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Web Bonus: Stephen Kinzer on America’s History of Regime Change and Mark Twain’s Anti-Imperialism

Web ExclusiveMarch 14, 2018
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Web-only conversation with Stephen Kinzer, author of many books, including “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq” and “The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue our conversation with Stephen Kinzer, Part 2 of that conversation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Stephen Kinzer, I’d like to ask you about one of, to my mind—you covered in your book Overthrow—one of the all-time unfair fights in world history, perhaps one of the most egregious examples of a large nation attacking a small nation. I’m talking about the invasion of Grenada in 1985, I think it was, under Ronald Reagan, a country that has maybe one-third of the population of the Bronx and assaulted by American troops. Could you talk about the invasion of Grenada?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: '83, I'm sorry. 1983.

STEPHEN KINZER: This really is a remarkable episode, as you pointed out. So, it happened in 1983, soon after Reagan had come into office. Grenada is a tiny island in the Caribbean. Its entire population could fit into the Rose Bowl in California. That’s how small it is. But the United States was looking for a victory. Reagan came into office with this idea that the U.S. had to shake off what he called the Vietnam syndrome, the syndrome that we were, as he called it, a pitiful, helpless giant. He wanted to show that the United States was still able to crush enemies. But as was always the case during the Cold War, we were never able to strike against our real enemies. Nobody ever proposed bombing Moscow or invading China. So, we had to go after countries that weren’t really our enemies but were smaller and easier to push around. And there hardly was a country smaller and easier to push around than poor little Grenada.

Grenada had inserted itself into the Cold War. The Grenadan leadership had been friendly to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, to Fidel Castro in Cuba. And somehow the United States developed this idea that this little island could somehow be a threat to the United States. So, partly for that reason, but I think largely for reasons of politics, for reasons of appearance, the United States, under Reagan, decided we’re looking for a place to attack. There was turmoil inside Grenada, suddenly. There was a rebellion within the ruling group, and one of the groups turned on the other. The prime minister was assassinated. And in that turmoil, Reagan saw a chance, that we would go in and say we were trying to rescue the people of Grenada, save American citizens who were there, and show that America could still stand strong in the world. So we invaded. Obviously, the invasion was predetermined in its outcome.

But what I find particularly egregious about this is what happened afterwards. So, this is a tiny, little country. The United States could have made it into the jewel of the Caribbean. It’s such a small place. We could have made it into a paradise, for nothing, for the cost of a toilet seat on a B-52 bomber. So, we didn’t do that. We just turned away and left. And this is so true with all of our other interventions. You might say we intervened in some places to overthrow leaders or regimes that were unfair to their people, but we never tried to impose other ones that were good. We turned our back immediately. And we allow the tyrants that we impose, in places like Iran and Guatemala, to do whatever they want, once we’ve placed them in power. So, Grenada has stumbled along. It’s not in a terrible condition. But we missed a great opportunity. And that’s because once we’ve overthrown a government, we feel we’re finished. We’ve put in someone we like. We can turn away and look for the next country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to turn to Honduras. We talked about it in Part 1 of this conversation, but I wanted to turn to a conversation that we had with Mel Zelaya, Mel Zelaya who was ousted in 2009. In December, we spoke with the former Honduran president. He was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup. And I asked President Zelaya whether he’s suggesting that the U.S.—you know, they had just experienced their own election. Hernández, the incumbent president, had clearly not won right after the election. In fact, when they announced who was ahead, it was the competing presidential candidate. Then they shut down all information about the elections. Before we knew it, they announced Hernández was the victor, over Nasralla. And that is playing out to this day, with thousands of people protesting in the streets. Mel Zelaya had formed an alliance with Nasralla, and I asked him, “Are you still—do you still see the U.S. running the show in Honduras?”

MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] I have no doubt about it, Amy. And you know why? Because I was president of the country, and they tried to run everything. And their opposition is what took me out of power. The coup d’état against me was planned in Miami at the Southern Command. So I know, here, they run the churches—not all of them, not all of the pastors or all of the priests, but the main heads. They finance the main churches, evangelical churches, as well—not all of them, but most of them. They run the large owners of the media corporations. They feed them a line, day after day. And the military obey them, because they were trained by them at the School of the Americas. It now has another name, but the graduates are throughout Latin America. The private business—well, if you’re going to be a businessperson and make money in Honduras, you need to export to the United States, and so you have to have a good relationship, you have to have a visa. So, anything the United States says is the law for the private sector here. If they say, “Go into the abyssum,” they will. That’s how the history of this country has been. They run the transnationals, private sector, the churches, the major media—not just here, around the world. The major media conglomerates answer to the U.S. line.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the ousted Honduran President Mel Zelaya, speaking just a few months ago. Since then, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has visited Honduras and the president now, Hernández, has visited Guatemala, right after which Guatemala announced that two days after the U.S. moves its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Guatemala will move its embassy to Jerusalem. Stephen Kinzer, your comments?

STEPHEN KINZER: Well, I thought President Zelaya’s statements were actually pretty accurate. I wish I could protest against him, but I think he’s laid out the situation pretty clearly. Honduras, sometimes thought of as the ultimate banana republic, and we’ve certainly treated it that way. You know, we mentioned earlier the overthrow of President Zelaya in Nicaragua in 1909. After that happened, there was one other liberal leader left in Central America, and that was a guy named Dávila in Honduras. So we went in and overthrew him the next year, 1910. Since then, the United States has been the overwhelming power in Honduras.

What I find especially interesting, and it didn’t—President Zelaya didn’t get into this in his interview, is the excuse that we used to support the overthrow of Zelaya back in 2009. He was going to call a referendum in which he would ask whether the constitution could be changed to allow presidential re-election. We didn’t like that, so we set this coup in motion. Now, what just happened? The president of Honduras, who just got elected, is elected for a second term. He didn’t try to change the law. He did. He violated it. The constitution says there’s no re-election allowed. The president of Honduras has just been re-elected. And the United States has blessed this as a triumph of democracy. So you can understand why Hondurans are out in the street upset and how this feeds into a long century of American intervention in that poor country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Stephen Kinzer, what about Chile, which we’ve dealt with numerous times here on the program, the American role in governing in Chile?

STEPHEN KINZER: I want to just point out one episode in the very sad and well-known story of what happened in Chile. We all know that the CIA was deeply involved in the coup that overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973. But that was not the first time the U.S. focused on Allende. We had also tried to prevent his election during the—in 1970, when he was first elected president.

One of the ways we wanted to be sure that he wouldn’t be elected president is we wanted to get the commander of the Chilean Army to lead an uprising or to tell Congress they could not confirm Allende’s election. He refused to do that. He had the attitude the military does not involve itself in politics. As a result, we saw him as an obstacle.

And we did something that I think is really a low point—or maybe a high point, depending on your point of view—in the history of American intervention: We sent weapons, we sent ammunition, in a diplomatic pouch from the United States to our embassy in Santiago. And that night, at 2:00 in the morning, the defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy, on a dark street, handed these weapons over to anti-Allende ex-military people. And the next morning, they assassinated the commander of the Chilean Army.

What was his sin? His sin was to defend the principle that is absolutely fundamental to any democracy, including American democracy. And that is, the military does not involve itself in politics. Because he stuck to that principle and wanted civilians to decide who the civilian leader of the country would be, we participated in his assassination. This really was the extreme of American efforts to shape countries where we feared governments would soon emerge that would not support our interests.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question: Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, where we are in Iraq and Afghanistan today as a result of U.S. involvement in these countries?

STEPHEN KINZER: Both of these are—Iraq and Afghanistan are great exemplars of a cliché that writers sometimes hear. We say every story is either happy or sad, depending on where you end it. So, if we could have invaded Afghanistan, got rid of the Taliban, and then everything would be quiet, that would have been perfect. But life doesn’t work that way. History keeps on happening. Things have effects on other things.

So, here we are now 16 years into our war in Afghanistan. The military, our military, is completely out of ideas. They have tried everything. There is no way for victory in Afghanistan. We don’t even know what victory would look like. And our own military and political leaders admit this. Nonetheless, we’re still staying there. Pretty soon, there will be kids eligible—Americans eligible to go fight in Afghanistan who were not even born when this war began. So, we are there only because we don’t want to be the ones to stand up and admit that we failed, we couldn’t succeed in imposing our project. The same thing is happening in Iraq.

Here, I see an even bigger problem. The United States is still focusing on the Middle East as if our vital interests, our survival depends on it. Now, we intervened in the Middle East in the earlier eras for two reasons: keep the Soviet Union out and defend our vital oil supply links. There’s no more Soviet Union, and we don’t get vital oil from the Persian Gulf anymore. It’s time for us to withdraw from the Middle East. We no longer have vital interests there. What is the difference between a little more Syrian influence or less Syrian influence in eastern Turkey, whether parts of Iraq are more Kurdish or less Kurdish? This is not in the vital interest of the United States. It’s time for us to withdraw from that part of the world, let it resolve its own problems. We should have learned by now from Iraq and our other Middle East adventures that these adventures never produce any positive results, either for the people in the region or for us.

The Middle East was a vital interest for the United States for a while. For a long time, it hasn’t been. But our foreign policies don’t change as the world changes. We have policies that are set for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. And this is one of the great problems of our foreign policy. We get into a rut. We get in somewhere. We never get out. And it goes back to something I wrote about in my True Flag book. It was Henry Cabot Lodge who said, “Wherever the U.S. flag once flies, I hate to see it taken down.” What it means is, any country that we ever invade, that we ever interfere in, is a place where we have to stay forever. And as long as we continue to be in that mindset, we’re going to be dragged into these adventures in which we spend our blood and treasure in countries far away, for purposes that even our own leaders realize will never be accomplished.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the issue that Mel Zelaya raised about the media and its alliance with the United States? In your book True Flag, you write that the country’s best-known political and intellectual leaders took sides. Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst pushed for imperial expansion. Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie preached restraint. What did William Hearst have to do with this?

STEPHEN KINZER: William Randolph Hearst was a brilliant newspaper publisher who arrived in New York taking over a newspaper from his father that had a circulation of about 80,000. He built it up, in the space of less than a year, to 800,000. How did he do that? He came up with an idea, which is still very valid in journalism today. If you want people to buy a newspaper, the best thing is to have a running story—that is, a story that’s happening day after day after day, not just a one-time event, that makes people want to buy newspapers. War is the best-running story of all. And Hearst realized that if he could get the United States involved in some war, any war, anywhere, he could sell lots of newspapers by coming up with stories about heroism, treason, battles, all the archetypes of war. So he looked around the world. There was Cuba right there. There had been upheaval going on in Cuba for decades. And he took it on as a project to whip up fury in the United States against Spanish colonialism in Cuba, in a way that would produce our intervention. And it worked.

Hearst realized something that’s still true today about Americans. We are very compassionate people. Americans hate the idea that anybody is suffering anywhere. And when we see a newspaper article that shows you about some poor girl who’s been brutalized in a country because she wanted to go to school, we think, “We have to go invade that country.” So, playing on the compassion of the American people is something that our leaders, and particularly the press, are very practiced at doing. Just try to focus on the victims of tyranny in some foreign country, play up their suffering, and then you can produce in the American mind this odd link: If people are suffering in another country, the United States has to get involved, as if somehow we are going to be able to reduce that suffering. So, my bottom line would be, I don’t mind intervening in these humanitarian crises, if you think there’s a real chance that in the long run we can reduce human rights violations. But that’s almost never the case, as has been proven repeatedly in recent years.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kinzer, we want to thank you for being with us, former New York Times foreign correspondent, now a columnist for The Boston Globe, author of a number of books, among them Bitter Fruit, the story of the U.S. overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954; All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror; Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq; and, most recently, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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