Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Past U.S. interventions offer lessons for today

Chile is the best country in South America, both economically by GDP per capita and politically by the freedom index.

This year happens to be an anniversary year for two significant events in history — one in Chile in 1973 and one in Iran in 1953. They both happened around this time of the year (one in September and one in August) and may present a valuable lesson for current events.

The commonly presented story about what happened in Chile is close to this: Salvador Allende, who was freely elected a president, was conducting anti-Western policies. Then, with the help of the CIA, he was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet — who became a ruthless dictator, which earned America hatred in Chile in particular and South America in general. Events in Iran were very similar: Muhammad Mussadegh became prime-minister, conducted anti-Western policies and was ousted by the CIA-organized coup that returned the shah to power. That earned America hatred in Iran in particular and the Middle East in general.

Looked to Cuba 

A few more details may be helpful here even though they may not be a part of the general knowledge: Allende was a Marxist, and the basis for his economic policies, which included nationalization of major industries, was Cuba. Mussadegh was supported by the left in Iran and also, surprisingly, by the clergy; he, too, nationalized the oil industry and tried kicking major Western companies out.

So what do those events remind us of? Correct, Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela — except in those countries the coup attempts did not succeed. No one will dispute that people live much better and have much more freedom in Chile now than they do in Cuba and Venezuela. So in the long run the American intervention helped Chile thrive; in fact, Chile is the best country in South America, both economically by GDP per capita and politically by the freedom index.

American actions helped Iran, too, as the shah used the oil wealth to modernize Iran and advance Western-civilization values. Unfortunately, the powerful clergy didn’t like it. President Carter did not do anything to help the shah when the Islamic revolution occurred in 1979 and theocracy was installed. He also let Iranian ayatollahs get away with taking American hostages, thus projecting the image of weakness and creating a hotbed of instability and terrorism in the Middle East.

The results are easily explainable: Socialism does not work and nationalization leads to mismanagement and lack of investment, while both Pinochet and Iran’s shah ran prudent economic policies based on the free-market approach. And when people live well, the chances for freedom to flourish are much better. Sure, America and the Western world won in 1953 and 1973 but not at the expense of Chile and Iran; it was a mutual win even though America, as all other countries always do, was acting in its own interests. Yes, both Pinochet and the shah used rough measures, but some socialist and Islamic leaders, if history is any guide, were much worse. Interestingly, in Grenada the day of the American invasion in 1983 is now a national holiday.

Three conclusions

What conclusions may one draw from all of the above? First, American interventions, even done in American interests, in most cases help those countries in the long run (in other words, what is good for America is usually good for the world). Second, it’s bad governments and leaders that should be targeted, not whole countries. Government overthrow works well in many situations; as an alternative, a military strike with the goal of destroying a bad government or its leader (preferably, by air assault or with small air or sea strike with quick immediate withdrawal like in Grenada invasion) may and should be considered. Both of the above options should not require many resources and involve long commitment. And third, letting attacks on Americans go unpunished (Hezbollah’s bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut in 1982 is another example of such an assault) always leads to more attacks, terrorism, and ultimately more Americans killed.

Therefore, taking into account the anti-American position of the world, the American government should consider only American interests in making decisions to intervene, and should not hesitate to do so either. And, most important, we, as American citizens, should not feel bad about it.

Now I am pretty sure at this point a lot of people are thinking of imperialism, exceptionalism, and of Iraq as an example of an intervention that went wrong. Well, imperialism actually helped a lot of nations to get ahead, and America is indeed the only country in the world which is free, wealthy, and powerful – hence, the envy and disdain of the world. As for Iraq, when all facts are considered, the intervention was not a bad idea (building democracy there was).

Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minn. 


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below, or consider writing a Community Voices commentary. For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/29/2013 - 05:43 pm.

    A Rooster Crowed This Morning

    And then the sun rose. Ergo, if the rooster hadn’t crowed the sun would not have risen, correct? Of course not.

    There are myriad factors that have effected the economies of Iran, Chile, Venezuela and Cuba. To focus on any one and simply say that’s the overriding factor is ridiculous and intellectually lazy. I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night. Is it not possible that Chile is more prosperous despite (and not because of) anti-democratic intervention? Is it not possible that Chile would be even more prosperous if there had been no anti-democratic American intervention?

    It is extremely condescending to call Pinochet’s and the Shah’s state terrorism, torture and murder “rough measures. Isn’t it actions like that that we use to justify our intervention around the world?

    It’s this sort of reckless thinking that has cost us billions of dollars, thousands of lives and hundreds of thousands of life long disabled soldiers all for nothing save the election of pandering politicians and the enriching of Haliburton et al.

    We love democracy. Except when it’s inconvenient.

  2. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 09/30/2013 - 10:34 am.

    Do unto others what others did to me

    As a Russian emigre Mr Gutman most likely got his Green Card on a refugee visa, based on Soviet Unions persecution of Jews. Now Mr Gutman finds torture acceptable.

    Factually Mr Gutman is wrong. Iran under the Shah had 80% of its revenues from oil. American meddling in their country never improved it. Just a better puppet nation resented by its people.

    Economic growth in Chile came AFTER the dictatorship.

    American intervention in the Middle East has produced Islamic groups, them being the last resort as many secular groups where crushed by pliant dictatorships. Even in Palestine, palestinians were of a secular sort, until Israelis and Americans screwed them pretty good. So now we have Hamas. Yay for intervention.

  3. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 09/30/2013 - 10:27 pm.

    Facts and possibilities

    Thank you for responding to my article. I want to clarify and reiterate a few things.

    First, let me address the possibility of other factors causing prosperity of Chile and decline of Cuba and Venezuela. Yes, it is possible in theory but highly unlikely considering that ALL socialist economies eventually collapsed. And while we can’t say for sure that Chile succeeded due to Pinochet, even though it is likely, we can definitely say that it did not fail thanks to him. So I don’t know at what time exactly the economic growth came to Chile but I do know that economic decline never came.

    I called Pinochet’s and the shah’s actions rough because they were not even close to what communist leaders did to their people (Russia, China, Kampuchea, North Korea…) and, since everything is relative, I stand by this word. And no, these actions by some countries leaders should not be a justification for American intervention – we are not the world’s policeman. As for democracy, we love it but are not obligated to support it everywhere against our own interests – a good dictatorship is better than a bad democracy and Egypt is a great example of this. By the way, Hitler was democratically elected and so was Ahmadinejad.

    I never said that torture is acceptable – I just implied that Pinochet and the Shah tortured much less than most communist, socialist, and other leftist dictators did. Neither did I say that the shah did not use the oil revenue; I just implied that socialist prime minister would have squandered it just like Chavez did.

    I also noted in my piece that Carter’s NON-intervention resulted in current Iranian regime and may add that Reagan’s NON-intervention in Lebanon after marine barracks bombing resulted in strong Hezbollah. And of course no one screwed up Palestinians except other Arab nations when they did not accept the UN partitioning of Palestine – but that is another story.

Leave a Reply