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Vietnam elections 1955 { April 20 2003 }

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Overthrow Now, Pay Later
By Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener is professor of history at UC Irvine and a contributing editor to the Nation magazine.

April 20, 2003

What conclusions will the White House draw from its quick and relatively easy victory in Iraq?

An undersecretary of State told Israeli officials in February that the U.S. will "deal with" Iran, North Korea and Syria next. The U.S. certainly has the power to do that, and it would not be the first time Washington forced a series of regime changes around the world.

In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration decided to "deal with" objectionable governments in Iran, Guatemala and Vietnam. The histories of these adventures should haunt the Bush administration as it contemplates its next moves.

In 1953, the U.S. had its first success at regime change in the Middle East. In August, the prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, was driven from power in a coup and replaced by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Mossadegh was the victim of covert action by the CIA, but Americans didn't find out about that for another two decades. Elected two years earlier, he had nationalized Iran's oil fields, which the British had monopolized since the end of World War I.

After the coup, the shah agreed that U.S. companies, led by Gulf Oil, would receive 40% of Iranian oil. The CIA's budget for the coup was $1 million; 300 people were killed. Regime change in Iran was quick and easy.

Ten months later, President Eisenhower and his secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, decided to try it again. In June 1954, the Los Angeles Times reported that "liberation forces" invaded Guatemala "in a fiery bid to overthrow the Red-infiltrated government of President Jacobo Arbenz." Arbenz had been elected three years earlier and had nationalized land owned by the United Fruit Co. Again, the U.S. succeeded at changing the government with few casualties, and the new head of state -- put in office by the CIA -- gave back to United Fruit its banana lands.

Regime change in Central America came so quickly and easily that Eisenhower and Dulles decided to try it one more time -- in Vietnam. The Geneva accords that ended the French war in Indochina in 1954 called for simultaneous elections in the north and south to establish a single national government for all Vietnam. Under the accords, the elections were to be held by 1956. But in August 1955, just 14 months after the successful U.S.-sponsored regime change in Guatemala, Eisenhower decided to block Vietnamese elections, recognize South Vietnam as an independent nation and install Ngo Dinh Diem as head of state. That, too, turned out to be quick and easy.

It is the consequences of these stories that are haunting.

In Iran, the shah quickly became the biggest U.S. ally in the Middle East, but the corruption that came with Iran's oil income generated growing opposition, then growing repression. In January 1979, the shah was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalist followers of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who subsequently became the most important Muslim in modern times. As a result, Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were held hostage for 444 days, their situation exacerbated by a botched rescue attempt that ended in the deaths of eight Marines. The president who failed to rescue the hostages, Jimmy Carter, got the blame and lost his reelection bid in 1980.

The Islamic fundamentalism that has dominated Iran since is militantly anti-American. Osama bin Laden is the ideological descendant of Khomeini, who was the first to call the U.S. "the great Satan." Fifty years after the quick and easy regime change in Iran, Bin Laden accomplished what Khomeini only aspired to: bringing a radical emphasis on holy war into the mainstream of Islamic thinking and challenging the legitimacy of every Middle Eastern government with ties to the United States.

The costs of regime change in Guatemala have not been as sweeping -- but certainly devastating to that country. A civil war between a series of U.S.-backed military governments and peasant guerrillas lasted 36 years. More than 1 million people were driven from their homes. Some 200,000 people were killed, 90% of whom were civilians. The New York Times reported last month that "the end of Guatemala's 36-year civil war has brought neither law nor order to remote regions most ravaged by the conflict."

The consequences of regime change in Vietnam are more than 58,000 names carved in black granite on the Mall in Washington. As for casualties on the other side, current estimates are that between 2 million and 3 million Vietnamese died during the war. The U.S. war spread to neighboring Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge killed another 2 million.

Maybe all this would have happened without U.S.-sponsored interventions, but that seems unlikely. If the shah had not been put in power by Washington, it's hard to imagine that a militant Islamic fundamentalism would have taken over a powerful state like Iran because of corruption, repression and dependence on the U.S. Guatemala would not have had 36 years of civil war without U.S. support for repressive governments. And if Vietnam had held elections as scheduled, the communists most likely would have won in 1955 instead of 1973, millions of people would not have died violently in a U.S.-led war and we would probably have had normal trade relations with Vietnam sooner.

U.S. intervention is a bad idea, these cases from the mid-'50s suggest, because people want to make their own history, even if the face of oppression is like Saddam Hussein's. A quick and easy victory over Iraq must not be the model for a series of future campaigns of regime change around the world.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

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