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

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

by Stephen Kinzer

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A fast-paced narrative history of the coups, revolutions, and invasions by which the United States has toppled fourteen foreign governments — not always to its own benefit

"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 Spanish-American War and the Cold War and into our own time, the United States has not hesitated to overthrow 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 the dangers inherent in these 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 also shows that the U.S. government has often pursued these operations without understanding the countries involved; as a result, many of them have had disastrous long-term consequences.

In a compelling and provocative history that takes readers to fourteen countries, including Cuba, Iran, South Vietnam, Chile, and Iraq, Kinzer surveys modern American history from a new and often surprising perspective.

"Detailed, passionate and convincing . . . [with] the pace and grip of a good thriller." — Anatol Lieven, The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805082401
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 02/06/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 197,349
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has reported from more than fifty countries on four continents. He served as the New York Times bureau chief in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua, and as the Boston Globe Latin America correspondent. His previous books include All the Shah's Men, Crescent and Star, and Blood of Brothers. He is also the co-author of Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. He lives in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt


America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq

By Stephen Kinzer

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2006 Stephen Kinzer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0537-4


A Hell of a Time Up at the Palace

Darkness had already enveloped Honolulu when a pair of well-dressed conspirators knocked on one of the most imposing doors in town. The man they came to visit held the key to their revolution. He was not a warrior or a warlord, not a financier, not a politician, not an arms dealer. John L. Stevens was the American minister to Hawaii, and that night he joined an audacious plot to overthrow Hawaii's queen and bring her country into the United States.

Stevens and the men who visited him on the evening of January 14, 1893, fully understood the seriousness of their mission, but they could not have known what a long shadow they would cast over history. They were the first Americans who ever met to plan and carry out the overthrow of a foreign government. That night they did much more than seal a country's fate. They also opened a tumultuous century of American-sponsored coups, revolutions, and invasions.

Hawaii was in the midst of an epic confrontation between tradition and modernity. Its tribal, land-based culture was collapsing under pressure from the relentlessly expanding sugar industry. A few dozen American and European families effectively controlled both the economy and the government, ruling through a succession of native monarchs who were little more than figureheads.

This system worked wonderfully for the elite, but it turned natives into underlings in their own land. Among those who wished to redress the balance was Queen Liliuokalani, and on that January day she convened her cabinet to make a shocking announcement. She would proclaim a new constitution under which only Hawaiian citizens had the right to vote. High property qualifications for voting would be eliminated, and the power of the nonnative elite would be sharply curtailed.

The queen's four cabinet ministers were aghast. They warned her that Americans in Hawaii would never accept such a constitution. She replied by insisting that she had the right to promulgate what she wished. As their debate turned angry, two ministers excused themselves and slipped out of the palace. One of them, John Colburn, the interior minister, rushed downtown to alert his lifelong friend Lorrin Thurston, a firebrand lawyer and antiroyalist plotter.

"Lorrin," he began, "we've been having a hell of a time up at the palace."

Thurston and other haole, as Hawaiians called their white neighbors, had been waiting for an excuse to strike against the monarchy. Now they had one. Stevens was on their side, and behind him lay the power of the United States. This was their moment.

The stage was now set for something new in history. Never before had an American diplomat helped organize the overthrow of a government to which he was officially accredited. The story of what led Stevens to do this, and the larger story of how the United States came to dominate Hawaii, are full of themes that would resurface time and again as Americans fell into the habit of deposing foreign leaders.

FOR NEARLY ALL OF THE FIVE MILLION YEARS SINCE IT VIOLENTLY EMERGED from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii was defined by its isolation. Its first settlers, probably Polynesians from islands to the south, are thought to have arrived roughly around the time of Christ. Over the centuries, Hawaiians had little contact with anyone else because almost no one could cross the vast expanse of ocean that surrounded their islands. Thousands of unique plant and animal species evolved, more than almost anywhere else on earth.

Hawaii's human inhabitants developed a remarkably distinctive society that bound them together in elaborate webs of obligation, ritual, and reverence for nature. If not precisely a tropical Eden, this was a place where, over many generations, people maintained a well-balanced culture that sustained them both physically and spiritually. One historian has described it as "very successful" and "less brutish than were most of its contemporary societies throughout the world, even those of patronizing Europe, just as it was less brutal than are most of those that adorn our civilized world today."

That changed with astonishing suddenness, beginning on January 18, 1778. At daybreak that morning, off the coast of Kauai, a spectacle unfolded that stunned Hawaiians no less than the landing of a spaceship would stun them today. What seemed to be two floating islands appeared on the horizon. People became frenzied, some with excitement and others with terror. Many dropped their work and raced down Waimea Valley toward the shore.

"Chiefs and commoners saw the wonderful sight and marveled at it," according to one account. "One asked another, 'What are those branching things?' and the other answered, They are trees moving about on the sea.'"

These apparitions were actually British ships commanded by one of the century's most celebrated explorers, Captain James Cook. Awed natives at first took Cook for a god, but quite soon — perhaps inevitably, given the cultural differences between them — the two groups fell into violent conflict. Many islanders were happy when the foreigners sailed away, and pelted them with rocks when they returned a year later in desperate need of supplies. Hungry sailors began taking what they needed, and after they killed a Hawaiian chief, warriors took bloody revenge. They swarmed onto Cook and slashed his body to bits. Later they roasted his remains in an underground oven. It was one of the last times native Hawaiians were able to impose their will on whites.

Before long, Cook had his revenge. He and his men had left behind plagues more ferocious than even they could have imagined. Their few weeks of contact with natives, ranging from handshakes to sexual intercourse, produced the near-extinction of the Hawaiian race.

Cook's men, as he himself had predicted in his journal, set off an epidemic of venereal disease on the islands. That was just the beginning. Over the decades that followed, fevers, dysentery, influenza, lung and kidney ailments, rickets, diarrhea, meningitis, typhus, and leprosy killed hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians.

Once Hawaii was charted, it became a regular port of call for sailors of all sorts. They were not, however, the only ones who cast their eyes on this archipelago. So did a group of devout Presbyterians and Congregationalists from New England. From several sources — ship captains, a popular book about a Hawaiian orphan who made his way to Connecticut and embraced Christianity, and a series of articles published in a Maine newspaper called the Kennebec Journal — they heard that this remote land was full of heathens waiting to be converted. Between 1820 and 1850, nearly two hundred of them felt so moved by these accounts that they volunteered to spend the rest of their lives doing God's work in the Sandwich Islands, as Cook had named them.

Much of what these missionaries found appalled them. Hawaiian society, with its casual, communal nature and animist spirituality, could hardly have been more different from the stern, cold way of life to which these New Englanders were accustomed. Principles that the missionaries took to be cornerstones of civilization, such as ambition, thrift, individuality, and private property, were all but unknown to Hawaiians. They believed in the divinity of hills, trees, animals, wind, thunder, and even dewdrops. Some practiced incest, polygamy, infanticide, and hanai, a custom under which mothers would give their newborn infants to friends, relatives, or chiefs as a way of broadening their web of family relationships. Most were comfortable with nakedness and sexuality. To the dour missionaries, they seemed the most accursed sinners on earth. One found them "exceedingly ignorant; stupid to all that is lovely, grand and awful in the works of God; low, naked, filthy, vile and sensual; covered with every abomination, stained with blood and black with crime."

Armed with a degree of certitude that can come only from deep faith, missionaries worked tirelessly to impose their values on the people around them — or, as they would have put it, to save savages from damnation. "The streets, formerly so full of animation, are now deserted," reported a traveler who visited Honolulu in 1825. "Games of all kinds, even the most innocent, are prohibited. Singing is a punishable offense, and the consummate profligacy of attempting to dance would certainly find no mercy."

As the years passed, some missionaries lost their passion for enforcing this harsh moral code. So did many of their sons and grandsons, who were sent back to the United States for education and returned imbued with the restless spirit of their explosively growing mother country, where opportunity seemed to lie at the end of every wagon trail. Back in Hawaii, they looked around them and saw land that seemed to be crying out for cultivation. Several of them guessed that sugar, which the natives had been growing for centuries but never refined, would thrive there.

No one better symbolized the evolution of the haole community in Hawaii than Amos Starr Cooke. Born in Danbury, Connecticut, Cooke arrived as a missionary in 1837 and served for several years as the notoriously strict director of a school for high-born Hawaiian children. The temptation of wealth eventually led him away from the religious path, and in 1851 he decided to try his hand at planting sugar. With another former missionary who had an eye for the main chance, Samuel Castle, he founded Castle & Cooke, which would become one of the world's largest sugar producers.

To begin large-scale farming, men like these needed land. Buying it was complicated, since native Hawaiians had little notion of private property or cash exchange. They had great difficulty understanding how a transaction — or anything else, for that matter — could deprive them of land.

In the late 1840s, Amos Starr Cooke helped persuade King Kamehameha III, a former student of his, to proclaim a land reform that pulled away one of the pillars of Hawaiian society. Under its provisions, large tracts of communal land were cut into small individual parcels, and most of the rest became the king's "royal domain." By establishing the principle of land ownership, this reform gave ambitious planters, including many missionaries and sons of missionaries, the legal right to buy as much land as they wished. Dozens quickly did so. Before long, the missionary and planter elites had blended into a single class.

One obstacle still lay between these planters and great wealth. The market for their sugar was in the United States, but to protect American growers, the United States levied prohibitive tariffs on imported sugar. In the 1850s, Hawaiian planters tried to resolve this problem by the simple expedient of making Hawaii part of the United States. Officials in Washington, however, had not yet developed a taste for overseas colonies, and brushed them aside. Later the planters tried to persuade American leaders to sign a free-trade agreement, or "reciprocity treaty," that would allow them to sell their sugar without tariffs in the United States, but that offer also fell on deaf ears.

Over the years that followed, a new generation of businessmen, politicians, and military planners in the United States became more interested in overseas trade. Hawaiian planters came up with an idea designed to appeal to their ambition: in exchange for a reciprocity treaty, they would grant the United States exclusive rights to maintain commercial and military bases in Hawaii. They arranged for the compliant monarch, King Kalakaua, to endorse this plan and travel to Washington to present it. President Ulysses S. Grant found it too tempting to pass up. During the summer of 1876, the treaty was duly drawn up, signed, and ratified. This was its historic provision: It is agreed, on the part of His Hawaiian Majesty, that so long as this treaty shall remain in force, he will not lease or otherwise dispose of or create any lien upon any port, harbor, or other territory in his dominions, or grant any special privileges or rights of use therein, to any other power, state, or government, nor make any treaty by which any other nation shall obtain the same privileges, relative to the admission of articles free of duty, hereby secured to the United States.

This treaty preserved the facade of Hawaiian independence, but in effect turned Hawaii into an American protectorate. The preeminent historian of the period, William Adam Russ, wrote that it "made Hawaii virtually a sphere of influence of the United States, but the sugar planters in the islands were pleased. ... The political consequences of this reciprocity agreement cannot be overestimated. When Hawaii was finally annexed in 1898, practically everyone agreed that the first real step had been reciprocity, that is to say, economic annexation."

News of this deal infuriated many native Hawaiians. When their protests turned violent, the alarmed king felt it prudent to ask for American protection. This the United States provided, in the form of 150 marines, who became his personal and political bodyguards.

The sugar industry quickly began to boom. In the first five years after the treaty was signed, the number of plantations in Hawaii more than tripled. Sugar exports to the United States, which totaled 21 million pounds in 1876, soared to 114 million pounds in 1883 and 225 million pounds in 1890. Money rained down on the white planters who controlled Hawaii's economy.

Growing sugar is labor-intensive, but neither whites nor native Hawaiians were willing to work in the fields. After considering several alternatives, planters began importing Japanese and Chinese laborers, whom they called "coolies." They came by the thousands after the reciprocity treaty was signed. That strengthened the planters' opposition to democracy, since universal suffrage would most likely have produced a government dominated by nonwhites.

* * *

THE RECIPROCITY TREATY WAS FOR A TERM OF EIGHT YEARS, AND WHEN IT expired, sugar growers from Louisiana tried to block its renewal. This greatly alarmed Hawaiian planters, whose fortunes depended on it. They arranged for King Kalakaua, who had fallen almost completely under their influence, to make a further concession. The renewed treaty included a clause giving the United States control over Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, the finest natural port in the northern Pacific.

A few years later, King Kalakaua approved a constitution that secured the planters' power. It vested most authority in cabinet ministers, prohibited the monarch from dismissing any minister without the legislature's approval, and set wealth and property qualifications for election to the legislature. Called the "bayonet constitution" because it was imposed with the implied threat of armed force, it also gave all Americans and Europeans, even noncitizens, the right to vote but denied that right to Asian laborers. Its author was Lorrin Thurston, and after Kalakaua reluctantly accepted it, planters told him he also had to accept Thurston as his interior minister.

Kalakaua's inability to resist these impositions showed how fully the Hawaiian monarchy had come under white control. Whites reached this position not overnight, but through a steady series of steps. William Adam Russ wrote that they "slowly and imperceptibly wormed their way, year by year, into the King's favor until they were the power behind the throne. Controlling the business and wealth of the islands, they became the dominant minority amongst a people who only a few years before had welcomed them as visitors."

This system brought more than a decade of great prosperity to Hawaii's sugar planters, but two blows suddenly upset it. The first came in 1890, when Congress enacted the McKinley Tariff, which allowed sugar from all countries to enter the United States duty-free and compensated domestic producers with a "bounty" of two cents per pound. This wiped away the protected regime under which Hawaiian planters had thrived, and plunged them into what one of their leaders called "the depths of despair." Within two years, the value of their sugar exports plummeted from $13 million to $8 million.

As if that were not enough, the planters' puppet monarch, Kalakaua, died in 1891, leaving his independent-minded sister, Liliuokalani, to succeed him. The new queen had attended a missionary school and embraced Christianity but never lost touch with her native heritage. When her brother turned Pearl Harbor over to the Americans in 1887, she wrote in her diary that it was "a day of infamy in Hawaiian history." Later that year, while she was in London at the jubilee celebrating Queen Victoria's fiftieth year on the throne, she received news of the "bayonet constitution" and wrote that it constituted "a revolutionary movement inaugurated by those of foreign blood, or American blood."

Liliuokalani was fifty-two years old when the chief justice of Hawaii's Supreme Court, Albert Judd, administered the oath that made her queen on January 29, 1891. After the ceremony, Judd took her aside and offered a piece of private advice. "Should any members of your cabinet propose anything to you," he counseled, "say yes." Had she heeded this warning, had she accepted the role of a figurehead and allowed the haole to continue running Hawaii, she might never have been overthrown.


Excerpted from Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer. Copyright © 2006 Stephen Kinzer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. A Hell of a Time Up at the Palace,
2. Bound for Goo-Goo Land,
3. From a Whorehouse to a White House,
4. A Break in the History of the World,
5. Despotism and Godless Terrorism,
6. Get Rid of This Stinker,
7. Not the Preferred Way to Commit Suicide,
8. We're Going to Smash Him,
9. A Graveyard Smell,
10. Our Days of Weakness Are Over,
11. You're No Good,
12. They Will Have Flies Walking Across Their Eyeballs,
13. Thunder Run,
14. Catastrophic Success,

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