Stephen Kinzer has many fine qualities as a chronicler of recent U.S. foreign relations: his first-hand experience of diverse regions gained from journalistic assignments around the world, his skill at making the past come alive in vivid, pithy prose, and his readiness to engage with the most challenging contemporary policy issues.
For me, though, his most admirable quality is his readiness to put the stories he tells in long-term historical perspective. Take, for example, All the Shah’s Men, his brilliant account of the 1953 CIA operation in Iran that culminated in the overthrow of the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the restoration of the autocratic Shah.
Although it doesn’t scant on the details of the coup itself, All the Shah’s Men devotes much of the book to a fascinating account of earlier Persian history. This helps the reader understand that Mossadegh really was a nationalist concerned with defending his country’s independence – not a cat’s paw for Moscow, as Washington saw him at the time – and that the CIA’s operation was only the latest in a series of unwonted great power interventions in Iran. This in turn explains why the coup left a legacy of ill-feeling toward the U.S. among Iranians, one that still bedevils U.S. relations with Iran, and the larger Middle East, today.
In The Brothers, Stephen Kinzer does something similar with a number of other key moments in the 1950s when the U.S. perceived Third World nationalist leaders as Soviet stooges and unleashed the CIA on them, creating problems in American foreign relations that also haunt the present day. In addition to the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953, he discusses the CIA coup in Guatemala that took place the following year; early covert operations in Vietnam against the communist Ho Chi Minh; the “Archipelago” program to do away with the Indonesian leader Sukarno; U.S. complicity in the ghastly death of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo; and the CIA plan to remove the Cuban leader Fidel Castro that culminated in the disastrous invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
This time, the larger historical framework is biographical. Brothers John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles were Secretary of State and Director of Central Intelligence, respectively, at the time of these events, serving under President Dwight Eisenhower. Foster, a dour, looming Calvinist, was obsessed with what he believed was the existential threat to America and Christianity posed by the international communist movement, and set out to stamp on nationalist leaders he deemed susceptible to communism. Allen, by contrast a twinkling, roguish personality, was entrusted with the task of using the vast, undefined powers of the newly created CIA to carry this world-wide campaign into action. Between them, the brothers controlled both the overt and the covert instruments of U.S. foreign policy, an unprecedented situation in American history.
In addition to documenting in colorful and disturbing detail the ways the Dulles tried to remove nationalist leaders they didn’t like, The Brothers treats us to a deeply textured account of their lives together prior to the arrival in their Eisenhower administration. The scions of an old Scots-Irish Presbyterian family, the Dulles boys were born to rule. Both a grandfather and an uncle served as secretaries of state. They grew up in the bosom of the East Coast “establishment,” attended Princeton, then embarked on careers that mixed foreign service, or espionage in Allen’s case, with lucrative partnerships in the corporate law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. (Although hobbled by her gender, another sibling, sister Eleanor, also moved in elite Washington circles.)
Within this milieu, so richly painted by Kinzer, certain powerful ideological traditions shaped the Dulles brothers’ mindsets and, crucially, their joint campaign against Third World nationalists. One was American exceptionalism, the notion that the U.S. was a uniquely virtuous nation in world history and therefore had the right, if not obligation, to impose its example on other countries. Another was evangelical Christianity, an allied belief that Americans also had a providential, divinely ordained mission in the wider world. Finally, the Dulles brothers were corporate globalists, firm believers in the idea that American business had the right to penetrate all foreign markets, by force if necessary.
(Although Kinzer does not dwell on it, it seems to me that The Brothers identifies a fourth impulse driving the behavior of Foster and Allen Dulles, that is a certain kind of upper-class masculinity. Allen was an adulterer on a massive scale and seems to have regarded smaller nations much as he did women, as there for despoiling; Foster, a devoted husband in contrast with his brother, nonetheless exhibited a paternalistic attitude toward the world’s non-western, “less developed” races. The Brothers contains one telling scene when Allen’s much-abused wife Clover discusses with one of her husband’s many mistresses how the Dulles brothers resembled sharks, having always to keep moving in order to stay alive. It is striking how many other members of the Dulles family, overshadowed by the famous brothers, led terribly unhappy lives.)
Between them, these unquestioned attitudes conditioned all of the covert interventions of the Eisenhower era. The coups in Iran and Guatemala, for example, were as much about defeating perceived threats to the business interests of America’s capitalist elites as containing the spread of communism. Ho and Sukarno offended Foster’s Calvinist religiosity. Lumumba’s fate was so miserable in part because patrician Americans had very little personal notion of life in post-colonial Africa. All these men were “monsters” in the brothers’ demonology, and therefore deserving of monstrous treatment.
Of course, the Dulles brothers’ value system now appears outmoded, even quaint. But, as Stephen Kinzer reminds us again in a stimulating concluding chapter, the actions that it propelled the U.S. to take in the 1950s shaped the world we live in today. What unthinking cultural assumptions and prejudices drive the behavior of those who make current U.S. foreign policy?
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]