It's hard to believe there was a time when America wasn't a global superpower, but you only have to look back to the mid-1900s to see the U.S.' strong history of non-intervention. In fact, Woodrow Wilson, the American president during World War I, won re-election on the slogan "He kept us out of war," and it wasn't until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor that the Americans joined World War II.
The Cold War, however, completely changed the equation. America became the global champion of democracy and capitalism, in direct opposition to the Soviet Union's Communism. The overall goal, supposedly, was to ensure the growth of democracies in as many countries as possible. In strategic terms, that means that the U.S. often intervenes in revolutions in other countries, most recently in the Arab Spring.
But what happens when the U.S. intervenes? Is the U.S. actually furthering democracy? These are important questions, especially as the world becomes increasingly globalized and more citizens are given access to resources to stage their own coups. And the only way to answer them is to look to history:
1. Mexico (1910-1920):
Though the U.S. was heavily non-interventionist at this time, it had significant economic investments in Mexico. Generally, the U.S. supported whoever was in power, dictator or not, to maintain established economic schemes.
When rumblings of a civil war began to spread in 1910, U.S. businessmen feared losing profits, but merely a year later, the rebellion succeeded in ousting dictator Diaz. They replaced him with an elected leader, Madero, who was universally despised. Conservatives resented him for overthrowing Diaz and citizens regarded him as ineffective and weak. Violence escalated again, and in 1913, with covert assistance from U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Henry Wilson, a second successful rebellion was staged, replacing Madero with the more stable but militaristic General Huerta.
President-Elect Woodrow Wilson had never been informed of or approved this plan, and he was shocked at the U.S.' involvement with Madero's assassination. As soon as he gained office, he recalled the ambassador and pushed for a democratic Mexico. Huerta wasn't truly ousted, though, until the Mexican people themselves created a constitutional army and established a constitution that is still in effect today.
Final Verdict: Aside from being indecisive, U.S. intervention was somewhat helpful but in the end, the Mexican people secured their independence.
2. Cuba (1959):
In 1956, Fidel Castro began a populist revolution in Cuba to overthrow ruthless dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was nonetheless a strong economic ally of the U.S. After three years of bloodshed, Castro won, allowing him to cut off all ties to the U.S. and structure a new Communist regime with help from the Soviet Union. Already embroiled in the Cold War, this development not only cost the U.S. economically but was an ideological and security threat as well.
In response, the U.S. government stealthily trained a counter-militia 1400 strong to overthrow Castro. Launched by boat into the Bay of Pigs, the operation lasted exactly three days before Castro completely obliterated it. Aside from being a major political embarrassment for the U.S., it also set the stage for incidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis and tensions between the two countries persist today.
Final Verdict: U.S. intervention wasn't just unsuccessful but entirely ineffective.
3. Vietnam (1955-75):
Arguably one of the most ill advised military deployments in U.S. history, this 20-year engagement began in 1955 when President Eisenhower deployed troops to help train the army of the Republic of Vietnam, against the French colonial system and then the oppressive President Ngo Dinh Diem. After both were defeated, the country devolved into civil war. The U.S. sided with South Vietnam.
After years of continued fighting, a ceasefire was called to celebrate the 1969 New Year. North Vietnam, seeing an opportunity, ignored the ceasefire and mobilized its forces against South Korea. Though this surprise maneuver, called the Tet Offensive, was not successful, it was bloody, and it shocked the American public, who had been told that the war was almost won. Soon afterwards, Nixon won the presidency and began the public-approved process of Vietnamization, or training South Korean soldiers while withdrawing American troops. By 1975, the U.S. had withdrawn all troops and the Republic of South Korea quickly and easily fell to communist North Korea.
Final Verdict: U.S. intervention certainly helped oust French colonials and President Ngo Dinh Diem, but it failed during the Korean Civil War.
The common thread that links these three interventions is that none of them was particularly effective in actually spreading democracy or even in pursuing the U.S.' other strategic interests. And current evidence shows similar outcomes with U.S. intervention in the Arab Spring. If the U.S. wishes to continue exerting power as hegemony, it should at the very least reconsider its strategy.