Thursday, November 14, 2013


Who said the individual doesn't count, or make that two individuals.  For sure the times do have an impact on leaders and those who serve them, but I have always believed that the individual makes a difference, often a big difference.  That idea was only reinforced in my reading of Stephen Kinzer's excellent new book, The Brothers: John Foster, Allen Dulles and their Secret World War.  It is a tale centered mostly in the 1950s, one focused on the perhaps the most significant brother act in American history.  John Foster Dulles (known as Foster) served as Eisenhower's secretary of state, Allen Dulles his CIA director.  What that meant can be best expressed in this simple equation: D2+P=C. Take two Dulles' with their multiplier effect (D2) add power (P) and there will be big consequences (C).  Some of those consequences remain evident today, more than five decades on.

To say the Dulles boys were destined to play their roles is hardly an exaggeration.  Born to privilege, their grandfather and uncle both served as secretaries of state — John Watson Foster (Benjamin Harrison) and Robert Lansing (Woodrow Wilson).  Their father, Presbyterian minister Allen Macy Dulles came from a line of missionaries.  A powerful life-long streak of Calvinistic ran especially through Foster's body.  It was a large part of what oriented and moved him during his years of private and public service.  Both brothers were lawyers and not merely so, they were partners at Sullivan and Cromwell, the leading Wall Street firm — Foster its managing partner.  They represented some of America's largest corporations of their day, the likes of Standard Oil, Babcock & Wilcox and United Fruit, connections that played large in their public service.  The policies they drove were business client friendly, sometimes outrageously so, whether in Iran, Central America or Africa.

As to the time as a driving force in what makes the man, Foster and Allen matured in the World Wars and were obsessed with the Cold War that followed.  Their worldview was one of black and white — the absolutely good vs. the totally bad.  And that bad was Communism, especially the Soviets but also any person or place that they deemed dominated or influenced by Moscow.  That rigid view allowed for no nuance and quickly drawn good-bad assessments allowed for no modification.  They listened to only those who agreed with their point of view — they fired naysayers — and indeed listened mostly to each other.  Because they concurrently occupied the two most important foreign policy and action posts of their time, it was a view that prevailed and not necessarily to America's immediate or longer term interests.  To be fair, the Dulles brothers largely acted as the bad cop partners to their good cop boss, Dwight Eisenhower, whose nice guy facade masked a nail-tough inner man.

Kinzer's narrative brings Foster and Allen into vivid relief from cradle to grave.  Despite being exceedingly close, the brothers were as different in personality as two people could be.   Foster was the austere Presbyterian who shunned social occasions and was, if not awkward then certainly reserved with people.  Allen was a womanizer who loved to party, a daredevil whose life in the shadows of clandestine activism suited him well.   To say that their professional life was awash with conflicts of interests would be an understatement.  That they were tone-deaf to the notion that mixing client and public service might be questionable may speak as much to their time — the age of incestuous good old boys — as to their own judgment.  While wrongly attributed to their cabinet colleague Charlie Wilson, the idea that "what's good for General Motors is good for the nation" expresses the mentality of the day, one to which they fully subscribed.

Whether the brothers Dulles or Eisenhower are to blame, the fact is that the turn American policy took coupled with the actions that followed under their watch pretty well set the course for the country's direction.  It impacts and, I'd argue, haunts us still.  We continue to be influenced by large business interests.  In their day that influence was exerted by two lawyers who represented, and made their substantial wealth from, giant corporations.  Today, lobbyists many of whom are former revolving door government officials, play that role.  Perhaps less overt, but the inherent conflict of interest still pertains.  The hostile relationship between the United States and Iran was set in motion by the Dulles led 1953 overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh.  So, too, is our uneasy relationship with Latin America rooted in the mischief of the Dulles brothers, epitomized by the coup against Jocobo Arbenz coup in Guatemala.  They refused to accept or work with Fidel Castro and then Allen's people constructed what became the ill-fated Bay of Pigs mission that so-discredited Eisenhower's successor.  Perhaps most important they set the table for our intervention in Viet Nam.  Kinzer suggests that Forster promoted policy probably prolonged the Cold War, the remnants of which pertain in the Putin era.

Without letting Foster and Allen off the hook, Stephen Kinzer ends on a cautionary note.  The brothers did their thing, but in large measure they reflected what Americans wanted them to do.  As suggested in previous posts, we the people bear substantial responsibility for what our leaders do.  In some cases that's the result of our remaining silent or not voting/participating, but often they are simply giving voice to what we believe.  Constant polling only feeds that syndrome.  And it isn't only the residual effects of Dulles brothers' actions that we feel in 2013; there is something "new" in our world that mirrors theirs.  Communism obsessed them; Islamism plays a similar role in ours.

Just as Foster Dulles painted all his real and imagined foes with a simplistic common brush.  We have a tendency to do the same.  We become unhinged when Islam of any stripe emerges as a major player in a country's government.  Dulles equated Communism with brutal dictatorship even where the two were not in fact aligned.  We seem to think that Islam oriented rule and terrorism are always one and the same.   For Forster an autocratic Christian dictator got a pass while a socialist leader who came to power through democratic vote was deemed a danger.  The 1950s fear of Communism led to an uptick in spying and, albeit enabled by the most primitive technology, surveillance.   What we're doing today is not new; it's just more sophisticated and consequently more pervasive.  By the way, in their day we listened in on foreign leaders and they listened in on ours.  While both Communism and Islamism have their unquestioned dark sides, there was an overreaction and a semblance of irrationality in the Dulles approach and in ours.

The tale of two powerful brothers is both fascinating and disturbing.  We can and should look at it as a cautionary tale.  Cautionary, not because it's something that can happen again, but because it still is happening.  We continue to look at foreign countries through American eyes measured against our sense of ourselves, our presumed exceptionalism.  We are often clueless and worse uncurious about other cultures and ways.  When Foster Dulles refused to grasp Zhou Enlai's outstretched hand, he didn't understand what being dissed means to an Asian.  It was undiplomatic but more so an expression of arrogance and ignorance.  We still send out our representatives with poor or non-existent language skills and knowledge of culture.  Disrespect comes in many forms.  In the end, the Dulles formula probably did us more damage than good.  There were consequences and there should have been lessons.  We've felt the first but I'm not sure we learned from the second.

My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

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