One of the more alarming narratives of the 2016 U.S. election campaign is that of the Kremlin's apparent meddling. Last week, the United States formally accused the Russian government of stealing and disclosing emails from the Democratic National Committee and the individual accounts of prominent Washington insiders.
Leading Russian officials have balked at the Obama administration's claim. In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the suggestion of interference as “ridiculous,” though he said it was “flattering” that Washington would point the finger at Moscow. At a time of pronounced regional tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere, there's no love lost between Kremlin officials and their American counterparts.
To be sure, there's a much larger context behind today's bluster. As my colleague Andrew Roth notes, whatever their government's alleged actions in 2016, Russia's leaders enjoy casting aspersions on the American democratic process. And, in recent years, they have also bristled at perceived U.S. meddling in the politics of countries on Russia's borders, most notably in Ukraine.
While the days of its worst behavior are long behind it, the United States does have a well-documented history of interfering and sometimes interrupting the workings of democracies elsewhere. It has occupied and intervened militarily in a whole swath of countries in the Caribbean and Latin America and fomented coups against democratically elected populists.
The most infamous episodes include the ousting of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 — whose government was replaced by an authoritarian monarchy favorable to Washington — the removal and assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961, and the violent toppling of socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende, whose government was swept aside in 1973 by a military coup led by the ruthless Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
For decades, these actions were considered imperatives of the Cold War, part of a global struggle against the Soviet Union and its supposed leftist proxies. Its key participants included scheming diplomats like John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger, who advocated aggressive, covert policies to stanch the supposedly expanding threat of communism. Sometimes that agenda also explicitly converged with the interests of U.S. business: In 1954, Washington unseated Guatemala's left-wing president, Jacobo Arbenz, who had had the temerity to challenge the vast control of the United Fruit Co., a U.S. corporation, with agrarian laws that would be fairer to Guatemalan farmers. The CIA went on to install and back a series of right-wing dictatorships that brutalized the impoverished nation for almost half a century.
A young Che Guevara, who happened to be traveling through Guatemala in 1954, was deeply affected by Arbenz's overthrow. He later wrote to his mother that the events prompted him to leave “the path of reason” and would ground his conviction in the need for radical revolution over gradual political reform.
Aside from its instigation of coups and alliances with right-wing juntas, Washington sought to more subtly influence elections in all corners of the world. And so did Moscow. Political scientist Dov Levin calculates that the “two powers intervened in 117 elections around the world from 1946 to 2000 — an average of once in every nine competitive elections.”
In the late 1940s, the newly established CIA cut its teeth in Western Europe, pushing back against some of the continent's most influential leftist parties and labor unions. In 1948, the United States propped up Italy's centrist Christian Democrats and helped ensure their electoral victory against a leftist coalition, anchored by one of the most powerful communist parties in Europe. CIA operatives gave millions of dollars to their Italian allies and helped orchestrate what was then an unprecedented, clandestine propaganda campaign: This included forging documents to besmirch communist leaders via fabricated sex scandals, starting a mass letter-writing campaign from Italian Americans to their compatriots, and spreading hysteria about a Russian takeover and the undermining of the Catholic Church.
“We had bags of money that we delivered to selected politicians, to defray their political expenses, their campaign expenses, for posters, for pamphlets,” recounted F. Mark Wyatt, the CIA officer who handled the mission and later participated in more than 2½ decades of direct support to the Christian Democrats.
This template spread everywhere: CIA operative Edward G. Lansdale, notorious for his efforts to bring down the North Vietnamese government, is said to have run the successful 1953 campaign of Philippines President Ramon Magsaysay. Japan's center-right Liberal Democratic Party was backed with secret American funds through the 1950s and the 1960s. The U.S. government and American oil corporations helped Christian parties in Lebanon win crucial elections in 1957 with briefcases full of cash.
In Chile, the United States prevented Allende from winning an election in 1964. “A total of nearly four million dollars was spent on some fifteen covert action projects, ranging from organizing slum dwellers to passing funds to political parties,” detailed a Senate inquiry in the mid-1970s that started to expose the role of the CIA in overseas elections. When it couldn't defeat Allende at the ballot box in 1970, Washington decided to remove him anyway.
“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” Kissinger is said to have quipped. Pinochet's regime presided over years of torture, disappearances and targeted assassinations. (In a recent op-ed, Chilean-American novelist Ariel Dorfman called on Hillary Clinton to repudiate Kissinger if she wins the presidential election.)
After the end of the Cold War, the United States has largely brought its covert actions into the open with organizations like the more benign National Endowment for Democracy, which seeks to bolster civil society and democratic institutions around the world through grants and other assistance. Still, U.S. critics see the American hand in a range of more recent elections, from Honduras to Venezuela to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the threat of foreign meddling in U.S. elections is not restricted to fears of Russian plots. In the late 1990s, the specter of illicit Chinese funds dominated concerns about Democratic campaign financing. But some observers cautioned others not to be too indignant.
“If the Chinese indeed tried to influence the election here . . . the United States is only getting a taste of its own medicine,” Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive, which is affiliated with George Washington University, said in a 1997 interview with the New York Times. “China has done little more than emulate a long pattern of U.S. manipulation, bribery and covert operations to influence the political trajectory of countless countries around the world.”