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

Stephen Kinzer

Times Books



Trade Paperback

416 Pages



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"Regime change" did not begin with the administration of George W. Bush, but has been an integral part of U.S. foreign policy for more than one hundred years. Starting with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and continuing through the entire twentieth century and into our own time, the United States has not hesitated to topple governments that stood in the way of its political and economic goals. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the latest, though perhaps not the last, example of these high-stakes operations.

In Overthrow, Stephen Kinzer tells the stories of the audacious politicians, spies, military commanders, and business executives who took it upon themselves to depose monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers. He recounts how America's long regime-change century began in Hawaii and gained momentum during the Spanish-American War, when Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines fell to American military and political power. Soon afterward, the United States started flexing its muscles in Central America, orchestrating coups that brought down the presidents of Nicaragua and Honduras.

Kinzer then shows how the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union led American leaders to view all political disputes through the lens of superpower competition. During this period, they arranged covert actions that led to the murder of a South Vietnamese president and the fall of democratic governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. In recent years, invasions have once again become the preferred instrument of regime change, as operations in Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq attest.

The United States usually succeeds when it sets out to depose a foreign leader, but Kinzer assesses these operations in the cold light of history and concludes that many of them have actually undermined American security. Overthrow is a cautionary tale that serves as a warning as the United States seeks to define its role in the modern world.


Praise for Overthrow

"Overthrow is an infuriating recitation of our government's military bullying over the past 110 years—a century of interventions around the world that resulted in the overthrow of 14 governments—in Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Chile, Iran, Grenada, Afghanistan, and . . . Iraq."—The Texas Observer

"In this fascinating history, Kinzer explores the reasons for such operations and what they accomplished. The pattern of regime-change operations has followed the arc of U.S. global engagement in the twentieth century . . . Across the cases, which are recounted in lively and colorful detail, Kinzer argues that the motives for regime change have ranged from the prosaic and the pecuniary to the principled and the strategic. But in each case, action was undertaken when foreign governments refused to protect U.S. interests as defined at the moment . . . A useful portrait of the presidents who have influenced the exercise of U.S. power and the interesting judgment that interventions have often succeeded in their immediate goals but failed to advance U.S. interests in the long term."—G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

"To be shocked and awed by history is not a common reading experience. One usually reserves such reactions for edgy fiction, juicy memoirs or newsy exposes. Yet Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq is as gripping as any of these . . . The book is more than just a retelling of American intervention abroad: rogue diplomats and covert agents, a malleable press, ignorance of local cultures, the influence of multinational corporations, the rhetoric of American righteousness. What's new here is how adeptly Kinzer draws the dotted line from each story to the next . . . Kinzer recounts this century of overthrow with the swift pen of a newsman. A former New York Times correspondent and the author of several works of nonfiction, he also provides a sharp critique of how the American press was often complicit in regime change."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Kinzer has written a detailed, passionate and convincing book, several chapters of which have the pace and grip of a good thriller. It should be essential reading for any Americans who wish to understand both their country's historical record in international affairs, and why that record has provoked anger and distrust in much of the world. Most important, it helps explain why, outside of Eastern Europe, American pronouncements about spreading democracy and freedom, as repeatedly employed by the Bush administration, are met with widespread incredulity."—Anatol Lieven, The New York Times Book Review

"By collecting these stories in a single volume, Kinzer performs a useful service. Overthrow makes it abundantly clear that far from being some innovation devised in the aftermath of 9/11, 'regime change' has long been a mainstay of American statecraft."—Andrew J. Bacevich, The Nation

"Kinzer's narrative abounds with unusual anecdotes, vivid description, and fine detail, demonstrating why he ranks among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling."—The Washington Post Book World

"An admirably written page-turner . . . It may be the first to bring [the cases] together in a comparison over time. This makes the narrative more interesting than a single case study"—Richard K. Betts, The New York Times

"Timely and important . . . Overthrow effectively challenges our historical amnesia and collective short attention span in ways that can only enrich our national political discourse."—Chicago Tribune

"Kinzer's new book . . . [is a] valuable analysis and history . . . [and a] fascinating and readable book . . . Readers of Overthrow are likely to come away fearing that little has changed in our current approach to overseas adventures."—Christopher Jensen, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Citizens concerned about foreign affairs must read this book. Stephen Kinzer's crisp and thoughtful Overthrow undermines the myth of national innocence. Quite the contrary: history shows the United States as an interventionist busybody directed at regime change. We deposed fourteen foreign governments in hardly more than a century, some for good reasons, more for bad reasons, with most dubious long-term consequences."—Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

"Stephen Kinzer has a grim message for those critics of the Iraqi war who believe George W. Bush to be America's most misguided, uninformed, and reckless president. Bush has had plenty of company in the past century—presidents who believe that America, as Kinzer tells us, has the right to wage war wherever it deems war necessary."—Seymour M. Hersh

"Stephen Kinzer's book is a jewel. After reading Overthrow, no American—not even President Bush—should any longer wonder 'why they hate us.' Overthrow is a narrative of all the times we've overthrown a foreign government in order to put in power puppets that are obedient to us. It is a tale of imperialism American-style, usually in the service of corporate interests, and as Kinzer points out, 'No nation in modern history has done this so often, in so many places so far from its own shores.'"—Chalmers Johnson

"Beginning with the ouster of Hawaii's monarchy in 1893, Kinzer runs through the foreign governments the U.S. has had a hand in toppling, some of which he has written about at length before. Recent invasions of countries such as Grenada and Panama may be more familiar to readers than earlier interventions in Iran and Nicaragua, but Kinzer, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, brings a rich narrative immediacy to all of his stories . . . He makes a persuasive case that U.S. intervention destabilizes world politics and often leaves countries worse off than they were before. Kinzer's argument . . . [is] delivered in unusually moderate tones, which may earn him an audience larger than the usual crew of die-hard leftists."—Publishers Weekly

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  • Stephen Kinzer

  • Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times who has reported from more than fifty countries on four continents. He has served as the paper's bureau chief in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua. His previous books include All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror; Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds; and Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua. He is also the co-author of Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. He lives in Chicago.

  • Stephen Kinzer
    Stephen Kinzer