A Brief History of Broken Promises

On October 18, 2015, the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran was formally adopted; on May 8, 2018, the US unilaterally and illegally pulled out of the agreement.

That broken promise set up a diplomatic problem for the US. In the future, other countries may be reluctant to sign agreements with the US because they will be unable to trust that the US will keep its word and not break its promise again. And the problem was not just that Trump broke America’s promise and pulled out of the agreement but that Biden certified the breach by not immediately re-entering it.

And it is not just Iran that has expressed reluctance and demanded assurances from the US that, if they re-negotiate that agreement, the US will guarantee that they will honor the agreement as binding. On December 21, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, "Well, we know very well that even legal guarantees cannot be completely fail-safe, because the United States easily pulls out of any international treaty that has ceased to be interesting to it. . . ."

Iran and Russia have both suffered from broken American promises. Most recently, Iran was betrayed by Trump’s pulling out of the JCPOA. But that was not the first time Iran had been betrayed. When President Rafsanjani exerted Iran’s influence to help win the release of American hostages in Lebanon, President H.W. Bush promised that, in return, Iran’s help would "be long remembered" and that "goodwill begets goodwill." But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. Instead, Bush betrayed Rafsanjani, and the US broke its promise: the Americans sent word that Rafsanjani should expect no American reciprocation. 

Russia is also still being stung by past American broken promises. As the US continues to proffer promises of NATO membership to Ukraine, to send lethal weapons to Ukraine and to surround Russia with NATO weapons and troops that butt right up to its borders, Russia needs to remind the US of two past promises. The first is that the US, UK, France and Germany all repeatedly promised Gorbachev that if NATO got Germany, NATO would not extend even “one inch” further east, let alone as far east as Ukraine. The second is that in 1997, Clinton signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, which promised that there would be no "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" in Eastern Europe. Putin, once again, reminded the world at the close of 2021 that "Sometimes it seems we are living in different worlds. They said they wouldn’t expand, but they are expanding."

Current crises in both Iran and Eastern Europe are still being shaped by these broken American promises. But they are not the only, nor the first, in a long line of broken American promises. Current problems in Cuba have also been molded by broken American promises.

On October 28, 1962 an agreement brought the Cuban missile crisis to an end. Noam Chomsky reports that a few days later, on November 8, “the Pentagon announced that all known Soviet missile bases had been dismantled.” Nevertheless, on the very same day, Chomsky says, an American sabotage team blew up a Cuban facility. The US broke its promise, and the covert action killed four hundred Cuban workers on the same day the US confirmed Russia had kept its promise.

But the US started breaking its promises to Cuba decades before that. In 1898, President McKinley committed American troops to liberating Cuba from Spain. Congress passed the Teller Amendment which promised the Cubans that “The United States hereby disclaims any . . . intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over [Cuba]”. It clearly stated that “the people of the island of Cuba are, and of right ought to be, free and independent”.

The Americans quickly dispatched of the Spanish, as promised, and then quickly dispatched of the promise. McKinley announced that America now ruled Cuba according to “the law of belligerent right over conquered territory,” which came as a surprise to the Cubans who didn’t know they had been conquered. The US promised to free Cuba from Spain, got rid of Spain and broke its promise and kept Cuba for themselves.

The broken promises to Cuba would continue. In 1988, the US needed Cuban cooperation in Angola. So, the US promised that if Cuba helped on Angola, it "would contribute to improved U.S.-Cuban relations." Cuba and Angola quickly agreed in principle to complete withdrawal of Cuban troops. Castro, then, turned to the US, expecting them to make good on their promise. Instead, as the Iranians experienced when they helped free the hostages in Lebanon, the US broke its promise; in fact, according to William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh in Back Channel to Cuba, the State Department denied they had ever even made the promise. LeoGrande and Kornbluh document several similar broken promises:

"The Cubans had heard promises like this many times before; if only they would make concessions up front on an issue of interest to the United States, better relations would follow. More than once, the Cubans had taken the deal, but never did they see any payoff. Fidel Castro freed U.S. prisoners in 1993 after hints that their release could lead to a process of reconciliation, ended the 1980 Mariel migration crisis when Washington promised broader bilateral talks; he signed the 1984 migration accord when US negotiators suggested that Cuban concessions would lead to better relations . . . and Castro ended the 1994 rafters migration crisis when President Clinton promised negotiations on the embargo. In none of these cases did the United States make good on its commitment."

The initial 1898 broken promise to Cuba to liberate it from Spanish colonialism was no anomaly. It revealed a strategy. The Philippines would be the first to suffer the same broken promise.

When Emilio Aguinaldo, one of the leaders of the Philippine resistance, met with American officials, he offered to assist them in invading the Philippines. According to William R. Polk, the grateful Americans assured him that America “neither needs nor desires colonies. . . .” While admitting that he could not speak for the American government, the ranking US officer in attendance, Commodore George Dewey, promised Aguinaldo that “there is no doubt if you cooperate with us and assist us by fighting the common enemy, that you will be granted your freedom the same as the Cubans will be.”

Too bad Aguinaldo couldn’t look ahead just a little bit in history, because the Philippines would be treated “the same as the Cubans will be.” In 1898, the Americans defeated the Spanish, and Aguinaldo declared independence for the Philippines. McKinley defended the Philippine’s independence from Spain by warning against “forced annexation,” and then forcibly annexed them. The Americans argued that the Philippines would descend into chaos unless America took over, purchased the Philippines from Spain for $20 million dollars and changed the mission goal from liberation to occupation. The same broken promise.

North Korea, too, has been shaken by broken promises. In 1994, the Framework Agreement was made between the North Korea and the US. North Korea honored the agreement: they stopped testing long-range missiles and they verifiably stopped making nuclear bombs. But George W. Bush broke America’s promise by threatening North Korea, which the agreement prohibited, by listing it as a member of the "Axis of Evil" and by including it in the 2002 nuclear posture review as a country on which America should be prepared to drop a nuclear bomb. The US also broke their promise of the Framework Agreement by delivering only 15% of the fuel it promised North Korea. The US then canceled the agreement altogether. It was only then that North pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Bush administration also used an intelligence source’s report – which came nine months after the “Axis of Evil” speech – that North Korea was working on technology to enrich uranium to abandon the deal. The US never discussed the source’s report with North Korea nor continued on the diplomacy track that was mostly working, but, instead, used it as an excuse to kill the deal. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton admitted that he was looking for an excuse to break the US’s promise: “this was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.” Though the States says North Korea admitted to the uranium enrichment program, North Korea has denied that it ever admitted that there was a program.

In 2005, North Korea agreed to completely eliminate its nuclear weapons and missile development program and allow inspectors in exchange for an American promise that they would stop threatening attacks, would move towards normalizing relations and would undertake the planning of a light water reactor that could be used for medical purposes but not for nuclear weapons. Once again, the US broke all of its promises. According to Chomsky, Bush promptly canceled the light water reactor, took up the threats again, and launched economic warfare against North Korea by freezing its funds in foreign banks even when North Korea’s transactions were entirely legal.

To this list of broken promises could be added the promise to the Hungarians in 1956 that the US would support them if they rose up against the Soviet Union and the promise made in the 1970’s to the Kurds that the US would support them if they rose up against Iraq. The US betrayed both nations and broke both promises. In 1975, the desperate Kurds begged the CIA: "Our people’s fate in unprecedented danger. Complete destruction hanging over our head. No explanation for all this. We appeal you and US government intervene according to your promises."

Iran, Russia, Cuba and North Korea: in each case a history of broken US promises has caused or continued the crises we face today.

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