Throughout its history, the United States has used its military and covert operations to overthrow or prop up foreign governments in the name of preserving U.S. strategic and business interests.
U.S. intervention in foreign governments began with attacks on and displacement of sovereign tribal nations in North America. In the 1890s, this type of imperialist activity, fueled by the idea of Manifest Destiny, expanded overseas when the U.S. overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom and annexed its islands. As America annexed more overseas territories for its empire, it began to intervene frequently in other countries’ governments—particularly those in its backyard.
“During the early 20th century, the United States intervened relentlessly in the Caribbean Basin,” says Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and author of Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.
After World War II, the United States began using the newly established Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow governments all over the world in a more covert manner. U.S. leaders rationalized many of these interventions as necessary for preventing the spread of communism according to the Cold War domino theory. Similarly, 21st-century leaders would later defend U.S. Middle East interventions as necessary for fighting terrorism.
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In January 1893, a small group of white business and plantation owners, with the support of a U.S. envoy to Hawaii (Native spelling: Hawai'i), led a coup d'état that ousted the Hawaiian monarch Queen Liliʻuokalani from power. This came six years after the Queen's predecessor, her brother King David Kalakaua, was forced to sign a new constitution at gunpoint that stripped him of most of his powers and shifted them to members of the white planter class.
In 1993, a century after the coup, the U.S. government formally apologized to Native Hawaiians for overthrowing their monarchy and annexing 1.8 million acres of land “without the consent of or compensation to the Native Hawaiian people…or their sovereign government.”
In 1898, the same year the U.S. annexed Hawaii, its victory in the Spanish-American War also gave it control of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines as U.S. territories, as well as an excuse to begin a military occupation of Cuba. After President Theodore Roosevelt asserted America's right to intervene militarily in Latin America in 1904-5, the U.S. began to do so more frequently in the Caribbean Basin countries, including the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, Honduras—and Cuba.
After recognizing Cuba as an independent nation in 1902, the U.S. withdrew its military from the country with the caveat that it would still intervene militarily to protect American interests in the future. Over the next three decades, the U.S. frequently invaded Cuba and other Caribbean countries in the so-called “Banana Wars,” to help quash labor strikes and revolutions that threatened U.S.-owned sugar, fruit and coffee businesses.
In 1933, it backed military leader Fulgencio Batista’s coup to overthrow the Cuban government. After Fidel Castro violently ousted Batista and established the Western hemisphere’s first communist regime, President John F. Kennedy attempted to overthrow Castro’s government in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. This failed coup not only represented America’s ongoing imperialist attitude toward its southern neighbors; it also showcased a newer interventionist arm: the CIA.
After the United States established the CIA in 1947, it began to use the agency to overthrow or prop up foreign governments in a much more covert way. Before WWII, the United States didn’t try to hide its interventions in foreign governments. But with the onset of the Cold War, the United States became much more concerned about hiding its actions from the Soviet Union, Kinzer says.
“In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, it was a priority for President Eisenhower and [Director of Central Intelligence] Allen Dulles to assure that America always had plausible deniability,” he says. “Eisenhower was probably the last president who believed that you could do these things and nobody would ever find out.”
In 1953, the CIA orchestrated a coup of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in order to consolidate power with Iran’s shah (or king), Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Declassified CIA documents claim the coup—known internally as Operation Ajax—was designed to prevent possible “Soviet aggression” in Iran, but Iranian-American historian Ervand Abrahamian has argued the real motivation had more to do with securing U.S. oil interests.
In 1954, the CIA orchestrated another coup of a democratically elected leader: Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz. The CIA coup, code-named Operation PBSuccess, replaced the president with military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas in the name of stopping the spread of communism. However, the CIA’s main motivation for ousting Árbenz was the fear that his land reforms would threaten the interests of the American-owned United Fruit Company, which owned 42 percent of the nation’s land and paid no taxes.
High-ranking officials in the Eisenhower administration had close ties to the company: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had worked for United Fruit’s U.S. law firm, and his brother, CIA director Alan Dulles, sat on its board. The CIA continued toppling Latin American governments; in the first year of the Kennedy administration, it backed an assassination in the Dominican Republic and, under Lyndon B. Johnson, it executed a 1964 coup in Brazil.
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In 1960, the Republic of the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) declared its independence from Belgium and democratically elected its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Shortly after he assumed power, President Joseph Kasavubu pushed him out of office amid a Belgian military invasion. Worried that the ensuing unrest provided fertile ground for Soviet incursion, the CIA encouraged and assisted attempts to kill Lumumba, arguing he was a communist leader akin to Castro. The CIA helped facilitate Lumumba’s capture in 1960 and assassination in 1961.
This action precipitated the Congo Crisis (1960–1965), a period in which military leader Mobutu Sese Seko consolidated power in the country. In 1965, the CIA supported Mobutu’s coup to take over the Republic of the Congo in the name of preventing the spread of communism. Mobutu became a dictator who ruled the country until 1997.
1963: South Vietnam
The Pentagon Papers, chock full of damning revelations about America’s war in Vietnam, caused a sensation when The New York Times published them in 1971. One revelation was that the CIA had funded and encouraged the 1963 coup against, and assassination of, the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem.
By 1963, the United States had sent thousands of U.S. soldiers to Vietnam to fight the northern communist government lead by President Ho Chi Minh. The U.S. initially supported Diem because he was fighting the north. However, Diem’s persecution of Buddhists made him an unpopular ruler, leading the Kennedy administration to doubt Diem’s ability to win the war. The coup and Diem’s assassination took place in early November 1963, just a few weeks before Kennedy’s assassination.
When Chile elected socialist Salvador Allende as president in 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon originally wanted to block him from taking office, or else mount a coup soon after Allende became president. On Nixon’s orders, the CIA began supporting different Chilean groups plotting to overthrow the new socialist president. In 1973, military leader Augusto Pinochet staged a coup that ousted Allende. Pinochet assumed his dictatorship the following year, ruling as Chile’s president until 1990.
Whether the CIA was directly involved in Pinochet’s coup is still contested. However, the agency’s support of earlier coup plots contributed to political instability that Pinochet took advantage of to seize power. In a transcribed phone conversation between Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger about Pinochet’s coup, Kissinger complained that the U.S. media wasn’t celebrating the coup, complaining that “in the Eisenhower period, we would be heroes.”
“Well, we didn't—as you know—our hand doesn't show on this one,” Nixon responded. Kissinger clarified, “I mean we helped them…created the conditions as great as possible.”
The United States has a long history of meddling in Nicaragua. Between 1912 and 1933, the U.S. military occupied the country.
Between 1981 and 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s administration secretly and illegally sold arms to Iran in order to fund Contras, a group the CIA had recruited and organized to fight the socialist Sandinista government led by Daniel Ortega. In 1986, details of the Iran-Contra Affair became public, resulting in congressional investigations. Ortega’s Sandinista government ended in 1990 with the election of opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro as president amid reports that the United States had provided funding to help her win.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it established an interim government led by Hamid Karzai to replace the warring Taliban government and the oppositional Northern Alliance. Karzai’s rule continued in 2002, when he became head of Afghanistan’s transitional government, and in 2004, when he became president of the U.S.-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He was succeeded in 2014 by Ashraf Ghani. Ghani was president until the Taliban retook power in 2021, when the U.S. formally ended its war in Afghanistan.
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s government. As in Afghanistan, the U.S. attempted to established an interim, transitional and more permanent government. The United States formally ended its war in Iraq in 2011. Since then, the country’s government structure has remained in flux.