Book Review of 'Overthrow' by Steven Kinzer - Does the United States have a History of Overthrowing or Helping to Overthrow Foreign Governments?

Book Review of 'Overthrow' by Steven Kinzer - Does the United States have a History of Overthrowing or Helping to Overthrow Foreign Governments?

The United States has a history of overthrowing, or helping to overthrow foreign governments. In his book Overthrow, Steven Kinzer asserts that every single one of these ‘overthrows’, “from Hawaii to Iraq”, was masked as a help to national security when in fact they it was orchestrated solely for the economic benefit of the merchant/planter elite that could use the cheap manual labors and raw materials in these territories. He concludes that these interventions have actually been detrimental to American security since they have created strong anti-American sentiment throughout the world. Since Kinzer looks at these interventions from the point of view of the conquered people, he sees them as failures, whereas they in fact did promote the United States’ economic and military interests. These interventions have benefited Americans by assuring a steady supply of cheap raw materials and by creating a market for manufactured goods, which in turn stabilized wages and kept unemployment low for the working class and allowed to keep the prices for a lot of amenities down at home. Security-wise, even though these interventions have created violent anti-American feelings throughout the world, they have left the conquered land so disabled that they are no longer able to put these feelings into action. By creating economic and political turmoil in the conquered lands, America was actually insuring its own political and economic stability rather than hurting it as Kinzer claims.

Finding new markets for manufactured goods benefited both the American factory owner and factory worker, although Kinzer resents Americans “flooding these [countries] with manufactured goods” because it prevented “the development of local industry” . A permanent market for manufactured goods created jobs and stabilized for unskilled American factory workers who would produce these manufactured goods at a time when unemployment was high and wages were low. In addition, the American capitalist system is founded on the concept of an economic hierarchy, with billionaires at the top and very poor people at the bottom. When this gap was growing more and more pronounced during the turn of the century, America started overthrowing other governments so that the American people could continue to prosper. America transferred its economic problems to other lands and created a class of ‘have-nots’ far from home. This allowed the poor at home to see an improved quality of life, since the balance of the economic system was being maintained by the poor indigenous inhabitants of conquered lands. By making other countries part of the United States’ economic empire and placing the people in these satellite countries on the very bottom of the economic hierarchy, America was ensuring its economic stability. No American would be on the low rungs of the economic pyramid since these places were occupied by the people in the overthrown territory (even the worst jobs in America are better than they would be if America did not rely on these conquered countries), and since these territories were too weak to revolt against American economic oppression, this system would protect Americans and their economic interests forever.

The United States sold its surplus abroad not because redistributing the wealth at home would have been “repugnant to powerful Americans”, as Kinzer suggests, but because by selling their surplus abroad America was redistributing the wealth in a much more practical and effective way. Merely giving away “the surplus production from farms and factories” would only “lift millions out of poverty” until factories and farms readjusted their production, at which point the ‘millions’ would plunge right back into poverty. The “form of wealth distribution” which Kinzer supports would only be effective for a very short time. What the United States’ was actually doing was much more visionary and much more effective in the long term. Instead of keeping the potential money as potential fortune in the hands of the wealthy by just giving the goods away which would only work for three to five years, America found new markets for these goods and turned them into real capital which translated into better wages and better jobs for everybody; this system, along with its economic benefits, would last as long as foreign countries bought America’s surplus goods. “Preventing the development of local industry” was vital to American economic success. Without these foreign markets, millions of Americans would find themselves unemployed and in a condition of severe scarcity.

These interventions benefited the middle classes as well and not just the two extremes of the economic scale or, as Kinzer’s alleges, only benefited the economic elite. Although the elite did benefit from the cheap labor and raw materials found in the conquered lands the middle class also benefited because the finished product was cheaper for the customers at home. Kinzer writes that “much of the country’s fabulous new wealth enriched only a few captains of industry” , but even if this new wealth directly only “enriched” a few people, it contributed to the overall prosperity of the country and indirectly enriched the lower and middle classes by cutting the costs for many products, creating jobs and stabilizing wages. Kinzer finds “the emergence of markets abroad” problematic because although “it put Americans to work, (…) it distorted the economy of poor countries in ways that greatly increased their poverty” , but this ‘greatly increased’ poverty in foreign lands did not affect Americans and should therefore be irrelevant in determining America’s foreign policy. By concentrating the poor class of the American capitalist system in other countries, Americans at home were able to prosper and all classes of Americans, even the very poor, saw an increase in their standard of living. The American sponsored coups might have distorted the economy of those countries but they helped Americans in America live a better life. American foreign policy should first and foremost benefit Americans, so creating turmoil and poverty abroad is justified if it helps all Americans.

Kinzer also argues that many of these interventions actually made America less safe since it created strong anti-American sentiment throughout the world, but he fails to notice that America disables the countries in which it creates this sentiment to a great enough extent that the threat to American security is almost non-existent. The same causes that “turned whole nations, and even whole regions of the world, into violent cauldrons of anti-American passion,” wreaked havoc in those regions and immobilized those regions for a long time. By the time these nations recovered from the problems that America had caused, the memory of what America can do remained and the nation was reluctant to attack America in retaliation. Violent anti-Americanism went hand in hand with inability to attack America.

Even though “almost every American overthrow of a foreign government had left in its wake a bitter residue of pain and anger,” this ‘pain and anger’ was usually demonstrated by the new government by directing it towards the people and eliminating any vestige of American culture in the country and not by the country attacking America directly. Many of these new regimes were dictatorships (because democracy was an American ideal) and lacked defenses for civil liberties (because those were also American values). The anti-American feeling, although very damaging to the people living in those countries, did not affect Americans and is therefore not important in determining American foreign policy.

“Regime changes” serve to protect Americans from dangerous states rather than from individual crazy people or individual terrorist groups, and therefore the tragedy of September the eleventh does not support Kinzer’s point that American oppression leads to anti-American retaliation. Osama bin Laden’s attack was an isolated incident, one attack on American soil in an entire century of regime change. In addition, this attack can be part of the same trend that led Timothy McVeigh to do the Oklahoma City Bombings or the high school boy to orchestrate the Columbine high school shootings – that is, an era when unbalanced individuals can cause incredible amounts of damage. The September eleven attack was not necessarily because of America’s policy of regime change. America now needs to take action to protect itself against these unbalanced individuals, but that does not mean that the policy of “regime change” needs to be reexamined

In conclusion, America’s foreign policy has always sought to further American interests. The numerous interventions that America has staged throughout the ages have helped America grow into a powerful and prosperous country, and this has benefited Americans of all classes. Economically, these interventions improved the quality of life for all Americans by worsening the quality of life of the natives in the intervened-in territories. The American economy could only function as a win-lose situation and therefore, in the interests of the American people, American foreign policy had to ensure that those who lost were not Americans. They succeeded in doing that very well. These interventions also improved America’s security because they disabled any potential threat and they made the world aware of America’s power. The anti-Americanism that these interventions created is not dangerous to American security because those countries that do hate America are either unable or scared to do anything about it. Although these overthrows have been awful for the people in the regime that was overthrown, they helped America and could therefore be considered successful.