BOOKS/Alvena Bieri


The book's introductory question is striking -- why do strong countries invade weaker ones? In Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq [New York: Henry Holt, 2006] Stephen Kinzer holds that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not that unusual in American history. The 20th century saw America invading 14 countries. Now sometimes diplomacy is used to make changes, but the book focuses on times when we have actually deposed foreign leaders. Kinzer says no nation on earth has done more of this than the US.

He covers an enormous amount of history here, so he has divided the time roughly into three parts. First is the "imperial phase," or the time of Manifest Destiny; then the post-World War Two era when the US tried to be careful not to antagonize the USSR; and then the 1980s to the present.

What all the invasions have in common is a big economic interest. In Hawaii in 1893 some so-called Christians and a lot of sugar planters managed to stage a revolution and overthrow the queen. And that was just the start. Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt ushered in even more interference in other governments around the turn of the century. Roosevelt, who ironically many years later lost a son in World War I, is quoted here as calling the critics of his belligerent policies "futile sentimentalists of the international arbitration type," saying they showed "a flabby type of character which eats away at the great fighting features of our race."

The explosion that sank the battleship Maine in 1898 in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, led to even more questionable behavior by the United States government. It was probably an accident, but it propelled the US into a war with Spain. Then while everyone's attention was on Cuba, the US ordered a naval attack on the Philippines. Kinzer says that more than 4000 Americans and 35,000 Filipinos were killed in that war. Those islands became part of the new American empire.

And so he goes on tracing the "regime change" history of American interventions through the last century. Countries of Latin America continue to be in danger from the US. Chile is a prime example. In 1970 a Marxist, Salvador Allende, was head of government there. In 1973 he was overthrown by a coup assisted by the US and that country ended up with Auguste Pinochet.

In the final chapter, "Catastrophic Success," Kinzer makes a pungent comparison of McKinley and Bush. He says both these presidents claimed to be religious and believed that God was on their side. At least they said that. Both were ignorant about the countries they invaded. And both were in power and making their plans when American businesses were searching for more and new markets. Maybe neither anticipated the chaos to come when many citizens of the invaded countries did not welcome them with open arms. Nearly all of these invasions have left a residue of resentment, if not hate. Kinzer sees the past century as a lesson in mostly unpleasant consequences of takeovers, saying that the US is not really suited to going in and "ruling foreign lands," and not as good as the European countries at colonizing.

Kinzer calls the whole business in Iraq now "a cauldron of violent anarchy and a magnet for fanatics from around the world." It "has set off a global wave of anti-American passion" without precedent in history. After all this, he doesn't have many ideas about how we can begin a therapeutic change in our national policies.

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater, OK 74074 or email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2006

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