Monday, August 10, 2015

The Brothers by Stephen Kinzer (Book Review #61 of 2015)

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

This is my third Kinzer book (The Crescent and the Star and Reset), he is a master at spinning off new books from research collected while writing other books. This work peels back the cover on U.S. covert and overt foreign policy in the 1950s and what happens when two brothers have too much power within an Administration that has the public's trust and far too little of its scrutiny. It is a joint biography of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles who were Secretary of State (1953-1958) and CIA Director (1953-1961), respectively.

Some reviewers have pointed out that Kinzer tends to oversimplify his message. For example, Eisenhower and Dulles' overthrow of Mohammed Mosadegh, for example, may have had something to do with our needing Britain's support in SE Asia more than simply a crusade to eliminate anyone who was not clearly "for us" or "against the Communists." This book covers some of the territory of Trento's Prelude to Terror, Perkin's controversial Confessions of an Economic Hitman and the similar compilation A Game as Old as Empire.  You may not believe what you read here as the facts certainly seem more like fiction. Did the U.S. really (clumsily) secretly spend blood and treasure to try and subvert governments on every continent? How many assassinations and overthrows did Eisenhower surreptitiously give the go-ahead on? Eisenhower essentially comes across as a monster from our 2015 vantage point. But is he any different than a President Obama who is given intelligence and orders drone strikes to assassinate enemies of U.S. foreign policy? You be the judge. This book speaks volumes about what is learned by declassification of documents over time. I will say that I read a great biography on George Kennan last year and there appears to be little overlap; Kennan's foreign policy may have been too dovish for the Dulles, but he had helped create the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Policy Creation, on which both Dulles brothers worked--this connection gets no attention from Kinzer. Much of the diplomatic effort during the Cold War-- which did exist-- at this time are left unmentioned by Kinzer, which is problematic.

The Dulles family grew up with an international mindset. One grandfather (John W. Foster) was an Ambassador (before that title was formalized) to several countries, including Russia, before becoming Secretary of State.The other was a missionary to India. They had other family connections working in diplomacy and such a career seemed just fine to them. Their father was a conservative Presbyterian minister who had an awkward relationship with his wayward children. Kinzer writes that the boys (and their younger sister) essentially saw America as the City on a Hill that was bringing light to the nations through democracy and capitalism.

Studying at Princeton hitched them to the rising star of Woodrow Wilson, who they adored.
Sister Eleanor deserves her own biography, she was a pioneer as a PhD female economist who did relief work in WWI, attended Bretton Woods after WWII, and made her own career in diplomatic service.
John Foster (Foster henceforth) attended the Paris peace conference with Wilson and was disappointed with the outcome, both he and Eleanor arguing along with J.M. Keynes that the German reparations were simply setting the stage for the next European war. At the time, Foster was working in international law for U.S. business interests, and even supposedly ghostwrote a rebuttle to Keynes' book to serve his own interests. Foster's law firm designed the legal arrangements by which U.S. firms could profit off the German reparations, which allowed him to be wealthy even during the Great Depression. He was the more religious of the bunch and was mostly faithful to his wife. 

Meanwhile, Allen Dulles was serving in the newly-formed Foreign Service while sleeping with as many women as would have him. In a "What would have been?" moment of history Allen reportedly brushed off meeting Vladimir Lenin, after Lenin supposedly called him just before Lenin went to St. Petersburg for the Russian Revolution, in order to engage in a soiree with a couple of blonde Swiss females. His own sister recounts that he had "at least a hundred" affairs, and his wife approved of some and disapproved of others. A sign of the times, they remain married although she probably miserably. This continued on all through his CIA years and makes one wonder why recent CIA chief David Petraeus had to resign for anything.

Kinzer interestingly calls Wilson out for being a hypocrite, citing his inconsistent application of the doctrine of self-determination. While that doctrine stirred nationalist sentiment in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Wilson obviously didn't apply it to the Philippines, Hawaii, or other U.S.-occupied territories. Nonetheless, the three sibling Wilson devotees attend the Paris peace talks together. Foster returns to his law firm where he's made a full partner while Allen remains in the Foreign Service until joining the firm himself in 1926.

The author ignores much of Foster's religious interest and involvement in these years. Foster changed his mind several times in life, whether in his religious devotions or from isolationist to interventionist. Interestingly, Foster was a German sympathizer and refused to believe any tales being produced about the Nazis as his firm had many German business interests. Allen disagreed strongly after touring Germany himself, and after Germany began defaulting on its debts the firm severed ties.

Allen Dulles built up his network through the law firm, the Council on Foreign Relations, and his old Foreign Service contacts and made a fortune molding business deals for European connections, including those in Nazi Germany. After the U.S. enters the war, Dulles is recruited by "Wild Bill" for the new OSS, becoming the first OSS officer behind enemy lines, sneaking into Switzerland to do so. He meets with all sorts of characters while feeding intelligence to the U.S., much of which was false, but enough was helpful enough to expand his reputation. Of course, he has many affairs, including a long one with a woman his wife approved of and shared with him. Interestingly, when the Valkyrie operation was launched by German traitors to kill Hitler and restore order, Dulles was the main contact with the U.S. relaying news back to Washington. The participants wanted to sue for peace, but FDR officially rejected the olive branch and Dulles was not allowed to negotiate on any such olive branch. After the War, Truman abolishes the OSS.

Foster helps draft the U.N. Charter and becomes an internationalist, seeing world peace as a Christian ideal. Foster apparently contributed to the "Six Pillars of Peace" outline by the Federal Council of Churches in 1942. He eventually reverses after the Iron Curtain falls, becoming a militant anti-Communist and seeing the USSR as truly and evil empire, the antithesis of everything American. Reinhold Niebuhr eventually pens critiques of Foster as he begins to promote a black-and-white vision of the world. 

Both brothers backed the Dewey campaign in 1948, which left them disappointed. However, Dewey appoints Foster Dulles to fill a void in the Senate, which immediately elevates Foster into a higher realm, although he promptly loses the special election for the seat. Nonetheless, he is appointed to the State Department by Truman and impresses people in negotiating the final treaty with Japan in 1950. This makes him a good choice for Secretary of State when Eisenhower is elected in 1952, and Foster promptly works on a policy of "rollback" to replace the "containment" policy of Truman and Kennan. However, Kinzer also writes that NSC-68, a top secret foreign policy strategy signed by Truman in 1950, was monumental in militarizing the response to the USSR and that the Dulles operated under an NSC-68 mindset. "A chilling decree" according to Kinzer, NSC-68 called for a tripling of defense spending in order to prevent Soviet influence from overtaking the West. Allen Dulles was appointed the first civilian director of the CIA and the die was cast.


The 1950s roll like the Wild West, with Eisenhower signing off on expensive operations, assassinations, and propaganda campaigns at home and abroad. Supposedly, more coups were attempted under Eisenhower than in any other administration, and recently declassified documents show that Dulles' CIA actively engaged in Eisenhower-warranted assassination plots in the Congo and elsewhere. Perhaps Richard Bissell, Eisenhower's enforcer is more to blame than Kinzer allows. The CIA-backed 1954 coup in Guatemala was actually initiated by Truman years earlier, but demonstrated Eisenhower's resolve. "Once you commit the flag, you've committed the country." Dulles' secret armies in Guatemala and the Philippines needed U.S. airpower for support. If the media went with a story exposing operations, or a pilot was shot down, it didn't matter-- the mission must succeed once the U.S. was committed. The CIA even used religious-based propaganda in Guatemala to foment political change, having priests on the CIA payroll publish editorials denouncing Communism.

Guatemala also showed the intersection of U.S. business interests and foreign policy. The coup was encouraged by the United Fruit Company, which had been a client of the Dulles' NY law firm and Allen Dulles had served on its Board of Directors; others in the Eisenhower Administration had ties. While Guatemala's president was democratically elected, he was a leftist, and anyone showing Leftist sympathies was to be eliminated, particularly in the Western hemisphere. The 1953 coup of democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran was similar in the sense that it was made more urgent by Mosaddegh's nationalization of British oil interests after the Brits refused to let Mosaddegh audit their books or negotiate a better deal. Kinzer writes, however, that Foster in particular was unable to see anyone as "neutral." Mosaddegh believed in democracy and capitalism and could have been an ally, but Mosaddegh and others like Egypt's Nasser were nationalists who favored neither the US nor the USSR, but courted deals from both. Kinzer writes that Foster saw a danger in a country like Iran becoming prosperous and inspiring others toward neutrality that might result in eventual creep toward the USSR, hence he and others like him had to be eliminated. How much the coup was driven to help the UK is unknown. The blowback from intervention in South America and Iran has since come back to haunt the US in the form of skepticism and greater Leftist angst against the US and the 1979 overthrow of the Shah.


Ho Chi Minh had initially offered the US an olive branch after WWII and was not opposed to working with US interests, but the more he was rebuffed the more he turned to harder Communism. John Foster Dulles apparently hated the French for abandoning Vietnam, and never forgave them. While Eisenhower did not want to replace the French in Vietnam, he eventually warmed to the idea as Foster promoted the "domino theory" that if one nation fell victim to Communism then others would soon follow and the eventual war would widen. Better to install brutal dictators as in Iran and South Vietnam than let a country fall. Another enemy was Sukarno in Indonesia who was trying to thread the needle between democracy, socialism, nationalism, and Islam. This type of neutrality was against the Dulles' worldview, and in his memoir, Sukarno lamented "America, why couldn't you be my friend?" after the CIA spent a lot of manpower trying to topple his regime in 1958. There was also the training of Tibetan rebels in Colorado in 1957 and the ongoing plot to assassinate Congo's Lumumba, given with Ike's consent. 

Allen Dulles' reign at CIA reads like the nightmare everyone worried about "big government" warns you about. Experiments interrogating prisoners with LSD, the purchase to the movie rights of books like The Quiet American in order to sanitize them, planting stories in major newspapers, planting false documents in Joseph McCarthy's office to discredit him, along with the private armies and escapades. Dulles comes under official criticism by Doolittle, who wrote that he was a bad administrator, bad for morale, and had no accountability-- all of which was dismissed by Eisenhower who saw Allen as the indispensible man.

Eventually both John Foster Dulles and Eisenhower become old and unhealthy, Eisenhower suffering a heart attack in 1955 and Foster dying of cancer in 1959. Allen Dulles' libido slows slightly as age takes its toll and he becomes more detached from operations at the CIA, creating a more dangerous situation. When Castro seizes power in Cuba, the Eisenhower Administration made it official policy to depose him. While Dulles was officially in charge at the CIA, he was far detached from the details of the anti-Castro operations which the media had exposed and continued at great risk of failure. Newly-elected JFK inherits the Bay of Pigs invasion plans and faces a political dilemma: Back off and be accused of sparing Castro since the government was invested in success, or go forward and risk a disaster. Unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy would not consent to air support or other official military measures to help the CIA's army once it landed, dooming the operation. Those closest to the operation begged Dulles and others to cancel the operation to no avail. Dulles was enjoying a speaking engagement elsewhere in the region, giving the appearance of attachment to the operation while being completely oblivious to its failure. The White House forced him to resign in 1961.

Dulles' last act was on the Warren Commission investigating JFK's assassination. This was problematic because Dulles' goal was to keep CIA assassination operations in Cuba a secret. Kinzer writes of Lyndon Johnson's desire to make Oswald a lone gunman with no political attachments, which brings us to a whole other story.

Kinzer concludes the book with armchair psychology, writing that the Dulles brothers succummed to cognitive biases, including confirmation bias. They saw everything in the world as they wanted to, and not as it was. They were driven by a missionary Calvinism and the ideal of American Exceptionalism that clouded their lenses. They also seemed to consider themselves infallible in their endeavors. Ultimately, "they are us," writes Kinzer, which is why it is important to learn from them. The parallels with recent American military and para-military endeavors is also clear, but Kinzer lets the reader make those comparisons.

I learned a great deal from the history of this book, studying the Dulles is an integral part in studying the execution of American foreign policy in the Cold War. Some of the omissions, simplifications, and psychoanalysis mar the book somewhat. 3.5 stars out of 5.

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