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Book review: Overthrow


Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer (2007)

Hawaii. Cuba. Philippines. Honduras. Nicaragua. Guatemala. Vietnam. Iran. Chile. Grenada. Afghanistan. Iraq. What do all these countries have in common? They all have been victims, either directly or indirectly, of American regime change operations. The reasons for American intervention varied from case to case, but the common denominators in most instances were anti-communism and/or the protection of American business interests. Not surprisingly, the CIA has done the footwork for most of these operations, at least since its establishment in 1947. Written by veteran journalist Stephen Kinzer, author of 'All the Shah's Men,' this dramatic narrative is an eye-opening journey through the annals of American foreign policy.

While the stories of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam are generally well-known, many of the others are not. Cuba and the Philippines of course were acquired as a result of American victory in the Spanish-American war, but rather than granting these nations the independence they so desperately sought, the American government simply replaced the Spanish as colonial masters. To do this, they were forced to violently put down the respective native rebellions. The sovereign Monarchy of Hawaii was overthrown as a result of a plot designed by American businessmen in order to control the lucrative sugar trade. The governments of Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran and Chile were all overthrown in the context of the Cold war, where a fervent anti-communist sentiment swept through the US government. This led to a mindset where everything was seen through the eyes of the Cold war, and every nationalist and independence movement was viewed with suspicion. Soviet manipulation was seen lurking around every corner and as a result, many democratic and nationalist movements were brutally supressed. As Kinzer writes, the anti-communist view and the pro-American business view were so intertwined that they often merged as one. Any threat to American business, such as a given country's nationalization of their resources, was seen as a potential move towards communism which had to be stopped. Many of the overthrown leaders had been democratically elected, and were replaced by brutal dictators. Men like John Foster Dulles figure significantly in this era, a man who epitomized the fervent anti-communist and was responsible for many such actions.

As a journalist, Kinzer as usual relays these stories in a compelling fashion, giving us a gripping, blow by blow account of each affair. Of course, there are two sides to every story, and there are doubtlessly those who would defend these actions, or perhaps even take issue with Kinzer's version of events. And while this reviewer certainly sympathizes with Kinzer's critical view of such policies, it is possible that some of the operations have been more justifiable than others. The problem, says Kinzer, is that the US government has made a habit of thinking it can simply overthrow any foreign government that is not to its liking. Either way, this is an entertaining and intellectually nutritious read for anyone interested in American foreign policy, or 20th century history in general.


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