Friday, September 28, 2012

Book Review: Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq

This year's Primary Source's Summer Institute, titled "The US and the World Expressions of Power, Past and Present, provided me with great opportunities to discuss themes that are essential to my courses, World History II and US History I and to learn new content, as I'm not familiar with US History II topics. I took advantage of expanding my knowledge of 21st century American foreign policy by choosing to read and write a book synopsis on Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow, America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. The book had been recommended to me by a graduate professor and I had never taken the time to read it. I'm really glad that I did, as a matter of fact, I wish I had read it before I took this summer's course. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in 21st century American foreign policy, especially if you'd like a quick introduction, but even people who are familiar with the topic might find Kinzer's presentation, argument, collection of quotes, speeches, and vignettes to add depth and uniqueness that add personality to one's repertoire.

The novelty of Kinzer's argument is that when studied together, the US initiated and involved regime changes reveal patterns and commonalities that are important for Americans to know. Most alarmingly, Kinzer emphasizes, is that many of these regime changes were meant to help protect the US and its interests; however, unfortunately, have only laid the foundations that created series of events that have provoked the growth of anti-American feelings, most notably culminating in the 9/11 attacks. Though these topics are undoubtedly deep and complex, Kinzer narrows his topic to focus on key Americans involved, a quick background of the political and economic conditions of the foreign country, and quick background of the political and economic threat these conditions had to the US and American interests, especially corporate.

One theme that emerged in looking at the political and economic conditions of the foreign countries was the emergence of nationalism, nations wanting to take back control of their countries' resources from foreign influence to build and strengthen their country for their people. In many cases, many of these revolutionary rumbles and their leaders were very democratic in nature and aim. Many of these leaders that the US helped to overthrow looked to the US as a model for their country, one of the most notable example is Ho Chi Minh's speech after Japanese occupation in Vietnam during World War II, by quoting the Declaration of Independence in Vietnam's declaration of independence.  However, and quite sadly, the US, especially during the Cold War, spun these events as dangerous, socialist stirrings that would give Moscow greater control and influence around the world, which became a fireproof reason to overthrow the leader. These democratic yearnings in emerging foreign nations was also, unfortunately, paired with shockingly undemocratic action by the US. Even more unfortunate is that regime changes resulted in a severely less democratic, and, in most cases, dictatorial leadership. The events in Iran illustrate these grave mistakes more than any other, especially since it transformed Iran from a strategic partner to the US in the Middle East to a rogue enemy, a transition that contributed to future problems for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another pattern that revealed itself through the continuum that Kinzer presented was the merging of poltical and economic interests. It appears to be dangerous to impartial judgement to have someone so involved in or connected to a corporation also involved in the government, especially when the government becomes involved with that corporation. This mix becomes even more treacherous when amplified by family connections. In the case of Guatemala, not only did Secretary of State John Dulles legally represent all three companies that monopolized Guatemala, Electric Bond and Share, International Railways of Central America, and United Fruit, his brother, Allen Dulles, director of the CIA owned stock in United Fruit.

One final theme that I'll share is the influence of fear, whether short-sighted felt or intentionally utilized, as a major motivating factor in US foreign policy. Though hind-sight is 20/20, this string of fourteen regime changes must inform Americans, and those more directly involved in policy making, to act cautiously and sensibly. During the Cold War era, any hint of communism created overreactions and decisions made by fear as opposed to logic and reason. One must take into consideration the historical past without imposing judgement from the present, but lessons must be learned.

Once again, I highly recommend Overthrow to any teacher of US II, 21st Century history, or anyone just curious about this time period and topic. I'm assuming most books and arguments that cover such controversial topics have pronounced agendas and perspective, but I didn't find that to overwhelm or cloud Kinzer's work. I would only caution readers, as I mentioned above, to be mindful of the benefit of hindsight. In addition to informing and adding to one's knowledge of 21st century American foreign policy, Overthrow provides a platform for a variety of classroom uses. Teachers can use the lead individuals, both American and from the countries that were overthrown, as ways to study history through biographies. Library of Congress's Chronicling America also serves as a great resource to provide that historical perspective, as students can find primary sources that capture how these foreign affairs were communicated to the nation and the nation's reactions. 

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