On Political Books

September/ October 2013 Brothers in Armchairs

For Allen and John Foster Dulles, regime change was an extension of the family business.

By Jacob Heilbrunn

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War
by Stephen Kinzer
Henry Holt, 416 pp.

The Eisenhower era is often seen as a placid time, presided over by a president who shunned wars and had a healthy skepticism about big military expenditures. But as Stephen Kinzer’s sparkling new biography, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, indicates, Dwight Eisenhower did embrace the idea of regime change abroad, and with a vengeance. His instruments for creating it in Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, and Cuba were John Foster and Allen Dulles, two brothers who grew up in privilege and were groomed to regard it as America’s birthright to exercise its power around the globe, whenever and wherever it saw fit.

They were quite different in personality. John Foster was the dour fire-and-brimstone secretary of state. Harold Macmillan declared, “His speech was slow but it easily kept pace with his thoughts.” Allen, by contrast, was the suave and secretive spymaster (author Rebecca West, asked if she had been one of his mistresses, replied, “Alas, no, but I wish I had been”), but both inherited an evangelical streak that they translated into a secular war against communism. Their influence lingers on in the massive national security state that they helped construct during the early years of the Cold War and that continues to expand and search relentlessly for fresh enemies to justify its own existence.

Both brothers have been the subject of previous biographies, with Allen enjoying perhaps the most perspicuous by Burton Hersh, a longtime student of the intelligence agencies. But Kinzer, a former longtime foreign correspondent for the New York Times, effectively joins them in his panoramic survey of their lives. He traverses a great deal of ground, some of which he previously covered in his study of the 1954 coup in Iran All the Shah’s Men, and he is an acidulous critic of American foreign policy. His main point is that America, or at least a man like Allen Dulles, was not an innocent abroad. Instead, the Dulles brothers were calculating figures who essentially turned American foreign policy into an annex of the business interests of their old law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, deftly annealing moralism about American democracy to their own self-interest. To be sure, Wilsonian liberal internationalism was predicated on the notion that more-interconnected financial interests would tie nations together peacefully. But for much of the eastern establishment to which the Dulleses belonged, the distinction between a corporation’s interests and the American government’s was indiscernible, prompting Kinzer to call John Foster “one of the American elite’s most ruthlessly effective and best-paid courtiers.”

John Foster and Allen Dulles were born into a family of public servants and men of the cloth. Their father was a Presbyterian minister, and his father before him was a Presbyterian missionary. Their maternal grandfather, John Watson Foster, grew up in Indiana on the frontier. He was a newspaper editor who became a stalwart member of the Republican Party and was appointed secretary of state by Benjamin Harrison. Foster encouraged a rebellion in 1893 in Hawaii of white settlers against Queen Liliuokalani and sent troops in to support the insurrection. “This,” writes Kinzer, “made John Watson Foster the first American secretary of state to participate in the overthrow of a foreign government.” After his government service, he set up shop as a lobbyist for big business. As small children, John Foster and Allen got to stay with him in his Dupont Circle mansion, where

[b]oth brothers came to feel at ease in the most rarefied circle. They dined with ambassadors, senators, cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, and other grand figures including William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Andrew Carnegie, and Woodrow Wilson.… From these long evenings they absorbed not only the precepts, ideas, and perceptions that shaped America’s ruling class, but also its style, vocabulary, and attitudes.

Pivotal for both brothers was the opportunity to attend the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. They had an important ally in their quest to reach the diplomatic big time: Uncle Robert Lansing, who was Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state. Neither Allen nor John Foster played big roles in drafting the Treaty of Versailles, but they did make numerous connections. Kinzer believes that the two fell fully under Wilson’s spell: “He was the quintessential missionary diplomat: cool, pontifical, sternly moralistic, and certain that he was acting as an instrument of divine will. Both brothers took his example to heart.”

It is John Foster who attracts Kinzer’s ire more than Allen. For all his moralism, John Foster got it wrong when it came to Hitler’s Germany (unlike Allen, who warned his brother that the Nazis were a dangerous bunch). His deep affection for German culture and learning and his business interests blinded him to the true nature of the Nazi regime. He saw Nazism as a bulwark against communism rather than as a totalitarian society intent on mass murder. John Foster described France and Britain as “static” societies—a precursor of Donald Rumsfeld dismissing “Old Europe”—and claimed that the future would be decisively shaped by new, dynamic powers such as Germany, Italy, and Japan. According to Kinzer, John Foster worked closely with Hitler’s finance minister, Hjalmar Schacht, to help “[t]he National Socialist state find rich sources of financing in the United States for its public agencies, banks, and industries.” John Foster supported the isolationist America First movement. Even though his partners at Sullivan & Cromwell forced him to close the firm’s offices in Berlin in 1935, he remained blasé about the Nazi regime. He visited Germany in 1936, 1937, and 1939: “Apparently nothing he saw disturbed him,” writes Kinzer.

Allen’s great moment of glory, by contrast, came in battling the Nazis as a member of the Office of Strategic Services, which was headed by the World War I hero and lawyer William Donovan. Allen was dispatched to Bern, Switzerland, where he created a web of spies and informants to discover what was happening behind enemy lines and in Nazi Germany itself. Eventually, he began parachuting agents into occupied countries and directing guerrilla attacks on Nazi targets. By 1944, Allen was focused on how best to contain and even roll back Soviet power in postwar Europe. He sought out Nazi commanders in Italy to see if they would agree to an early surrender, and succeeded. Operation Sunrise relied on the cooperation of figures such as General Karl Wolff, commander of SS forces in Italy—who was later found to be complicit in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews by a German court—to assent to cutting a deal with the Americans.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.


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