The Tchotchkes of War

To spend Christmas in Baghdad is not a dream of many travelers, but it was what The New York Times assigned me to do in 1998. American bombs were raining down on the Iraqi capital that season, as they did periodically during the 1990s. Each morning I visited the places that had been bombed the night before.

One day I was trudging through the rubble of a large building that, until a few hours earlier, had been the Ministry of Labor. As I wandered around the site, a piece of twisted metal caught my eye. I picked it up, and found it remarkably heavy and smooth. Soon I realized that this was not debris from the destroyed building, but a fragment of one of the American cruise missiles that had hit it during the night.

I brought that piece of high-tech shrapnel home. It became the first item in an odd collection that I have slowly built. I collect artifacts related to American intervention.

* * *

One of my books on intervention is All the Shah's Men, which describes the 1953 coup in which the CIA deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran. As soon as I learned that Mossadegh had appeared on the cover of the January 7, 1952, issue of Time, I located a copy and bought it.

My search for traces of Mossadegh also took me to Iran, where he died in 1967 after 14 years of prison and house arrest. The shah suppressed all references to him, and the fundamentalist mullahs who run Iran today also have no use for his memory. During the brief interlude between their regimes, however, Mossadegh was once again revered as a national hero. A postage stamp was issued in his honor. In the sprawling Tehran bazaar, I met a stamp dealer who had one, canceled on the day it was issued, March 19, 1980. It bears a Tehran postmark and the caption, “Birth Centenary of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.”

Back at home, I carefully cut off the Time cover and brought it, along with my first-day stamp, to a framing store. I had the two framed together, and for the rest of that year, while I wrote All the Shah's Men, Mossadegh watched over me from the wall next to my desk.

Another visionary leader I came to admire while researching the history of American intervention is José Santos Zelaya, who ruled Nicaragua at the beginning of the 20th century. Zelaya was a crusading reformer, but his nationalism brought him into con- flict with American companies, and the United States deposed him in 1909. Today his portrait adorns Nicaragua's 20-cordoba bill. I have one of those bills, mint fresh, in my “intervention collection.” Zelaya looks formidably intense, with piercing eyes and an imposing handlebar moustache. Often when I look at this portrait, I wonder how differently Nicaragua might have developed if the United States had found a way to embrace Zelaya and encourage his nation-building project, rather than seeing him as a threat and forcing him from power.

My most recent book, Overthrow, tells the story of the 14 times the United States has overthrown a foreign government—including the cases of Zelaya and Mossadegh. While I was writing it, I developed a special attachment to the 14 target countries. With my collector's impulse, I set out to find a coin from each one.

One of these coins is a quarter-dollar from the Kingdom of Hawaii, dated 1883. It depicts King Kalakaua, the penultimate monarch. Ten years after it was minted, the white “missionary-planter elite,” backed by the U.S. Marines, deposed Kalakaua's successor, abolished the monarchy, and ended native rule in Hawaii.

One of my coins depicts a leader who was himself overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup, President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. Diem resisted American pressure to launch an all-out war against communist-led insurgents, and that led the Kennedy administration to approve a military coup against him.

* * *

The item in my collection that has brought me the most delight is not an object at all, but an experience. It was a remarkable buffet dinner that a resourceful caterer assembled for a book party in Boston celebrating the publication of Overthrow. Every dish was from one of the 14 countries whose governments the United States has overthrown. They spanned the “regime-change” era, from Hawaiian pineapple to marinated eggplant from Iraq. My personal favorites were the Philippine crab patties and an imposing Cuban pork roast. All was washed down with Chilean wine.

That “overthrow banquet” was the highlight of my book tour. Its pleasure was intense but ephemeral. So is the pleasure the United States takes from deposing foreign governments.

Stephen Kinzer is working on a book about Rwanda and the imperatives of humanitarian intervention.

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