At a time when President Obama is under extreme pressure to take some sort of military action against the Assad regime in Syria, assuming it can be shown to be responsible for the horrible chemical weapons attack on its own people this week, it’s interesting to note that for most of the post-WWII period the US was criticised for too much intervention in other countries.
The journal Foreign Policy provides a helpful map and list of the seven times that the US has officially admitted to overthrowing other countries’ governments. This comes in the week that the CIA admitted for the first time what was largely already known, that it backed the 1953 coup in Iran in which an elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, was evicted to make way for an autocratic regime led by the Shah, who was himself thrown out in the revolution of 1979. American relations with Iran have been poisoned ever since.
According to Foreign Policy, the seven cases were:
Iran, 1953: Mohammed Mossadegh, elected prime minister in 1951, nationalised oil assets belonging to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which later became BP). The British persuaded the US to help and the CIA organised a coup to push Mossadegh out of power.
Guatemala, 1954: The United States supported a coup against President Jacobo Árbenz, mainly because his land reforms threatened the interests of the US-owned United Fruit Company. The CIA equipped rebels and paramilitary troops while the U.S. Navy blockaded the Guatemalan coast, according to documents declassified in 1989.
Congo, 1960: The US supported Belgian intervention in its former colony to protect business interests. The newly decolonised country’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was pushed out of power and later captured and killed, with CIA help.
Dominican Republic, 1961: The CIA supported the ambush and killing of the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo.
South Vietnam, 1963: The United States supported a coup by generals against the country’s leader, Ngo Dinh Diem.
Brazil, 1964: Brazilian President Joao Goulart was replaced by the chief of staff of the Brazilian army, with CIA support and weapons. The military ran the country till 1985.
Chile, 1973: Salvador Allende, the socialist candidate elected president was overthrown in a military coup supported by the CIA, which led to the exceptionally nasty regime of General Pinochet. Democracy was restored fully in Chile only in 1990.
The preponderance of Latin American events is consistent with the US view of this region as its “backyard”, a perspective that goes back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, in which President Monroe decreed that foreign involvement in the region would be regarded as hostile to US interests.
Other coups were explained or at least justified by Cold War rivalry. A country that was apparently leaning to the left, whether or not that entailed support for the Communist countries of the USSR or China, was seen as a potential threat to western interests. It was years after the Vietnam War that the former American Defence Secretary Robert McNamara finally realised that the Vietnamese, far from being a pawn of the Communist Chinese, had centuries of hostility to China and indeed fought a war with them after the Americans left.
The Iranian coup was more nakedly a case of protecting western, especially British economic interests. The UK talked up the Cold War context in persuading the US to go in, but Mossadegh’s wildly popular nationalisation of British oil interests was a response to decades of arrogant and racist treatment by the British of their Iranian employees and local citizens. Iran is a proudly independent country that would no more sell its independence to Russia than it would to the USA. The anger of Iranians with the US that surfaced in the 1979 revolution came as a complete surprise to those Americans (the vast majority) who were ignorant of their government’s former subversion.