Americas, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions

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Americas, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions


In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine provided a framework for United States security policy in the Americas by declaring the Western Hemisphere under a U.S. "sphere of influence". This served to warn away European colonial powers, while providing justification for U.S. intervention in the affairs of nations throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean. The Monroe Doctrine, along with other statements of policy by modern U.S. presidents, served as a basis for actions against Communist influence in Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, and other countries. As the Cold War drew to a close, U.S. action in Latin America, including the invasion of Panama in December 1989, tended to focus on anti-drug activities.

U.S. Policy and Interventions, 18231946

President James Monroe issued his famous doctrine in a speech before Congress. In response to rumors of a planned Franco-Spanish action to restore Spain's empire in the New World, Britain had made overtures to the United States for a joint policy opposing international intervention in the Americas. Former presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison urged Monroe to accept the British offer. However, Monroe's secretary of state, future president John Quincy Adams, advised him instead to make a unilateral statement of U.S. interests in the Americasinterests so great that outside intervention would meet with swift military action.

The Monroe Doctrine was to be a basis for a range of activities, from direct military intervention to support of friendly regimes, and from protection of Latin American nations against European aggression to humanitarian assistance for the peoples of Latin American countries. It was also the basis for American isolationism with regard to events overseas. Significantly, the United States, whose first international action was against Libyan pirates during Jefferson's administration, would not again be involved in overseas military activity until the Spanish-American War of 1898itself fought primarily over Cuba and Puerto Rico. Even in 1917, the nation entered World War I partly on the basis of information that Germany intended to foment an attack against the United States through Mexico.

Mexico was the target of the first U.S. military action in the Americas, whereby the nation acquired much of what is now the southwestern United States in 1846. During the 1850s, the United States intervened repeatedly in Nicaragua, which U.S. adventurer William Walker ruled as a private colony for two years. The 185557 occupation by mercenaries under Walker, who was from Tennessee, later sparked southern hopes of a Confederate empire in Latin America.

Following the Spanish-American War, the United States gave Cuba its independence, but included in the Cuban constitution the Platt Amendment (1901), whereby it reserved the right to intervene in Cuba. In 1903, Washington backed the revolt of Panama against Colombia, which enabled the United States to begin building the Panama Canal. The years from 1904 to 1945 saw literally dozens of covert or military interventions in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. These involved protection of U.S. facilities and personnel, U.S. businesses such as the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, and pro-American governments.

Particularly notable was the action against Mexican guerrilla leader Pancho Villa, whose 1916 raid on the city of Columbus, New Mexico, killed 17 Americans, the greatest loss of civilian life due to foreign action on U.S. soil between 1812 and 2001. American troops, led by General John Pershing, pursued Villa, but failed to catch up with him before they were diverted to Europe.

U.S. forces repeatedly intervened in Nicaragua to shore up pro-American governments, and, in 1926, to fight back a putative Bolshevik conspiracy. This was the leftist nationalist movement of Augusto César Sandino, whose name a later generation of guerrillas would adopt for their movement. The United States in 1929 created a military academy to train Nicaragua's National Guard, under the leadership of Anastazio Somoza García. In 1934, Somoza had Sandino assassinated, and in 1936, he assumed the presidency. His family would control the nation until the Sandinistas took power in the late 1970s.

As these events were taking place in Nicaragua, the United States was intervening in another nation destined to become communist, Cuba. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent warships to quell unrest, and ultimately helped install the government of Fulgencio Batista. A year later, the Platt Amendment was repealed. Batista would rule until 1959, when he was overthrown by Fidel Castro.

In the intervening years, the United States sought to keep Axis and Communist influence out of Latin America. Its opposition to outside invaders influenced support of military leaders, who tended to establish more stable, if less popular, regimes than did liberal democrats. The United States supported the creation of National Guardstyle forces in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and in 1946, established the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama. The school, which would provide military training to a generation of leaders, taught its students that the chief threat to a nation is internal subversioni.e., leftist revolts.

U.S. Policy and Interventions, 194681

When the leftist regime of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman seized control of United Fruit properties in Guatemala in 1954, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began activities against him, training opposition forces in Honduras. Arbenz's purchase of arms from Czechoslovakia only heightened U.S. fears of Communist subversion. The CIA-backed paramilitary force overthrew his regime, replacing him with Carlos Castilla Armas, a leader more favorable to U.S. interests.

Such actions won the United States little support, but Washington's principal desires for the Americas were stability and protection of U.S. economic and strategic interests. If the United States could achieve this by supporting democratic movements and opposing dictatorships, it would, as it did when the administration of Ronald Reagan backed Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador during the 1980s, or when that of George Bush deposed Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989.

More often than not, however, military leaderseven those who seized power by coupstended best to serve U.S. needs. President-elect John F. Kennedy articulated this fact in 1960, after right-wing forces seized power in El Salvador, when he noted that "Governments of the civil-military type of El Salvador are the most effective in containing communist penetration in Latin America."

Castro and Cuba. Castro's assumption of power in Cuba presented Washington with a nightmarish scenario. Not only was it presented with a pro-Moscow regime just 90 miles from Miami, but Castrodespite his unfailing support for Soviet policymanaged to position himself as a freedom-loving nationalist rather than a communist. Furthermore, he was a charismatic figure, who has continued to enjoy strong support among some U.S. intellectuals and entertainers.

In 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the CIA to undertake covert actions against Castro. Much of what followed, courtesy of a predecessor to the agency's Directorate of Science and Technology, ventured into the territory of the ridiculous: exploding cigars, poisoned milkshakes, powder that would cause the dictator's famous beard to fall off. In April, 1961, the United States sent in a force of 1,400 anti-Castro Cubans, who landed at Cuba's Bahía de los Cochinos, or Bay of Pigs. The venture turned into a rout, and gave Castro a huge public-relations victory.

A Soviet missile buildup in Cuba in October, 1962, prompted the Cuban Missile Crisis, bringing the United States close to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The incident highlighted the degree to which Castro was a thorn in Washington's side, and throughout the 1960s, the United States conducted covert sabotage campaigns against Castro. It also maintained an economic embargo, and kept a close watch on Cuba from the naval base at Guantanamo Baya strategic piece of property retained by the United States when Cuba gained its independence decades earlier.

Dominican Republic, Chile, and the Panama Canal. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States opposed communist and pro-communist movements in several countries. President Lyndon B. Johnson, claiming threatened communist subversion, invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965. In Chile in 1973, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon, operating through the CIA, supported a coup led by the right-wing General Augusto Pinochet against the Marxist president, Salvador Allende. Allende died, either by suicide (according to Pinochet) or by murder (according to Allende's supporters).

Like Castro, Pinochet imprisoned and tortured opponents, suppressed free speech, and maintained a strong military presence throughout the country. Unlike Cuba, however, Chileon the brink of economic collapse under Allendeprospered under Pinochet, who imposed free-market reforms. Pinochet, who later submitted to free elections and was voted out of office, is one of the most oft-cited examples, both by critics and supporters of U.S. policy, of a U.S.-supported dictator in Latin America.

The administration of President James E. Carter sought to shift from the U.S. tradition of support for right-wing regimes, and cut off aid to the dictatorships in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Carter undertook negotiations to return the Panama Canal to Panama, and did not attempt to intervene when the Sandinistas removed a later Somoza from power and established a pro-Moscow regime in Nicaragua in 1979.

U.S. Policy and Interventions, 1981-Present

President Ronald Reagan reversed this trend. In October, 1983, he launched Operation Urgent Fury, the first significant U.S. military action since Vietnam, on the Caribbean island of Grenada. Grenada had become a pro-Soviet dictatorship in 1979President Maurice Bishop even called his cabinet a "politburo"but neither the Carter nor the Reagan administration sought to disrupt its government.

Tensions rose, however, when Cuban military personnel began building an airport capable of accommodating large Soviet bombers. In 1983, Bishop's minister of defense launched a coup, killing Bishop and half the politburo, including the minister of education, who was pregnant. After the new dictator placed the entire island under house arrest, Reagan sent in the military to protect some 600 U.S. students and other citizens there.

El Salvador. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration had become involved in another tiny country, El Salvador, which was caught in a battle between the Marxist FMLN, the right-wing ARENA Party under Roberto d'Aubisson, and the Christian Democrats under Duarte. The FMLN enjoyed considerable support from U.S. leftists, who claimed that Washington was backing d'Aubisson.

Ironically, throughout the period from 1982 to 1984, the CIA was funneling money into efforts in favor of Duarte and against d'Aubisson. For example, when European journalists visited the country in 1983, the CIA provided them with negative information on the right-wing leader. Despite the fact that Washington backed the liberal regime, El Salvador remained fraught with problems, as rightist and leftist death squads battled over the country. In 1989, Duarte was voted out in favor of an ARENA candidate.

Nicaragua. The Reagan administration provided considerably more support for efforts against a regime openly aligned with the Kremlin: the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. U.S. actions in Nicaragua were closely tied with undertakings in neighboring countries, and one of Reagan's aims was to keep the Sandinistas from exporting their revolution. In this, he would be strongly opposed by congressional Democrats, and by U.S. intellectuals and entertainers, many of whom visited Nicaragua and proclaimed their support for the regime.

Beginning in 1981, the CIA began training a number of anti-Sandinista groups, collectively known as Contras, and sponsored the production of two training manuals, Freedom Fighters Manual and Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare. When these manuals later became public, their contents prompted an outcry against CIA tactics, leading to an internal investigation.

The agency also conducted its own efforts against the regime in Managua, despite the Boland Amendment to the War Powers Act of 1973, passed by Congress in December 1982. Boland prevented the CIA or Department of Defense from using funds to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. In 1984, Congress passed a second Boland Amendment in response to the CIA mining of harbors on Nicaragua's Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In 1986, however, Congress appropriated $70 million in aid for the Contras. (The Boland Amendment was later repealed.)

At the same time, the Reagan administration and the CIA became involved in an effort to sell weapons to Iran, secure the release of hostages in Lebanon, and divert funds to the Contras. A pro-Syrian newspaper in Lebanon broke the story of Iran-Contra in November 1986, and for many months thereafter, the administration would be caught up in the scandal. Thanks to support for the Contras, combined with reductions in Soviet aid to the Sandinistas, the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement in 1987. The Contras agreed to free elections in February 1990, and these resulted in the election of Violeta Chamorro, a member of the liberal democratic opposition.

Panama and Haiti. Although opponents of U.S. policy in Latin America cite early CIA alliances with Noriega, for most of his career as Panamanian dictator, Noriega was openly opposed to the United States and closely aligned with Castro. He was also involved in drug trafficking, for which he was indicted by a Florida grand jury in February, 1988.

In 1989, President H. W. Bush invested $10 million in clandestine radio broadcasts against Noriega, and in December launched Operation Just Cause. The operation, which involved 27,000 U.S. troops, was at the time the largest U.S. military undertaking since Vietnam. Its stated goals were the protection of the Panama Canal and the 35,000 U.S. citizens living in Panama, as well as the removal of Noriega himself, promoting democracy, and bringing an end to drug activities in the country. The operation resulted in Noriega's capture and trial.

Less clear were the results of a military operation in Haiti, undertaken by the administration of William J. Clinton in 1994. The purpose was to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been deposed by a military coup, and in that regard, the operation was successful. However, political, economic, and social conditions on the troubled island continued to erode, and in March, 1999, the remaining U.S. forces departed the island amid continuing instability.

The war on drugs. From Reagan's time onward, the United States has been involved in the war on drugs to stop the flow of cocaine, marijuana, and other narcotics from Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and other countries. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been, and continues to be, involved in this war, as is the CIA. The CIA has undertaken cooperative efforts with the governments of Colombia and Peru to interdict drug traffickers. Part of this program is an airborne initiative whereby CIA and national air force personnel shoot down aircraft whose pilots refuse to identify themselves. In many regards, these efforts have been successful, and helped to reduce the flow of drugs; however, in April 2001, miscommunications resulted in the Peruvian shootdown of a plane carrying a U.S. missionary family. The mother and her seven-month-old daughter were killed.

In the post-Cold War environment, drug gangs are a much greater threat to stability in Latin America than are revolutionaries, although these are often linked. With the elimination of support from Moscow, leftist groups such as Colombia's FARC rebels have turned to kidnapping Americans, Europeans, and Japanese, and holding them for ransom. The same was the case with Peru's Tupac Amaru, which held prisoners at the Japanese embassy in Lima for several months before Peruvian forces stormed the building in early 1997.

Many of these groups make common cause with drug cartels, and some are directly involved with the drug trade. Such was the case with Peru's Sendero Luminoso, or "Shining Path," which, with its Maoist ideology, never accepted aid from Moscow. Instead, it supported itself largely through cocaine trafficking. Sendero was largely neutralized with the capture of its leader, Abimael Guzman, in 1992. The early 1990s also saw the death of Colombian cocaine lord Pablo Escobar and the capture of his associate Carlos Lehder, as well as international terrorist Carlos "the Jackal" Ramirez.



Bouvier, Virginia Marie. Whose America? The War of 1898 and the Battles to Define the Nation. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

Gilderhus, Mark T. The Second Century: U.S.-Latin American Relations Since 1889. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.

Hillman, Richard S., John A. Peeler, and Elsa Cardozo da Silva. Democracy and Human Rights in Latin America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Musicant, Ivan. The Banana Wars: A History of United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the Invasion of Panama. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, fourth edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Sicker, Martin. The Geopolitics of Security in the Americas: Hemispheric Denial from Monroe to Clinton. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Szumski, Bonnie. Latin America and U.S. Foreign Policy: Opposing Viewpoints. St. Paul, MN: Greenhaven Press, 1988.


Argentina, Intelligence and Security
Bay of Pigs
Brazil, Intelligence and Security
Bush Administration (19891993), United States National Security Policy
Chile, Intelligence and Security
Colombia, Intelligence and Security
Cuba, Intelligence and Security
Cuban Missile Crisis
Customs Service, United States
DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration)
Drug Control Policy, United States Office of National
Drug Intelligence Estimates
El Salvador, Intelligence and Security
FBI (United States Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Guatemala, Intelligence and Security
International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), United States Bureau
Kennedy Administration (19611963), United States National Security Policy
Mexico, Intelligence and Security
National Drug Threat Assessment
NDIC (Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center)
Nicaragua, Intelligence and Security
Panama Canal
Peru, Intelligence and Security
Reagan Administration (19811989), United States National Security Policy
Spanish-American War

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