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Historical Narrative

Throughout the Cold War, specifically between 1950 and 1980, the United States used the CIA and various other means to intervene in several countries in an attempt to overthrow specific governments.  This group of primary documents presents evidence from the time period that allows one to judge the possible necessity of American intervention (in whatever form) or the motives behind the American desire to change certain governments. Specifically, the documents assess the circumstances in Iran in the 1950s, Chile in the 1970s, and Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  First, we analyze what circumstances could possibly justify an American intervention.  What the U.S. perceived to be so threatening in the government of each country, such as Communism or military strength, prompted the U.S. feel intervention was necessary.  Lastly, we consider the nature of the government that the United States set up in each nation and whether or not it improved on the overthrown government.

War in Afghanistan between the Soviet Union and the Islamic tribes of Afghanistan began in December 1979.  The Soviets began suspecting that Hafizullah Amin, the ruler of Afghanistan, was a threat to the Soviets and Central Asia.  On December 27, 1979, Soviet troops assassinated Amin and took over government buildings. The Pro-Soviet Afghan Revolutionary Central Committee selected Babrak Karmal to head the new government, requesting the help of the Soviet military. The Soviets sent in troops, but the US believed this was just a justification to invade.
Afghanistan was viewed in the US and elsewhere as needing to be freed, as seen in the ("Free Afghanistan" poster).  The United States and Pakistan provided support to the anti-Communist Afghanis in the war.  Interestingly, the United States began training insurgents and directing propaganda broadcasts from Pakistan to Afghanistan in 1978.  President Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated in a (1998 interview) that in July 1979, six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the CIA was approved to aid to the insurgents in Afghanistan.  US officials were worried about the threats posed to the US by any advancements of the USSR at the time.  After the war actually started, aid to the mujahideen increased in the early 1980s with the work of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson.  Many Afghani soldiers were armed with weapons by the United States, as seen in the (photo of Afghani troops). The war finally ended when the Soviet troops withdrew after ten years.  Following September 11, 2001, there have been doubts about the US strategy to aid these groups. 

Mohammed Mossadegh was elected prime minister of Iran in 1951 by a majority of Majils (parliament) in Iran.  Mossadegh was popular among the Iranian public and also as a world leader (TIME cover). In his first act in office Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry.  This angered the British who had previously controlled the industry.  Because the majority of Great Britain's oil supplies came from Iran, the British government viewed this action as a threat to Great Britain's security and empire. After a failed attempt to overthrow Mossadegh, the British convinced the U.S. through diplomacy that the government of Iran was a communist threat.  Through operation Ajax, the CIA worked in Iran to create riots that eventually led to the removal of Mossadegh (Mossadegh arrest). This was the first covert U.S. operation to overthrow a foreign government.  The U.S. and Great Britain replaced him with the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlvai King of Iran.  Originally, the U.S. considered operation Ajax (as seen in CIA document) a success but now it is considered a horrible failure because of its haunting legacy.  It is now viewed as an anti-democratic coup d'├ętat that replaced Iran's post-monarchic, native, and secular parliamentary democracy with a dictatorship.  Many believe the coup significantly contributed to the 1979 Iranian Revolution which replaced the pro-Western Shah with the anti-Western Islamic Republic of Iran.

In the case of Chile, the United States made little effort to conceal its desire to remove President Salvador Allende from power, and the use of the CIA in achieving that goal remains public knowledge.  The story begins in the election of 1970.  Even though the United States spent considerable effort and money to deter Allende, he succeeded in winning in the Chilean presidential election of 1970. Thus, he was a democratically elected leader.  As an unashamed Marxist, Allende solidified his socialist ideology by appearing with Fidel Castro (picture with Castro) in public.  The US strongly opposed Allende's socialist socioeconomic government program and took actions to thwart his agenda. President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to remove President Allende from power in 1970, terming the operation project FUBELT.  The goal was to worsen the current economic crisis and to precipitate a military coup d'etat.  On September 11, 1973, the military coup began with the capture of Valparaiso.  As the military eventually gained full control and threatened to destroy the presidential palace, President Allende refused to surrender.  He communicated his decision to the people in his last speech (last speech document), a powerful description of his views, refusal to surrender, and call to his people.  While most people believe that Allende committed suicide with an AK-47 rifle given to him by Fidel Castro, others doubt the stated circumstances surrounding his death.  After the coup, TIME magazine featured Allende on its cover (TIME magazine image) and included the story of his removal from power.  As for the CIA, orders from President Nixon resulted in a surge of CIA activity in Chile immediately following the election of Allende in 1970.  As the American government developed a more coherent plan for removal of Allende from power, the CIA was charged with the task of communicating with the Chilean military and fomenting a coup.

In conclusion, the American government used the CIA to wield considerable influence among various nations during the Cold War.  Using the perspective afforded by time and the recently declassified evidence, we can better understand the circumstances surrounding the American decision to intervene in each case and how it impacted each country and the world around them. By considering how the U.S. intervened in the past, we can evaluate the best way to address current international issues.

Created by: Kathleen, Chelsea, and Bridget on 11/10/09

We are students of education at the University of Texas at Austin.  This is our Student as Historian assignment, which meets course requirements for Secondary Advanced Social Studies Methods.

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