In 2011 author Steven Kinzer appeared on the Lewis campus as part of a series of events devoted to that year’s Common Reader, Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi’s comic-book style autobiography documents her young life growing up in Tehran as the daughter of upper level bureaucrats during the years of the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. In April of 2011 Kinzer had published the timely Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. A few years before, in All the Shah’s Men, he had given fuller attention to one of the chapters in that book: the CIA engineered 1953 regime change in Iran. Drawing from his experiences researching and writing All the Shah’s Men, Kinzer provided useful information and perspective for understanding Satrapi’s work.
His most recent book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War (October 2013) continues Kinzer’s interest in America’s illegal and often counter-productive interventionism in the internal affairs of other nations. In this most recent work, he looks at the phenomenon through the lens of two of the most important figures in post-World War II America, the well-born and well-schooled Dulles brothers who served in the Eisenhower Administration. Allen was the Secretary of State until his death in 1959; Allen was the first director of the CIA and only left that post when Kennedy and the Democrats swept into office. Joined at the hip, they were two most powerful architects of the Cold War.
Though hardly remembered today, these two men who shared the same vision of the world and America’s place in it, have cast a long shadow on American foreign policy, both the public, diplomatic side and the covert side, which worked hand-in-hand during the Dulles years and still do to a certain extent. Kinzer believes that it is useful to pull the Dulles brothers out of obscurity to look closely at the evil genies that they let out of the bottle so that we can have a long-delayed but necessary examination of America’s place in the world. Our national amnesia about the brothers’ exploits during the 1950s – when America “successfully” toppled elected governments in Iran and Guatemala and disastrously tried to topple new nationalistic uprisings in Vietnam and Cuba – has led to the Iraq War debacle. Dick Cheney is the heir of the Dulles vision of the world and the voices that rise from the Senate today to supply Syrian rebels and to bomb Iranian nuclear plants are echoes of the Dulles’s spirit of active interventionism. Kinzer’s writings provide myriad answers to the question, “Why Do They Hate Us?”
Kinzer excoriates the Dulles brothers in a number of ways. He finds them unimaginative, inflexible, and insensitive men. While justified to question Soviet intentions in the new world order following World War II, they only saw a world made up of two super-powers engaged in mortal combat with one another. Such binary thinking blinded them both to the strength of the Soviet threat and the scope of Soviet intentions, but it also prevented them from seeing the true nature of nationalistic, post-colonial movements in countries like Indonesia and the Congo. Charismatic leaders like Ho Chi Minh were seen as potential if not actual puppets of the Soviets and Chinese (who they erroneously saw as enduring allies of the Soviets) and not as leaders more interested in autonomy from the super-powers and in membership in a group of non-aligned, neutral nations. Even when the evidence went contrary to their Cold War mentality, they clung stubbornly to their “either for us or against us” mind-set. Kinzer finds in each man, despite their good breading and Ivy League refinements, a ruthlessness that rendered them unmindful of the human costs of their decisions. They left behind what the title of Tim Weiner’s 2007 work on the CIA conveys: A Legacy of Ashes.
Kinzer makes it clear that these men not only forged a foreign policy consensus but were driven by our national character and history, a history that includes the subjugation and elimination of human deemed at best obstacles to progress and, at worst, sub-human. 20th century interventionism was an extension of 19th aggressive 19th century national expansionism. At mid-century, Grandfather Ike, though wizened by his experiences in World War II, was easily convinced by these two insiders to wage covert war, and dissenters, inside and outside of congress, to the expansion of the national security state in the congress were few and far between. Their exploits rarely drew censure from American corporations because interventionism was often at the service of American economic interests, whether it be oil in the middle east or bananas in Central America or minerals in Africa. Before coming into the government positions, both brothers, Foster more enthusiastically than Allen, worked for the powerful Sullivan and Cromwell law firm that represented the most powerful American corporations seeking exploitation of resources outside US boundaries through the perpetuation of colonial rule and the support for dictators who pledged to keep the country from turning communist.
Perhaps more powerful than the brothers’ mercenary motives was their belief in missionary Calvinism that produced a belief in American exceptionalism, an exceptionalism which meant that forever-innocent and always well-intentioned America could do no wrong in the world. It legitimated the notion that the world is a dangerous place in which the forces of righteousness would be forever be locked into combat with the dark, diabolic, God-less forces, and that with enough resolve, effort and money the good would prevail. Even though the brothers faded from the national picture more than 50 years ago, the idea of American exceptionalism still prevails and, according to Kinzer, forecloses a serious discussion of America’s place in the world. Even a foreign policy realist like Obama has to support to American greatness and its indispensable role in the world. Kinzer’s work serves well this purpose of stimulating a national conversation.