The Family Business

John Foster Dulles (left) and his brother, Allen, 1956.
John Foster Dulles (left) and his brother, Allen, 1956.

John Foster Dulles was a dullard and a prig. “He was driven to find and confront enemies, quick to make moral judgments, and not given to subtlety or doubt,” the former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer writes in his new biography of the Dulles brothers. In 1957, Foster (as he was familiarly known) gave his sister Eleanor a Christmas present of “several yellow legal pads” and a check. Kinzer quotes the British politician Harold Macmillan, summarizing a meeting with the Eisenhower administration’s dour new secretary of state: “His speech was slow, but it easily kept pace with his thoughts.”

Allen Dulles was in many ways the more outgoing and high-living brother, a genial satyr and an eternal dilettante in the world of covert action. As Kinzer notes, his mind was characterized by “distraction, inability to focus, lack of attention to detail, [and] aversion to rigorous debate.” He deflected serious discussion with funny anecdotes and baseball stories. As the administratively indifferent director of the CIA, he became so excited over Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels that he asked his subordinates if they could duplicate some of 007’s fantastic tools and weapons. In the words of the writer Burton Hersh, “He remained an actor, Mr. Chips doing intelligence.”

Together, these two brothers exercised extraordinary power over their nation and their world, a closely connected pair of willfully obtuse colossi who shaped much of the twentieth century like a plaything. Leading foreign policy during the postwar zenith of American power, the brothers Dulles casually overthrew or helped to overthrow foreign governments in Guatemala, Iran, and the Congo (and tried to overthrow Sukarno, the founder of Indonesia). They helped jump-start the emerging disaster in Vietnam, plotted to kill the leaders of other nations (with the assistance of the CIA’s “health alteration committee,” which arrived at agency stations bearing tubes of poisoned toothpaste for absurdly conceived attacks on foreign statesmen), and collaborated to steer their government into a long crisis of blindness and hysteria. Apprehending real but misperceived Soviet power everywhere, they insisted on seeing postcolonial nationalism and the political neutrality of many nations as Kremlin schemes; in their reading of events, the Bandung Conference of newly independent and nonaligned Asian and African nations was a “communist road show.” Differences in time and place couldn’t change their binary view of a world divided only between Communism and freedom. Foster “treated Nikita Khrushchev just as he had treated Stalin” and joined a Washington consensus that regarded Maoist China as a “pawn of the Soviet Union.” Under the Dulles brothers’ joint guidance, American foreign policy vanished into “a fog of unexamined assumptions.”

Remarkably, we are still paying the costs of those unexamined assumptions, particularly in the Middle East. The policy efforts of the Dulles brothers, intended to produce stability in the postwar world, often did the opposite. “Foster and Allen never imagined that their intervention in foreign countries would have such devastating long-term effects,” Kinzer argues. “Their lack of foresight led them to pursue reckless adventures that, over the course of decades, palpably weakened American security.”

Two exceptionally important stories take up the bulk of Kinzer’s book, and both are told with considerable insight and disciplined prose. The first is the tale of the “secret world war” of American violence and political subversion in the early half of the Cold War, and this is the story Kinzer most clearly wishes to tell. The second, closely related, is an institutional saga of the consequences that arose from the shared power of two brothers who simultaneously ran the CIA and the State Department—the covert and public faces of American foreign policy. As Kinzer writes, the Dulles brothers, under the influence of their mutual affinity, built a “reverberating echo chamber for their shared certainties.” The State Department and the CIA made decisions by the process of one brother picking up the phone and calling the other. Argument and analysis were plowed under the family consensus as a matter of course.

Two other episodes in this narrative cry out for closer examination. The first underplayed chronicle here concerns the way the Dulles brothers arrived at the certitude and inflexibility of their later years. John Foster Dulles is fifty years old on page 76, and sixty years old on page 92; he serves in the US Senate from the bottom of page 93 to the middle of page 95, most of which is taken up by an account of his failed effort to hold his seat in the subsequent election.

Extraordinary episodes fly by in single pages, or less. Here’s half of a paragraph that describes Allen’s experience as deputy director of the CIA: “Over the next few years, he sent waves of agents into Eastern Europe and Asia, nearly all of them exiles, with missions ranging from collecting earth samples to launching armed attacks. Nearly every man he sent into action was quickly discovered, and many were executed—hundreds in Europe, thousands in Asia.” Thousands died under his early leadership: OK, got it, next topic. Details of Allen’s World War II posting in Bern as an OSS operative get about the same level of attention.

The second underexamined subject here is the Dulles brothers’ connections to the rest of the American power elite. Kinzer largely glides over the long, formative professional experience of both brothers at Sullivan & Cromwell, the powerhouse law firm. During their many years in power in Washington, the brothers often took policy steps that very directly served the interests of Sullivan & Cromwell clients. The development of those relationships needs closer study. The Dulles brothers need their Robert Caro.

An examination of the way the brothers became “Dull, Duller, Dulles”—the title of a chapter in Kinzer’s book—would help to make more sense of their use of power. As matters stand, Kinzer concludes simply that “they are us. We are them.” In this telling, “Foster and Allen exemplified the nation that produced them. A different kind of leader would require a different kind of United States.”

But Kinzer shows clearly that the United States did have different kinds of leaders, working all around the Dulles brothers, even at the peak of their power. Many Americans were able to see clearly, resisting all of the traits that Kinzer pronounces to be fundamental to our national character and its Cold War variant. Foster urged Eisenhower to take over the French colonial war in Indochina, for example. “I cannot tell you . . . how bitterly opposed I am to such a course of action,” the president replied. An Eisenhower adviser, C. D. Jackson, wrote in a White House memorandum that the Dulles- promoted fantasy of stopping Ho Chi Minh through military intervention was the result of “wishful thinking, rosy intelligence, oversimplified geopolitical decisions . . . and unwillingness to retreat from previously taken policy decisions.” While Kinzer makes the Dulles brothers the quintessential Americans, his narrative surrounds them with other Americans—including the presidents they served—who argued against the fundamental components of the policies they promulgated.

Indeed, some US officials saw reality so clearly that they had to be replaced before the Dulles brothers could pursue their proposed interventions. The CIA station chief in Guatemala “had proven reluctant” to support covert action against the country’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, so Allen got rid of the officer and replaced him with one “who was less experienced but more obedient.” Ditto Guatemala’s American ambassador, the American ambassador in neighboring Honduras, and the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs—all had to be removed from their positions before the CIA could pursue its regime-change plot. A similar shuffling of personnel was required in Tehran, where a reluctant CIA station chief was sent packing before the agency could perpetrate its scheme to oust Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

The blunt agenda advanced by the Dulles brothers was often challenged by the thoughtful analysis of career diplomats. The Dulleses howled, for example, that Indonesia was disintegrating, in a clear prelude to a descent into Communism behind the suspiciously neutral Sukarno; their report to the National Security Council “contradicted dispatches from the new American ambassador in Indonesia, John Allison, who portrayed the country as stable and urged a policy of ‘patience and understanding.’” The response, explains a former CIA officer, was exactly the expected one: “We handled the problem by getting Allen Dulles to have his brother relieve Allison of his post.” If the paranoid and sclerotic worldview of the Dulles brothers was fundamentally American, then what was the source of all this resistance and criticism from fellow Americans?

“When their own envoys advised them to tolerate Mossadegh and Árbenz, or to accept neutralist regimes in Indonesia and Laos, they could not hear,” Kinzer writes. Even those officials who weren’t formally replaced could simply be shoved aside if they argued against the consensus. An unnamed foreign-service officer contended in a meeting that Árbenz “might be only a homegrown nationalist unconnected to the Kremlin,” for example, and Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith did the expected work of a senior official, duly toeing the Dulles line: “‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Smith told the offender. ‘Forget those stupid ideas and let’s get on with our work.’”

This determination to make the data match the decision, turning aside other arguments, seems less a characteristic of the American spirit than a habit of authority—or, as Kinzer writes, of the “contrast between the idealized and real faces of power.” He tells the story of those two faces, particularly at their most dangerous heights of power, with considerable insight.

Chris Bray is an adjunct assistant professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, California.