The Modern World

President Truman’s speech (Mexico City, March 3, 1947) highlighted a variety of Western ideals concerning independence, freedom, democracy, nationalism and human dignity that have been held out as promises by the West generally, and the United States in particular, to the developing world for more than a century. Could it be said that in the cases of Guatemala and Iran in the 1950’s, and Chile in the 1970’s that these promises were betrayed? Using the evidence available in Kinzer’s Overthrow, evaluate this possible perception of a promise betrayed in the circumstances of Guatemala, Iran and Chile in the 1950’s and 70’s.

‘Overthrow’ is a work by Stephen Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent who examines American foreign policy from the 1890s up until the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His central argument in the text is that wherever America goes in the world when it comes to military intervention and ‘regime change’, it leaves a trail of bitterness and worse behind it. Indeed, the very concepts which it often states are informing its military interventions, whether that be peace, democracy or similar, are reversed by the end of the war. This means that they are also in direct contravention of the principles stated in the Truman speech in Mexico City of 1947. This paper will argue that the principles of the Truman Doctrine were actually betrayed in Guatemala, Iran and Chile during the 1950s and 1970s.

The first case which will be examined is that of Guatemala in the 1950s. This country was emerging at the time from a period of authoritarian rule, with the liberal government of President Arbenz Guzman. America intelligence maintained that the program of land reform being undertaken by the President was inimical to American corporate interests in the region, namely those of the United Fruit Company. American intervention had, by 1954, triggered a right wing coup d’etat, which went on to cause a 36-year civil war in the country from 1960, killing hundreds of thousands of people. What also characterised the American intervention was the willingness of USA intelligence forces to collaborate with anti-liberal, or ‘anti-communist’, forces in Central America, many of which used the most brutal means of repression. This was consistent with American foreign policy in Europe, where many former Fascists and Nazis had been recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). As Hiltz states, “To get up to speed as quickly as possible in service to the administration’s post-War anti-communist agenda the O.S.S. turned to individuals who were familiar with socialism/communism in Europe as its sworn enemies – fascists and their collaborators. As a consequence Nazis, members of Gestapo, and others were recruited as paid informers by the O.S.S., and given new identities.” (Hiltz, Atomic Diplomacy). Little actual evidence of communism was found, in reality, while the right wing, authoritarian thugs deployed in Central America were misrepresented by CIA propaganda as freedom fighters. In actual fact, the Communists who did exist in Guatemala at the time were independent of the USSR, were Guatemalan nationalists and had only followed their constitutional rights by forming political parties.

This was not the only situation which the American government was spinning in public to its advantage. There was already a policy of ‘historical revisionism’ in place at the highest levels of government in the USA. This was used to justify much foreign policy and domestic policy. One of the more prominent examples of this idea at work occurred in the narrative constructed around the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of the Second World War. In an interesting use of ‘doublespeak’, those historians who rejected the ‘consensus’ view of America’s part in the dropping of the atomic bomb were classified as ‘Revisionists’, and characterised as anti-patriots and radical leftists by their opponents in government. “Many of the early ‘Revisionists’ were economic historians, and, because no one in the administration had thought to classify Treasury Department documents, evidence was available through Treasury documents of U.S. post-war intentions toward the Soviet Union and the rest of the world, showing that the administration seemed more concerned with its posture versus the  Soviets (as it regarded the ‘bomb’) than it was with Japan in the spring/summer of 1945.” (Hiltz, ‘Revisionism and Consensus’). As things stood in Guatemala, the local policies which sprang from the kind of mindset which was present at the time in Washington compelled President Arbenz Guzman to resign. This ended the decade-long process which had seen the country move to democracy since 1944. Many deaths and much oppression of political and cultural rights would spring from this American intervention; greater democracy and freedom, in the terms of the Truman Doctrine, it did not bring.

Iran was another country which faced massive political upheavel during the 1950s. Again, the United States, this time in cahoots with fading colonial power the United Kingdom, conspired to remove a democratic government and install in power an authoritarian one which was more amenable to Western interests. As government in the United States changed to a more right-wing one, moving from the Presidency of Truman to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the impetus behind intervention grew. As Iran’s oil industry was largely controlled by the UK, the change of government in London from the leftist Labour Party administration of Clement Atlee to a Conservative Party one led by Winston Churchill was also significant in escalating events. As in Guatemala, the CIA hired a motley crew of street hard men, religious leaders, right-wing politicians and others to work against the democratic government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The CIA also persuaded Iran’s monarch, the Shah, to lead their attempt at a coup. Despite initial failures, the coup eventually succeeded, and transformed the Shah from a constitutional monarch to an authoritarian one. Again, the primary principles of taking democracy to the world had been betrayed, sacrificed in favour of Anglo-American corporate interests, in this case oil. Truman’s words of the address to Congress of March 12 1947 was directly contradicted. He had said, “One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the Unites States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion… To insure the peaceful development of nations, free from coercion, the United States has taken a leading part in establishing the United Nations. The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members.”

The United States was acting here in direct contradiction of the principles which had led to founding of the United Nations at the end of World War Two. Again, the spectre of fear of the Soviets played a part. British personalities felt that the Iranian nationalists were Communist-backed, and told the Americans this. The view, as Hiltz asserts in ‘Atomic Diplomacy’, of the Americans at this time was: “any attempted regime change in this non-communist world, must be an intrigue sponsored by the Soviet Union.” Of course, the results of much of these actions by the US and UK actually stored up problems for later years. The violent Islamic Revolution of the 1970s can be said to have sprung from the kind of repression which the imposition of the Shah on Iran caused. The shockwaves continue to be felt today, with Iran a recalcitrant player on the international stage. After direct intervention in Iraq brought the American military to the region, ironically in pursuit of more ‘regime change’ similar to that of earlier eras, Iran is more directly in opposition to the USA than ever.

The example of Chile in the 1970s helps to reinforce this view of American foreign policy intervention. This intervention centred upon the 1973 coup d’etat which saw yet another military junta come to power in South America. Ultimately, General Augusto Pinochet would lead the country’s authoritarian regime. This episode is an especially shameful episode in American intervention in Latin America. After the democratically elected President Salvador Allende was deposed, Chile became a by-word for violent oppression and human rights violations. The pattern of American intelligence agencies working alongside authoritarian regimes in direct contravention of democratic aims was therefore repeated, with the same practise of casting Pinochet and his thugs as defenders of Western freedom against the threat of USSR backed Communism. There was little that was democratic about Pinochet though. What the Truman Doctrine and its application in Chile was much closer to was the description by historian Stephen Ambrose, who said, “Whenever and wherever an anti-Communist government was threatened, by indigenous insurgents, foreign invasion, or even diplomatic pressure. (as with Turkey), the United States would supply political, economic, and most of all military aid. The Truman Doctrine came close to shutting the door against any revolution, since the terms ‘free peoples’ and ‘anti-Communist’ were thought to be synonymous.” In the case of Chile, the United States had actually acted to support the kind of regime which it had helped to overthrow in Europe in 1945. Although direct military intervention did not take place here, there was extensive work undertaken by the CIA to destabilise the Allende regime, and also in the use of ‘black propaganda’, which often worked to portray the Allende regime as ineffective and failing.

It can therefore be seen that the actions taken by the United States government in Guatemala, Iran and Chile were in direct contravention of the principle which had been repeatedly stated by President Truman and others. In order to justify these betrayals of principle, the American people were lied to, and the democratic hopes of many people across the world were crushed. The seeds for future conflicts, in some cases, were sown. It is also important to note that political discourse in the United States was poisoned, with any politics of the Left being discredited as being ‘Communist’. This also corrupted political life generally, with events such as McCarthyism lessening the status of the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world, and eroding the respect and affection which was felt for American democracy in the wake of the Second World War. Such actions have therefore betrayed not only the people whom America was supposed to help overseas, but also its own citizens.