During the cold War, the United States launched no fewer than sixty-four covert regime change operations. The outright majority of these operations, which included election interference, coups, assassinations, and the backing of paramilitaries and rebel groups, were directed towards Latin America. Many of these interventions had devastating effects for the people of the countries they targeted; many of them resulted in violent military dictatorships, and in their taking place, US backed and trained forces killed countless people, a large portion of them civilians. Historians have documented how these regime change operations played out and their effects with little disagreement, but the question of why the United States pursued them with such vigor is much more widely debated. An analysis of different scholars’ interpretations of US regime change efforts reveals a combination of factors as the root American forigen interventionism.
In her book Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War, Lindsay O’Rourke lays out several reasons for why countries may engage in regime change, and attempts to explain why the United States has undertaken covert regime change operations with such frequency over the past century. She divides the possible motivations for regime change efforts into offensive operations, whereby an attempt is made to overthrow a government aligned with a rival, preventative, where regime change is meant to protect the status quo, and hegemonic, where a great power is attempting to preserve the target country’s status as geopolitically subservient through regime change. In analyzing US efforts to effect regime change during the cold war, she notes that offensive operations were fairly rare, but almost always had to do with fears of communism and Latin American countries allying with the Soviet Union. This is the ‘cold war paranoia’ analysis of American regime change efforts, which is the most common diagnosis for their goal.
However, O’Rourke notes that the cold war motive is insufficient to explain the totality of American regime change efforts. She rejects the argument that US interventions in foriegn governments was ideological, noting that Washington supported several instances of replacing Liberal Democratic governments like in the United States with authoritarian regimes, but also encouraged authoritarian regimes to democratize on occasion. For O’Rourke, the only uniting reasoning for US regime change efforts is pragmatism in protecting American interests. In Latin America, this frequently took the form of preventative regime change to prevent figures that would destabilize the local order, which was often set up to benefit the US through cooperation with local elites. O’Rourke also notes multiple instances of hegemonic regime change, in which the US simply sought to block attempts by Latin American countries to assert their political independence. In examining the totality of US regime change efforts in Latin America, She thinks that the US overall simply maintained a form of the colonial practices which had previously fueled European empires, and which the US had begun to pursue since its first forays into empire in the early 1800s: forming a sphere of influence and maintaining it through cooperation with local elites and the application of hard and soft power.
Lafeber and Lafeber, writing in their book Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, take a very similar view. In seeking to ask the question “why did the world’s leading revolutionary nation in the 1700s become its lead counterrevolutionary nation in the 1900s?” They come to the conclusion that neither public opinion nor philosophical opposition to revolutions kept the United States counterrevolutionary. Public opinion on regime change in Latin American countries was and is mostly nonexistent; very few ordinary Americans have a vested interest in the specific diplomatic situation in a particular Latin American country. Further, philosophical objections to revolution are difficult to come by in the United States, a country founded on revolution which tends to emphasize its revolutionary status in popular conceptions of itself.
In Lafeber and Lafeber’s view, the United States became invested in using its power to protect and enforce the status quo in central America (O’Rourke would term what they describe to be ‘preventative regime change’) because it was a status quo built by the United States. Furthermore, they note that the status quo in Central America was built not only by United States government forces, but crucially by American capital. Revolutions in Central America, whether they were leftist or nationalist, conflicted with some combination of the interests of US strategic interests and US commercial interests, and therefore were met with US opposition.
Roberto Bonfatti theorizes that the commercial interests of nations can and do often affect how they behave in terms of promoting regime change. According to Bonfatti, when a country is in a time of political instability, a main trading partner may intervene on behalf of whatever faction stands to gain the most out of the trading arrangement. The reason for this is that the faction which gains the most from trade will most likely be most willing to cooperate with the foriegn power, and will presumably be willing to make the most concessions afterwards. The presence of a domestic dependency of foriegn goods, as well as a dependency on foriegn exports, can contribute to the risk of this phenomenon. This theoretical relationship matches up with the real life economic relationship between the United States and numerous Latin American countries. It also aligns well with Lafeber and Lafeber’s theory that the US protected the status quo in various Latin American countries in times of crisis; the elites in power were already the preferred faction for Washington to deal with.
Although popular narratives have often credited cold war anticommunist sentiment for the United States’s pattern of supporting regime change in Latin America, modern scholars have questioned and complicated this narrative. Scholarship has emphasized the function of United States foriegn policy as more of a modern form of empire than any new form of political behavior. Further, it has examined the role of US corporations in creating an economic incentive for regime change operations.
Bonfatti, Roberto. “An Economic Theory of Foreign Interventions and Regime Change.” The Canadian Journal of Economics / Revue Canadienne D’Economique 50, no. 1 (2017): 306-39. Accessed April 12, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45172429.
O’Rourke, Lindsey A. Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War. Cornell University Press, 2018.
Walter LaFeber and Tisch Distinguished University Professor and M. U. Noll Professor of History Emeritus Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (W. W. Norton & Company, 1993).