Americans tend to look back on the Cold War as a difficult but successful time during which the United States and its allies assembled a coherent grand strategy and followed it for more than four decades. The Soviet empire ultimately unraveled without a catastrophic nuclear exchange between the two superpowers and the supremacy of democratic values seemed to be confirmed.
The Cold War, however, can be seen in a different light. It can be viewed as a messy and divisive period within the United States when American political leaders made scores of difficult and complicated decisions, some of which have been validated by history while others now seem wrongheaded, even foolish.
“The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War” by Stephen Kinzer takes the second perspective. It considers American foreign policy during the 1950s by studying the careers of two powerful brothers. John Foster Dulles was President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state and Allen Dulles was his director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Kinzer argues the Dulles brothers helped design and wage an aggressive campaign against “global communism” that had apparent successes but often undermined America’s reputation and damaged more than a half dozen nations.
The effects of their interventionist policies, the author says, can still be felt today, fueling the common refrain that America is an arrogant superpower, cavalierly dispatching governments that get in its way and forcing its values on other people, while worshipping the all-mighty corporate dollar.
The Dulles brothers, Kinzer argues, “set in motion many of the processes that shape today’s world.” Understanding who they were, and what they did “is a key to uncovering the obscured roots of upheaval in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” He adds: “They may have believed that the countries in which they intervened would quickly become stable, prosperous, and free. More often, the opposite happened. Some of the countries they targeted have never recovered. Nor has the world.”
Kinzer is a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times who reported from more than 50 countries during his 20-year career. He was the paper’s bureau chief in Nicaragua during the 1980s and in Germany during the early 1990s. He opened the New York Times bureau in Istanbul in 1996. Kinzer has written several books, including “All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror,” “A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It,” “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq,” and “Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.” He also writes essays for the New York Review of Books and a world affairs column for the Guardian.
In “The Brothers,” Kinzer deploys clear prose and nicely crafted stories to describe the careers of John Foster Dulles (1888-1959) and Allen Dulles (1893-1969), emphasizing that they grew up in a family steeped in international affairs. Their grandfather, John Watson Foster, served as secretary of state for President Benjamin Harrison while their uncle, Robert Lansing, held the position under President Woodrow Wilson.
Both Dulles brothers graduated from Princeton University but then took different career paths, which still propelled them in the same direction. Foster (for whom Dulles International Airport is named) went from Princeton to George Washington University Law School and then joined a prominent New York law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell. Except for a brief period as an appointed U.S. senator from New York, he remained at this powerful law firm until he became secretary of state in 1953. He was an international lawyer who was both wealthy and well connected, especially in Republican circles. While he once was intrigued by the benefits of a global government, he later became a hard-line conservative who attacked communism as worse than Nazism and called on the United States and its allies to support the “liberation” of Eastern Europe from Soviet control.
After college, Allen Dulles served as a diplomat in the State Department, traveling the world and also earning his law degree from George Washington University at night and on weekends. He later joined the Sullivan & Cromwell law firm, working mostly as a rainmaker who used his contacts to garner business for the firm. However, from his boyhood through his adulthood, Allen’s real passion was intelligence and espionage. He worked for various American intelligence agencies that were the precursors of the Central Intelligence Agency. He then joined the CIA in 1951 and served in senior positions there for a decade, including eight years as the director.
The foreign policy views of the brothers were rooted in several core beliefs: American exceptionalism, missionary Christianity and a commitment to protect American-based multinational corporations. Yet they had very different personalities. Foster was a dour, preachy and socially awkward man. An expert in global finance and a frequent participant in international conferences, he often forgot the names of junior colleagues and was dismissive of those with whom he disagreed. The long silences between his sentences were, as Kinzer reports, both legendary and intimidating. Winston Churchill famously described him as “the only bull with his own China shop.” Another British prime minister, Harold MacMillan, was distinctly unimpressed with him. “His speech was slow but it easily kept pace with his thoughts,” MacMillan once wrote of Foster Dulles.
Allen Dulles was a fun, gregarious and socially polished man who had scores of relationships with women who were not his wife, including Clare Boothe Luce and Queen Frederika of Greece. Neither a disciplined nor a rigorous thinker, he was an indifferent and disorganized administrator. Usually amiable and charming, Allen also had an explosive temper. “They made an ideal team,” Kinzer writes. “One brother was great fun and a gifted seducer, the other had uncanny skill in building fortunes.”
The professional careers of the Dulles brothers reached their zenith during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower criticized the Democratic foreign policy record during his 1952 presidential campaign and vowed to take a firmer approach in the struggle against communism. As president from 1953 to 1961, Eisenhower fashioned an American foreign policy with a smaller standing army, a robust nuclear deterrent and aggressive covert operations to destabilize unfriendly regimes and harass America’s perceived enemies.
After winning the presidency, Eisenhower named Foster Dulles, then 65, as his secretary of state, and Allen Dulles, then 60, as his CIA director. “With the Dulles brothers as his right and left arms, he led the United States into a secret global conflict that raged throughout his presidency,” Kinzer writes of Eisenhower. “Never before had siblings directed the overt and covert sides of American foreign policy. It was an arrangement fraught with danger…. With a glance, a nod, and a few words, without consulting anyone other than the president, the brothers could mobilize the full power of the United states anywhere in the world.”
Kinzer argues the Dulles brothers tried to depose six international leaders whom they viewed as threats to American interests: Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran, Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Sukarno of Indonesia, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Fidel Castro of Cuba. “Six impassioned visionaries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America became the monsters they went abroad to destroy. Their campaigns against these six were momentous battles in the global war the United States waged secretly during the 1950s. This war comprises a hidden chapter of American history. It shaped the world — and still does,” Kinzer writes.
The first target for the Dulles brothers was Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran. They believed Mossadegh was too skeptical of the West and too inclined to alter lucrative business arrangements that benefited American and Western firms, especially in oil. They also feared Mossadegh would open the door for Soviet penetration of the Middle East. After a botched first attempt, the United States helped oust Mossadegh and replaced him with Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was far more sympathetic to the United States and the West. It would prove to be a disastrous decision: Widely seen as a puppet of the West, the Shah was ousted in the 1979 Revolution that ushered Iran’s hard-line Islamic clerics into power and made Tehran and Washington the arch-nemeses they remain to this day.
After their fateful machinations in Iran, the Dulles brothers decided to go after Jacobo Arbenz, the president of Guatemala who supported sweeping land reforms and confronted United Fruit Co., the powerful Boston-based multinational company that both brothers had done work for. Arbenz was driven into exile and his country descended into chaos that continued for decades.
The third target the brothers confronted was Ho Chi Minh, the champion of Vietnamese independence. They dismissed the assessment of various world leaders who were convinced that Ho was more of a Vietnamese nationalist and an anti-colonialist than he was a dedicated communist loyal to the Soviet Union. Their effort to dislodge Ho failed and helped propel the United States into a protracted, bloody and losing war in Vietnam.
Sukarno, a leader in Indonesia’s battle for independence and the country’s first president, was the fourth “monster” the brothers sought to eliminate, deeply distrusting his neutralist inclinations. Sukarno visited Washington in the spring of 1956 and was a sensation, telling Congress that nationalism, not communism, was the most powerful political force in the world. “Fail to understand it, and no amount of thinking, no torrent of words and no Niagara of dollars will produce anything but bitterness and disillusionment,” he warned. After visiting the United States, Sukarno earned the enmity of the Dulles brothers by traveling to the Soviet Union and China. According to Kinzer, Washington’s anti-Sukarno operation was one of the most secret episodes of the Cold War. The Americans tried to foment a civil war in Indonesia but failed.
Patrice Lumumba, another independence leader and the first elected prime minister of the Congo, was the next target of the Eisenhower administration. Kinzer accuses Eisenhower of tacitly ordering Allen Dulles in 1960 to have Lumumba assassinated. The CIA worked with Belgian security officials and Joseph Mobutu, the leader of the Congolese army, to eliminate Lumumba. Lumumba’s murder stunned the world and triggered anti-Western reaction across Africa. Allen Dulles later acknowledged the United States probably overestimated the danger Lumumba posed to the West.
The sixth leader on the Dulles brothers’ hit list is still alive today: Fidel Castro of Cuba. Eisenhower made the overthrow of Castro the official, but secret, goal of the American government.
Eisenhower urged his successor, John F. Kennedy, to support a mission he began to oust Castro from power. Allen Dulles helped conceive of the operation that became the Bay of Pigs debacle. JFK fired Allen Dulles several months later, tacitly blaming him for the Cuban fiasco.
Kinzer depicts the Dulles brothers as committed Cold Warriors with a clear view of the world — which was often wrong. He criticizes them for failing to respond creatively to the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, for misunderstanding the genesis and allure of nationalism in the Third World, and for failing to grasp the long-term implications of their policies.
“Their lack of foresight led them to pursue reckless adventure that, over the course of decades, probably weakened American security,” he writes. “The passage of time, and the end of the Cold War, make it difficult to grasp the depth of fear that gripped many Americans during the 1950s. Foster and Allen were chief promoters of that fear. They did as much as anyone to shape America’s confrontation with the Soviet Union. Their actions helped set off some of the world’s most profound long-term crises,” Kinzer charges.
“The Brothers” is an excellent book. It’s well written, informative, passionate and usually fair-minded. For those interested in Cold War history and American diplomacy, the book is a great read. I have only a couple of criticisms.
Kinzer sometimes engages in hyperbole. For example, even if one accepts his argument that the Dulles brothers planned and implemented a hyper-aggressive foreign policy with at least half a dozen overseas interventions, it’s not necessarily fair to say their policies constituted a “world war.” This overstates the facts and trivializes the concept of world war. But they clearly played central roles in hugely controversial operations that sullied America’s reputation, undermined its interests, and harmed millions of people in Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere.
Kinzer is sometimes vague about the relative roles played by Eisenhower and the two Dulles brothers in designing American foreign policy. For much of the book, Kinzer implies the Dulles brothers were almost co-navigators of American foreign policy with the president. However, near the end of the book he says Eisenhower actually called all the shots. So what then was the role of the Dulles brothers? Were they the front men or the architects?
I wish Kinzer had more clearly described the foreign policy-making process within the Eisenhower administration. He says that Eisenhower spoke with John Foster Dulles up to 10 times a day and sometimes invited his secretary of state over to the White House for an evening drink and more discussion. Kinzer suggests that important decisions were made during these conversations and were then passed on to Allen Dulles to implement them. However, Eisenhower’s National Security Council is often praised as a critical policy review instrument for the administration. Historians have credited Eisenhower with developing a rigorous, disciplined process that examined policy options carefully. But Kinzer describes a process that was far more informal, even chaotic, with little regard for long-term policy consequences.
Finally, I would have enjoyed learning more about how the Dulles brothers interacted with other American foreign policy figures of their era such as Dean Acheson, George Marshall, George Kennan and Arthur Vandenberg. These were important leaders whose careers overlapped with the Dulles brothers, and there must have been interesting tensions or collaborations between Foster and Allen and these men.
Kinzer argues the Dulles brothers perfectly reflected American society in the 1950s. “Foster and Allen exemplified the nation that produced them. A different leader would require a different kind of United States. The story of the Dulles brothers is the story of America…. They are us. We are them.”
I’m skeptical of this assertion. Kinzer describes the Dulles brothers as promoting a foreign policy that went outside the strictures that American leaders have generally adhered to, such as not ordering the assassination of foreign leaders. It’s difficult to imagine George Marshall or Dean Acheson supporting some of the policies that the Dulles brothers advanced. And I’m not certain the American people, even during the peak of the Cold War, would have approved these policies had they known about them.
Even with these reservations, “The Brothers” is a powerful and persuasive book that raises important questions about the costs of the Cold War — both for American foreign policy and especially for those nations that were victims of that policy.
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.