Book Review: “Neat, orderly Western Pigeon holes”

THE BROTHERS: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War by Stephen Kinzer (New York: Times Books, 2013).

As Donald Trump, against all odds, came to power in the United States, George Orwell’s classic book Nineteen Eight-Four with its warning and wisdom on political power has overnight become a best seller. Another book that is equally relevant in these times is Stephen Kinzer’s more recently published The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War. When The Brothers was published a few years ago, it was hailed as a shocking account of the misuse of American corporate, political and media power and the efforts of the United States to change governments in different parts of the world during the Cold War period. Now that Trump too is focused on coercing the world into accepting American Exceptionalism, the book has ominous relevance.  American Exceptionalism, as Kinzer put it, is the view that the United States has a right to impose its will on others because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations. This theory, for the Dulles brothers, was “not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.”

The Brothers discusses the unprecedented amount of power exercised by two brothers – John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles – on the government of the United States and, indeed, around the globe in the 1950s. John served as secretary of state from 1953 to 1959; Allen, as the first civilian Director of Central Intelligence Agency, ran C.I.A. from 1953 to 1961. Their interventionist foreign policy had an unusual influence and created for the U.S. the reputation of a notorious dark power bend on shaping the rest of the world to suit its nefarious games. The shadowy network the brothers created extended across Europe and into most of Asia, Africa and Central and Latin America. They devised ways to overthrow governments, assassinate foreign leaders who did not toe the U.S. line and prop up puppet governments around the world. Kinzer discusses in the book “six monsters” that the Dulles brothers sought to bring down: Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Sukarno in Indonesia, and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Of these, Castro outlived almost a dozen U.S. presidents and died recently of old age.

All through the book Kinzer cites instances to prove the might of the Dulles brothers in shaping the world in the 1950s. At a time when Communism was gaining control in Vietnam, several senior American officials suggested that instead of continuing to spend money fighting   Ho Chi Minh, the United States should offer him a large sum of money in reconstruction aid. This, they believed, would allow Ho Chi Minh to draw away from China and the Soviet Union, while also keeping the United States out of war. This view, however, clashed with the Dulles brothers’ blind hatred towards Communism and resulted in the costliest war in American history. Kinzer quotes an American officer who analyzed the situation: “It is one of the most dangerous, in fact potentially suicidal, things a great nation can do in world affairs: to cut off its eyes and ears, to castrate its analytic capacity, to shut itself off from the truth because of blind prejudice and a misguided dispensation of good and evil”  (30).

Two other nations that fell victims to the covert operations of the Dulles brothers were Iran and Guatemala. About Mossadegh, who was the leader of Iran, they reasoned: “Mossadegh was in rebellion against the West; his rebellion exposed Iran to Soviet influence; therefore he must be deposed” (142). The brothers toppled not only the democratic government of Iran but also that of Guatemala. The success in these two countries provided the brothers with the confidence to converge their spheres of power into the art of overthrowing legitimate governments. As Kinzer notes, “Allen (as the Director of CIA) brought the CIA into its golden age by showing that he could topple governments with minimum cost and almost complete discretion. Foster (as Secretary of State) understood the power this   implied. The world had become their battlefield. The brothers came to power determined to depose the leaders of two countries on opposite sides of the world. Both were now gone. Flushed with success, they moved on to their third target” (174).

In Indonesia the brothers attempted to bait the local army into attacking American businesses there “so there would be so much damage to the U.S. property that U.S. troops would have to be sent in” (240). This operation failed, but it exposed the inability of the brothers to grasp the complexities of other cultures and people, a key factor in the failure of the American government to leave a lasting impact abroad. As Kinzer put it, “Sukarno warned them (Foster and Allen) not to try placing Indonesians into “neat, orderly Western pigeon holes,” but their every impulse pushed them to do so…. “I had great respect for Foster and Allen Dulles, but they did not know Asians well and were always inclined to judge them by Western standards” (246).

It is simply mind boggling to read how Allen Dulles, with the massive amount of unaccounted money that President Eisenhower and the Congress put at his disposal for clandestine CIA work around the world, managed to not only bribe his way into overthrowing heads of overseas government and, when the CIA hand in such toppling leaked out, silenced the American media from publishing these. Throughout these operations, the brothers coordinated their power and interests. “As Allen’s men worked covertly, Foster applied diplomatic and political pressure” (229). By refusing to acknowledge the legitimate nationalist demands of the emerging independent nations, the brothers laid the groundwork for decades of upheaval. Their determination to preserve the American dominion in the rest of the world far outweighed their commitment to any principles or ideals.

According to New York Times, “Anyone wanting to know why the United States is hated across much of the world need look no farther than this book. “The Brothers” is a riveting chronicle of government-sanctioned murder, casual elimination of “inconvenient” regimes, relentless prioritization of American corporate interests and cynical arrogance on the part of two men who were once among the most powerful in the world.”

A little known fact about the Dulles brothers is that their political action was rooted in a deep religious conviction. As the children of a Presbyterian minister and grandchildren of a Christian missionary to India, even as children they imbibed the conservative values of the Christian faith. John grew up to hold responsible positions in the church, as a prominent layman in the Presbyterian Church and a leader of the National Council of the Churches in the U.S.A. As the World Council of Churches was being founded, he emerged as a representative of the American church in W.C.C. On the matter of Communism, however, his views clashed sharply with that of the ecumenical movement. At the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948 John argued that Communism was incompatible with peaceful change, and that the Russians were not following a regime of peace. He admonished those who supported the Communist creed. The WCC General Secretary Visser’t Hooft, however, insisted that the door of membership in the Council should be kept open to the churches of Russia as well as to the other Orthodox churches not in attendance. WCC embraced the vision of Visser’t Hooft and kept the doors of the Council open for the churches from Russia and the other Communist nations.

The parallels are striking when we read this book in Trump’s America. For the Dulles brothers it was the threat of Communism; today it is the ploy of ‘Islamic terrorism’. When paranoia is coupled with the might of an empire, sky is the limit. The similarities in the worldview of the Dulles brothers and Donald Trump are too striking to be overlooked. History, however, did not treat the brothers kindly. They have faded from public memory. It will need to be seen if history will treat Trump any kinder. As Jesse Ventura put it, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”





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