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Author contends Dulles brothers covertly led U.S. into foreign engagements whose effects still shake the world


In the introduction to his new book that casts a critical eye on the legacy of the Dulles brothers, Stephen Kinzer recalls the unveiling of a “larger than life”bust of John Foster Dulles at the November 1962 opening of Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.

But that bust was removed in the 1990s during airport renovations, Mr. Kinzer writes. After several inquiries, he finally tracked it down. It was stored in a private conference room opposite an airport baggage-claim carousel.

“Dulles looks big-eyed and oddly diffident, anything but heroic,” Mr. Kinzer writes in his book.

His search is full of symbolism. As a nation, he says, we would be wise to search the legacy of the Dulles brothers and see what we can learn from it. Putting the bust of John Foster Dulles, the former secretary of state, back on display would be a good place to start, he says.

“My book is a blow against historical amnesia,” Mr. Kinzer said in a phone interview from his office at Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, Providence, R.I., where he teaches in the international relations program.

In his book, “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War,” he writes, “they share responsibility for much that has gone wrong in the world.”

The north country has its own memorial to the legacy of the Dulleses that towers over Watertown. In the foyer of the Dulles State Office Building, 317 Washington St., a plaque proudly states that the name of the building commemorates “the exceptional achievements” of John Foster Dulles, Allen Welsh Dulles and Eleanor Lansing Dulles.

The three Dulleses have roots in Watertown. Eleanor Dulles was a political economist and career diplomat, serving for many years as director of German affairs for the State Department. Mr. Kinzer’s dual biography focuses on John Foster and Allen W. Dulles.

“It’s remarkable to think that those two brothers who went off to shape the world in a far-reaching way assimilated their world view in Watertown,” said Mr. Kinzer, who previously served as New York Times bureau chief in Turkey, Germany and Nicaragua.

John Foster Dulles was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state from 1953 to 1959. Allen Welsh Dulles was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1953 to 1961.

Allen (1893-1969) and Eleanor (1895-1996) were born in Watertown. John (1888-1959) was a native of Washington, D.C., but having spent the first 16 years of his life in Watertown, regarded Watertown as his real home.

Their father was the Rev. Allen Macy Dulles, who served 17 years, from 1887 to 1904, as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Watertown.

The minister helped to give his sons a good-versus-evil view of the world, Mr. Kinzer said. But the brothers’ viewpoints were also shaped by another relative, their grandfather, Civil War Brig. Gen. John Watson Foster, who was minister to Mexico under President Ulysses S. Grant, minister to Spain under President Rutherford B. Hayes and secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 and 1893.

“Those fishing trips that the young Dulles brothers took with their grandfather were a series of lessons in American history,” said Mr. Kinzer.

Lake Ontario was important to generations of the Dulles family. For years the family had a summer home, Greyledge, in Henderson Harbor. And as secretary of state, John Foster Dulles frequently sought refuge in the solitude of his hideaway on Main Duck Island, 20 miles north of Chaumont in Canadian waters.

Brig. Gen. Foster, Mr. Kinzer said, “had been a pioneer in the age of manifest destiny.”

“He believed the United States was providentially blessed and could do things that other countries were not allowed to do or were unable to do,” Mr. Kinzer said. “This view shaped the young boys’ minds. They carried this belief with them into the corridors of power in Washington.”

steadfast beliefs

The brothers, Mr. Kinzer said, were not “original thinkers.”

“They were not really visionaries,” he said. “They were not deep perceivers of the way the world worked. What they believed at 12 years old is what they believed for their whole lives.”

The author says that having two brothers wielding so much American power at the same time likely could not happen again.

“We now choose our foreign policy makers from a much broader pool,” Mr. Kinzer said. “In the Dulles brothers’ days, everybody who was important in making American foreign policy was a white male Protestant who went to a very small number of schools, and they went went to work for the same law firms and investment banks.”

But, he added, there’s a more sobering reason he thinks it couldn’t happen again: “We had a bad experience the first time it did happen.”

“When you have two brothers running the overt and covert side of foreign policy, they never have the need to ask anyone for an opinion,” he said. “They just throw a wink at each other and governments can fall.”

Through a set of “fears and delusions,” the Dulles brothers launched violent campaigns against foreign leaders they saw as threats to the United States, Mr. Kinzer said. The perceived dangers of communism wasn’t the only threat.

Mr. Kinzer wrote that John Foster Dulles defined neutralism as “the ‘immoral and shortsighted’ belief that countries could hold themselves apart from the Cold War confrontation.” Some of those countries earned the wrath of the United States for that viewpoint.

Mr. Kinzer writes that the brothers’ campaigns helped to push countries from Guatemala to the Congo into long spirals of violence, led the United States into the Vietnam War and laid the foundation for decades of hostility with countries such as Iran and Cuba.

A plan to overthrow the government of Cuba, starting with the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, led to the downfall of Allen Dulles as CIA director. The invasion, with roots in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, was a debacle, and Allen Dulles, who was strangely aloof during its planning, Mr. Kinzer wrote, was fired by President John F. Kennedy.

A perception of reality

In his book, Mr. Kinzer delves into science and sociology in relation to the workings of the brain which, he writes, also provides “insights into how the Dulles brothers perceived reality.”

“Researchers have learned that people’s brains are programmed to favor information that confirms what they already believe,” Mr. Kinzer wrote.

This mindset is seen in today’s highly partisan political world. People can pick their own sources of news on the Web, on television and in print.

“The Dulles brothers were paragons of this idea that you create an echo chamber for your own ideas and then you don’t allow anything else to penetrate,” Mr. Kinzer said. “I do see that we are falling into something like that today. People do not expose themselves to a variety of views and tend to want to hear views to confirm to what they already know. That’s definitely the Dulleses’ style.”

That style, Mr. Kinzer believes, is what caused the Dulles brothers to fade from American consciousness.

“They’re almost completely forgotten,” Mr. Kinzer said. “I think part of the reason is that their approach to the world did not work out well for us. Rather than confront that fact, and to try to draw lessons from their misjudgments, it’s easier to forget them. That’s one of the reasons we’ve pushed them aside and airbrushed them out of our history.”

a fading view

Asked if the country has learned anything from the Dulles reign, Mr. Kinzer, who has written about U.S. intervention in books including “All the Shah’s Men,” “Overthrow” and “Bitter Fruit,” mentioned two “interesting episodes this autumn.”

“The president of the United States wanted to bomb Syria, but because of opposition from Congress and from the American people, he didn’t do it,” Mr. Kinzer said. “This was quite new. I can’t remember any time in my life when the president wanted to bomb a country and then didn’t do it because of opposition from Americans.”

Soon after that, Mr. Kinzer said, President Barack Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone, and in a historic shift from years of unwavering animosity agreed to work toward resolving their deep dispute over Tehran’s nuclear efforts.

“The Dulles brothers would have hated that,” Mr. Kinzer said. “They were against all negotiations with your rivals.”

Those two episodes, Mr. Kinzer said, makes him wonder: “Did the Dulles era just end?”

But he’s not holding out too much hope.

“Let’s face it, we took a couple of big punches in the face with Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe we’re a little groggy now and as soon as we get the smelling salts, we’ll be back in the ring, punching again,” Mr. Kinzer said.

But he added, “Maybe, because of the troubles we’ve had in recent interventions, and the competing needs that we’re seeing here at home with our limited economic resources, we may be moving to a period in which the Dulles view is starting to fade. Maybe we’ll get to the point where we no longer assume that we know what’s good for the world better than the world itself knows.”

the details
“The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War,” by Stephen Kinzer (Times Books, 416 pages with photos, hardcover, $30; e-book, $14.99)
Publisher’s description: “How the hubris of two powerful brothers shaped U.S. foreign policy with lasting consequences for our national security.”
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