The Empire of Liberty



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The Empire of Liberty”: Did the United States expand or limit democracy during the Cold War?





During the Cold War, the United States primarily sought to contain communism around the globe. By minimizing the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, the United States met its goals, regardless of the cost. Therefore, American actions during the Cold War affirmed the nation’s democratic ideals while assisting new democracies abroad.

During the Cold War, the United States sought to spread its political and economic beliefs by containing communism and developing free markets around the world. In addition to defending Europe and the Global South from communism, the United States sought to help them develop modern economies and democratic governments. The United States achieved mixed success in stopping communism and developing democratic governments around the world, although it often succeeded in expanding into new economic markets.

During the Cold War, the United States sought to defend “freedom” and democracy by opposing communism and creating free markets and democracies, especially in the developing world. However, American actions in the Global South demonstrate that the United States intervened only when its economic and ideological interests matched, and more often than not its actions in the developing world caused greater destabilization, especially in the long term. Therefore, American actions during the Cold War limited democracy.



Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (2006)

“Throughout the twentieth century and into the beginning of the twenty-first, the United States repeatedly used its military power, and that of its clandestine services, to overthrow governments that refused to protect American interests. Each time [the United States intervened], it cloaked its intervention in the rhetoric of national security and liberation. In most cases, however, [the United States] acted mainly for economic reasons—specifically, to establish, promote, and defend the right of Americans to do business around the world without interference (3)…Most ‘regime change’ operations [achieved] their short-term goals. From the vantage point of history, however, it is clear that most of these operations actually weakened American security. They cast whole regions into upheaval, creating whirlpools of instability from which undreamed-of threats arose years later (6).”

After World War II, with the world political situation infinitely more complex than it had been at the dawn of the century, American presidents found a new way to overthrow foreign governments. They could no longer simply demand that unfriendly foreign leaders accept the reality of American power and step down, nor could they send troops to land on foreign shores without worrying about the consequences. This was because for the first time, there was a force in the world that limited their freedom of action: the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, any direct American intervention risked provoking a reaction from the Soviets, possibly a cataclysmic one. To adjust to this new reality, the United States began using a more subtle technique, the clandestine coup d’etat, to depose foreign governments. In Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile, diplomats and intelligence agents replaced generals as the instruments of American intervention.” (5)

In writing about the US-backed coups in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile, Kinzer makes three claims:



  • “They were not rogue operations. Presidents, cabinet secretaries, national security advisors, and CIA directos approved them, authorized by the 1947 law that created the CIA and assigned it ‘duties related to intelligence affecting the national security.”

  • “the United States played the decisive role in a regime’s fall. It did not simply give insurgents tacit encouragement or discreet advice…None [of the governments] would have fallen…if Washington had not acted as it did”

  • “Each of the four coups was launched against a government that was reasonably democratic (with the exception of South Vietnam), and each ultimately led to the installation of a repressive dictatorship.” (196)

In Kinzer’s opinion, American leaders misjudged nationalist leaders in these countries and assumed they were part of the Soviet threat. The world of American leaders was “defined by a single fact, the Cold War confrontation between Moscow and Washington. Nations existed for them not as entities with unique histories, cultures, and challenges but as battlegrounds in a global life-or-death struggle. All that mattered was how vigorously each country supported the United States and opposed the Soviet Union” (199).

But there was more. Iran, Guatemala, and Chile each possessed something the United States wanted—“in most cases, either a valuable natural resource, a large consumer market, or a strategic location that would allow access to resources and markets elsewhere….[in these nations] Americans overthrew governments only when economic interests coincided with ideological ones.”



Overthrow of a government via

US-sponsored coups since World War II *

Overthrow of a government via
US invasion since World War II *

Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran (1954)

Grenada [Caribbean] (1983)

Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, Guatemala (1954)

Panama [Central America] (1989)

Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam (1963)

Afghanistan [Central Asia] (2001)

Salvador Allende Gossens, Chile (1973)

Iraq [Middle East] (2003)

* Table does not reflect regime change due to direct or indirect military aid given by the United States in other interventions.


Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (2007)

In 2007, historian Odd Arne Westad argued that during the Cold War the United States sought to offer other nations a vision of modernity patterned on its own beliefs and interests. According to Westad, these beliefs included liberty for its citizens, free markets for businesses (that is, the ability to trade products and services with other nations without tariffs), opposition to Communism, a dislike of concentrated state power, and a faith in technology to solve problems.

Decolonization—the process by which European colonial empires dissolved their direct control over other nations--provided an opportunity for the United States to spread its beliefs. It also brought new concerns to the United States. On the one hand, decolonization meant that the United States had a chance to spread its economic and political beliefs. On the other hand, decolonization also meant that the Soviet Union might spread its belief in communism to these areas of the Third World. The United States therefore needed to put its best foot forward in representing the “empire of liberty” to citizens of the Third World. It had to prove to people in these areas that its version of government would provide more rights and benefits than that of the Soviet Union.

Westad argues that the revolutions in Vietnam and Cuba challenged American and Soviet efforts to inspire the Third World. The example of revolutionaries in each country “implied a license [for groups in other nations] to take action for and by themselves, in spite of US military dominance or Soviet political dogma” (158). In the United States, American leaders became convinced of the importance of “hold[ing] the line” rather than making progress…The fear of ‘Vietnams’ happening elsewhere in the Third World became, for the United States, a form of self-fulfilling prophesy—becoming increasingly alienated from large members of Third World political activists because of its war in Vietnam, the American obsession with Indochina held back the administration’s initiatives to ameliorate poverty and revise trade conditions for the Third World. In the Third World—just as at home—the Johnson administration’s own policy choices made it synonymous with war and repression rather than with the social reforms that the president so fervently sought to implement” (160).



Westad argues, “the most important aspects of the Cold War were neither military nor strategic, nor Europe-centered, but connected to political and social development of the Third World.” To Westad, the Cold War was “a continuation of colonialism” that centered on “control and domination, particularly in ideological terms. The methods of the superpowers…were remarkably similar to those honed during the last phase of European colonialism: giant social and economic projects, bringing promises of modernity to their supporters and mostly death to their opponents or those who happened to get in the way of progress.” Thus, the great tragedy of the Cold War for both the Third World and the superpowers, “was that two historical projects that were genuinely anticolonial in their origins became part of a much older pattern of domination because of the intensity of their conflict” (396-7). Their intentions may have been good, but both the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to impose “their version of modernity” on Third World societies.

In conclusion, Westad notes that the United States was directly or indirectly involved in interventions in approximately thirty countries between 1945 and 2005 and had successfully established only two democracies (South Korea and Taiwan). He argues that while the United States may be “an immensely attractive society for many people around the world, does not excuse the violence with which it has attempted to influence the world, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America…Seen from a Third World perspective, the results of America’s interventions are truly dismal. Instead of being a force for good—which they were no doubt intended to be—these incursions have devastated many societies and left them more vulnerable to further disasters of their own making” (404).


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