Review of Stephen Kinzer's "The Brothers"

tags: Cold War, book reviews



Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012) and The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Massachusetts, 2009).

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War
by Stephen Kinzer
Times Books, 2013

In one of the most compelling pieces of twentieth century political art, Glorious Victory, Diego Rivera depicts Secretary of State John Foster Dulles shaking hands over a pile of dead corpses with Castillo Armas who deposed Guatemala’s left-leaning President Jacobo Arbenz in a 1954 coup. CIA director Allen Dulles stands next to the pair, his satchel full of cash, while Dwight Eisenhower’s face is pictured in a bomb.

Stephen Kinzer’s book, The Brothers, provides a detailed portrait of the Dulles brothers, who dominated foreign policy making in the 1950s and helped transform the CIA from an “intelligence agency that carried out occasional clandestine plots into a global force ceaselessly engaged in paramilitary and regime change campaigns.”Along with Guatemala’s Operation PBSuccess, the brothers orchestrated the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh after he threatened to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, backed a separatist rebellion against Indonesia’s socialist prime minister and a vicious counterinsurgency against agrarian reformers in Philippines, molded a secret army in Laos after rigging elections, and built up a police state in South Vietnam after boycotting the Geneva conference. The brothers also sanctioned assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba, trained opium-growing soldiers in an attempt to undermine Maoist China and sent Saudi soldiers into the oil-rich Buraimi Oasis in the Persian Gulf which they sought to wrest control of from Great Britain.

To pull all of this off, the brothers bought off congressmen, set up dummy corporations, planted stories in the press, and drummed up fears about the Soviet “threat,” which historians now recognize to have been exaggerated. CIA agent Harry Rositzke wrote that “the image of [the Soviet Union promoted by the Dulles’] was an illusion. The specter of a powerful Russia was remote from the reality of a country weakened by war, with a shattered economy, an overtaxed civilian and military bureaucracy and large areas of civil unrest.”

Groomed for their positions from birth, the Dulles brothers came from a family whose history was intricately tied with that of American imperial expansion. Their grandfather, John Watson Dulles served as Secretary of State in the 1890s under Benjamin Harrison and endorsed the landing of American troops following the overthrow of Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani who had stood up to American business interests. Their uncle Robert Lansing, served as Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state during World War I, and sanctioned covert operations in Russia following the Bolshevik revolution which he described as “the most hideous and monstrous thing that the human mind has ever conceived, supported only by the criminal, the depraved , and the mentally unfit.”

Sharing a similar attitude towards communism, the brothers were imbued with a strict Calvinist upbringing which led them to see the world as an “eternal battleground between saintly and demonic forces” and to believe that “providence had ordained a special global role for the United States.” Both worked as attorneys for Sullivan and Cromwell which represented many of the largest corporations and banks. In 1936, Foster authored the law which enabled the United Fruit Company to take over one seventh of Guatemala’s arable land. His clients included I.G. Farben, producer of Zyklon B gases used in Nazi concentration camps, and he was chief agent for the “banking circles that rescued Adolf Hitler from the financial depths and set up his Nazi party.”Allen meanwhile forged close ties with Nazi spymaster Reinhard Gehlen because of Gehlen’s intricate knowledge of the Soviet Union.

Carried away by their love of the cloak-and-dagger game, the brothers generally lacked intellectual curiosity and rigor in analyzing world affairs and “lost sight of the limits of what covert action can achieve.”As head of the Warren commission investigating JFK’s assassination, Allen blocked inquiry into CIA-Mafia plots to kill Castro and censored agency records on Lee Harvey Oswald. To the end, he stuck to the coda of secrecy and deceit that has eroded public faith in government.

Based on extensive reading of secondary literature, Kinzer’s book is well written and sure to reach a wide audience. Most of his points echo New Left historians and social critics like Noam Chomsky who have long pointed to the hypocrisies underlying U.S. foreign policy. Kinzer skillfully depicts the Dulles brothers as Machiavellian power brokers who were narrow-minded in their world view, cold in their personal relations and detached from the human consequences of their work. He includes an interesting discussion at the end about human psychology and how people often stick to prescribed beliefs, even if all evidence shows that they are deficient. And the public can be whipped up into hatred through propaganda, which the Dulles brothers were experts in producing.


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