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Road to the Iraq War: Two Views of U.S. Imperialism

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a historian, writer, teacher, and activist. Her most recent work is a historical memoir trilogy: Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997 and University of Oklahoma, 2006); Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002); and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005).

Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 286 pages, hardcover, $25.00.
Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006), 384 pages, hardcover, $27.50.

The evening before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I was giving a talk at our main leftist meeting place in the San Francisco Mission District. Of course, the long planned topic for the evening—looking back on the 1960s antiwar movement—was sidelined by anxious discussion of the imminent invasion of Iraq. I was stunned when an admired leftist comrade began fervently invoking similarities between the Bush administration and the Roman Empire, analogizing Roman legions and the U.S. military. Others piled on, developing the comparison further, also talking hopefully about the ultimate fall of the Roman Empire. I interrupted the ancient history discussion, asking why not look at U.S. history, especially U.S. imperialism in Latin America as a precedent. Silence met my remark, and the discussion of Rome continued.

So, it was with great relief and joy when I opened Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop to read on the first page: “In their search for historical precedents for our current imperial moment, intellectuals invoke postwar reconstructions of Germany and Japan, ancient Rome and nineteenth-century Britain but consistently ignore the one place where the United States has projected its influence for more than two centuries” (1–2).

Grandin expresses what many Latin Americanists and Latin Americans have been saying, not only for the past five years, but also for decades. Grandin quotes Nixon, who in advising young Donald Rumsfeld about his career said: “Latin America doesn’t matter. Long as we’ve been in it, people don’t give one damn about Latin America” (1).

I complained three years ago in Monthly Review (July–August 2003) that although laudatory acknowledgments of U.S. imperialism were appearing in numerous articles and books from pro-imperialists like Max Boot, Niall Ferguson, Warren Zimmerman, and Robert Kaplan, that liberal and even some left writers, commentators, and politicos were eschewing the concept, even denying that there was anything approaching imperialism in U.S. history except the anomaly of the “Spanish-American War,” and that George W. Bush was way outside U.S. political tradition, ideals, and the Constitution in pursuing an imperialist path, and that we must “take back America.” But, since my complaint, a number of books have been published from the left/liberal side through the American Empire Project.

Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop is the most recent publication of The American Empire Project. Soon after 9–11, editors Tom Engelhardt and Steve Fraser, who are also historians and writers, launched the publication project in conjunction with Metropolitan Books. Thus far they have published fourteen books by Noam Chomsky, Michael Klare, Alfred McCoy, Chalmers Johnson, and others ( I find it peculiar that on the project’s Web site, the list of links does not include Monthly Review, which has been in the forefront of publishing books and articles on imperialism for more than a half-century. The reason for this absence becomes clearer reading the project editors’ description of their goal: “In these short, argument-driven books, our leading writers and thinkers will mount an immodest challenge to the fateful exercise of empire-building and to explore every facet of the developing American imperium, while suggesting alternate ways of thinking about, confronting, and acting in a new American century.” It is as if imperialism is an alien concept to the “American way.”

None of the books in the series provides a systematic analysis of imperialism and its relationship with capitalism, nor do they go back beyond a half-century in tracing U.S. hegemonic aggression and militarism. The authors are nearly all Cold War intellectuals, except for Chomsky and Klare of course, and except for Grandin whose book expands and deepens the scope of the project, but also fails to deal with imperialism as an extension of and inherent to capitalism.

Something Herbert Marcuse once said comes to mind: “The housing crisis does not exist because the system isn’t working; it exists because that’s the way the system works.” To paraphrase, the present global crisis does not exist because the system isn’t working; it exists because that’s the way the system works.

Grandin dates U.S. imperialism in Latin America to the founding of the United States, but he does not discuss its capitalist origins in the institutions established, nor does he give an account of the conquest and colonization of the indigenous communities and nations on the North American continent, leaving open the question as to how the thirteen colonies on the eastern seaboard grew to the present territory of the United States. Maybe it was manifest destiny. The development of the U.S. military as a dominant institution, as well as institutions to administer conquered peoples, cannot be understood without a thorough study of the first century of U.S. existence embroiled in wars of territorial conquest.

Grandin rightly argues that:

[Latin America] has long served as a workshop of empire, the place where the United States elaborated tactics of extraterritorial administration and acquired its conception of itself as an empire like no other before it. The Western hemisphere was to be the staging ground for a new “empire for liberty,” a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson specifically in reference to Spanish Florida and Cuba. Unlike European empires, ours was supposed to entail a concert of equal, sovereign democratic American republics, with shared interests and values, led but not dominated by the United States—a conception of empire that remains Washington’s guiding vision. (2)

That’s the crux of “American exceptionalism.”

It would have been helpful had Grandin provided some context by reiterating William Appleman Williams’s list of U.S. military interventions and occupations from his 1980 book, Empire as a Way of Life. The United States’ first overseas military venture was an undeclared naval war with France, 1798–1800, in which U.S. Marines captured a French privateer in the Caribbean. The first of several Barbary wars followed with the war against Tripoli, 1801–05 (giving the Marines their anthem, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli”). Between the first and second (the 1815 attack on Algiers) Barbary wars, the U.S. Navy invaded Spanish Mexico on the Pacific (1806); operated out of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico against Spanish and French privateers (1806–10); seized Spanish western Florida (1810); attacked Spanish east Florida (1812); built a fort in the Marquesas Islands (1813–14); took Pensacola, Florida (1814); and engaged pirates in the Caribbean (1814–25). Engagements in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean were continuous and U.S. warships took possession of Oregon in 1818. The United States raided the slave trade in Africa during 1820–26; began tormenting Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1822; and landed in Greece in 1827. The United States was busy in the Falkland Islands (1831–32); Sumatra (1832); Argentina (1833); Peru (1835–36); Mexico (1836); Sumatra (1838–39); Fiji (1840); Kingsmill Islands and Samoa (1841); Mexico (1843); Ivory Coast (1843); Mexico (1844), with all out war from 1846–48, seizing half its territory; Smyrna (1849); Turkey and Joahanna Island east of Africa (1851); Argentina (1852–53); Nicaragua (1853); the “opening” of Japan (1853–54); Ryukyu and Bonin Islands in the Pacific (1853–54); China and Nicaragua (1854); China (1855); Fiji and Uruguay (1855); Panama—then part of Colombia and China (1856); Nicaragua (1857); Uruguay, Paraguay, Mexico, China, Fiji, and Turkey (1858); Angola—Portuguese West Africa—and Colombia (1860); the U.S. Civil War being no barrier to continued imperialism: Japan (1863–64); Panama (1865); Mexico and China (1866); Formosa (1867); Japan, Uruguay, and Colombia (1868); Mexico and Hawaii (1870); Korea (1871); Colombia and Mexico (1873); Hawaii (1874); Mexico (1876); Egypt (1882); Panama (1885); Korea, Samoa, and Haiti (1888); Hawaii (1889); Argentina (1890); Haiti, Bering Sea, and Chile (1891); Hawaii (1893); Brazil (1894); Nicaragua (1894); Korea, China, Colombia, and Nicaragua (1894–96) (Williams, Empire as a Way of Life, 73–76, 102–110). All that before the Spanish-American war that historians dub “The Age of Imperialism,” mostly explained by “the protection of American interests.” Those “interests” were commercial and economic, that is, capitalistic. Exporting capitalism is how the system works, and that’s called imperialism; it’s not a dysfunction.

Not until the middle of the book does Grandin get to the crux of imperialism, that is, capitalism. In a chapter on what he calls “the new imperialism,” titled “The Third Conquest of Latin America,” Grandin poses three conquests of the region. The first was the Spanish conquest; the second by U.S. corporations beginning in the nineteenth century; and since the 1970s by financial institutions controlled by the United States. Grandin sees this process as circular rather than linear, that is, the present phase as a regression to the first phase of unbridled, raw looting of treasure and installations of governments. While most studies of U.S. imperialism in Latin America delineate the post–Second World War era as driven by the Cold War, Grandin rightly privileges the development of the “globalization,” which now blankets the world, as being initiated by the Breton Woods agreements that established the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, rather than a phenomenon born in the post-Cold War 1990s. He also notes the continuum in U.S. application of “free market fundamentalism” from Latin America to the occupation of Iraq, stating: “In important ways the road to Iraq passes through Latin America, starting first in Chile,” following the 1973 U.S. state-sponsored coup that overthrew the elected socialist government headed by Salvador Allende (163). In the strongest section of the book (163–75), Grandin narrates the “shock therapy” of neoliberal economic policies, which put into practice the ideas of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, with the military dictator Pinochet forcing it down the throats of the Chilean poor and working class. This is the groundwork for the “Reagan revolution” of the 1980s and full-blown neoliberalism of the 1990s to the present.

However, there’s a hole in Grandin’s circle of conquest; between the raw imperialism of the long nineteenth century through the 1920s and what he calls the “rise of the new imperialism” in the 1950s is a period he skims over and suggests was better, perhaps even a model, that is, the “Good Neighbor Policy” of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Often referred to as “soft imperialism,” it’s what has generally been preferred by Democratic Party administrations. It is disheartening that Grandin appears to really believe that soft imperialism is acceptable and brings to mind historian William Appleman Williams’s perception that imperialism is a U.S. “way of life,” so deeply ingrained that its absence entirely is unimaginable. In a section titled, “Saving the United States from Itself” (33–42), Grandin reflects what may be a new trend in left thinking as is manifest in the highly praised 2005 study from the International Relations Center, written by Tom Barry, Laura Carlsen, and John Gershman (

Grandin summarizes his view of the results of Roosevelt’s policy:

Washington’s formal renunciation of the right to intervention opened the way for a decade of unparalleled hemispheric cooperation. It bound the Americas together in a series of political, economic, military, and cultural treaties and led to the creation of an assortment of multilateral institutions….The withdrawal of troops from the Caribbean, the renegotiation of treaties, and the increased tolerance of economic nationalism gave Roosevelt a better claim to legitimacy as he advocated for an end to colonialism and militarism elsewhere….In short, the 1930s and 1940s marked a turn in the fortune of the American empire, when diverse expressions of what political scientists call “soft power” began to congeal in a coherent system of extraterritorial administrations—largely thanks to Latin America….Despite its many lapses in practice, the Good Neighbor policy replaced such a holy writ with not only tolerance but pragmatic pluralism. (34)

Ergo, Grandin writes: “Latin America saved the United States from its own worst instincts” (39).

Nostalgia for the New Deal era during the past decade is perhaps the principal barrier to the formation of a true left opposition in the United States. Many Latin Americans also pine for the good old days of soft imperialism. Yet, the Good Neighbor policy was a continuance of imperialism, much like Great Britain’s successful ventures in indirect colonialism/imperialism. In fact, successful imperialism operates without colonies and occupations. Roosevelt’s policy substituted support for local dictators and oligarchies for direct U.S. military intervention in restraining and repressing unrest. There may have been less tension between the United States and its indirect colonies (ruled by dictators and oligarchies) during the Roosevelt era, but the impoverishment of the majority of people continued to grow, while the rulers got richer.

The books in The American Empire Project are meant to reflect and shed light on post 9–11 U.S. foreign policy. Grandin does this extremely well. He writes:

Over the course of my writing this book, as the troubled occupation of Iraq dragged on, Central America kept showing up in the oddest ways. Here was Elliott Abrams—the man who in the 1980s so twisted the concept of human rights that it could justify the homicidal activities of the Contras and the Salvadoran military—being appointed by Bush to lead a global crusade for democracy [and since has taken up a post on the National Security Council for Middle East affairs]. There was Dick Cheney in the vice presidential debate telling the electorate that El Salvador, with 50 percent of its population below the poverty level, was a model for what his administration hoped to achieve in Iraq. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, showed up on TV to hail Central America as an “amazing success story.” (223)

Indeed, Grandin’s conclusion (223–38) is a tour de force, showing that the present policy would be impossible were it not for U.S. practices in Latin America, particularly the Reagan administration’s practice and lessons learned in Central America. There’s a straight line in perfecting “public diplomacy,” that is, manipulating U.S. media reporters and editors, to fielding and appealing to Christian fundamentalists, to zealous privatization, to low-intensity warfare, to torture and rendition. The last of these is referred to by Grandin as a process of “globalization of the system of disappearances that reigned in Latin America during the Cold War” (231).

Stephen Kinzer’s book unlike Grandin’s is not published by the American Empire Project. Instead it is a typical trade book by a veteran correspondent, published by a major commercial press (Times Books). Reflecting its origins, Kinzer’s analysis is often critical where the history of a century ago is concerned, and somewhat less so as the present is approached. Imperialism is of course never connected to capitalism. Still, he is such a good journalist that his book contains lots of surprises.

Toward the end of Overthrow, Kinzer writes:

On the evening of March 19, 2003, shortly before announcing that the United States was about to launch its long-expected invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush sat behind an antique desk in the White House and practiced reading his speech…in the Treaty Room, at the same desk from which he had announced the invasion of Afghanistan seventeen months before. It was one of his favorite rooms in the White House, at least in part because of the imposing painting that is the first thing visitors see when they enter. It depicts President William McKinley, the first great American practitioner of “regime change,” watching as diplomats sign the protocol that turned Cuba into a protectorate and Puerto Rico into a colony.

This somber painting, [titled] The signing of the Protocol of Peace Between the United States and Spain on August 12, 1898…gives the Treaty Room its name. The “protocol of peace” that was signed that day, however, was not an accord between equal states. It was a document of surrender that the United States forced on Spain after defeating its army in Cuba. More important, it was a declaration that the United States was now able and willing to depose foreign governments.

That made it especially appropriate for Bush to use the Treaty Room as he prepared to launch the invasion of Iraq. (300–01)

Stephen Kinzer is a veteran journalist, likes a good story, and is quite a creative writer, with often gripping but sometimes purple prose. Regarding the United States overthrowing foreign governments, he writes: “No nation in modern history has done this so often, in so many places so far from its own shores”(1–2). But, his enthusiasm for the stories involved seems downright vulgar: “The stories of these ‘regime change’ operations are dazzlingly exciting. They tell of patriots and scoundrels, high motives and low cynicism, extreme courage and cruel betrayal” (2).

Kinzer was the New York Times bureau chief in Nicaragua—yes, the Times had a bureau chief posted in that small country—during the Reagan administration’s contra war that sought to overthrow the Sandinistas. So, it is bizarre to find that among the fourteen “regime change” operations, Nicaragua is not included, at least not Sandinista Nicaragua.

Indeed, Kinzer creates a rather convoluted schema parsing “overthrow” as opposed to military interventions, “annexation” of half of Mexico, partitioning countries (Vietnam, Korea, and Congo), proxy armies (Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Laos), fomenting “revolutions” (Indonesia, Colombia, and Jamaica), supporting repressive regimes against liberation movements, economic sanctions, electoral manipulations, “humanitarian” interventions, and other means of destabilizing and overthrowing governments. By doing so he is able to skip the first century of U.S. military interventions and treat the second century as a series of anomalies, a bad habit that is ultimately self-destructive, while omitting some of the most egregious U.S. interventions. He claims otherwise: “By considering these operations as a continuum rather than as a series of unrelated incidents, it seeks to find what they have in common. It poses and tries to answer two fundamental questions. First, why did the United States carry out these operations? Second, what have been their long-term consequences?” (2). Kinzer does not answer those questions satisfactorily. Imperialism, much less capitalism, is not considered, although Kinzer does argue that the motive for overthrow was nearly always economic. That answers his question, why. As to long-term effects, he claims the obvious: they were destructive.

The book is divided into three parts, or time periods: “The Imperial Era,” 1898–1910, in which the Hawaiian queen (1893), Spanish governance of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines (1898), and the presidents of Nicaragua (1909) and Honduras (1910) were overthrown; “Covert Action,” 1953–73, during which the CIA staged coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Vietnam (the Diem regime, 1963), and Chile (1973); and “Invasions,” 1983–2003, the overthrown regimes in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003).

Kinzer explains how he reduced U.S. overseas interventions to this particular list:

This book treats only cases in which Americans played the decisive role in deposing a regime. Chile, for example, makes the list because, although many factors led to the 1973 coup there, the American role was decisive. Indonesia, Brazil, and the Congo do not, because American agents played only subsidiary roles in the overthrow of their governments during the 1960s. Nor do Mexico, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic, countries the United States invaded but whose leaders it did not depose. (2)

He does not explain why the Greek coup in 1967 that installed the Generals is not included even in his explanation of the exceptions to his rule. CIA operative Gust Avrakotos was instrumental in destroying Greek freedom, based there from 1961 to 1978, and went on to arm and organize the Afghan Mujahadin during the 1980s.

The section on the CIA coups overthrowing the democratically elected presidents of Iran (Mohammed Mossadegh) and Guatemala (Jacobo Arbenz) are the best researched and solid (111–47). Kinzer provides an excellent portrait of John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state who, with his brother Allen, as head of the CIA, designed and carried out the two coups. The quality of these two chapters are due to the fact that Kinzer previously published books on each: All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror and Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (co-author).

Reading Overthrow reminded me of my first university “western civilization” history course, filled with “quirks” of history and generalizations that become clichés, undermining any coherent analysis or attribution of responsibility. Kinzer begins the chapter on the overthrow of the 1909 Nicaraguan president José Santos Zelaya: “A postage stamp led the United States to overthrow the most formidable leader Nicaragua ever had” (56). In describing the recruitment of Kermit Roosevelt to carry out the 1953 clandestine operation in Iran, Kinzer writes: “By a quirk of history, he was the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, who half a century earlier had helped bring the United States into the ‘regime change’ era” (124). Even worse: “By a quirk of history, the United States rose to great power at the same time multinational corporations were emerging as a decisive force in world affairs” (3). Ridiculous as that assertion is, Kinzer trumps it in the following paragraph: “Defending corporate power is hardly the only reason the United States overthrows foreign governments. Strong tribes and nations have been attacking weak ones since the beginning of history.” Back to the Roman Empire (80). In justifying his lack of historical perspective, Kinzer writes: “Historic shifts in world politics often happen slowly and are hardly even noticeable until years later. That was not the case with the emergence of the United States as a world power. It happened quite suddenly in the spring and summer of 1898” (80). U.S. administrations can hoodwink the citizenry if they maintain they are helping other countries because: “Americans have a profoundly compassionate side” (83).

In discussing the results of the 1983 invasion of Grenada, and apparently contending that U.S. invasions and overthrows would be all right if only they remained to teach the natives something, Kinzer writes: “The triumph of Operation Urgent Fury gave the United States a unique chance, one that might have added much to its honor and image in the world. Americans, reflecting the short attention span that shapes their approach to the world, chose not to seize it” (305). Kinzer reveals his shallow understanding of U.S. imperialism in surmising that the conquered territories that became permanent appendages to the United States, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, “ended well.” However, kudos to Kinzer for at least including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, which are often erased in the history of U.S. imperialism.

Kinzer also has a tic for proclaiming this and that occurrence to be “the first” in history. Regarding the 1909 overthrow of the Nicaraguan president, he claims: “This was the first time the United States government had explicitly orchestrated the overthrow of a foreign leader” (70). British and U. S. colonial practices of assassinating indigenous officials during the preceding three centuries gave the U.S. ruling class ample experience in doing the job.

However, exhibiting his journalistic skills, Kinzer has dug up many damning quotations from U.S. authorities, such as Eisenhower’s cluelessness about the Cuban revolution in 1959: “Here is a country that, you would believe on the basis of our history, would be one of our real friends. I don’t know exactly what the difficulty is” (90). Another was uttered at the moment of occupying Puerto Rico by the U.S. commander General Nelson Miles, whose road from colonel to general (not mentioned by Kinzer) was through genocidal wars against indigenous resistance in the Plains and Southwest, and was followed by leading the army in crushing the Pullman strike: “This is not a war of devastation, but one to give to all within the control of its military and naval forces the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization” (45). However, Kinzer inexplicably calls Miles’s proclamation “generously worded.” He’s more forthcoming in writing about the genocidal operation in the Philippines and even makes the historical connection: “[American commanders] ordered Colonel Jacob Smith, who had participated in the Wounded Knee massacre in the Dakota Territory a decade before, to proceed to Samar and do whatever was necessary to subdue the rebels….‘I want no prisoners,’ he [Smith] told them. ‘I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and the more you burn, the better you will please me’” (53).

The final chapter is a hodgepodge of clichés, truisms, and naiveté. Kinzer reiterates a fallacy that enjoys a common current since 9–11: “A century of American ‘regime change’ operations has shown that the United States is singularly unsuited to ruling foreign lands. Americans never developed either the imperial impulse or the attention span that allowed the Spanish, British, French, and others to seize foreign lands and run them for decades or centuries” (309). In dealing only with examples of occasional naked militarism and imperialism, Kinzer avoids the true “success” story of U.S. imperialism, which cannot be avoided if one asks the simple question: How did the United States become the most militarily and economically powerful state in human history, richer and more powerful than all the rest combined? Kinzer also fails to understand the vital necessity for occasional displays of extreme exemplary violence to deter resistance.

Kinzer emphasizes the “chaos” created in the countries subjected to U.S. regime replacement. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that perhaps chaos is the goal, not an unintended consequence. Above all the aim is to prevent political and economic alliances and federations under regional leaders—Mossadegh, Arbenz, the Latin American southern cone, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean Community and Cheddi Jagan, Central America, and most recently, Bolivarian resurgence under Hugo Chávez in Latin America. That’s what imperialism is about, preventing self-determination in resource rich or geopolitically useful regions. Regarding the aspirations of Central Americans, Kinzer writes: “Like idealists and utopians up to the present day, Zelaya [who was overthrown by the United States] dreamed of reestablishing the united Central America that existed from 1821 to 1838” (62). He describes Zelaya as “a fervent nationalist with outsized ambitions for himself and his country” (65). Yet, the goal of regional blocs makes perfect sense. The five small countries that make up the former Spanish colonies in Central America, which under pre-Spanish order and under Spanish rule made up a unified territory, liberated themselves as one nation, the Central American Republic, which Anglo-American intervention factionalized and destroyed. Since then, each of those small countries have competed with each other in the U.S. market for their monoculture crops of coffee, cotton, and bananas. It’s hardly a utopian dream to develop a consortium.

A final note: Both Grandin and Kinzer use “America” and “Americans” to indicate the United States and its citizens, something that grinds on me, particularly the contradiction for anyone who is criticizing U.S. imperialism to appropriate “America” as belonging to the United States, having then to qualify Latin America, Central America, and South America.

After reading the two books under review, I re-read Samir Amin’s 1992 book, Empire of Chaos (Monthly Review Press). His clarity is a breath of fresh air: “The intervention of the North in the affairs of the South is—in all its aspects, at every moment, in whatever form, and a fortiori when it takes the form of a military or political intervention—negative. Never have the armies of the North brought peace, prosperity, or democracy to the peoples of Asia, Africa, or Latin America. In the future, as in the past five centuries, they can only bring to these peoples further servitude, the exploitation of their labor, the expropriation of their riches, and the denial of their rights” (17–18).

2007, Volume 58, Issue 08 (January)
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