5 Times the United States Intervened in Foreign Elections

Election Rally
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In 2017, Americans were justifiably shocked by allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin had attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of eventual winner Donald Trump.

However, the United States government itself has a long history of trying to control the outcome of presidential elections in other nations.

Foreign electoral interference is defined as attempts by outside governments, either secretly or publicly, to influence elections or their results in other countries.

Is foreign electoral interference unusual? No. In fact, it is far more unusual to find out about it. History shows that Russia, or the USSR in the Cold War days, has been “messing” with foreign elections for decades – as has the United States.

In a study published in 2016, Carnegie-Mellon University political scientist Dov Levin reported finding 117 cases of either U.S. or Russian interference in foreign presidential elections from 1946 to 2000. In 81 (70%) of those cases, it was the U.S. that did the interfering.

According to Levin, such foreign interference in elections affects the outcome of the vote by an average of 3%, or enough to have potentially changed the outcome in seven out of the 14 U.S. presidential elections held since 1960.

Note that the numbers quoted by Levin do not include military coups or regime overthrow attempts carried out after the election of candidates opposed by the U.S., such as those in Chile, Iran, and Guatemala.

Of course, in the arena of world power and politics, the stakes are always high, and as the old sports adage goes, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying hard enough.” Here are five foreign elections in which the United States government “tried” very hard.

01
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Italy – 1948

Election Rally
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The 1948 Italian elections were described at the time as no less than an “apocalyptic test of strength between communism and democracy.” It was in that chilling atmosphere that U.S. President Harry Truman used the War Powers Act of 1941 to pour millions of dollars into supporting candidates of the anti-communist Italian Christian Democracy Party.

The U.S. National Security Act of 1947, signed by President Truman six months before the Italian elections, authorized covert foreign operations. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would later admit using the law to give $1 million to Italian “center parties” for the production and leaking of forged documents and other material intended to discredit leaders and candidates of the Italian Communist Party.

Prior to his death in 2006, Mark Wyatt, a CIA operative in 1948, told the New York Times, “We had bags of money that we delivered to selected politicians, to defray their political expenses, their campaign expenses, for posters, for pamphlets.”\

The CIA and other U.S. agencies wrote millions of letters, made daily radio broadcasts, and published numerous books warning the Italian people of what the U.S. considered the dangers of a Communist Party victory,

Despite similar covert efforts by the Soviet Union in support of Communist Party candidates, Christian Democrat candidates easily swept the 1948 Italian elections. 

02
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Chile – 1964 and 1970

Dr. Salvador Allende Celebrating Victory
Salvador Allende from the front garden of his suburban home after learning that the Chilean Congress had officially ratified him to become president in 1970. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

 During the Cold War era of the 1960s, the Soviet government pumped between $50,000 and $400,000 annually into support of the Communist Party of Chile.

In the 1964 Chilean presidential election, the Soviets were known to be supporting well-known Marxist candidate Salvador Allende, who had unsuccessfully run for the presidency in 1952, 1958, and 1964. In response, the U.S. government gave Allende’s Christian Democratic Party opponent, Eduardo Frei over $2.5 million.

Allende, running as the Popular Action Front candidate, lost the 1964 election, polling only 38.6% of the votes compared to 55.6% for Frei.

In the 1970 Chilean election, Allende won the presidency in a close three-way race. As the first Marxist president in the country’s history, Allende was selected by the Chilean Congress after none of the three candidates received a majority of votes in the general election. However, evidence of attempts by the U.S. government to prevent Allende’s election surfaced five years later.

According to report from the Church Committee, a special U.S. Senate committee assembled in 1975 to investigate reports of unethical activities by the U.S. intelligence agencies, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had orchestrated the kidnapping of Chilean Army Commander-in-Chief General René Schneider in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the Chilean Congress from confirming Allende as president. 

03
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Israel – 1996 and 1999

Netanyahu And Clinton
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In the May 29, 1996, Israeli general election, Likud Party candidate Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister over Labor Party candidate Shimon Perez. Netanyahu won the election by a margin of only 29,457 votes, less than 1% of the total number of votes cast. Netanyahu’s victory came as a surprise to Israelis, as exit polls taken on the day of the election had predicted a clear Perez victory.

Hoping to further the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords the United States had brokered with the help of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton openly supported Shimon Perez. On March 13, 1996, President Clinton convened a peace summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik. Hoping to bolster public support for Perez, Clinton used the occasion to invite him, but not Netanyahu, to a meeting at the White House less than a month before the election.

After the summit, then U.S. State Department spokesman Aaron David Miller stated, “We were persuaded that if Benjamin Netanyahu were elected, the peace process would be closed for the season.”

Prior to the 1999 Israeli election, President Clinton sent members of his own campaign team, including lead strategist James Carville, to Israel to advise Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak in his campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu. Promising to “storm the citadels of peace” in negotiating with the Palestinians and to end the Israeli occupation of Lebanon by July 2000, Barak was elected Prime Minister in a landslide victory.

04
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Russia – 1996

Yeltsin Greeting His Supporters
Russian president Boris Yeltsin shakes hands with supporters while campaigning for re-election. Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

In 1996, a failing economy left independent incumbent Russian president Boris Yeltsin facing probable defeat by his Communist Party opponent Gennady Zyuganov.

Not wanting to see the Russian government back under communist control, U.S. President Bill Clinton engineered a timely $10.2-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to Russia to be used for privatization, trade liberalization and other measures intended to help Russia achieve a stable, capitalist economy.

However, media reports at the time showed that Yeltsin used the loan to increase his popularity by telling voters that he alone had the international status to secure such loans. Instead of helping to further capitalism, Yeltsin used some of the loan money to pay back wages and pensions owed to workers and to fund other social welfare programs just before the election. Amid claims that the election was fraudulent, Yeltsin won reelection, receiving 54.4% of the vote in a runoff held on July 3, 1996. 

05
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Yugoslavia — 2000

Serbia - Belgrade - Student demonstration against Milosevic
Pro democracy students staging a protest against Slobodan Milosevic. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Since incumbent Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had come to power in 1991, the United States and NATO had been using economic sanctions and military action in failed attempts to oust him. In 1999, Milosevic had been charged by an international criminal tribunal for war crimes including genocide in connection with the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.

In 2000, when Yugoslavia held its first free direct elections since 1927, the U.S. saw a chance to remove Milosevic and his Socialist Party from power through the electoral process. In the months before the election, the U.S. government funneled millions of dollars into the campaign funds of anti- Milosevic Democratic Opposition Party candidates.

After the general election held on September 24, 2000, Democratic Opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica led Milosevic but failed to win the 50.01% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. Questioning the legality of the vote count, Kostunica claimed he actually had won enough votes to win the presidency outright. After often violent protests in favor or Kostunica spread through the nation, Milosevic resigned on October 7 and conceded the presidency to Kostunica. A court-supervised recount of the votes conducted later revealed that Kostunica had indeed won the September 24 election by just over 50.2% of the vote.

According to Dov Levin, the U.S. contribution to the campaigns of Kostunica and other Democratic Opposition candidates galvanized the Yugoslavian public and proved to be the decisive factor in the election. “If it wouldn’t have been for overt intervention,” he said, “Milosevic would have been very likely to have won another term.”