Book Review: Overthrown By Stephen Kinzer
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Published: Mon, 24 Apr 2017
In the book:” Overthrown” by Stephen Kinzer lays out a little over 100 years of modern American history. He offers warrant for his propositions, and throughout the book starting with sugar plantations in Hawaii, meticulously goes through both supposed scenarios and historical narratives to make his conclusive point: America is good at overthrowing countries and quite bad at knowing what to do afterwards. He puts many of the vague and unwarranted discussions that most likely take place across the United States in perspective, and in doing so will most likely be unpopular in many circles.
The book is at its best when is put together individual stories of little known characters who played decisive roles in the history of US interventions. Kinzer explains why the U.S. government has pursued these operations and why so many of them have had disastrous long-term consequences, making the book: “Overthrow” a cautionary tale that serves as an urgent warning as the United States seeks to define its role in the modern world. “The Imperial Era”, is framed by the rise of American power and the ideological pulls of Manifest Destiny and Evangelical Christianity, as well as the economic motivation of industrialization and the need for “open door” control over foreign markets. Throughout the 19th century, Americans discussed and debated issues connected to expansion. Westward acquisitions began with the Louisiana Purchase and continued through the mid-century period with the land gained through the war with Mexico. By the Civil War, the territory that today composes the “lower 48” was owned by the United States, and our northern and southern borders were stabilized through treaty negotiations with Canada and Mexico. Regardless of the historical event, an underlying belief in manifest destiny, our nation’s fate and duty to settle our North American lands coast to coast, underscored each territorial acquisition. It seems certain most Americans believed in a special manifest destiny for the nation, and this philosophical foundation enabled the United States to spread westward with confidence and moral assuredness. In the early days, territorial expansion had become a vital component of the national character. One cause of the war was revulsion among Americans against the ruthless tactics employed by Spain to suppress a revolt in its colony of Cuba. Another was the growing feeling that America’s “manifest destiny” did not end at the Pacific shore. Many Americans had come to believe that the future prosperity of the nation required it to play an active role in the worldwide scramble for colonial possessions. The period following the Civil War up to the late 1870’s was given over to consolidating our territorial lands and integrating them into the political and economic mainstream. It was this tension that fueled foreign policy debates in the latter years of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century. The acquisition of the Hawaiian Islands, our entry into the Spanish-American War and the resultant debate over the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the building of the Panama Canal and our ongoing presence in Central American affairs, our entry in World War I and Wilson’s central place in the Versailles treaty provisions all can be seen through the lens of a fifty year foreign policy debate. These wars also laid a new foundation for America’s immense military strength and a naval capability that could span almost all oceans which being held by the Great Britain. The war ended after quick, decisive victories for the United States in the Philippines and Cuba. Only 113 days after the outbreak of war, the Treaty of Paris, which ended the conflict, gave the United States ownership of the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The U.S. took control of Cuba, ended the insurrection, expelled the Spanish and granted independence there in 1902. America’s victory in this conflict marked the emergence of the United States as a world power with a strong navy, economic gain and military security. Oceans were not barriers; rather, they were the connecting bridges that would lead us to a position of prominence throughout the globe.
Meanwhile, “Covert Action” skips into more recent territory: the Cold War years from 1953 – 1973, in which regime changes in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam and Chile were motivated by the ever present corporate interests as well as a rabidly anti-communist paranoia. Most covert actions undertaken in the four decades after World War II were part of larger policies designed to contain the Soviet Union and other communist countries. With the end of the Cold War, the role of covert actions is being reassessed. For many years covert actions were usually undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) without congressional approval or notification, but since the mid-1970s the executive branch has been required to provide increasingly detailed information to congressional intelligence committees on planned and ongoing covert actions. U.S. foreign policy decision makers in the mid-1960s committed a supreme act of misjudgment by intervening directly in the Vietnam War. Under the influences of secretary of state John Foster Dulles and national security adviser Henry Kissinger and the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon and, American leaders hysterically overestimated the threat of Soviet influence around the world and misinterpreted developing countries’ nationalistic impulses to own and control their own resources as evidence of Soviet control and Communist tendencies. Finally, expansionists felt that we had an obligation and responsibility to help others less fortunate.In the fall of 1963, US ally and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem indicated he might negotiate with the communist insurgents in his country. President John F. Kennedy gathered senior foreign policy advisors for a final meeting to consider overthrowing Diem. Anxious about growing chaos in Vietnam, the advisors expressed doubts, and Kennedy never announced a clear decision. Three days later, Diem was murdered. It was President Johnson’s judgment that if the United States permitted the fall of Vietnam to communism, American politics would turn ugly and inward and the world would be a less safe place in which to live. In order to gain support for these judgments and the objectives in Vietnam which flowed from them, our Presidents have had to weave together the steel-of-war strategy with the strands of domestic politics. It was unfortunate enough those policymakers attached excessive strategic significance to the Vietnam War and that they failed to recognize the character of the conflict primarily for what it was. But by failing to understand the asymmetry of commitment between the United States and the Vietnamese communists, they paved the way for committing the most egregious error a country going to war can make: underestimating the adversary’s capacity to prevail while overestimating one’s own.
“Invasions”, of Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq from 1979 to the present, and transition from the Cold War to the War on Terror, focusing on the presidential administrations of Reagan, George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush, the accounts of Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq show when past American interventions started to come back to haunt them, especially in Afghanistan. Kinzer’s book puts the Bush-Iraq fiasco into historical perspective. There are nations out there with natural resources, which America both requires and desires. Any pretext is sufficient to infiltrate such nations and, in the name of democratic reform, appropriate the goods and resources we need to keep capitalism growing at home. It’s a simple solution, determined by a philosophy that needs to be wrapped in political rhetoric that conceals the fact that it is contrary to the social and philosophic precepts on which America itself was founded. It abandons traditional American principles such as individual freedom, dissent, equality, etc.. in order to service our economic needs which promote prosperity by appropriating goods from weaker countries that cannot resist American might. The rubrics of Freedom and Democracy are essential factors in withdrawing democracy and freedom from those nations that resist our appropriation of their natural resources. That has certainly been the case since the end of the l9th century, and to attack what has become “the American way” or try to reverse it is perceived as being deeply un-American.
Beginning in Hawaii in 1893, and followed shortly thereafter by Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and continuing to the present day in Iraq,America has directly engaged in overthrowing at least thirteen foreign governments in the past 110 years — generally with less than pure motives and usually with disastrous consequences; several times installing US-friendly dictators in place of democratically elected nationalist leaders. It is shocking to see how many times a free and democratically elected government is sacked for pro-democracy reasons and then replaced with a dictator that is friendlier to US interests.
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