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

With Allen ensconced in Bern, John Foster started his own comeback toward the end of World War II. He had become close friends with the Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, who was busy championing the idea of an American Century. Both were pro-business, internationalist Republicans shaped by Calvinist principles—Luce, born in China, was himself the son of a Presbyterian missionary. Despite Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s initial misgivings, he ended up appointing John Foster to the American delegation to the negotiations in San Francisco in 1945, where fifty countries met, including the Soviet Union, to establish the United Nations. John Foster, who had begun to espouse a militantly anticommunist line, clashed with Andrei Vishinsky, the Soviet deputy foreign minister and former chief prosecutor at Stalin’s purge trials.

But it wasn’t until the 1952 election that the political fortunes of the Dulles brothers were sealed. John Foster pursued a very hard line against communism—rhetorically. But Eisenhower essentially ignored his advice when it came to Korea, where John Foster advised no negotiations and sending armies across the demilitarized zone. Instead, Eisenhower went to Korea and decided to accept a cease-fire. When it came to covert action, however, Eisenhower was more receptive. Allen, who was appointed CIA director, worked hand in glove with his brother to topple various regimes deemed hostile to American interests. But, as Kinzer emphasizes, many of Allen’s projects were busts. He commanded 15,000 employees in fifty countries with an annual budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, no accounting necessary, but “he had remarkably little to show for it. All three of his main operations in Eastern Europe, aimed at stirring anti-Communist resistance in Poland, Ukraine, and Albania, collapsed in defeat.” In 1960 the U-2 spying incident, in which American Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by Soviet planes, also helped to wreck incipient negotiations with the Soviets over easing the Cold War.

Still, Allen was a busy man at the CIA. Under him the agency had a hand in overthrowing the Mossadegh government in Iran and the √Ārbenz regime in Guatemala, and connived at the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo. What he seems most to have resembled, in the crucible of the Cold War, is former Vice President Dick Cheney. According to Kinzer, he “established secret prisons in Germany, Japan and the Panama Canal Zone.”

But perhaps the brothers’ most malignant legacy was John Foster’s intransigence about Indochina. He told Americans in 1954 that as part of the global crusade against communism it was imperative to counter Ho Chi Minh and his communist forces in North Vietnam. Winston Churchill, for one, was appalled by John Foster’s conduct during negotiations in Geneva over Vietnam’s future in 1954: “Dull, unimaginative, uncomprehending. So clumsy I hope he will disappear.” To John Foster’s horror, negotiations meant that Vietnam would be partitioned and Ho would attain power. He left Geneva in a huff after a week. But successes in Iran and Guatemala, Kinzer reports, had convinced Eisenhower, John Foster, and Allen that this “third monster,” as Kinzer puts it, could be quashed. The road to American military involvement in Vietnam had begun.

The real disasters started after Eisenhower left office. The obsession with ousting Fidel Castro led to the Bay of Pigs, an operation that Eisenhower had told John F. Kennedy was imperative when they met in the Oval Office. Kennedy, young and inexperienced, assented. But Allen Dulles, aging and cavalier, never even bothered to supervise the project, leaving it to his deputy Richard Bissell, who forged ahead in the conviction that even if the motley crew of Cuban exiles came to grief, Kennedy would, at the last moment, rescue them with American firepower. The president refused. And Allen had to resign from the CIA.

In his conclusion, Kinzer suggests that the story of the Dulles brothers is the story of America. “As long as Americans believe their country has vital interests everywhere on earth, they will be led by people who believe the same,” he writes. Kinzer is surely right to raise doubts about the perfervid embrace of American exceptionalism that has become de rigueur for politicians, Democratic or Republican, to asseverate piously. But perhaps he falls into his own form of moralism, his own nostalgia for an America that never really existed, when he seems to posit the existence of an Edenic country that was once free of the corrupting embrace of the rest of the world. For America does, in fact, have interests abroad. The problem with the Dulles brothers is not that they espoused contact with the rest of the world but that they relied on a militarized form of crusading confrontation that continues to bedevil America.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.

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