In the ongoing Netflix-worthy primetime series that is world politics, the CIA is the overarching Big Bad. Over the years, the Agency has got up to so much spooky stuff that it’s tempting to see them as akin to X-files’ Cancer Man, pulling all the strings from behind the scenes. Doubtless, you’ve heard about the CIA’s repeated plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, and you’ve probably even heard about their sideline in stuffing people full of LSD to try and control their minds. But none of this has anything on the 7 separate times the CIA overthrew a foreign government.
Yep, throughout the 20th Century, the Agency spent a whole lotta American money on removing world leaders from power, then whistling nonchalantly and looking the other way when people started asking if they were involved. Some of these coups were only given minor support by the CIA. Others were instigated by them. Here are the 7 times we know for absolute certain that American spooks toppled a government… and what happened next.
In 1951, Mohammad Mosaddeq was swept into power in Iran on a promise to nationalize just about everything he could get his hands on. This played well with regular Iranians, who were kinda fed up with the British owning all their most valuable companies, so Mosaddeq’s popularity only rose as he turned oil production over to the state. But the British government was less than thrilled. So much so that London decided to ask its BFF America for help dealing with Mosaddeq. In 1953, Eisenhower sent in the CIA.
The Iran coup wound up becoming the gold standard of CIA meddling. Working with Britain’s MI6, Agents organized the plotters, provided funds for the overthrow, bribed politicians, directed elements of the Iranian military, and churned out pro-coup propaganda by the bucketload. Mosaddeq was toppled and the Shah of Iran was installed in his place. Hooray, a US victory!
Well, not quite. Unfortunately, the Shah was such a repressive dictator that the population turned against his secular regime and supported the 1979 Islamic revolution against him. That’s the revolution that led to the hostage crisis, and now the ongoing nuclear standoff. Oops.
Of all the continents, it would become Latin America where the CIA had the most fun with their coups, and it all started with Guatemala. Around the time Mosaddeq was being elected to lead Iran, Jacobo Arbenz was being elected to lead the small Central American nation. Like Mosaddeq, Arbenz had a leftist tilt. Like Mosaddeq, he attempted to nationalize an asset then held by a Western company – in this case, land held by the United Fruit Company. And, just like Mosaddeq, the CIA decided the cleverest thing to do would be help a paramilitary force overthrow him.
You can read the full story on the CIA’s own official government website, but it goes something like this. US ambassador to Guatemala John Peurifoy took control of operations, and helped Guatemalan military leaders to create the impression that a paramilitary force was about to overrun the capital. Arbenz snapped and bolted, the government fell, and a new dictatorship that was friendly to America was installed.
On the plus side, the coup was nearly bloodless. On the downside, the repressive dictatorships that followed for decades after certainly weren’t. The coup also took its toll on the CIA. They used the same model for the Bay of Pigs Invasion, which, err, didn’t exactly go so great.
The Congo (1960)
After Iran and Guatemala, the CIA took a well-deserved six year break from coup-ing it up to rest on their laurels. While most of the countries featured in this article probably wish they’d stayed there, you just can’t keep a good Agency out the game for long! And 1960 was an interesting year to be in that game. Belgian Congo (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC) had just got its independence and the new government was taking baby steps towards nationhood. For watching American spooks, that could only mean one thing: time for some old-school Cold War-style psychological warfare!
The unfortunate guy who got caught up in all of this was Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, a Pan-Africanist whose whole deal was wanting to make sure Belgium never, ever returned to his nation. The CIA mistook his hostility towards Belgian companies as anti-capitalism and started egging on factions in the army that wanted Lumumba dead. Eventually, Lumumba realized what was happening, and turned to the Soviets for support during the Congo Crisis. By this point, the CIA didn’t even need to do anything. Fearing a Soviet-backed coup, the President of Congo had Lumumba arrested (with US Army help) and executed.
This was one of those coups where the CIA only played a peripheral role, but the damage was still done. Lumumba’s death is still one of the biggest events in the history of DRC.
Dominican Republic (1961)
Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and that includes clocks that are actually clever writerly metaphors for the CIA. In 1961, Rafael Trujillo was probably the biggest jerk on the face of the planet. Absolute dictator of the Dominican Republic, he imprisoned tens of thousands of his own people, fed dissidents to sharks, committed ethnic cleansing by murdering thousands of Haitian immigrants, and tried to assassinate the President of Venezuela. Even today, he’s still regarded as one of Latin America’s worst dictators.
In another world, his death would now be regarded as a significant CIA victory. It almost was. The Agency was all set up to assassinate him in 1961 when the Bay of Pigs happened and the Kennedy White House pulled the plug. In the end, all the CIA did was hand over three M1 carbines to plotters in the country’s army. They were put to good use.
One night that year, Trujillo’s car was run off the road as he came back from seeing his mistress. Assassins shot him dead, thus collapsing his one man government. It wasn’t the end of US involvement in the country, though. In 1965 the US Army invaded to depose the post-Trujillo junta and install a conservative government.
South Vietnam (1963)
Look, it’s the sixties. Of course the CIA were up to stuff in Vietnam. Don’t you ever watch old war movies? Regardless, in 1963, the guy leading non-Communist South Vietnam was Ngo Dinh Diem and, boy, did he ever suck at his job. A Catholic in charge of a Buddhist nation, Diem specialized in annoying everyone who wasn’t Catholic, and even plenty who were. John F. Kennedy found Diem’s oppression of buddhists so disgusting that he privately told his inner circle Diem needed to go. By wonderful coincidence, plenty of people in South Vietnam thought so too.
In October 1953, South Vietnamese generals met a CIA operative in their country and asked a very simple question. Would the CIA keep sending them aid and money if they ditched this Diem dude in a coup? The CIA operative effectively shrugged and said “sure, why not?” It was the end of Diem.
On November 1, the army overthrew Diem, murdering him and his brother in the process. While most South Vietnamese welcomed the coup, it set off a string of further coups that severely hampered attempts to fight the Communist North. And we all know how that turned out.
Phew! The sixties sure were a busy period for the CIA’s regime change department! Barely were Patrice Lumumba, Rafael Trujillo, and Ngo Dinh Diem in the ground before the Agency was gallivanting off across the globe to topple another government, this time in Brazil. At the time, Latin America’s biggest nation was ruled by Joao Goulart’s nationalist, left wing government, two descriptors absolutely sure to get the CIA’s hackles up. Goulart was friendly with Communist regimes, and had ties to China. In Lyndon Johnson’s words, the CIA “needed to take every step” they could to remove him.
Knowing the Brazilian military was open to a coup, the CIA organized street protests against Goulart, and shipped fuel and guns to the plotters. They also provided logistical support to the coup and, by gum, it worked. Goulart’s government collapsed in two short days, and the CIA rejoiced… only to watch as a brutal military dictatorship took over Brazil that would last for 20 years. The regime executed political dissidents, tortured leftists, and even practiced crucifixion against some of its enemies. Probably not the outcome the CIA were hoping for.
Here we are. The most infamous CIA-backed coup in US history. In 1970, Salvador Allende became president of Chile, pretty much the only Marxist in the whole of South America to get his nation’s top job via a legitimate democratic process. Immediately, he set about instigating hard left reforms that left Washington in a state of panic about a country voluntarily going Communist. Barely had Allende taken office than the CIA backed a coup against him. When that failed, they spent the next 3 years organizing coup plotters, turning the screws on the Chilean economy, and sharing intelligence with elements of the army that wanted Allende dead.
As the CIA’s website tells it, the Agency stopped short of actually supporting the next coup attempt in 1973. But they knew about it in advance, didn’t condemn it, and the plotters took that as a sign that the US had their backs.
So what happened next? Well, the Chilean Air Force bombed the presidential palace on September 11, 1973, and Allende committed suicide. A general known as Augusto Pinochet took control and spent the next fifteen years perfecting the art of embezzlement and torture, stealing $17 million from the nation, having over 3,000 dissidents killed, and another 28,000 tortured. Compared to a track record like that, it’s hard to see how Allende could have been worse.