed American sugar and fruit companies of their control. Interestingly, the first true American puppet governor of Hawaii was Sanford Dole of the Dole fruit company.
In the Philippines, American troops committed rape, murder, and torture to subdue a population that didn’t want to be controlled by America.
During the War of 1898, the Senate expressly promised, through the Teller Amendment, that the United States would not interfere in Cuba after the war. After the war, America forced the Cubans to accept the terms of the Platt Amendment which gave America control over much of the Cuban government.
In Iran, America overthrew the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh because he nationalized Iran’s oil industry and prohibited British and American companies from continuing to take most of the oil for a fraction of its value.
The truth about America, as Overthrow makes clear, is that American foreign policy has largely been self-serving, exploitative, racist, and oppressive. The reason so many hate America isn’t because they hate American ideals–many hate America because America’s arrogance, racism, and brutality have made America worth hating.
I don’t write that last paragraph lightly. But it’s important to acknowledge the truth. Moving forward, America needs a foreign policy based on respect and cooperation. An effort to uphold the ideals Americans pay lip service to all the time would be nice too.
If you take nothing from this remember–regime change is almost always a terrible idea.