Stephen Kinzer hopes U.S. can learn from past mistakes

Brittany Westerberg

Brittany Westerberg

When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, he made one promise to the people in his first speech: This revolution will not be like the one in 1898.

Many people in the U.S. thought, how could something from 50-plus years ago have anything to do with what is going on today?

“When we commit acts in a country, we go on,” Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said. “Anger and hatred fester in minds and bodies of those people [in that country]. Sometimes it takes years, but then it explodes. If we had kept our promise to Cuba, we probably would not have had to face Castro.”

In 1898, the U.S. had, for the second time, helped to overthrow a foreign government, according to Kinzer. Originally, we had promised Cuba that once the revolution was over, we would allow them to be an independent country. Instead, the U.S. changed its mind and ruled the country from afar through a series of “pliable dictators,” some of who were very cruel. Then came Fidel Castro’s revolution, which succeeded in 1959.

Despite what many Americans believe about our foreign policy changing since the Iraq War, Kinzer-who spoke Nov. 7 in the Performing Arts Center as part of the Harding Distinguished Lecture series-said President George W. Bush is not “violently ripping America away” from its original foreign policy. The United States has had the same policy regarding American intervention abroad for more than 100 years.

The main point of Kinzer’s talk was about his book, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq and the recurring patterns he saw while researching the 14 different instances where the U.S. government has helped to overthrow foreign governments. He spoke in detail about several instances this happened and the consequences that came out of them.

Kinzer stressed the fact that while the people of the United States live mostly in the here and now, people in other countries have very long memories and remember wrongs done to them. This is what has led to much of the hatred of the U.S. overseas.

“When you violently intervene in the politics of another country, it’s kind of like releasing a wheel at the top of a hill,” Kinzer said. “You have no idea where it’s going to bounce or end up. It’s a very dangerous process.”

Kinzer said we need to pay more attention and learn from history. None of the overthrows that have been accomplished have produced good results, and we have effectively cut ourselves off from the world and information we need, hindering our national security efforts rather than helping them. He hopes that maybe, “We can learn something from mistakes we have made in the past,” he said. “We should stop concentrating on what is good for the U.S. now and look more at the long term and what is going to be good for us.”

The founding fathers’ idea about perfecting democracy in our own nation and just setting an example for other countries to follow has not been followed in the past century, Kinzer said. The U.S. government has intervened in foreign countries’ governments numerous times, usually to protect foreign interests and the interests of American citizens abroad.

The first country he spoke about was Hawaii, the first independent country to be overthrown. Hawaii originally had its own monarchy, but when Hawaii officially became a part of the United States, it was because American missionaries, who had originally gone there in the 1820s, wanted to keep exporting sugar to the U.S. after the government had in the 1890s enacted a tariff against the importation of sugar. The missionaries, along with 250 marines sent from the U.S. to “protect” the Americans, effectively ended the long Hawaiian monarchy without any casualties and made the islands part of the United States.

Next Kinzer spoke about Cuba, and then went on to speak briefly about the Philippines, Haiti and how the U.S. basically created the nation of Panama in order to build a canal. He also spoke about overthrowing Iran, Guatamala-which “committed the ‘sin’ of nationalizing American owned lands”-South Vietnam, Chile, Grenada, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kinzer has written two other books, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror in 2004 and Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds in 2001, as well as contributing to several other works.