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Book Review: Overthrow – America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer

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The title of Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq leaves little to the imagination. It is an ambitious book about aggressive United States foreign policy whose equally ambitious structure does it a disservice. This is not least because the smooth way the structure works for the first few sections makes the breakdown of the last few harder to accept. I can’t complain much, though; it was juicy and informative. And for some audiences, it should probably be required reading.

Kinzer hit peaks of fame with All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, which was unqualifiedly good. The body only covered the few years during which Iran’s democracy under Mossadegh was stifled by the United States in favour of the repressive reign of Shah Reza Mohammed.

Its central argument was also clear – when a seemingly inconvenient ruler has a popular mandate, in the long run regime changes are more moral, physical, and economic trouble than they’re worth for a dominant nation. Whether the reader chooses to believe Kinzer’s conclusion that modern Islamic terrorism was born from this U.S.-sponsored coup is up to the reader. But All the Shah’s Men is a clear enough effort that one should read it before rejecting the conclusion.

Overthrow has the same sorts of arguments and conclusions in it. But while All the Shah’s Men focused on a few years, Overthrow is a 322-page survey of a dozen regime changes over more than a century. The only way such ambitious arguments and conclusions could be successfully combined with such an ambitious subject in a fairly short book would have been surgical precision.

Surgical precision is in short supply here. Kinzer spends too much time speculating on the mental states of the men in his book; we know who to clap for, who to hiss at, and who to peek at through our fingers almost as soon as they hit the page. Kinzer is a journalist by trade and his style doesn’t let us forget it. Nonetheless, he juggles journalistic colour, ambitious argumentation, and large swathes of history for more than half the book with some success.

The first part, titled “The Imperial Era”, and the second, “Covert Action”, are perfectly coherent. "The Imperial Era" focuses on Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua. It concludes by drawing together the facts and commonalities between these military and commercial ventures as it outlines the fates of the regions and of their relations with the United States.

The second section goes in the same direction. Chapters on Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile examine covert activities the United States engaged in to instigate violent regime change in each country. Once more, Kinzer explores consequences for each country and the United States in the final chapter of the section. Kinzer also speculates the Cold War United States confounded the nationalist sentiments of old colonies with international Communism in a way that aided American commercial interests – a speculation well-supported enough by his evidence to be gadfly to some sacred cows.  

It’s in the final part, which deals with Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq, that Kinzer drops his balls. Each regime change in the book is touched on in chronological order, and yet each chapter has a separate theme: the first part being about a willingness to use the military for territorial gain, the second to use covert operations to over-react to nationalism (or fight international Communism, depending on your perspective), and the third to use the military and covert operations to invade.

The problem is there isn't a great deal tying the invasions of Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq together. Or if there is, we don't learn about it in this book. While Kinzer does a great job of convincing the reader of ideological parallels between the invasion of Hawaii and the annexation of Puerto Rico, for example, he can't do the same for the invasion of Grenada and Iraq. His final ‘follow-up’ chapter provides staggeringly little detail about the fate of Grenada or Panama. In fact, there is so little detail about those countries one feels his rush to start laying into the Bush administration's war mongering. Fair enough, but this reader felt cheated.

Because of this late sloppiness and structural confusion, it feels as though Kinzer wastes space by talking about the abused moral qualities of American citizens as much as he does. But this ‘waste’ is useful for the book in the end. Chronicling how violent regime changes in other countries were presented to the American public helps the rest of us understand how that public can allow such things and still be good people with optimistic and laudable ideals.

Even more important, however, is that Overthrow would be a good primer for Americans who wonder why so many people in the world hate them so much. Much of their education has led them to believe that they are hated out of jealousy; this book may be gentle enough to inform them that they are hated for a perceived hypocrisy and for a series of governmental policies that have borne horribly bitter fruit in dozens of countries.

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About Melita Teale

  • Bdiddy

    In the book “Overthrow”, by Stephen Kinzer writes about an American being involved in the first overthrowing of a foreign government. He also writes about 250 American sailors died when the Unites States used “forcible intervention” in what was then to become the conquering of three territories involving several islands in opposite sides of the world. “Some argued that the Unites States had to take new territories in order to prevent European power, or perhaps even Japan, from taking them” (Kinzer 33). Kinzer argues, the Unites States felt that by intervening and conquering new land they would have financial gain and a vast ability of land for economical used.
    In 1876 when the treaty of Reciprocity was signed between the Hawaiian Majesty and then current president Ulysses S. Grant where the treaty involved local sugar planters in exchange for into granting United States exclusive rights to maintain commercial and military bases in Hawaii. After the sugar industry began to triple within a three year period it was well notice that “money rained down on the white planters who controlled Hawaii’s economy” (Kinzer 14). Having said this, whites knew how much power they had over the Hawaii Kingdom. Therefore in 1892 “Thurston founded the Annexation Club, with the declared goal of bringing Hawaii into the Unites states. Imbued as was with the idea that only whites rule the islands efficiently, he was able to consider this a form of patriotism” (Kinzer 16-17). In January 1893 the Hawaii kingdom was overthrown by Lorrin Thurston a firebrand lawyer and antiroyalist plotter with the helped of the United States Marines.
    As matter fact I find it hard to understand why white Americans have always been portrait as the super political and social power. I agree when Kinzer when he argues that the Unites States conquer new land in order to gain economical gain. Throughout American history there been several example of Unites State overthrowing governments for economical

  • mandy

    He talks about all the facts but not about the consequences

  • Liliuokalani

    This book is terribly written and does not deserve to be published. Who ever is forced to read this book should file for cruel and unusual punishment.

  • One of the leaders in August 31st’s Economist – “The world since September 11th: Five years on” – had some interesting thoughts about that in reference to Iraq, Nancy (I hope I’m allowed to paste it if it’s referenced):

    “If (the invasion) was all about dictatorship, what about the dictatorship the West continues to embrace in Saudi Arabia, and the quasi-dictatorship in Pakistan? If it was about helping Islam’s moderates against its reactionaries, what is so clever about stepping in to someone else’s civil war? . . . It is true, and it is commendable, that once America and Britain had toppled Mr Hussein, they helped to organise free elections. They are right to support Iraq’s new government and to make the argument for democracy elsewhere in the Arab world. But portraying the whole enterprise as if it had from the start been all about an experiment in democracy just makes Muslims crosser. By what right do you invade someone else’s country in order to impose a pattern of government?”

  • Nancy

    Regime change begins at home! Yeah – I’m all for changing the regime here in the US, here & now.

    One would think that after screwing up royally and invariably backing the wrong horse during the past 50 years or so, someone somewhere in an administration would draw the obvious conclusion that just maybe we ought to Mind Our Own Business for a change. Those people arrogant enough to determine they have the right to invade/change regimes, etc. would be the first to squeal in outrage and horror if the targets of their finagling were to return the favor & give them a dose of their own regime-change medicine.

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • Kinzer sometimes argued, especially in the final section, that early withdrawal from the invaded countries after a disruption of the status quo was a wasted opportunity. Part of the weakness of the concluding section was it being hard to tell whether he was trying to warn the reader of the consequences of a short American attention span in Iraq, or just complaining about the policy so far.

    So I don’t think he would disagree that the fruit has often been bitter not necessarily because of the effort but because of the failure of the effort. He argues throughout for the good intentions of the American people, and criticizes governmental policies. Not only for their aggression; far more for what he considers their poor prosecution.

    But I’m curious. When you say Iranians congratulate America’s efforts to save their country, are they talking about being saved from the present administration or from Mossadegh? I’ve never met an Iranian who thought they had been ‘saved’ from Mossadegh.

  • for a series of governmental policies that have borne horribly bitter fruit in dozens of countries.

    Bitter fruit not because we attempted regime change, of course, but because it failed. Someone ought to poll all the Lebanese, Iranian, Vietnamese and Cuban expatriots here in the US about how they feel about our efforts to save their countries. I’ve talked to a hell of a lot of them recently and their praises for our efforts are effusive.