Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers:
John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War
In “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War,” Stephen Kinzer issues a trenchant critique of America foreign policy in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the United States deposed or sought to depose leaders in every corner of the world. The architects of this policy were the brothers Dulles, John Foster (almost always called “Foster”), President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State from 1953 to his death in 1959; and brother Allen, Eisenhower’s CIA Director, who served the agency from the Truman Administration into the early Kennedy Administration. Kinzer’s book is about one-third biography of the Dulles brothers, and two-thirds a scathing indictment of the foreign policy they helped fashion.
Kinzer’s indictment focuses on six covert CIA operations which targeted leaders in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Indonesia, Congo, and Cuba. The Congo and Cuba interventions took place after Foster died in 1959. Although President Eisenhower had given strong encouragement to the Cuban Bay of Pigs plot prior to his departure, the infamous intervention occurred after he left office. The first four, by contrast, were the joint work of Foster and Allen, each with the backing of President Eisenhower. “With the Dulles brothers as his right and left arms,” Eisenhower “led the United States into a secret global conflict that raged throughout his presidency” (p.114), Kinzer writes.
The reasons for targeting the six leaders varied and were driven both by local considerations and the United States’ assessment of the extent of Soviet interest and influence in the particular country. But, Kinzer argues, none of the subjects of the operations was clearly in the Soviet camp. Looking for a common denominator to the interventions, it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that the targeted leaders’ offense was that they had the temerity to stake out positions that were not sufficiently on the side of the United States.
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The Dulles brothers were born into an extraordinary family, Foster in 1888, Allen in 1893. The family also included Allen and Foster’s sister Eleanor, born in 1895, along with two other sisters only briefly mentioned here. Eleanor, “as formidable a character” as her two brothers (p.14), also had a distinguished career in public service. She served in a variety of critical State Department positions and overcame gender barriers to her career which her brothers never had to confront or reflect upon. John Watson Foster, the grandfather of Foster, Allen and Eleanor, served as secretary of state for eight months in 1892-93. Their uncle – husband of their mother’s sister – was Robert Lansing, who served as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State.
The father of Foster, Allen and Eleanor was a Presbyterian minister and the children grew up in a household permeated with religiosity and Christian missionary zeal. The children usually attended three Sunday services, took notes on their father’s sermons, and analyzed them afterwards with their father. However, only Foster seems to have deeply absorbed the religious fervor of his father. One of the striking features of the biographical side of this book is the vast difference in personality between Foster and Allen. Foster was rigid and distant, with little sense of humor. Further, early in life, Foster showed a “judgmental harshness that never softened,” Kinzer writes. He was always “sharply self-righteous” (p.13).
Brother Allen by contrast seemed in the 1920s to be a character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, a bon vivant, outgoing and gregarious, a man who enjoyed parties and company, especially the company of women. Although he stayed married to his wife, “[u]napologetic adultery” became an established part of Allen’s character in his early adult years and “remained so all his life” (p.44), with affairs and liaisons around the world. Brother Foster’s married life was monogamous in the full sense of the word. The popular expression “dull, duller, Dulles” was a reference to Foster, not Allen. Despite the brothers’ differing devotion to their wives, they were “strikingly similar in their relationships with their children. Both were distant, uncomfortable fathers” (p.45), Kinzer writes.
Foster and Allen attended Princeton University, where each was inspired by Professor Woodrow Wilson. The brothers, Kinzer writes, were “products of the same missionary ethos that shaped President Wilson.” His example “strengthened their conviction that there is nothing intrinsically wrong – and indeed, much that is admirable – in American involvement abroad” (p.32). It is striking how similar in personality Foster seemed to Wilson. Kinzer describes Wilson as “sternly moralistic, and certain he was acting as an instrument of divine will” (p.31), and the same could be said of Foster. With their former professor in the White House and their uncle serving as his Secretary of State, each brother was able to land a role in Wilson’s entourage at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference. At the conference, Allen and Foster spent time together and realized how much their world views were similar, notwithstanding great differences in personality
Foster went to law school, then started a highly successful career at New York’s fabled law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, where he made a comfortable living representing some of America’s most prominent corporations, particularly in their overseas ventures and misadventures. Sullivan and Cromwell “thrived at the point where Washington politics intersected with its business. John Foster Dulles worked at this intersection for nearly forty years” (p.19). Foster’s legal work at Sullivan and Cromwell was instrumental in forming a lifelong view that equated the United States’ national interest overseas with those of the corporations he represented. Integral to this view was the unquestioned assumption that his clients, as they operated overseas, were on the right side of justice and righteousness. Although Foster’s mastery of complex legal and financial codes throughout his tenure at Sullivan and Cromwell “reflected a rigorously organized mind,” Kinzer writes that Foster was “not a deep thinker” (p.209).
Allen joined the Foreign Service in 1916, where he served in Vienna and Bern and showed he could deal effectively – manipulate if necessary – his foreign counterparts. Ten years later, Allen left the Foreign Service to join Foster at Sullivan and Cromwell. His stay there was abbreviated, with most of it spent in the firm’s Paris office. In Paris, Allen demonstrated a “flair for discreet deal making,” becoming a “potent advocate for America’s richest men, a banks, and corporations” (p.41). Neither brother served in the military, in either World War, but Allen joined “Wild Bill” Donavon’s information gathering operations that would evolve into the CIA. This experience brought to the fore Allen’s lifelong interest in the spy world, the world of both information gathering and what is known euphemistically as “operations,” which can encompass “dirty tricks” and more.
Both brothers’ opposition to the Soviet Union and all it stood for pre-dated World War II. Foster had supported the Nazi regime as a strategic bulwark against Bolshevism until nearly the point when the United States entered the war against Germany, considering the regime “essentially Western, Christian, and capitalist” (p.84). Once the war ended, both Foster and Allen saw the Soviet Union as just as implacably menacing, just as bent upon world domination, as the defeated Nazi enemy. The USSR was pursuing more than traditional Russian strategic goals, Foster and Allen came to believe. It was bent upon achieving “power over the whole world; it posed to the West not just the sort of threat that assertive powers have always posed to one another, but a ‘challenge to established civilization –the kind of thing that occurs only once in centuries’” (p.83-84). Even more than Nazism for the two brothers, Communism was an “ultimate evil with which no compromise could ever be possible” (p.84).
This was the environment in which the newly created Central Intelligence Agency came into being in 1947. Allen joined the agency as Deputy Director for Operations. In this capacity, he favored both intelligence gathering and covert operations. “The collection of secret intelligence is closely related to the conduct of secret operations,” Allen argued in a confidential report. “The two activities support each other and be disassociated only to the detriment of both” (p.87). Many in the early CIA opposed Allen’s view, but it ultimately prevailed.
When Dwight Eisenhower became President in 1953, he nominated Allen as CIA Director and Foster as his Secretary of State. This put the two brothers at the levers of powers, with the smiling, grandfatherly Ike as their perfect boss. Eisenhower was as much a Cold War warrior as the Dulles brothers, but he took office with a different perspective and experience. Combining the “mindset of a warrior with a sober understanding of the devastation that full-scale warfare brings” (p.114), Eisenhower was very reluctant to commit American military forces to combat operations. By contrast, covert operations were the precise method for meeting the worldwide communist menace head on.
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Kinzer notes that the brothers were Eurocentric in outlook, with little understanding of or interest in the independence movements that were raging through much of the world in the 1950s. Yet, the brothers were conspicuously unsuccessful in their attempt to confront Communism in Eastern Europe. CIA operations in Poland, Ukraine and Albania, which had encouraged anti-communist resistance, “collapsed in defeat” (p.132). Allen’s CIA also failed to foresee Khrushchev coming to power after Stalin’s death, and did nothing to help Hungary revolt after “having whipped up anti-Soviet feeling in Hungary” (p.213). Foster gained much attention for his publicly stated view that the objective of the United States was to “roll back” Communism in Eastern Europe. This was nothing more than rhetoric, “devoid of serious meaning” (p.153), and Dulles knew it, Kinzer argues. There was little or no policy to back it up and the Soviets likely knew it as well.
The brothers’ lackluster record in Eastern Europe may have whetted their appetite for success outside Europe. President Eisenhower authorized each of the six covert operations which Kinzer studies – Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Vietnam, Congo and Cuba, grouped together in a section entitled “Six Monsters” — but it seems that these operations were never the subject of explicit orders coming from the President, not oral and surely not written. The first target was Muhammed Mossadegh, familiar to tomsbooks readers as the leader of Iran deposed in 1953 by a joint British-American covert operation. Kinzer has written a separate book on the Iran operation, “All the Shah’s Men.” Christoper de Bellaigue, in his book reviewed here last month, takes a swipe at Kinzer’s book, noting that Kinzer, unlike himself, does not read Persian and comparing Kinzer’s efforts to describe the coup to an author writing on Pearl Harbor knowing only Japanese (de Bellaigue at 5).
But on the substance of the CIA’s Iranian intervention, Kinzer’s views largely coincide with those of de Bellagiue, that the coup was animated by a toxic combination of a British need to preserve its waning worldwide prestige and an American eagerness to confront an overstated communist threat in Iran. Although Mossadegh was no communist, “Foster and Allen saw him as weak and unstable, an Iranian Kerensky who would be unable to resist if the Communists struck against him” (p.130). The Dulles brothers won Ike’s support for covert action in Iran by framing their antipathy to fit cold war fears. After failure of the initial coup effort, the agency succeeded in toppling Mossadegh, its first successful exercise in regime change.
One year later, the CIA scored a similar victory in successfully deposing another democratically selected leader, Jakob Arbenz of Guatemala. Guatemala for the Dulles brothers was the place where “Moscow’s global conspiracy reached closest to American shores, led by a puppet masquerading as a nationalist” (p.147). The United Fruit Company, a Sullivan and Cromwell client, dominated the country, running it more or less as its private fiefdom. In most countries, governments control and regulate corporations. “The opposite was true in Guatemala: United Fruit was the power, Guatemala was the subsidiary,” Kinzer wryly notes (p.148).
Arbenz was initially uninterested in nationalization of United Fruit’s extensive investments in his country, but he wanted to impose land reform and labor regulations which would benefit workers throughout the country, including those working for United Fruit. “Foreign capital will always be welcome as long as it adjusts to local conditions, remains always subordinate to Guatemalan laws, cooperates with the economic development of the country, and strictly abstains from intervening in the nation’s social and political life” (p.149), Arbenz had said in his inaugural address. These and similar statements convinced the brothers that Arbenz had to be removed. In a covert operation that involved enlistment of the Catholic Church, the brothers scored their second straight success, barely a year after their first in Iran. Colonial Castillo Armas, the CIA’s chosen “liberator,” decreed repeal of the land reform acts that had so enraged United Fruit, suspended the constitution, and banned illiterates from voting, thereby disenfranchising three-quarters of the population. “Ten years of democratic government, the first that Guatemalans had ever known, were over” (p.173), Kinzer writes.
However, these two victories would not be repeated when the brothers turned their focus to Asia, first to Vietnam, then to Indonesia, with two resilient rulers, Ho Chi Minh and Sukarno. Although Ho Chi Minh was undoubtedly the most avowedly communist among the leaders the CIA had targeted to date, Foster and Allen “mistakenly saw China a pawn of the Soviet Union and Ho, also mistakenly, as a puppet of both” (p.176). Crushing Ho, they believed, would strike a decisive blow against international world communism. Kinzer’s view is that Ho Chi Minh was not only more nationalist than communist in ideology, but also more neutralist than communist in geopolitics. CIA covert actions in the 1950s failed to dislodge Ho, but also failed to attract significant attention at that time. Kinzer’s narrative is laced with speculation that a more supple United States approach might have averted the disaster that followed for the United States in Vietnam the following decade.
Indonesia’s Sukarno professed a love for the United States, quoting profusely Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln and others. In quoting Sukarno quoting great Americans with important views on democracy and freedom, Kinzer subtly suggests without saying so explicitly that Sukarno was a closer adherent to American ideals than either Dulles brother. Sukarno’s tradition emphasized conciliation and harmony and abhorred confrontation, finding good and evil mixed everywhere. “What Foster and Allen took as Sukarno’s abandonment of the West was actually his attempt to make foreign policy according to principles that shape life in Indonesia” (p.227).
All this made Sukarno a fervent neutralist who wanted to keep his country out of Cold War alignments, and this was simply unacceptable to the brothers. For the Dulles brothers and their boss, neutralism was almost worse than communism. When he told Foster that neutralism doesn’t favor communism, Sukarno claimed that Foster had retorted, “America’s policy is global. You must be on one side or the other. Neutralism is immoral” (p.218). Despite an extensive CIA covert operation in Indonesia that involved training and equipping more than 10,000 rebel soldiers, termed Operation Archipelago, the agency was unable to dislodge Sukarno as the leader of Indonesia. Indonesia was the CIA’s most notorious defeat to date, and strengthened Sukarno in numerous ways.
Foster died in 1959, but brother Allen continued to lead the CIA’s campaign to unseat threatening foreign leaders, the next being the “dangerously defiant” (p.264) former postal clerk Patrice Lumumba, who rose to be head of state in what had been known as the Belgian Congo. Belgium left a dubious colonial legacy in the resource-rich Congo, which became an independent state in 1960, failing to educate the populace or build institutions which could function independently. Lumumba was brutally killed by Western-backed supporters of Joseph Mobutu in a secessionist civil war raging within his country, with the United States playing a secondary role to the “more decisive and resourceful” Belgians (p.282). In death, Lumumba became of a symbol of third world liberation, while Congo plummeted into a hell of repression, poverty, corruption and violence. Allen admitted less than two years after Lumumba’s death that the CIA may have overrated the communist threat in the Congo.
The final covert operation which Kinzer reviews was the disastrous Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba in 1961. After the 1960 election, while still in office as a lame duck President, Eisenhower expanded the anti-Castro operation, approaching it with “determination and focused enthusiasm” (p.288). But several factors precluded launching the operation prior to the Presidential transition. Against his better judgment, a young and untested President Kennedy authorized the operation, which failed spectacularly. When the furious Kennedy called Dulles into the Oval Office to give him the news that it was time to move on from the position he had held since 1951, Kinzer quotes Kennedy as telling Dulles, “Under a parliamentary system, it is I who would be leaving office. But under our system it is you who have to go” (p.303). The Bay of Pigs was the “first time that the CIA was fully unmasked seeking to depose the leader of a small country whose only crime was defying the United States.” The Bay of Pigs thus became a “reviled symbol of imperialist intervention” (p.303).
Kinzer notes that while the operation to depose Castro was underway, Allen “seemed asleep at the wheel” (p.285). In general, Allen was a poor administrator, with an “undisciplined mind,” seeming to some “almost scatterbrained” (p.188). He was easily distracted, with an “inability to focus, lack of attention to detail, and aversion to vigorous debate” (p.289). By the time Kennedy asked for his resignation, Allen’s lackadaisical leadership had led the CIA to “endlessly tolerate misfits. Even in high positions, it was not unusual to find men who were evidently lazy, alcoholic or simply incompetent” (p.318). In Kinzer’s estimation, Allen had the “cold-bloodedness that an intelligence director needs, but not enough intellectual rigor or curiosity.” Carried away by his “love of the cloak and dagger game” Allen “lost sight of the limits to what covert action can achieve” (p.318-19). Kinzer speculates that in his final years at the CIA, Allen was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. He died in 1969.
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Having garnered the facts of the brazen CIA agency operations under Allen’s leadership, Foster’s encouragement until his death, and Eisenhower’s tacit authorization, Kinzer ends with what seems like a prosecutor’s closing argument against the Dulles brothers and the policies they pursued. He contends that empathy was beyond their emotional range. “Sympathizing with the enormous complexities facing leaders of emerging nations would have required them to consider those leaders independent agents, rather than instruments of Soviet power. Their compulsive oversimplifications of the world prevented them from seeing its rich diversity” (p.327). Neither was adept at “synthesizing, compromising, listening, adopting, or evolving. Political nuance rarely clouded their world view. Neither did moral ambiguity” (p.320). Most damningly, the brothers’ “lack of foresight led them to pursue reckless adventures that, over the course of decades, palpably weakened American security interests” (p.314). Like many prosecutorial closing arguments, Kinzer’s may be slightly hyperbolic and overstated. But the evidence he cites is sufficient to convince this reader that the Dulles brothers’ Cold War exploits did little to advance the long term interests of the country they served.
Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
October 25, 2014