Coups and Colonialism: Why Does America Do What It Does?

Trump is gone; Biden is in. But America is still recognizing the coup leader in Venezuela, is silent on Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, is continuing Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol while accepting the importance of Israel’s hold on the Golan Heights and is only cautiously correcting course on Cuba.

The history of American coups and colonialism is nearly – but importantly not quite – as old as the history of America. The need for such expansionistic policies has always been attributed to the fear of the spread of communism.

But outside of Europe, in the third and nonaligned worlds, what America spread the fear of was not most commonly communism, but a different dangerous threat. A threat that could work for the people of the third world and that could provide an alternate pattern of government that countries could follow instead of following America.

The alternative form of government it most feared was democratic nationalism. Democratic nationalism is a deadly combination. Democratically elected leaders need to do what their people want them to do if they are truly democratic and if they hope to be re-elected. And, given the true power to choose, their people will always choose to keep the wealth of their nation’s resources in the hands of their nation. And if the democratic leader is also a nationalist, then he or she will be willing to do just that and nationalize those resources. Resources that America covets. So democratic nationalists have to go.

What America feared most was not communism. What America feared most was democracy.

1898 was the year of the struggle for the American soul. That year can be pinpointed as the moment America struggled over the question of being a former colony – with a memory and a conscience – and respecting other nation’s sovereignty, or becoming an expansionist power – throwing of conscience – and engaging in colonialism and coups.

In 1898, American greed overcame American conscience, and Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico would very quickly become the first to feel the results of that struggle for America’s soul.

But why? None of those victims of American coups and colonialism were communists. Fear of communism was still two decades away. American troops would not be sent to Soviet soil to intervene against the communists in the Russian civil war until the middle of 1918. And there was no talk of a "Red Scare" until 1919.

It was not always communism America feared. What it most often feared was democratic nationalism.

The paradigm of American intervention to squelch communism and build a dam against its spread is Castro. The Kennedy administration is well known for this obsession, but the attempts go back earlier to 1959 and the Eisenhower administration. But when the U.S. obsession with Castro was born, Castro was not aligned with the Soviet Union. He was not even openly communist at all. Noam Chomsky says that the Castro obsession was a fear, not of communism, but of independent nationalism. In the early years after the Cuban revolution, Castro sought friendly relations with the US It was Castro’s agrarian reforms and nationalistic policies that led America to reject those neighborly overtures.

The inheritor of Castro’s mantle as nationalistic threat was Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Vowing that his "government is here to protect the people, not the bourgeoisie or the rich," Chavez nationalized his country’s oil, electricity, telecommunications and steel industries and ensured that the profits from Venezuela’s resources went towards improving the lives of Venezuela’s people. For that crime against America, Chavez had to go. The crime was not communism but democratic nationalism.

Though certainly a leftist, Chavez’ mortal sin against America was not communism, it was democratically listening to the will of his people and nationalistically giving them the benefit of their country’s oil. The last Latin American president before Chavez to nationalize his country’s oil industry was Ecuador’s Jamie Roldós. The first democratically elected leader after a long line of US backed dictators, Roldós was a nationalist who believed that his country’s resources should benefit his country’s people. He was democratically elected, and he was not a communist.

In early 1981, he introduced the Hydrocarbons Policy that ensured that profits from Ecuador’s oil resources would benefit the largest percentage of the population of Ecuador. Roldós warned all foreign oil companies that if their activities did not benefit the people of Ecuador, they would be forced out of Ecuador.

In May of 1981, President Roldós died in a plane crash. Although the accusation has not been proven, the people of Latin America claim that he was assassinated by the CIA. In The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins says "many circumstances appeared to support these allegations." The government that replaced him quickly opened Ecuador back up to Texaco and other foreign oil companies.

Just Two months later, President Omar Torrijos of Panama would die when his flight went down. Torrijos had also been a nationalist, struggling to regain sovereignty over his country’s greatest national resource: the Panama Canal. Like Roldós, he believed in helping the people of his country, and, like Roldós, he was not a communist.

It is not clear whether there was a CIA role in the plane crash. But there is murky evidence of a history of CIA involvement in plans to assassinate Torrijos. Perkins reports that John Dean would testify before the senate that the CIA had planned to assassinate Torrijos. In CIA’s Family Jewels documents dated June 20, 1973 provided to me by the National Security Archive that are stamped "SECRET," John Dean’s allegations are clearly being discussed. The New York Times seems to have reported on allegations Dean made to Newsweek Magazine. Dean alleged that "SOME LOW-LEVEL WHITE HOUSE OFFICIALS CONSIDERED ASSASSINATING PANAMA’S RULER OMAR TORRIJOS," in part because he was being "UNCOOPERATIVE ABOUT RENOGOTIATING THE PANAMA CANAL TREATY." Dean seems to identify Watergate’s Howard Hunt as the leader of a team in Mexico for what he calls an aborted mission. The writer, who seems to be the Deputy Chief Western Hemisphere Division, seems to claim that such a mission had not come to his attention. Perkins reports that further testimony and documents of plans to kill Torrijos were presented to the Church Committee and that the Reagan administration, too, would seek to assassinate him.

Whether or not the CIA was involved in assassinating Torrijos, CIA expert Jefferson Morley told me that Hunt certainly participated in discussions about assassinating him. During House Select Committee on Assassination hearing in 1978, Hunt is asked whether anyone in the Watergate Plumbers Unit was contacted about "a plan to waste Torrijos." Rather than deny it, Hunt responds, "I don’t know whether that ever reached fruition." When asked specifically if it was Hunt’s "understanding this was an assassination plan?" Hunt replies only that "I think plan perhaps suggests too great a degree of formality."

Roldós, Torrijos, Castro and Chavez are part of a long line of nationalists to be targeted by the US The progenitor of that line may have been Nicaragua’s Santos Zelaya. In 1909, Taft ordered the removal of Zelaya when the Nicaraguan leader dared to insist that American companies in his country honor their agreements. He had tried to make Nicaragua less dependent on the US by borrowing form European, not American, banks. The US forced him to resign in December 1909.

The Eisenhower administration would orchestrate at least three important coups in Iran, Guatemala and Congo. In 1951, Mohammad Mosaddeq surged into power in Iran, propelled by a wave of Iranian nationalism, determined to recapture their oil from the British so that the profits could be used for the benefit, not of the British people, but of the Iranian people. Mosaddeq was enormously popular, a genuine democrat and nationalist and the first democratically elected leader of Iran. But in Iran, democracy meant nationalism and the loss of Iran’s oil. As promised, Mosaddeq immediately started trying to nationalize Iran’s oil, and, in April 1951, the Iranian parliament nationalized the oil industry. In May, Mosaddeq was elected Prime Minister and signed the bill into law. Truman refused to use the newly created CIA to help the British coup, but Eisenhower had no such scruples. In the summer of 1953, Eisenhower gave presidential approval for Operation Ajax, the very first CIA coup, and Mohammad Mosaddeq was removed from power.

Mosaddeq was not a communist. But he was an important nationalist, democratically elected on a nationalist platform. According to Ervand Abrahamian, a leading expert on the Iranian coup, though British and American officials publicly played up the communist threat, privately, they knew better. The American State Department and the British Foreign Office agreed that there was "no element of Russian incitation" and that Iran should "not be seen primarily as part of the immediate short-term ‘cold war’ problem." Abrahamian says that a top-level meeting of the National Security Council held in March 1953, right before the coup, "discussed many aspects of the Iran crisis but hardly touched on the communist danger." The real American assessment of communism in Iran is most clearly shown by a CIA report that Mosaddeq’s government "has the capability to take effective repressive action to check mob violence and Tudeh [the communist party] agitations….The Tudeh will not be able to gain control of the government." Government officials in both Britain and the US were clear that what they feared in Iran was not communism but nationalism and neutralism.

The democratic nationalist mantel would be picked up in Latin America by Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala. Arbenz set out to transform Guatemala from a dependent, semi-colonial country into a genuinely independent one. He took on United Fruit, who owned about 20% of the land in his country and redistributed it. He also regulated major US companies in Guatemala, including United Fruit. Arbenz was a nationalist who wanted his own people to benefit from their own country’s wealth. In 1954, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to overthrow him. In late June that year, they did. Blaming “a cruel war” undertaken by “The United Fruit Company, in collaboration with the governing circles of the United States”, Arbenz gave up the power that his people had democratically bestowed upon him.

Once again, Arbenz was no communist. He did not align with the Soviet Union at the U.N., and he promised to transform Guatemala, not into a communist state, but into "a modern capitalist state." And the US knew this. Internal State Department documents written on May 28, 1954 throw into clear relief that the US feared not communism but the alternative example of democratic nationalism. The document reveals the American fear that Arbenz offered the contagious "example of independence of the US that Guatemala might offer to nationalists throughout Latin America," and that that example "might spread through the example of nationalism and social reform."

The next communist to fall would be the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba. But like Mosaddeq and Arbenz, he was no a communist at all. Lumumba leaned left, but he was no communist. Khrushchev would mock that "Mr. Lumumba is as much a communist as I am a Catholic." He was, however, like Mosaddeq and Arbenz, a democratically elected nationalist. Congo’s wealth of natural resources – gold, diamonds, ivory, rubber, timber, palm oil, copper and other minerals – had been flowing into colonial Belgium. Lumumba wanted to plug the leak and keep the Congo’s wealth for the Congo’s people.

So, on what would turn out to be a very busy day for Eisenhower, only hours after he gave the final go ahead on the removal of Castro, Eisenhower gave the order to remove Lumumba. According to the senate testimony of National Security Council note taker Robert Johnston, Eisenhower flatly told Allen Dulles to eliminate Lumumba. Dulles sent a cable to Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief in Congo, telling him that “In high quarters here it is clear-cut conclusion . . . that his removal must be an urgent and prime objective”. In secret testimony, Devlin would later say, “I asked on whose orders these instructions were issued”. He said the answer was “the President”.

On January 17, 1961, Patrice Lumumba was beaten and killed with CIA cooperation.

In 1964, the scene moved back to America. Aside from the still ongoing suffering of the Brazilian people that resulted from the coup that removed João Goulart from power, the Brazil coup deserves more attention than it gets for two reasons.

The first is that it may have been the first significant manifestation of Kennedy’s new approach to coups. Noam Chomsky explains that in 1962, Kennedy made the policy decision to transform the militaries of Latin America from defending against external forces to “internal security” or, as Chomsky puts it “war against the domestic population, if they raised their heads.” Kennedy would make coups more efficient while hiding America’s hand by working closely with local militaries. The Kennedy administration laid the ground for the Brazilian coup, and it was finished shortly after his own assassination.

The second is that, with the removal of Goulart, Brazil’s new "murderous and brutal" military dictatorship, as Chomsky calls it, would cooperate with the US in the real domino effect of spreading the coups throughout Latin America.

Goulart was not a communist. He was, as Chomsky says, "mildly social democratic." But he was interested in the Non-Aligned Movement, and he was a democratic nationalist. Like Arbenz before him in Guatemala, Goulart wanted land reform.

So, in 1964, President Johnson gave Undersecretary of State George Ball and Assistant Secretary for Latin America Thomas Mann the green light to participate in the coup: "I think we ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do".

The next coup was perhaps the most brutal. The United States would actively participate in the 1965 Indonesian coup that removed the popular Sukarno from power. The massacre was unimaginable. The US would provide support, propaganda, a list of names of people to kill and the weapons with which to kill them. Between 500,000 and a million Indonesians would be slaughtered.

Sukarno was not a communist. At first, under Truman, Sukarno was seen by the US as sufficiently enough controlling communism that, according to Vincent Bevins in The Jakarta Method, Indonesia’s nonalignment was even tolerated under what came to be called the Jakarta Axiom. But he was a significant leader of the Nonaligned Movement. And he was a nationalist.

Bevins reports that Sukarno "had begun to rewrite the regulations governing its oil industry after expelling the Dutch, greatly concerning US officials." A May 30, 1963 New York Times editorial diagnosed "The Sukarno Government of Indonesia" as seemingly "inexorably addicted to one nationalistic excess after another." The proof that the coup was not just about communism was exposed by American expectations of the coup government. Bevins says that "US officials were also very alarmed that the military government-in-waiting had not yet reversed Sukarno’s plans to take over US oil companies." He quotes historian Bradley Simpson as saying that American officials "bluntly and repeatedly warned the emerging Indonesian leadership" that American support for the coup government would be withheld if it allowed Sukarno’s nationalization plans to proceed.

On January 14, American ambassador to Indonesia Marshall Green told the State Department that most members of Indonesia’s communist party "have been killed or arrested, and estimates of the number of party members killed range up to several hundred thousand…." Part of the planned US response was to "promote arrangements between the [Government of Indonesia] and the American oil companies," again revealing that the expectations of the coup included, importantly, killing nationalism.

In 1973, the killings and coups returned to South America. Chili’s democratically elected Salvador Allende was not a communist. But he did join the Nonaligned Movement. And he was a socialist who would follow the "Chilean way," trusting the people to peacefully and democratically usher in socialism. But he was a nationalist who was determined to nationalize the American companies who owned Chili’s economy. Chile is the world’s leading producer of copper, and, in 1971, Allende nationalized the copper mining corporation. He then took control of the Chilean Telephone Company, which was 70% owned by the American telecommunications giant ITT.

The US feared that Allende’s democratic socialism and democratic nationalism would work and provide an alternative model to the US model for Latin America to follow. Bevin quotes Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File in reporting that Nixon would admit that "Our main concern in Chili is…that [Allende] can consolidate himself, and the picture projected to the world will be his success…. If we let the potential leaders in South America think they can move like Chile…we will be in trouble."

In 1970, Nixon ordered the CIA to begin a top-secret anti-Allende plan. He told the CIA’s Richard Helms to "save Chili" and, famously, to "make the economy scream." And on September 11, 1973, Chili’s popular, democratically elected nationalist president was taken out of power

In January 1990, Panama’s Manuel Noriega was removed from power. His sins were many: he refused to extend what he called "a training ground for death squads and repressive right-wing militaries," or what the U.S. called the School of the Americas. Noriega also came to oppose the American war on Nicaragua and embrace a peace plan for Central America that Reagan strongly opposed. But he also committed nationalist sins. He explored the idea of building a new Japanese funded canal and, most importantly, insisted that the US honor the Canal Treaty that Carter had negotiated with Torrijos, granting control of the Panama Canal to Panama. Noriega would explain what sealed his fate: "the Panamanian invasion was a result of the US rejection of any scenario in which future control of the Panama Canal might be in the hands of an independent, sovereign Panama." Nationalism sealed his fate.

In more recent times, this reading of the historical pattern has continued. Honduras’ Manuel Zelaya refused to privatize his country’s telecommunications industry and was removed from power in a coup.

Most recently, Bolivia’s Evo Morales was removed in a US supported coup. Morales is a leftist, but, fatally, he is a nationalist.

If Venezuela has oil, Bolivia has lithium: lots of lithium. In fact, Bolivia may have 70% of the world’s lithium reserves. And lithium is the new oil. As oil is essential for gas powered cars, so lithium is essential for electric cars. Morales, like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, is a nationalist who sought a new relationship between his land’s resources and his land’s people: he didn’t want all the wealth from Bolivia’s natural resources slipping through the fingers of the Bolivian people and into the hands of the huge international corporations. And as that approach to oil put Chavez in the sights of the American coup planners, so Morales’ approach to lithium put him in their sights.

Morales was willing to allow foreign companies into Bolivia. But he insisted that any lithium mining had to be carried out in equal partnership with Bolivia’s national mining company and Bolivia’s national lithium company. That made Morales a problem to the big transnational mining companies. A problem that had to go.

In 2018, Germany’s ACI Systems had come to an agreement with Bolivia. Listening to the protest of the people of the region, Morales canceled that deal on November 4, 2019. A few days later, Morales was gone.

American history is most often read against the singular backdrop of communism. But it was not always – and in the third and nonaligned world not most often – communism that America most feared. It was democracy: a democracy that could elect a nationalist leader who sought to save his country’s resources for his country’s people. Much of America’s history of colonialism and coups may be more accurately reinterpreted as a campaign against democratic nationalism.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.