One way to bring Americans to reflect on their past – and future – would be to revive memory of the Dulles brothers. Their actions frame the grand debate over America’s role in the world that has never been truly joined in the United States.
Most people associate the name “Dulles” with the airport in Virginia and not the man – John Foster Dulles – for which it was named. Known as “Foster,” John Foster Dulles was born in 1888 into a Presbyterian family in Watertown, New York. After graduating from Princeton and the George Washington University Law School, he joined Sullivan & Cromwell, the country’s most eminent corporate law firm who represented America’s greatest industrial, commercial, and financial enterprises. For nearly 40 years, Foster worked at the law firm described as “the point where Washington politics intersected with global business” meaning the firm used its considerable resources and contacts to protect and benefit its clients financial interests in other countries.
Foster’s younger brother, Allen Welsh Dulles was born in 1893 and also graduated from Princeton but instead of following his brother’s footsteps, Allen went to India to teach English and then joined the Foreign Service where he set off on a decade long career as a diplomat – primarily in espionage in Europe during World War 1. After attending the George Washington School of Law and graduating in 1926, Allen quit the Foreign Service and joined Sullivan & Cromwell where his brother, Foster was now Managing Partner.
Allen worked at the law firm for 15 years before leaving in 1941 to join the Coordinator of Information (COI) – America’s newly formed first modern intelligence agency that was quickly transformed from an information gathering resource into an agency authorized to conduct covert and military operations during the second World War under a revised name: Office of Strategic Services (OSS). After the war, Truman pushed for the creation of a permanent secret intelligence agency which resulted in the formation of the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which Allen joined in 1951 as Deputy Director. By 1953, Allen was the Director of the CIA while his brother, Foster was Secretary of State under Eisenhower.
The Brothers, written by Stephen Kinzer and published in 2013 is the story of two brothers – John Foster Dulles and Allen Welsh Dulles – and how they shaped and implemented America’s foreign policy in the 1950’s while each held top posts during the Eisenhower administration. With the Cold War on center stage and colonization in decline, countries including Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Egypt, Indonesia, the Congo, British Guiana (now known as Guyana), Costa Rica, Panama, and Cuba – were struggling to rid themselves of foreign influence. Nationalization of private industries (especially those owned by foreigners) was viewed as a step towards independence and undue influence by outsiders while Truman, Eisenhower, the Dulles brothers, and the American consciousness interpreted this action as a step towards communism and more importantly, financial losses.
During the 1950’s there was a hysteria and paranoia with most Americans living in fear of communism. The defining trait of a free country rested with leaders who “respected private enterprise and welcomed multinational business” and not civil rights or social welfare, according to the author. As is so often the case, financial or economic realities drive the government to action or inaction. In Erik Larson’s In The Garden of Beasts, Roosevelt’s reluctance to step into “European squabbles” in the early years of WWII came down to the vast amounts of money Germany was repaying to bondholders in the US whereas in The Brothers, America’s decision to interfere in other countries during the post-WWII years resulted from the threat of major financial losses.
When Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized the country’s oil industries (which the US and Britain greatly relied on) and Guatemala’s democratically elected President, Jacobo Arbenz was able to pass land reform laws which forced large landowners (including United Fruit based out of Boston) to sell the uncultivated part of their holdings to the government for the value declared by the owner for tax reasons, the Dulles brothers with guidance and approval from Presidents Truman and Eisenhower set out to overthrow them, and succeeded.
The State Department and CIA’s reach was not limited to Iran and Guatemala; covert operations to overthrow leaders in Vietnam, Indonesia, the Congo, and Cuba are detailed in the book which shows a side of American foreign policy that Americans would rather not think about with the knowledge of hindsight because no one foresaw the long-term effects of these actions: that Iran would eventually be governed by “violently anti-American zealots” or that the Guatemala, Vietnam and the Congo would descend into years of internal conflict. But the author cautions the reader from laying blame on just the Dulles brothers, Truman, and Eisenhower. “The Dulles brothers personified ideals and traits that many Americans shared during the 1950’s, and still share. They did not colonize America’s mind or hijack United States foreign policy. On the contrary, they embodied the national ethos. What they wanted, Americans wanted.”
And, so the real problem today is that we don’t remember the Dulles brothers. Foster’s bust at the Dulles International Airport has been removed and Diego Rivera’s famous mural “Glorious Victory” depicting the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala is locked away in the basement of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow – saving us from reflecting on a past we need to remember. As Kinzer states:
The Dulles brothers’ approach to the world did not work out well for the United States. As a result, they have faded from national memory. Rather than forget or vilify them, however, Americans should embrace them. Their stories are full of deep meaning for the United States. They are us. We are them.