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Meet 'The Brothers' Who Shaped U.S. Policy, Inside And Out

John Foster Dulles (right) is greeted by his brother Allen Welsh Dulles on his arrival at LaGuardia Field in New York City in 1948.
Jacob Harris
John Foster Dulles (right) is greeted by his brother Allen Welsh Dulles on his arrival at LaGuardia Field in New York City in 1948.

In 1953, for the first and only time in history, two brothers were appointed to head the overt and covert sides of American foreign policy. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed John Foster Dulles secretary of state, and Allen Dulles director of the CIA.

Journalist Stephen Kinzer says the Dulles brothers shaped America's standoff with the Soviet Union, led the U.S. into war in Vietnam, and helped topple governments they thought unfriendly to American interests in Guatemala, Iran, the Congo and Indonesia. In his new book, The Brothers, Kinzer says the Dulles' actions "helped set off some of the world's most profound long-term crises."

John Dulles died in 1959. President Kennedy replaced Allen Dulles after the covert operation he recommended to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba ended disastrously in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

Kinzer tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the Dulles' shared background and ideology played out in their policy decisions: "They had this view of the world that was implanted in them from a very young age," Kinzer says. "That there's good and evil, and it's the obligation of the good people to go out into the world and destroy the evil ones."

Interview Highlights

When they were making a decision about carrying out some earth-shattering operation; they never had to consult anyone else. ... They served as a reverberating echo chamber for their own shared certainties.

On the way the brothers worked together

They both became close to Eisenhower during his presidential campaign, and he named them both, one right before he took office and the other right after he took office. It was an arrangement that was fraught with danger from the beginning, not just because of who the brothers were, but for the fact that they were brothers. They'd grown up together, of course, and had come to develop a very intimate relationship.

They also saw the world in precisely the same way. What this meant is that when they were making a decision about carrying out some earth-shattering operation, they never had to consult anyone else. Under other circumstances you might've had the half dozen Latin America experts of the CIA and the half dozen guys from the State Department, and they would sit around a table and try to figure out if this was a good idea or not. But having the two brothers meant that you never had to consult anyone else. They served as a reverberating echo chamber for their own shared certainties.

On the brothers' professional relationship

We have very little written record of the relationship between the two of them, and the reason is they would speak on the phone several times a day. They would meet after work sometimes or on weekends, and it just took a wink or a nod, sometimes literally, for these huge operations to be carried out. They had the full blessing of President Eisenhower and they didn't do anything behind his back, but he gave them more or less free reign, and they functioned as kind of two jaws of a serpent that are kind of not connected but working towards the same goal. Foster Dulles would provide the diplomatic backdrop and the political motivation that American citizens would hear, and then Allen would carry out the operation secretly.

On how their religious upbringing affected their politics

The Dulles brothers came from a long line of missionary Calvinists. They grew up in a parsonage; their father was a clergyman; they had missionaries for dinner very often; and they had to go to services every day — three on Sundays — and take notes about the services so that they could discuss the sermons with their father. They sang hymns at home and spent a lot of time in prayer. The particular religious tradition they came out of — Presbyterian Calvinism — was one that did see the world in these two ways: that there were good Christians and then there were heathens and savages. Christians, under this doctrine, did not have the luxury of sitting at home and hoping for the triumph of good; they had to go out into the world and make sure that good triumphed.

When you have that view about your religion, it's a very small step to applying the same schema to politics. You think there are good and evil leaders in the world, good and evil regimes in the world, and this is a very different concept than the concepts that many cultures and many other peoples have. It's a widespread belief in many parts of the world that every person and every government is made up of good and evil impulses, and they come out in different proportions depending on circumstances. But the Dulles brothers didn't believe that. They had grown up in a religious tradition that saw a division between good and evil, and when they came to political power, they saw the world that way.

On being horrified by communism

They saw, quite correctly, that Marxism, Bolshevism, communism had emerged as the principle threat to the power of multinational corporations in the world. They were very worried about radical change. They felt that the world could go crazy if it didn't allow business to function freely. As far as they were concerned, conditioned by their decades defending the biggest American multinational corporations [when they were corporate lawyers], the world economy, the security and happiness of all the world's people depended on the ability of American corporations to function freely in the world.

That communism would not only seek to restrict American corporations, but that it actually doubted the efficacy, the entire concept of private enterprise and multinational corporate activity, was something horrifying to them.

On their misinterpretation of nationalism and neutrality

Stephen Kinzer has served has <em>The New York Times </em>bureau chief in Turkey, Germany and Nicaragua. He teaches journalism and foreign policy at Boston University.
Deborah Donnelley / Courtesy of Times Books
Courtesy of Times Books
Stephen Kinzer has served has The New York Times bureau chief in Turkey, Germany and Nicaragua. He teaches journalism and foreign policy at Boston University.

The Dulles brothers not only saw a danger coming from the Soviet Union, which of course was a nuclear-armed state at the height of the Cold War and for many years afterward, they also saw an equal danger coming from countries all over the world that were embracing what we now see as simple nationalism. Countries that emerged and decided that they didn't want to side with the United States in the Cold War and didn't want to be involved in the Cold War, seemed to the Dulles brothers to be tools of the Kremlin. ...

They completely failed to understand the nature of third-world nationalism. You had hundreds of millions of people in Africa, Asia and even in Latin America emerging from colonialism. They were looking for a place in this tumultuous world. The Dulles brothers couldn't see that; they assumed that all these neutralist and nationalist movements were part of the Kremlin strategy.

On the Dulles' ability to overthrow regimes in Iran and Guatemala but not in Cuba or Vietnam

They were able to succeed [at regime change] in Iran and Guatemala because those were democratic societies, they were open societies. They had free press; there were all kinds of independent organizations; there were professional groups; there were labor unions; there were student groups; there were religious organizations. When you have an open society, it's very easy for covert operatives to penetrate that society and corrupt it.

Actually, one of the people who happened to be in Guatemala at the time of the coup there was the young Argentine physician Che Guevara. Later on, Che Guevara made his way to Mexico and met Fidel Castro. Castro asked him, "What happened in Guatemala?" He was fascinated; they spent long hours talking about it, and Che Guevara reported to him ... "The CIA was able to succeed because this was an open society." It was at that moment that they decided, "If we take over in Cuba, we can't allow democracy. We have to have a dictatorship. No free press, no independent organizations, because otherwise the CIA will come in and overthrow us." In fact, Castro made a speech after taking power with [Guatemalan President Jacobo] Árbenz sitting right next to him and said, "Cuba will not be like Guatemala."

Now, [Vietnamese Communist leader] Ho Chi Minh was not establishing an open society ... the fact is, he had a dictatorship, he had a closed, tyrannical society, and that made it much more difficult for the CIA to operate. So we find this irony that if [Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad] Mossadegh and Árbenz had been the tyrants that the Dulles brothers portrayed them as being, the Dulles brothers wouldn't have been able to overthrow them. But the fact that they were democrats committed to open society made their countries vulnerable to intervention in ways that Vietnam and particular North Vietnam then were not.

On how things might have been different had the Dulles brothers not intervened

It's quite possible, even likely, had the Dulles brothers not been [in Vietnam] or had acted differently, there never would've been an American involvement in Vietnam at the cost of a million lives and more than 50,000 Americans. Guatemala wouldn't have suffered 200,000 dead over a period of 35 years in the civil war that broke out after they intervened in Guatemala and destroyed democracy there. Iran fell under royal dictatorship and then more than 30 years of fundamentalist religious rule as a result of the Dulles brothers' operations. Had they not intervened in Iran we might've had a thriving democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East. ...

So you look around the world and you see these horrific situations that still continue to shake the world, and you can trace so many of them back to the Dulles brothers.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: October 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, the title of Stephen Kinzer's previous book is misstated as Regime Change. The correct title is Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.
NPR Staff