John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen were key figures of the Cold War, John serving as Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State and Allen as Director of the CIA through the 1950s and early 60s. Stephen Kinzer’s recent book The Brothers documents the Dulles’s powerful – and often damaging – influence on American foreign policy of the era: their rigid anticommunism and zeal for covert adventure needlessly provoked the Soviet adversary and sowed the seeds of bitter anti-American resentment in nonaligned nations throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, an attitude which persists to this day.
In The Brothers, Kinzer carefully assembles a catalogue of the Dulles’s strategic biases, tactical fumbles, and downright dirty deals: each saw the postwar globe in with-us-or-against-us terms, categorizing post-colonial independence movements as Kremlin machinations; together and separately they promoted the overthrow or assassination of popular leaders in Guatemala, Iran, Indonesia, the Congo, and Cuba; and under Eisenhower they nurtured an operational culture of clandestine executive action which troubled US elected lawmakers and alienated American allies.
In a strange way, however, The Brothers is an inadvertent rebuttal to the criticisms of US imperialism which have been floating around for generations. Contrary to Oliver Stone-type theses that anyone not angrily denouncing American power must be a paid-off mouthpiece of it, John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles were not cynics but true believers. Sons of a Christian missionary, who each rose through the ranks of the US diplomatic and intelligence communities after World War I, the Dulles siblings were genuinely convinced of America’s destiny as a deliverer of democracy, self-determination, and free markets to the world. They were not Freemasons. They were not Jewish financiers. Though they had professional ties to Wall Street, they did not take their orders from bankers and industrialists. They did not light cigars with hundred-dollar bills while chortling over some profitable war they had concocted on another continent. Associates, in fact, found John Foster Dulles an insufferably pious booster of American exceptionalism, while Allen was known as a compulsive womanizer who relished the cloak-and-dagger thrills of intelligence work rather than its sober application to policy development. “The Dulles brothers were not adept at synthesizing, compromising, listening, adapting, or planning,” Kinzer concludes. “Political nuance rarely clouded their worldview. Neither did moral ambiguity.”
Of course, this obliviousness does not exonerate John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles for the wrongs they committed in their time and which still reverberate in the present. But it also means that much of the condemnation aimed at the international actions of the US has been badly misdirected. It is hardly helpful to accuse a man of being a serial killer when he is actually beating his wife; justice is not served by charging an embezzler with armed robbery. The Dulles brothers were idealistic, patriotic, simplistic, and self-righteous men who often used their offices with reckless ignorance of long-term geopolitics and regional histories, but they were not corrupt capitalist stooges who lied and cheated out of sheer self-interest. They did a lot of bad things, yet most of the time they were honestly convinced they were doing the right thing (one reason they preferred undercover jobs was that they were cheaper and less destructive than an all-out Third World War). The Brothers tells important truths about US power at its most abused. An incidental lesson of the book, though, is that before speaking truth to power, we should make sure we’ve really ascertained what the truth is.