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

In a different time, a time when we escape the cultural waste excreted by decadent capitalism, a time without Fast and Furious 23 and the abominable cable television mini-series Spartacus, some creative and capable filmmaker might make a fascinating bio-pic out of the lives of the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster. Until then, we must make do with a new biography of the important duo (The Brothers, Times Books, 2013) written by Stephen Kinzer, and another, hopefully soon-to-be-available book on the subject by David Talbot.
Kinzer’s book gives a fascinating, but unsatisfying look at the lives of two public figures who wielded an unprecedented concentration of global power. For the better part of a decade– from 1953 to 1959– the two brothers together shaped nearly the entire US policy toward the rest of the world. As director of the Central Intelligence Agency, brother Allen decided the US clandestine activities toward friends and foes alike. At the same time, he shaped the extent and few limits of the newly founded agency.
Brother John Foster did the same for the US’s overt role in the world. As President D. D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State from 1953 until Dulles’s death in 1959, he served the same goals and interests as his brother.
The unusual circumstance of such complete and convergent power sharing was neither coincidental nor the result of a ruthless power grab. In fact, it was consensual.
But who gave the necessary consent? Certainly not the electorate, since neither brother held elected office. Nor was it the tacit consent of the public given Allen Dulles’s secretive role and publicly unknown activities. The consent question can only be answered by positing the existence in the US of a mechanism capable of deciding questions of ultimate leadership, a mechanism that could entrust US foreign policy to these two long-groomed brothers. While we cannot be sure of who exactly operates this mechanism and how it specifically functions, we can be sure that it exists with the same certainty that we can affirm the unseen existence of gravity.
It should be equally obvious that the work of the Dulles brothers through their eight years of common leadership coincided broadly with the “interests” of the US as defined by the privately-held, corporately organized heights of the US economy. While their policies only occasionally directly benefited individual capitalists (usually former legal clients), their actions were decidedly intent on benefiting the capitalist class as a whole.
It is through this mechanism that the interests of the capitalist class are protected and promoted. It is, in the end, the way in which a ruling class rules. In the end, it constitutes the best Marxist evidence for the existence of a ruling class.
Ruling class-deniers are compelled to explain how the Dulles brothers came to enjoy such exceptional power precisely at a time when US elites felt most threatened by the specter of Communism. They must offer an alternative account that brings two imposing figures associated with power, wealth, and anti-Communism to the pinnacle of power outside of the bourgeois democratic process.
Kinzer, a reliable foot soldier in the New York Times corporate empire, does not hide the uniqueness and oddity of the ascent of the brothers. But he would certainly have nothing to do with the forbidden idea of a ruling class in the US.
Nonetheless, his account offers revealing hints about how the Dulles brothers were vetted and selected, how one qualifies to be trusted agents for ruling class interests.
As early as 1921, the Dulles brothers participated in the creation of an important part of the mechanism of capitalist class rule: The Council on Foreign Relations and its subsequent public discussion journal, Foreign Affairs. To this day, the Council and its publication remain essential elements in crafting and debating foreign policy options congruent with the interests of capital.
Armed with Ivy League, foreign policy and clandestine service credentials, the Dulles brothers easily passed through the filters of ruling class trust. For John Foster, this brought him to the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, perhaps the leading legal agent for the international interests of US capital at the time. While rising to the top of the firm, the elder Foster ensured that US corporations, especially financial firms, were advanced and protected overseas. Kinzer recounts how the law firm could always call on the US military to back up its deal making. Moreover, he doesn’t hide the close, welcoming relationship of Sullivan and Cromwell with fascist regimes. Even in the inter-war period, Foster was obsessed with forging unity with any enemies of Communism. Like the Council on Foreign Affairs, Sullivan and Cromwell was another component of the ruling class mechanism. Allen worked for the firm as well.
With much of the history of the ruthless, violent, and undemocratic trajectory of US foreign policy in the 1950s now widely acknowledged, Kinzer cannot mask the devious and bloody role of the brothers in orchestrating it. Instead, he does a shrewd job of softening it by focusing on only six covert plots against foreign “monsters” perceived as standing in the way of US interests. The six– Iran’s Mossadegh, Guatemala’s Arbenz, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, Indonesia’s Sukharno, Congo’s Lumumba, and Cuba’s Fidel– are specifically targeted by the Dulles brothers for having the audacity to defy the US. All six cases are well-documented independently, with the Sukharno case the least well-known (Kinzer fails to fully indict the CIA in its collaboration in assassinating a million Indonesian Communists and their allies).
This spin on CIA extra-legal killings, coups, and assassination attempts feeds a simple-minded psychological explanation of the Dulles disposition to rearrange the world to suit US capital. Drawing on a bizarre interpretation of the celebrated movie, High Noon, Kinzer paints the Dulles brothers as counterparts to the cowboy hero “…reluctant to fight, but moved to do so because otherwise good people will suffer.” What makes this particular allusion so twisted is that the screenwriter, Carl Foreman, intended the film to be a less-than-veiled attack on the cowardice of those lacking the spine to confront anti-Communist blacklisting and McCarthyism. What was meant as an attack on the Cold War mentality is converted by Kinzer into an excuse for that Cold War mentality. Oddly, many right wingers see High Noon as Kinzer does. But the old loud-mouthed red-baiter, John Wayne, knew better– he refused the lead because he smelled an anti-blacklist allegory.
Kinzer postures his account as a study of an aberration, a time when well-meaning people did some now embarrassing things because they exaggerated the Soviet threat. But none of these postures are proven by Kinzer; they are merely stated as fact. There seems no good reason to view two Cold Warriors as well-meaning when they brought the world to the brink of nuclear war and caused the deaths of literally millions. There is no compelling reason to conclude that there really was a Soviet threat to the security of the US, unless one assumes the Soviet desire for world socialism was somehow more intrinsically aggressive than the US desire for a capitalist world. But posturing the Dulles’s foreign policy as an aberration is preposterous. The aggressiveness of the CIA and the US military after the reign of the brothers only intensified. Kinzer surely can’t be blind to the US interventions in Vietnam, Angola, Panama, Grenada, Chile, and right up to the more recent aggressions against Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yugoslavia, and Syria. The Dulles brothers provided a blue print and not an aberration.
So why does a distinguished writer for The New York Times writing for Times Books choose to write a critical, but sympathetic biography of these two ruthless Cold Warriors?
One finds the answer in the final chapter. Kinzer quotes Senator William Fulbright, an often lonely critic of the Fosters and US foreign policy, as saying that John Foster “misleads public opinion, confuses it, [and] feeds it pap.” But if Dulles fed the public “pap,” he did it through the intermediary of the US news media, including The New York Times. It is transparently obvious that the media of the Dulles era not only failed to challenge the Dulles world view but actively promoted and disseminated it. In that regard, Kinzer’s employer is complicit in fanning the flames of Cold War fervor and sanctioning the violence and lawlessness that emerged from it.
To escape this unpleasant judgment on the Cold War media, Kinzer finds a convenient, handy scapegoat: the US public. Amidst splashes of psycho-babble, Kinzer explains:
Part of the answer lies in their personal backgrounds, part in the realm of psychology. The most important explanation, however, may be: they did it because they are us. If they were shortsighted, open to violence, and blind to the subtle realities of the world, it was because these qualities help define American foreign policy and the United States itself.
The Dulles brothers personified ideals and traits that many Americans shared during the 1950s, and still share… they embodied the national ethos. What they wanted, Americans wanted.
In all of this, the Dulles brothers were one with their fellow Americans. Their attitudes were rooted in the American character. They were pure products of the United States.
Now this is a shabby, dishonest piece of writing. Their “fellow Americans”– millions of ordinary people– were not like the Dulles brothers. They were not privileged Ivy League graduates born in the midst of the elite of the elites. Nor is it fair to the millions of US citizens who never had the opportunity to walk the path or through the doors open to the brothers to say that these citizens were “shortsighted,” “open to violence,” or “blind to subtle realities.” Certainly millions of their fellow citizens unwisely trusted these pillars of high society to not succumb to these character flaws. They were betrayed, just as they were betrayed by a compliant, cowardly media.
In his tortured finale, Kinzer persists in excusing the brothers and their Cold War enablers, the media. To his credit, he recognizes some of the great harm incurred on their watch; to his shame, he places the blame at the doorstep of the US public: “The blame, however, does not end with them. To gaze at their portraits and think, ‘They did it,’ would be reassuring. It would also be unfair. Americans who seek to understand the roots of their country’s trouble in the world should look not at Foster and Allen’s portraits but in a mirror.”
Kinzer would like us to believe that we collectively bear the blame for despicable deeds that were done behind our backs and without our consent, deeds that a compliant media, including his patron, The New York Times, were only too eager to ignore, distort, and approve.
Following Kinzer’s logic, the public is responsible for the hyper-spying of the NSA so recently revealed by Snowden. The fact that it was kept from public scrutiny by the government and the media matters not. If we are indignant over authorities collecting our phone calls and other electronic communications, we should look “in a mirror” and accept the blame.
Of course this is ridiculous.
Kinzer serves a cold dish of obfuscation and blame-deflection with his book, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and their Secret World War. Readers should be wary of this calculated apology for imperialism and its high commanders. There is little new in Kinzer’s account apart from some anecdotal hi-jinks. And much of the ugly side of US foreign policy is omitted. There is no indictment of an enthusiastically collaborative Cold War media either, only an embarrassing silence about their role.
Stephen Kinzer’s patrons will be happy.
Zoltan Zigedy