5 Times America Intervened in Other Nations' Leadership Showdowns

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, President John F. Kennedy, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration

The United States and Russia are both guilty of meddling with foreign elections.

What should we make of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S presidential election? Ask a member of Congress and that person will be quick to argue that Moscow’s intrusion into America’s democratic process is one step short of a full-blown declaration of war. From some of the rhetoric, you might assume that Washington, DC and Moscow are now competing in a Cold War 2.0. “Putin the Great” is scheming behind closed doors with his generals, Russia hawks are barking in President Trump’s ear to respond with forceful measures and lawmakers like Sen. John McCain are using Russia’s aggression around the world as justification to increase the U.S. defense budget by hundreds of billions of dollars.

To Republicans and Democrats, Russia’s breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s servers is a concerted assault on democracy that cannot be tolerated. “The Russian government, directed by Vladimir Putin, launched a brazen attack on our elections that demands an aggressive response,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said. Ditto for Sen. John McCain, who said, “Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s brazen attack on our democracy.”

Let’s not sugarcoat it: what the Russian Federation did was unacceptable. Hacking into the email accounts of one of America’s political parties and selectively releasing information in order to tilt the scales of a national election in a sovereign state is the very definition of a sovereignty violation. But we should should keep Moscow’s behavior in perspective. The United States may be up in arms about a Russian war on democracy and a violation of state sovereignty today, but for decades Washington, DC was known as the place where behind-the-scenes actors plotted coups, attempted to overthrow governments and tampered with the election processes of other countries.

Guatemala, 1952–54

For two years, presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to undergo a covert campaign against Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz was the democratically elected president of Guatemala who campaigned on a platform of decreasing the wealth disparity between landowners and peasants. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations viewed him as a threat to America’s dominance in the Western Hemisphere and a challenge to the Monroe Doctrine. At the time, anticommunism in Washington, DC was at such a fever pitch that any foreign leader who was remotely thought to be susceptible to Soviet influence was seen as an extension of the communist project.

Arbenz eventually resigned and fled the country—in part due to Washington’s material support to the anti-Arbenz campaign. Eisenhower signed a $2.7 million budget for “subversion” against the Arbenz government, which included the drafting of a list by the CIA of individuals in Guatemala to be removed from the political arena—either through assassination or exile. Half a century later, the then-Guatemalan president would apologize to Arbenz’s son for removing his father from power and ushering in a period of internal violence that resulted in more than one hundred thousand civilian casualties.

Chile, 1970–73

Chilean politician Salvador Allende was the number one enemy of the United States in Latin America during the early 1970s. Chileans saw him as someone who would usher in economic reforms, but the Nixon administration viewed him as a communist beachhead in South America—a place where the Soviets could cause trouble. According to the CIA’s own historical analysis, the agency attempted to prevent Allende’s election in 1970 by disseminating weapons to select anti-Allende groups. When that effort failed, Allende won a plurality in the elections and the CIA caught wind of a coup being planned by the Chilean military. The United States didn’t interfere with the process—an action that Chilean officers likely took as a defacto acceptance of their coup attempt.

Historical documents that have been declassified and released to the public show just how much of a threat Allende posed to the Nixon administration. During meetings in the White House, President Nixon made clear to his advisers that Allende’s government was a danger to U.S. national security, a possible ally for the Soviet Union and an administration that should at the very least be contained by making the economy bleed. Allende eventually committed suicide in 1973 when he was surrounded by Chilean military forces. Following his death, Augusto Pinochet led a seventeen-year dictatorship. He was eventually indicted for murder.

Iran, 1953