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The democratically-elected Arbenz government hoped for economic prosperity through economic reform and a highway to the Atlantic.

United States Interventions What For?

By John H. Coatsworth 

Revista Harvard Review of Latin America 

Spring/ Summer 2005

In the slightly less than a hundred years from 1898 to 1994, the U.S. government has intervened successfully to change governments in Latin America a total of at least 41 times. That amounts to once every 28 months for an entire century (see table).

Direct intervention occurred in 17 of the 41 cases. These incidents involved the use of U.S. military forces, intelligence agents or local citizens employed by U.S. government agencies. In another 24 cases, the U.S. government played an indirect role. That is, local actors played the principal roles, but either would not have acted or would not have succeeded without encouragement from the U.S. government.

While direct interventions are easily identified and copiously documented, identifying indirect interventions requires an exercise in historical judgment. The list of 41 includes only cases where, in the author’s judgment, the incumbent government would likely have survived in the absence of U.S. hostility. The list ranges from obvious cases to close calls. An example of an obvious case is the decision, made in the Oval Office in January 1963, to incite the Guatemalan army to overthrow the (dubiously) elected government of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes in order to prevent an open competitive election that might have been won by left-leaning former President Juan José Arévalo. A less obvious case is that of the Chilean military coup against the government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. The Allende government had plenty of domestic opponents eager to see it deposed. It is included in this list because U.S. opposition to a coup (rather than encouragement) would most likely have enabled Allende to continue in office until new elections.

The 41 cases do not include incidents in which the United States sought to depose a Latin American government, but failed in the attempt. The most famous such case was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. Allvadorso absent from the list are numerous cases in which the U.S. government acted decisively to forestall a coup d’etat or otherwise protect an incumbent regime from being overthrown.

Overthrowing governments in Latin America has never been exactly routine for the United States. However, the option to depose a sitting government has appeared on the U.S. president’s desk with remarkable frequency over the past century. It is no doubt still there, though the frequency with which the U.S. president has used this option has fallen rapidly since the end of the Cold War.

Though one may quibble about cases, the big debates—both in the public and among historians and social scientists—have centered on motives and causes. In nearly every case, U.S. officials cited U.S. security interests, either as determinative or as a principal motivation. With hindsight, it is now possible to dismiss most these claims as implausible. In many cases, they were understood as necessary for generating public and congressional support, but not taken seriously by the key decision makers. The United States did not face a significant military threat from Latin America at any time in the 20th century. Even in the October 1962 missile crisis, the Pentagon did not believe that the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba altered the global balance of nuclear terror. It is unlikely that any significant threat would have materialized if the 41 governments deposed by the United States had remained in office until voted out or overturned without U.S. help.

In both the United States and Latin America, economic interests are often seen as the underlying cause of U.S. interventions. This hypothesis has two variants. One cites corruption and the other blames capitalism. The corruption hypothesis contends that U.S. officials order interventions to protect U.S. corporations. The best evidence for this version comes from the decision to depose the elected government of Guatemala in 1954. Except for President Dwight Eisenhower, every significant decision maker in this case had a family, business or professional tie to the United Fruit Company, whose interests were adversely affected by an agrarian reform and other policies of the incumbent government. Nonetheless, in this as in every other case involving U.S. corporate interests, the U.S. government would probably not have resorted to intervention in the absence of other concerns.

The capitalism hypothesis is a bit more sophisticated. It holds that the United States intervened not to save individual companies but to save the private enterprise system, thus benefiting all U.S. (and Latin American) companies with a stake in the region. This is a more plausible argument, based on repeated declarations by U.S. officials who seldom missed an opportunity to praise free enterprise. However, capitalism was not at risk in the overwhelming majority of U.S. interventions, perhaps even in none of them. So this ideological preference, while real, does not help explain why the United States intervened. U.S. officials have also expressed a preference for democratic regimes, but ordered interventions to overthrow elected governments more often than to restore democracy in Latin America. Thus, this preference also fails to carry much explanatory power.

An economist might approach the thorny question of causality not by asking what consumers or investors say about their preferences, but what their actions can help us to infer about them. An economist’s approach might also help in another way, by distinguishing between supply and demand. A look at the supply side suggests that interventions will occur more often where they do not cost much, either directly in terms of decision makers’ time and resources, or in terms of damage to significant interests. On the demand side, two factors seem to have been crucial in tipping decision makers toward intervention: domestic politics and global strategy.

Domestic politics seems to be a key factor in most of these cases. For example, internal documents show that President Lyndon Johnson ordered U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 not because of any plausible threat to the United States, but because he felt threatened by Republicans in Congress. Political competition within the United States accounts for the disposition of many U.S. presidentions

nts to order interventions.

The second key demand-side factor could be called the global strategy effect. The United States in the 20th century defined its strategic interests in global terms. This was particularly true after World War II when the United States moved rapidly to project its power into regions of the earth on the periphery of the Communist states where it had never had a presence before. In the case of Latin America, where the United States faced no foreseeable military threat, policy planners did nonetheless identify potential future threats. This was especially true in the 1960s, after the Cuban Revolution. The United States helped to depose nine of the governments that fell to military rulers in the 1960s, about one every 13 months and more than in any other decade. Curiously, however, we now know that U.S. decision makers were repeatedly assured by experts in the CIA and other intelligence gathering agencies that, in the words of a 1968 National Intelligence Estimate, “In no case do insurgencies pose a serious short run threat…revolution seems unlikely in most Latin American countries within the next few years.” Few challenged the idea that leftist regimes would pose a secutiry threat to the United States. threat…revolution seems unlikely in most Latin American countries

Thus, in a region where intervention was not very costly, and even major failures unlikely to damage U.S. interests, the combination of domestic political competition and potential future threats—even those with a low probability of ever materializing—appear to explain most of the 20th century US interventions.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that U.S. interventions did not serve U.S. national interests well. They generated needless resentment in the region and called into question the U.S. commitment to democracy and rule of law in international affairs. The downward trend in the past decade and half is a positive development much to be encouraged.

CHRONICLING INTERVENTIONS

U.S. DIRECT INTERVENTIONS 
Military/CIA activity that changed governments

COUNTRY YEAR EVENT SUMMARY
Cuba 1898-1902 Spanish-American War
1906-09 Ousts elected Pres. Palma; occupation regime
1917-23 U.S. reoccupation, gradual withdrawal
Dominican Rep 1916-24 U.S. occupation
1961 Assassination of Pres. Trujillo
1965 U.S. Armed Forces occupy Sto Domingo
Grenada 1983 U.S. Armed Forces occupy island; oust government
Guatemala 1954 C.I.A.-organized armed force ousts Pres. Arbenz
Haiti 1915-34 U.S. occupation
1994 U.S. troops restore constitutional government
Mexico 1914 Veracuz occupied; US allows rebels to buy arms
Nicaragua 1910 Troops to Corinto, Bluefields during revolt
1912-25 U.S. occupation
1926-33 U.S. occupation
1981-90 Contra war; then support for opposition in election
Panama 1903-14 U.S. Troops secure protectorate, canal
1989 U.S. Armed Forces occupy nation

U.S. INDIRECT INTERVENTION
Government/regime changes in which U.S. is decisive

COUNTRY YEAR EVENT SUMMARY
Bolivia 1944 Coup uprising overthrow Pres. Villaroel
1963 Military coup ousts elected Pres. Paz Estenssoro
1971 Military coup ousts Gen. Torres
Brazil 1964 Military coup ousts elected Pres. Goulart
Chile 1973 Coup ousts elected Pres. Allende.
1989-90 Aid to anti-Pinochet opposition
Cuba 1933 U.S. abandons support for Pres. Machado
1934 U.S. sponsors coup by Col. Batista to oust Pres. Grau
Dominican Rep. 1914 U.S. secures ouster of Gen. José Bordas
1963 Coup ousts elected Pres. Bosch
El Salvador 1961 Coup ousts reformist civil-military junta
1979 Coup ousts Gen. Humberto Romero
1980 U.S. creates and aids new Christian Demo junta
Guatemala 1963 U.S. supports coup vs elected Pres. Ydígoras
1982 U.S. supports coup vs Gen. Lucas García
1983 U.S. supports coup vs Gen. Rios Montt
Guyana 1953 CIA aids strikes; Govt. is ousted
Honduras 1963 Military coups ousts elected Pres. Morales
Mexico 1913 U.S. Amb. H. L. Wilson organizes coup v Madero
Nicaragua 1909 Support for rebels vs Zelaya govt
1979 U.S. pressures Pres. Somoza to leave
Panama 1941 U.S supports coup ousting elected Pres. Arias
1949 U.S. supports coup ousting constitutional govt of VP Chanís
1969 U.S. supports coup by Gen. Torrijos
John H. Coatsworth is Monroe Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs. Coatsworth’s most recent book is “The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America,” a two-volume reference work, edited with Victor Bulmer-Thomas and Roberto Cortes Conde – See more at: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157958#sthash.I6nAx9Oq.dpuf

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(Image: Library of Congress)

Obama: Ike Redivivus?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online March 11, 2014
In critique of the George W. Bush administration, and in praise of the perceived foreign-policy restraint of Obama’s first five years in the White House, a persistent myth has arisen that Obama is reminiscent of Eisenhower — in the sense of being a president who kept America out of other nations’ affairs and did not waste blood and treasure chasing imaginary enemies.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Andrew Bacevich, Fareed Zakaria (“Why Barack Is like Ike”), and a host of others have made such romantic, but quite misleading, arguments about the good old days under the man they consider the last good Republican president.

Ike was no doubt a superb president. Yet while he could be sober and judicious in deploying American forces abroad, he was hardly the non-interventionist of our present fantasies, who is so frequently used and abused to score partisan political points.

There is a strange disconnect about Eisenhower’s supposed policy of restraint, especially in reference to the Middle East, and his liberal use of the CIA in covert operations. While romanticizing Ike, we often deplore the 1953 coup in Iran and the role of the CIA, but seem to forget that it was Ike who ordered the CIA intervention that helped to lead to the ouster of Mossadegh and to bring the Shah to absolute power. Ike thought that he saw threats to Western oil supplies, believed that Mossadegh was both unstable and a closet Communist, sensed the covert hand of the Soviet Union at work, was won over by the arguments of British oil politics, and therefore simply decided Mossadegh should go — and he did.

Ike likewise ordered the CIA-orchestrated removal of the leaders of Guatemala and the Congo. He bequeathed to JFK the plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion, which had been born on the former’s watch. His bare-faced lie that a U-2 spy plane had not been shot down in Russia did terrible damage to U.S. credibility at the time.

The Eisenhower administration formulated the domino theory, and Ike was quite logically the first U.S. president to insert American advisers into Southeast Asia, a move followed by a formal SEATO defense treaty to protect most of Southeast Asia from Communist aggression — one of the most interventionist commitments of the entire Cold War, which ended with over 58,000 Americans dead in Vietnam and helicopters fleeing from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Eisenhower’s “New Look” foreign policy of placing greater reliance on threats to use nuclear weapons, unleashing the CIA, and crafting new entangling alliances may have fulfilled its short-term aims of curbing the politically unpopular and costly use of conventional American troops overseas. Its long-term ramifications, however, became all too clear in the 1960s and 1970s. Mostly, Ike turned to reliance on nuke-rattling because of campaign promises to curb spending and balance the budget by cutting conventional defense forces — which earned him the furor of Generals Omar Bradley, Douglas MacArthur, and Matthew Ridgway.

In many ways, Eisenhower’s Mideast policy lapsed into incoherency, notably in the loud condemnation of the 1956 British-French operations in Suez (after Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal), which otherwise might have weakened or toppled Nasser. This stance of Eisenhower’s (who was up for reelection) may have also contradicted prior tacit assurances to the British that the U.S. would in fact look the other way.

The unexpected American opposition eroded transatlantic relations for years as well as helped to topple the Eden government in Britain. Somehow all at once the U.S. found itself humiliating its two closest allies, empowering Nasser, and throwing its lot in with the Soviet Union and the oil blackmailers of Saudi Arabia — with ramifications for the ensuing decades.

Yet just two years later, Ike ordered 15,000 troops into Lebanon to prevent a coup and the establishment of an anti-Western government — precisely those anti-American forces that had been emboldened by the recent Suez victory of the pan-Arabist Nasser. We forget that Ike was nominated not just in opposition to the non-interventionist policies of Robert Taft, but also as an antidote to the purportedly milk-toast Truman administration, which had supposedly failed to confront global Communism and thereby “lost” much of Asia.

Eisenhower gave wonderful speeches about the need to curtail costly conventional forces and to avoid overseas commitments, but much of his defense strategy was predicated on a certain inflexible and dangerous reliance on nuclear brinksmanship. In 1952 he ran to the right of the departing Harry Truman on the Korean War, and unleashed Nixon to make the argument of Democratic neo-appeasement in failing to get China out of Korea. Yet when he assumed office, Eisenhower soon learned that hinting at the use of nuclear weapons did not change the deadlock near the 38th Parallel. Over 3,400 casualties (including perhaps over 800 dead) were incurred during the Eisenhower administration’s first six months. Yet the July 1953 ceasefire ended the war with roughly the same battlefield positions as when Ike entered office. Pork Chop Hill — long before John Kerry’s baleful notion about the last man to die in Vietnam — became emblematic of a futile battle on the eve of a negotiated stalemate.

Ike’s occasional opportunism certainly turned off more gifted field generals like Matthew Ridgway, who found it ironic that candidate Ike had cited a lack of American resolve to finish the Korean War with an American victory, only to institutionalize Ridgway’s much-criticized but understandable restraint after his near-miraculous restoration of South Korea. In addition, Ridgway deplored the dangerous false economy of believing that postwar conventional forces could be pruned while the U.S. could rely instead on threatening the use of nuclear weapons. He almost alone foresaw rightly that an emerging concept of mutually assured destruction would make the conventional Army and Marines as essential as ever.

As a footnote, Eisenhower helped to marginalize the career of Ridgway, the most gifted U.S. battlefield commander of his era. Ike bore grudges and was petty enough to write, quite untruthfully, that General James Van Fleet, not Ridgway, had recaptured Seoul — even though the former had not even yet arrived in the Korean theater. That unnecessary snub was reminiscent of another to his former patron George Marshall during the campaign of 1952. Ridgway, remember, would later talk Eisenhower out of putting more advisers into Vietnam.

The problem with the Obama administration is not that it does or does not intervene, given the differing contours of each crisis, but rather that it persists in giving loud sermons that bear no relationship to the actions that do or do not follow: red lines in Syria followed by Hamlet-like deliberations and acceptance of Putin’s bogus WMD removal plan; flip-flop-flip in Egypt; in Libya, lead from behind followed by Benghazi and chaos; deadlines and sanctions to no deadlines and no sanctions with Iran; reset reset with Russia; constant public scapegoating of his predecessors, especially Bush; missile defense and then no missile defense in Eastern Europe; Guantanamo, renditions, drones, and preventive detentions all bad in 2008 and apparently essential in 2009; civilian trials for terrorists and then not; and Orwellian new terms like overseas contingency operations, workplace violence, man-caused disasters, a secular Muslim Brotherhood, jihad as a personal journey, and a chief NASA mission being outreach to Muslims. We forget that the non-interventionist policies of Jimmy Carter abruptly ended with his bellicose “Carter Doctrine” — birthed after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, American hostages were taken in Tehran and Khomeinists had taken power, China went into Vietnam, and Communist insurgencies swept Central America.

As for Dwight Eisenhower, of course he was an admirable and successful president who squared the circle of trying to contain expansionary Soviet and Chinese Communism at a time when the postwar American public was rightly tired of war, while balancing three budgets, building infrastructure, attempting to deal with civil rights, and promoting economic growth. Yet the Republican Ike continued for six months the identical Korean War policies of his unpopular Democratic predecessor Harry Truman, and helped to lay the foundation for the Vietnam interventions of his successors, Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. That the initial blow-ups in Korea and Vietnam bookended his own administration may have been a matter of luck, given his own similar interventionist Cold War policies.

Bush was probably no Ike (few are), and certainly Obama is not either. But to score contemporary political points against one and for the other by reinventing Eisenhower into a model non-interventionist is a complete distortion of history. So should we laugh or cry at the fantasies offered by Andrew Bacevich? He writes: “Remember the disorder that followed the Korean War? It was called the Eisenhower era, when budgets balanced, jobs were plentiful and no American soldiers died in needless wars.”

In fact, the post–Korean War “Eisenhower era” was characterized by only three balanced budgets (in at least one case with some budget gimmickry) out of the remaining seven Eisenhower years. In 1958 the unemployment rate spiked at over 7 percent for a steady six months. Bacevich’s simplistic notion that “jobs were plentiful” best applies to the first six months of 1953, when Ike entered office and, for the only time during his entire tenure, the jobless rate was below 3 percent — coinciding roughly with the last six months of fighting the Korean War. This was an age, remember, when we had not yet seen the West German, South Korean, and Japanese democratic and economic miracles (all eventually due to U.S. interventions and occupations), China and Russia were in ruins, Western Europe was still recovering from the war, Britain had gone on a nationalizing binge, and for a brief time the U.S. was largely resupplying the world, and mostly alone — almost entirely with its own oil, gas, and coal. Eisenhower’s term was characterized by intervention in Lebanon, fighting for stalemate in Korea, CIA-led coups and assassinations, the insertion of military advisers into Vietnam, new anti-Communist treaty entanglements to protect Southeast Asian countries, a complete falling out with our European allies, abject lies about spy flights over the Soviet Union, serial nuclear saber-rattling, and Curtis LeMay’s nuclear-armed overflights of the Soviet Union — in other words, the not-so-abnormal stuff of a Cold War presidency.

And the idea that, to quote from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eisenhower “could then take enormous pride in the fact that not a single soldier had died in combat during his time” is, well, unhinged.

National Review Online contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals

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