Tag Archives: John Foster Dulles

Honest Broker

 

 

Michael Doran, Ike’s Gamble:

America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East 

 

       On July 26, 1956, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser stunned the world by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, a critical conduit through Egypt for the transportation of oil between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Constructed between 1859 and 1869, the canal was owned by the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company. What followed three months later was the Suez Crisis of 1956: on October 29, Israeli brigades invaded Egypt across its Sinai Peninsula, advancing to within ten miles of the canal.  Britain and France, following a scheme concocted with Israel to retake the canal and oust Nasser, demanded that both Israeli and Egyptian troops withdraw from the occupied territory. Then, on November 5th, British and French forces invaded Egypt and occupied most of the Canal Zone, the territory along the canal. The United States famously opposed the joint operation and, through the United Nations, forced Britain and France out of Egypt.  Nearly simultaneously, the Soviet Union ruthlessly suppressed an uprising in Hungary.

       The autumn of 1956 was thus a tumultuous time. Across the globe, it was a time when colonies were clamoring for and achieving independence from former colonizers, and the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for the allegiance of emerging states in what was coming to be known as the Third World.  In the volatile and complex Middle East, it was a time of rising nationalism. Nasser, a wildly ambitious general who came to power after a 1952 military coup had deposed the King of Egypt, aspired to become not simply the leader of his country but also of the Arab speaking world, even the entire Muslim world.  By 1956, Nasser had emerged as the region’s most visible nationalist. But he was far from the only voice in the Middle East seeking to speak for Middle East nationalism. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq were also imbued with the rising spirit of nationalism and saw Nasser as a rival, not a fraternal comrade-in-arms.

       Michael Doran’s Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East provides background and context for the United States’ decision not to support Britain, France and Israel during the 1956 Suez crisis. As his title suggests, Doran places America’s President, war hero and father figure Dwight D. Eisenhower, known affectionately as Ike, at the middle of the complicated Middle East web (although Nasser probably merited a place in Doran’s title: “Ike’s Gamble on Nasser” would have better captured the spirit of the narrative). Behind the perpetual smile, Eisenhower was a cold-blooded realist who was “unshakably convinced” (p.214) that the best way to advance American interests in the Middle East and hold Soviet ambitions in check was for the United States to play the role of an “honest broker” in the region, sympathetic to the region’s nationalist aspirations and not too closely aligned with its traditional allies Britain and France, or with the young state of Israel.

       But Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former high level official at the National Security Council and Department of Defense in the administration of George W. Bush, goes on to argue that Eisenhower’s vision of the honest broker – and his “bet” on Nasser – were undermined by the United States’ failure to recognize the “deepest drivers of the Arab and Muslim states, namely their rivalries with each other for power and authority” (p.105). Less than two years after taking Nasser’s side in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Eisenhower seemed to reverse himself.  By mid-1958, Doran reveals, Eisenhower had come to regret his bet on Nasser and his refusal to back Britain, France and Israel during the crisis. Eisenhower kept this view largely to himself, however, distorting the historical picture of his Middle East policies.

        Although Doran considers Eisenhower “one of the most sophisticated and experienced practitioners of international politics ever to reside in the White House,” the story of his relationship with Nasser is at bottom a lesson in the “dangers of calibrating the distinction between ally and enemy incorrectly” (p.13).  Or, as he puts it elsewhere, Eisenhower’s “bet” on Nasser’s regime is a “tale of Frankenstein’s monster, with the United States as the mad scientist and the new regime as his uncontrollable creation” (p.10).

* * *

      The “honest broker” approach to the Middle East dominated the Eisenhower administration from its earliest days in 1953. Eisenhower, his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and most of their key advisors shared a common picture of the volatile region. Trying to wind down a war in Korea they had inherited from the Truman Administration, they considered the Middle East the next and most critical region of confrontation in the global Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.  As they saw it, in the Middle East the United States found itself caught between Arabs and other “indigenous” nationalities on one side, and the British, French, and Israelis on the other. “Each side had hold of one arm of the United States, which they were pulling like a tug rope. The picture was so obvious to almost everyone in the Eisenhower administration that it was understood as an objective description of reality” (p.44). It is impossible, Doran writes, to exaggerate the “impact that the image of America as an honest broker had on Eisenhower’s thought . . . The notion that the top priority of the United States was to co-opt Arab nationalists by helping them extract concessions – within limits – from Britain and Israel was not open to debate. It was a view that shaped all other policy proposals” (p.10).

         Alongside Ike’s “bet” on Nasser, the book’s second major theme is the deterioration of the famous “special relationship” between Britain and the United States during Eisenhower’s first term, due in large measure to differences over Egypt, the Suez Canal, and Nasser (and, to quibble further with the book’s title, “Britain’s Fall from Power in the Middle East” in my view would have captured the spirit of the narrative better than “America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East”).  The Eisenhower administration viewed Britain’s once mighty empire as a relic of the past, out of place in the post World War II order. It viewed Britain’s leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in much the same way. Eisenhower entered his presidency convinced that it was time for Churchill, then approaching age 80, to exit the world stage and for Britain to relinquish control of its remaining colonial possessions – in Egypt, its military base and sizeable military presence along the Suez Canal.

      Anthony Eden replaced Churchill as prime minister in 1955.  A leading anti-appeasement ally of Churchill in the 1930s, by the 1950s Eden shared Eisenhower’s view that Churchill had become a “wondrous relic” who was “stubbornly clinging to outmoded ideas” (p.20) about Britain’s empire and its place in the world.  Although interested in aligning Britain’s policies with the realities of the post World War II era, Eden led the British assault on Suez in 1956.  With  “his career destroyed” (p.202), Eden was forced to resign early in 1957.

       If the United States today also has a “special relationship” with Israel, that relationship had yet to emerge during the first Eisenhower term.  Israel’s circumstances were of course entirely different from those of Britain and France, a young country surrounded by Arab-speaking states implacably hostile to its very existence. President Truman had formally recognized Israel less than a decade earlier, in 1948.  But substantial segments of America’s foreign policy establishment in the 1950s continued to believe that such recognition had been in error. Not least among them was John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.  There seemed to be more than a whiff of anti-Semitism in Dulles’ antagonism toward Israel.

        Describing Israel as the “darling of Jewry throughout the world” (p.98), Dulles decried the “potency of international Jewry” (p.98) and warned that the United States should not be seen as a “backer of expansionist Zionism” (p.77).  For the first two years of the Eisenhower administration, Dulles followed a policy designed to “’deflate the Jews’ . . . by refusing to sell arms to Israel, rebuffing Israeli requests for security guarantees, and diminishing the level of financial assistance to the Jewish state” (p.99).   Dulles’ views were far from idiosyncratic. Israel “stirred up deep hostility among the Arabs” and many of America’s foreign policy elites in the 1950s ”saw Israel as a liability” (p.9). Without success, the United States sought Nasser’s agreement to an Arab-Israeli accord which would have required limited territorial concessions from Israel.

       Behind the scenes, however, the United States brokered a 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement, by which Britain would withdraw from its military base in the Canal Zone over an 18-month period, with Egypt agreeing that Britain could return to its base in the event of a major war. Doran terms this Eisenhower’s “first bet” on Nasser. Ike “wagered that the evacuation of the British from Egypt would sate Nasser’s nationalist appetite. The Egyptian leader, having learned that the United States was willing and able to act as a strategic partner, would now keep Egypt solidly within the Western security system. It would not take long before Eisenhower would come to realize that Nasser’s appetite only increased with eating” (p.67-68).

        As the United States courted Nasser as a voice of Arab nationalism and a bulwark against Soviet expansion into the region, it also encouraged other Arab voices. In what the United States imprecisely termed the “Northern Tier,” it supported security pacts between Turkey and Iraq and made overtures to Egypt’s neighbors Syria and Jordan. Nasser adamantly opposed these measures, considering them a means of constraining his own regional aspirations and preserving Western influence through the back door.  The “fatal intellectual flaw” of the United States’ honest broker strategy, Doran argues, was that it “imagined the Arabs and Muslims as a unified bloc. It paid no attention whatsoever to all of the bitter rivalries in the Middle East that had no connection to the British and Israeli millstones. Consequently, Nasser’s disputes with his rivals simply did not register in Washington as factors of strategic significance” (p.78).

           In September 1955, Nasser shocked the United States by concluding an agreement to buy arms from the Soviet Union, through Czechoslovakia, one of several indications that he was at best playing the West against the Soviet Union, at worst tilting toward the Soviet side.  Another came in May 1956, when Egypt formally recognized Communist China. In July 1956, partially in reaction to Nasser’s pro-Soviet dalliances, Dulles informed the Egyptian leader that the United States was pulling out of a project to provide funding for a dam across the Nile River at Aswan, Nasser’s “flagship development project . . . [which was] expected to bring under cultivation hundreds of thousands of acres of arid land and to generate millions of watts of electricity” (p.167).

         Days later, Nasser countered by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, predicting that the tolls collected from ships passing through the canal would pay for the dam’s construction within five years. Doran characterizes Nasser’s decision to nationalize the canal as the “single greatest move of his career.” It is impossible to exaggerate, he contends, the “power of the emotions that the canal takeover stirred in ordinary Egyptians. If Europeans claimed that the company was a private concern, Egyptians saw it as an instrument of imperial exploitation – ‘a state within a state’. . . [that was] plundering a national asset for the benefit of France and Britain” (p.171).

            France, otherwise largely missing in Doran’s detailed account, concocted the scheme that led to the October 1956 crisis.  Concerned that Nasser was providing arms to anti-French rebels in Algeria, France proposed to Israel what Doran terms a “stranger than fiction” (p.189) plot by which the Israelis would invade Egypt. Then, in order to protect shipping through the canal, France and Britain would:

issue an ultimatum demanding that the belligerents withdraw to a position of ten miles on either side of the canal, or face severe consequences. The Israelis, by prior arrangement, would comply. Nasser, however, would inevitably reject the ultimatum, because it would leave Israeli forces inside Egypt while simultaneously compelling Egyptian forces to withdraw from their own sovereign territory. An Anglo-French force would then intervene to punish Egypt for noncompliance. It would take over the canal and, in the process, topple Nasser (p.189).

The crisis unfolded more or less according to this script when Israeli brigades invaded Egypt on October 29th and Britain and France launched their joint invasion on November 5th. Nasser sunk ships in the canal and blocked oil tankers headed through the canal to Europe.

         Convinced that acquiescence in the invasion would drive the entire Arab world to the Soviet side in the global Cold War, the United States issued measured warnings to Britain and France to give up their campaign and withdraw from Egyptian soil. If Nasser was by then a disappointment to the United States, Doran writes, the “smart money was still on an alliance with moderate nationalism, not with dying empires” (p.178). But when Eden telephoned the White House on November 7, 1956, largely to protest the United States’ refusal to sell oil to Britain, Ike went further. In that phone call, Eisenhower as honest broker “decided that Nasser must win the war, and that he must be seen to win” (p.249).  Eisenhower’s hardening toward his traditional allies a week into the crisis, Doran contends, constituted his “most fateful decision of the Suez Crisis: to stand against the British, French, and Israelis in [a] manner that was relentless, ruthless, and uncompromising . . . [Eisenhower] demanded, with single-minded purpose, the total and unconditional British, French, and Israeli evacuation from Egypt. These steps, not the original decision to oppose the war, were the key factors that gave Nasser the triumph of his life” (p.248-49).

        When the financial markets caught wind of the blocked oil supplies, the value of the British pound plummeted and a run on sterling reserves ensued. “With his currency in free fall, Eden became ever more vulnerable to pressure from Eisenhower. Stabilizing the markets required the cooperation of the United States, which the Americans refused to give until the British accepted a complete, immediate, and unconditional withdrawal from Egypt” (p.196). At almost the same time, Soviet tanks poured into Budapest to suppress a burgeoning Hungarian pro-democracy movement. The crisis in Eastern Europe had the effect of “intensifying Eisenhower’s and Dulles’s frustration with the British and the French. As they saw it, Soviet repression in Hungary offered the West a prime opportunity to capture the moral high ground in international politics – an opportunity that the gunboat diplomacy in Egypt was destroying” (p.197). The United States supported a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of invading troops. Britain, France and Israel had little choice bu to accept these terms in December 1956.

       In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, the emboldened Nasser continued his quest to become the region’s dominant leader. In February 1958, he engineered the formation of the United Arab Republic, a political union between Egypt and Syria that he envisioned as the first step toward a broader pan-Arab state (in fact, the union lasted only until 1961). He orchestrated a coup in Iraq in July 1958. Later that month, Eisenhower sent American troops into Lebanon to avert an Egyptian-led uprising against the pro-western government of Christian president Camille Chamoun. Sometime in the period between the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the intervention in Lebanon in 1958, Doran argues, Eisenhower withdrew his bet on Nasser, coming to the view that his support of Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis had been a mistake.

        The Eisenhower of 1958 “consistently and clearly argued against embracing Nasser” (p.231).  He now viewed Nasser as a hardline opponent of any reconciliation between Arabs and Israel, squarely in the Soviet camp. Eisenhower, a “true realist with no ideological ax to grind,” came to recognize that his Suez policy of “sidelining the Israelis and the Europeans simply did not produce the promised results. The policy was . . . a blunder” (p.255).   Unfortunately, Doran argues, Eisenhower kept his views to himself until well into the 1960s and few historians picked up on his change of mind. This allowed those who sought to distance United States policy from Israel to cite Eisenhower’s stance in the 1956 Suez Crisis, without taking account of Eisenhower’s later reconsideration of that stance.

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      Doran relies upon an extensive mining of diplomatic archival sources, especially those of the United States and Great Britain, to piece together this intricate depiction of the Eisenhower-Nasser relationship and the 1956 Suez Crisis. These sources allow Doran to emphasize the interactions of the key actors in the Middle East throughout the 1950s, including personal animosities and rivalries, and intra-governmental turf wars.  He writes in a straightforward, unembellished style. Helpful subheadings within each chapter make his detailed and sometimes dense narrative easier to follow. His work will appeal to anyone who has worked in an Embassy overseas, to Middle East and foreign policy wonks, and to general readers with an interest in the 1950s.

Thomas H. Peebles

Saint Augustin-de-Desmaures

Québec, Canada

June 19, 2017

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Filed under American Politics, British History, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Ike’s Arms

Dulles

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.

* * *

              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.

* * *

          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.

* * *

            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

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, History, Politics, United States History, World History

Middle Eastern Rationalist

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Christopher de Bellaigue, Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh
and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup

         In this crisply-written biography, Christopher de Bellaigue provides an in-depth portrait of Muhammed Mossadegh, the leader of Iran at the time of a joint American-British covert operation in 1953 that deposed Mossadegh and gave new impetus to the regime of Shah Mohammed Raza Pahlavi.  De Bellaigue terms the coup tragic and makes a strong case that this is precisely the right term.  The coup was tragic for the ancient land of Persia, now called Iran, setting it off on a course that led to the Islamic revolution of 1979, and the taking of hostages from the American Embassy in Teheran later that year.  But it was also tragic for Great Britain, the United States, and the West generally, converting Iran, potentially an ally and a stabilizing force in the Middle East, into a seemingly implacable enemy of the West.  With discussions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions still tenuously underway, and a regime of stringent sanctions still paralyzing the country, Iran seems as far from becoming a stabilizing force in the Middle East as it did in 1979.

 

          But while Mossadegh served as Iran’s democratically-chosen Prime Minister from 1951to 1953, the country held much promise as a moderate partner of the West in a turbulent region.  Mossadegh emerges in this portrait as an irascible, mercurial hypochondriac, given to fainting spells at opportune times.  Behind these personal qualities, however, was a “rationalist who hated obscurantism and believed in the primacy of law” (p.3).  At the time of the coup, the country was on a course toward modernization that “would have brought Iran substantially closer to a secular, constitutional regime” (p.207), de Bellaigue argues.  As a result of his “long immersion in the ideas of the West,” Mossadegh combined an understanding of independence and democracy with an “even more profound identification with his own society and people” (p.273).  To de Bellaigue, Mossadegh was the  “first to try to build a modern Middle Eastern State on basis of collective and individual liberty” (p.273).

 

* * *

 

          Mossadegh was born in Tehran in 1882, the son of elite parents.  His mother lived into her nineties and was herself an activist for a pluralist Iran almost to her final days.  Mossadegh  spent time in Paris and other parts of Western Europe as a young man, and earned a Doctor of Law degree at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.  He was of a generation of western-educated Middle Eastern and Asian leaders animated by the nationalism and anti-colonial outlook that gained impetus after World War I.  His view of leadership was colored by his Muslim faith: the community chooses the best person and follows him wherever he chooses to lead.  In 1906, he was elected to a new parliament, the Majlis, at the age of 24.  By the time he turned 40, he had served as Iran’s minister of justice, finance minister and governor of two provinces.  He left politics in 1925 when the Majlis, over Mossadegh’s objection, deposed the ruling Quajar Shah and installed Reza Khan Pahlavi as the new monarch, the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty (Shah is the Persian word for king).

 

          Unlike much of the non-European world in the latter portion of the 19th century, Iran was never formally taken over by European powers.  Yet, Russia and Great Britain competed for interest in Iran, “constrained by mutual wariness from trying to swallow the country whole” (p. 10).  Much of Iranian history in the first half of the 20th century revolved around the question of oil and Iran’s relationship to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, now British Petroleum or BP) and to AIOC’s dominant shareholder, the government of Great Britain.  AIOC had been in Iran since 1913.  In 1933, the Shah signed an oil agreement with Britain that was decidedly not favorable to Iran.  AIOC refused to agree to a 50%-50% profit sharing arrangement, allocating a mere 16% of annual company profits to Iran and employing few Iranians in skilled-worker or management positions.  Mossadegh became an uncompromising proponent of nationalization of Iran’s oil reserves, incurring the wrath of both the British and the Shah.

 

          After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in August 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union, now allies, jointly occupied Iran.  Later that year, Britain forced the Shah, who leaned toward the Axis powers, to abdicate in favor of his 22 year old son, Mohammed Raza Pahlavi.  When World War II ended, Iran was “rich [in oil], potentially unstable, and susceptible to interference — qualities that guaranteed the close attention of the powers as they gathered their forces for the new Cold War” (p.112).  Although highly suspicious of the Soviet Union, Iran reserved its most unfettered hostility for Great Britain.  As de Bellaigue notes, Iranian “fear and hatred of the British . . . [assumed] proportions rarely seen in the formal empire” (p.54). Mistrust between Great Britain and Iran “became a pathology” (p.134).   Both “felt wronged and expected redress, but neither understood the grievance nursed by the other – or else they dismissed it as humbug.  .  . Both were surprised by the other’s intransigence” (p.165).

 

          In the post-World War II era, Iranian secular nationalists battled religious nationalists, with oil usually providing the backdrop.  An indication of Mossadegh’s political dexterity is that he had good relations with both groups.  Mossadegh became Prime Minister in 1951 when Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara, an opponent of naturalization and a close ally of the Shah, was assassinated by hard line Islamists.  In the aftermath of Razmara’s assassination, Parliament officially nationalized Iranian oil reserves, a measure strongly supported by both secular and religious nationalists.  25% of oil profits were to be set aside for AIOC’s claims of compensation.  For Mossadegh, Iranian oil “represented life, hope, freedom. . . Mossadegh did not see why the British could not accept their new, lower status.  After all, they would be amply compensated for nationalization and retain full access to Iran’s oil” (p.165).   Mossadegh said he was more interested in what he termed the “moral” rather than “economic” aspect of oil nationalization.  The Western powers saw only “hysteria, irrationality and caprice” in such remarks, failing to recognize that Mossadegh’s words represented a voice for an “authentic movement of national independence” (p.144).

 

         In Britain’s view, nationalization meant quite simply that Mossedegh needed to be deposed by any means available.  Britain imposed a boycott on Iranian oil, and Iran proved wanting in the technical expertise required to operate its oil fields successfully.  This precipitated a serious national crisis, with oil income reduced to near zero, hampering Mossadegh from implementing the reforms he sought.  During the nationalization crisis, Mossadegh formed an alliance of convenience with the Communist Tudeh Party (“Tudeh” means “the masses” in Persian).  After much distance and distrust between Mosadegh and the Tudeh, by 1953, the Tudeh was at least nominally in Mossadegh’s camp, a fact that did not go unnoticed in Washington and London.

 

          However fervently Britain desired to depose Mossadegh, it was incapable of engineering a coup by itself and turned to the United States for assistance.  The United States was slightly more sympathetic to Mossadegh and nationalization than Great Britain.  President Harry Truman didn’t care nearly as much about Mossadegh or AIOC as he cared about stopping communism. Like many others in Washington at the time, Truman saw the Soviet Union as primed to take over Iran.  Truman nonetheless resisted a coup to depose Mossadegh, as did Britain’s Prime Minister Clement Atlee.  But Winston Churchill returned to power as Prime Minister in 1951, and Dwight Eisenhower replaced Truman as President in January 1953.

 

         Churchill viewed a firm stand against nationalization as necessary to preserving Britain’s waning prestige and power in the post-war world, as well as a source of desperately needed revenue.  In what de Bellagiue characterizes as a “remarkable cable,” Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, wrote that in his view nationalization of AIOC, would “destroy the last vestige of confidence in British power and the pound. . . [T]he cardinal purpose of  British policy is not to prevent Iran  from going Commie; the cardinal point is to preserve what they believe to be the last remaining bulwark of British solvency; that is, their overseas investment and property position” (p.184-85).

 

          American support for the British position in the Eisenhower administration was driven by the anti-communist fervor that was sweeping the country.  This was the McCarthy era, after all, and two anti-communist warriors named Dulles were in positions of immense authority in the young Eisenhower administration: Allen, running the CIA and brother John Foster, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.  The brothers Dulles were quick to see the Soviet Union as poised to step into and take over Iran should Western resolve falter.  Although skeptical of the communist menace in Iran, Churchill was able to convince Eisenhower that a coup that would replace Mossadegh would serve as a critical check upon Soviet interests in Iran.  The “British obsession with lost prestige and the American obsession with communism” thus brought the two allies together in common cause against Mossadegh’s government (p.207).

 

          The CIA plan, Operation Ajax — its first exercise in regime change — was hatched in early 1953 with assistance from the British M16.  The plan envisioned a pro-Shah military coup to depose Mossadegh, even though the Shah initially opposed the British-American plot.  In the summer of 1953, the CIA launched a propaganda campaign against Mossadegh’s government, with Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, serving as the CIA field commander.  The campaign precipitated large scale protests between pro and anti-Mossadegh factions, with the CIA apparently encouraging both sides in the hope that the protests would turn violent.  They did.  Meanwhile, as many as 30 members of Parliament, bankrolled by the CIA, “plotted murders and kidnapping whilst hiding behind their parliamentary immunity” (p.228).

 

         A failed coup took place on August 15-16, 1953.  The Shah panicked and left for Rome.  Mossadegh ordered security forces to round up the coup plotters, and dozens were imprisoned.  Believing that he had beaten back a Shah-led coup, Mossadegh asked his supporters to return to their homes.  This was a serious miscalculation.  The plotters regrouped and, on August 19, 1953, succeeded in toppling the Mossadegh government. In a “remarkable reversal in fortune,” Roosevelt and his co-conspirators had “turned defeat into triumph and their methods would enter the training manuals” (p.235).  There is “no glossing” of the ruthlessness of the Anglo-American intervention, de Ballaigue asserts, which subjected Mossadegh’s government to “pitiless acts of war by two hostile powers,” including not only a “bombardment of misinformation” but also “conspiracies to riot, murder and abduct”   (p.228).

 

          De Bellaigue portrays Mossadegh during the coup as a Hamlet-like figure, vacillating between “inertia and unfounded optimism” (p.242-43).  Although Mossadegh almost certainly had advance knowledge of the coup, he failed to react to its warning signs, remaining too favorably disposed to individual liberties to protect his own interests.  Absorbed in legal niceties as the “ground was laid for his overthrow” (p.236), Mossadegh refused to use the popular support available to him and did not take the threat sufficiently seriously until it was too late.  Unaware until almost the very end that the United States was behind the coup, Mossadegh was guided by his desire “not to isolate himself completely from the Eisenhower administration.  He only had one foreign policy, to lean on the United States, and even [at the time of the coup]. . . he hoped to preserve it”  (p.236).

 

          Mossadegh was arrested, tried and convicted of treason in a military court.  He was initially sentenced to death but, after the Shah commuted his sentence, Mossadegh was placed under house arrest.  Many of his political associates were executed.  General Fazlloh Zahedi, formerly Minister of Interior in Mossadegh’s cabinet and the CIA’s choice as Prime Minister, led the new government.  Zahedi quickly reached agreement with AIOC to restore the flow of Iranian oil, with the United States and Britain receiving the largest share.  In return, the United States massively funded the Shah’s government, including his army and secret police, the SAVAK, turning Iran into a “vulgar tyranny” (p.273) until the Shah’s overthrow in 1979.  Mossadegh lived the rest of his life under house arrest.  He died in 1967, having seen his ideals “submerged in a tide of petro-dollars” (p.271).

 

* * *

 

          “Few foreign interventions in the Middle East have been as ignoble as the coup of 1953,” de Bellaigue concludes, and “few Middle Eastern leaders have less deserved our hostility than Muhammed Mossadegh” (p.273).  Among the policies which were reversed by the coup, de Bellaigue cites land reforms, social security and rent controls to help the rural and urban poor.  Mossadegh also envisioned a military under civil control and “modestly enhanced rights for women in the face of clerical unease” (p.207).  Had these reforms survived, “Mossadegh would now be remembered as an agent of extraordinary change” (p.207).   But Iran never regained the path toward a stable, pluralist and secular constitutional monarchy of the type that Mossadegh sought to put into place.  De Bellaigue demonstrates convincingly in this penetrating study that upending Mossadegh’s government was a tragic miscalculation for the United States and Great Britain, a miscalculation that continues to reverberate today.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)

September 28, 2014

4 Comments

Filed under American Politics, British History, History, Politics, Uncategorized