Stephen Kinzer on the Dulles Brothers


Steve Kinzer
is raising sharp questions for today about the late, unlamented Dulles brothers — John Foster and Allen Dulles, who ruled US diplomacy and spy-craft in the Eisenhower 1950s. The Brothers are the subjects now of Kinzer’s double biography and eye-popping polemic. Are the Dulleses the missing keys to our 50-year understanding of John F. Kennedy’s tortured foreign adventures in office, and perhaps of his death? How and why did the “compulsive activism” and “secret world war” of the Dulles brothers persist for five decades after they were gone? In President Obama’s big turn in the Middle East — that is, in the refusal to bomb Syria and the warming contacts with Iran — is it too much to see that the Dulleses’ open and covert Cold War ways of waging world dominance are coming apart even as we speak? Of the Obama re-direction since late August, Steve Kinzer is telling me:

I found those two episodes most interesting. First, the President of the US announced… he was going to bomb Syria, but many in Congress and in the country were against it, and he called it off. I can’t remember any episode like this in my lifetime, where a president of the United States announced he wanted to bomb a country — but the American people were against it? This is something quite remarkable. We’ve always supported military action when presidents decide to launch them. Then came the telephone call between President Obama and the president of Iran. This is another supreme violation of another basic Dulles principle. The Dulles brothers believed you should never have dialogue with your enemy. They were strong against, for example, any summits between American leaders and Soviet leaders. They felt that this would only destroy the paradigm of conflict. It makes the other person seem possibly sane and rational, and then you can no longer portray them as evil and threatening. So these two episodes — the refusal to bomb Syria and the contact with Iran — make me ask this question: did the Dulles Era just end?

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon about The Brothers in Boston, November, 2013

The Kennedy term began in 1961 with two explosive mines hidden in the works: the CIA’s Bay of Pigs raid on Cuba by mercenaries and Cuban exiles; and the assassination of the Congo’s first independent Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Three weeks into his term, Kennedy urged that Lumumba, beleaguered by Belgian interests and the CIA, be restored to power. “It was a remarkable change of heart for the United States,” Kinzer writes in The Brothers, “but it came too late.” Unknown to the new president of the United States, Lumumba had been kidnapped, brutalized, butchered and dissolved in acid three days before JFK’s inauguration. The Congo has never had a popular democratic government since then.

The two operations at the end of the Dulles era, the one against Fidel Castro in Cuba and the one against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, have a number of interesting aspects in common. One of the most interesting ones is that President Eisenhower — who fervently supported covert action, though nobody understood that at the time, of course — personally, though slightly indirectly, ordered not just those operations in Cuba and the Congo, but the assassination of those two leaders. So we have in the space of one summer Eisenhower ordering two assassinations, and as far as we know, no president had done that before. The way that Allen Dulles electrified Eisenhower and the National Security Council to galvanize them into action in the Congo was to say to them – Lumumba is going to become the African Castro… When Lumumba came to New York to the United Nations, he gave a number of press conferences and at one of them he was asked whether he feared for his life, and he said: “if I am killed, it will be because a foreigner has paid a Conglolese,” and that is exactly what happened!

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

JFK fired Allen Dulles for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and started cutting the CIA budgets sharply. After his death, Kennedy was quoted by intimates to the effect that he wanted “to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” But of course Allen Dulles not only outlived Kennedy but got to have a strong voice on the Warren Commission that investigated Kennedy’s murder. Kinzer writes that Allen Dulles took the opportunity to coach the Warren Commmission staff on what questions to ask the CIA — and to coach the CIA on how to answer them. I’m asking Steve Kinzer if Allen Dulles — exiled from his agency, shamed by President Kennedy — shouldn’t be classified by 1963 as “rogue CIA,” and whether, when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tells Charlie Rose that “rogue CIA” may have killed his uncle, Allen Dulles should not be on the list of suspects:

I find it a fascinating possibility. Nonetheless I’ve never seen any real evidence of it. So if there is ‘plausible deniability,’ it’s still in effect. Of course, ‘rogue CIA’ and Allen Dulles are not necessarily the same thing. If Allen Dulles was not involved, there could still be a rogue CIA. I mean, Richard Bissell was still involved in this project. We had a number of other figures, still very active, many of whom were very angry at Kennedy. I guess the pieces are out there, but I still have never seen anything that makes me seriously believe that the CIA could have been involved. That means either that they weren’t, or that they cover up things just as well as the CIA has sometimes been able to do.

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, November, 2013

Stephen Kinzer’s double biography of The Brothers is part of an epic series by now of Kinzer takes on All the Shah’s Men in Iran, on Overthrow as a habit in American foreign policy, on a Reset of US alliances that may be evolving in the Middle East. Check our several conversations with Steve Kinzer over the years — on the original sin of American policy in the Mideast, on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and on the changing balance of interests out there. And please add your responses in a comment here.

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  • Didn’t know about those brothers. My naïve understanding of the situation made me relate them to the Koch Brothers and their own attempts at shaping politics. Maybe the axis of the pendulum shifted toward domestic issues instead of foreign ones? The Tea Party remains fascinating, but it’s clearly not focused on foreign intervention.
    Also, I couldn’t help but think of William Hurt’s character in The Good Shepherd. Though I didn’t have enough puzzle pieces to really grok that script, there are connections to make between Hollywood’s portrayals of the CIA and the centrifugal forces sending US politics toward foreign intervention. As an outsider to the US, I was raised to distrust US interventionism, regardless of its source within the “political spectrum”.
    Sounds to me like the interview focused on Allen Dulles, probably because of this JFK Fall. Sounds like the book talks more about the relationship between the two of them, and the family context. Would be interesting to situate influential families in a broader frame (with names like Roosevelt, Bush, Kennedy, Rockefeller, Clinton, Carnegie, Adams, Vanderbilt…). Oh, and let’s throw in Skull and Bones in the mix. From the outside, the US sound like a massive population controlled by very few people.

  • chris

    Now there’s a line to ponder: ” From the outside, the US sounds like a massive population controlled by very few people.” Thank you, dear Alexandre.

  • dave bernard

    If a select group were dictating policy in the US, we obviousy wouldn’t have this stalemate. If nothing else, the hodge-podge of disparate directions demonstrates the participatory nature of life here. Decision-making is such a cacophony that it’s usually difficult to even determine where our power structures are based. I think there was more unanimity of opinion in the public in the Ffties that might have given that impression. Policy might have been the result of directives back then, but I think the population was in accord with it. Most people believed we were a force for good.

  • Robert Zucchi

    Clan Dulles likely had a war cry associated with their ancient grant of arms. After written mottoes came into vogue, “Semper Paratus” appeared on the family crest. But perhaps Karl Goetz’s inscription on his satirical 1915 Lusitania medal, “Geschäft Über Alles” (“Business Above All”), would have been a better fit.

    I found this interview dispiriting, and I know it was because the ethos the Dulles brothers did so much to shape operationally not only preceded them in government (imperialism as Manifest Destiny), but has persisted well into our own day (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and very nearly, Syria). Here were two late Victorians reared in a Calvinist milieu, in which the elect were predestined for heaven and the preterite for damnation … unless! they could accumulate wealth, the absolving sign of God’s preferment. It seems the brothers hedged their bets at the white-shoe law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, while giving lapidary attention to the interests of the rentier class, by accumulating the personal fortune that would ensure they were heaven-bound … even if that meant energetically raising capital for Nazified länder and businesses. (Allen and the junior partners forced a withdrawal from German dealings on a reluctant Foster in 1935.)

    I find it revealing that John Foster detested anti-capitalist Bolshevism while choosing not to notice the Nazis’ hostility to international finance capitalism (unless it could be bent to the regime’s purpose). This kind of double-dealing was not unique to Foster, nor did it end with Pearl Harbor. The jobbing out of American industry to Communist !! China, and the subsequent immiseration of so many working Americans, is a lodestar pointing at the crass self-interest, expediency, and elastic conscience of our overlords of finance.

  • Potter

    John Foster was so revered that the DC international Airport was named for him. I was not paying much attention to politics or foreign policy in those days. Too young. But I knew he flew around as Secretary of State; he was important.Today we would not name an airport after, say, Clinton or Kerry. What was up?

    I am glad I listened. It’s important history and reporting, this perspective on the present. Our presidents, those wet behind the ears, would be inclined to carry on with previous policies and re-appoint their pushers and makers. But now am I seeing some rogues with power that we (or at least I) did not know about (other than Dick Cheney who comes to mind immediately)? Or has this been the rule all along?

    Certainly corporatism has grown, the influence of business interests at our (we the people) expense. The shocker, or maybe not so shocking really, is the notion that, according to Kinzer, religious ideas are also behind the Dulles brothers philosophy and policies; the US was to make the world, or re-make it, in it’s own perfect image and for it’s own benefit: our way is the only way, the best way, the right way. (I still think of that book, required reading in college, “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism” by R. H. Tawney) We were heady about our power after two world wars. We were the heroes that saved Europe, slaying the first big monster Hitler, Nazism (though we hardly did it hardly alone). After that came a string of monsters up to “Saddam, Saddam, Saddam” – the Bushes 1 and 2. And Bin Laden. That undid us, Iraq and Afghanistan, not Viet Nam. Or are we in a rest period? The American public is/was learning the price in blood, economically, morally. We have become tired of slaying monsters, the next worst monster…. including Iran (much to Netanyahu’s dismay; he still needs a monster). And maybe we are also inured to Putins attempts to start up another cold war.

    You cannot sell me a conspiracy theory though, or even the suspicion of one about the death of JFK no matter what RFK Jr. believes. Lee Harvey Oswald was a very unstable character, mentally “off”, certainly lead a dysfunctional life if you read his biography. Why would someone so unstable, such a loose cannon, be a candidate to carry off a plot?

    Listen to what Priscilla McMillan says. She wrote “Marina and Lee” She was close to them. Listen to Brad Meltzer on conspiracy theories and why we go for them.

  • Robert Zucchi

    Potter, possibly we came away from this interview like the credulous child who hears his sixth grade teacher say, “By this time you all know there’s no Santa Claus,” and struggles to conceal his shock. (Not anyone known to me, of course.) The Dulles frères were not ogres,and yet the disjunction between our history from mid-century last to the present, and our official national pieties, is stupefying. How could people of (admittedly self-assessed) probity and patriotism descend from time to time into thuggishness? And is my revulsion more a response to their dirty deeds or to the shame I feel at having been gulled when young? Is it a defect in me that I’m still not reconciled to Realpolitik?

    When Chaucer introduces his parson, we read that the man is concerned to set an example for his flock: “. . . if gold rust, what then will iron do?/ For if a priest be foul in whom we trust/ No wonder that a common man should rust. . . ”

    What to do. So many of our politicians are made of the basest metals.

  • Potter

    Thank you Robert Z, and thank you Chris…..on to Japan!!! (back in Dec, I hope)

  • Eric Whitney

    The _Stephen Kinzer: Are the Dulles Brothers finally out of power?_ show does not download on iTunes. I regularly listen to you podcast (excellent!) and there is no download problem with other shows–I just successfully downloaded _Robert Dalleck on Three Last Questions about JFK_ from iTunes–but the kinzer show consistently fails to download. I had to come to your website and request the mp3 version in order to hear it.
    Your download stats may bear me out. I hope I am being helpful.

  • Eric Saunders

    Kinzer’s comments on the JFK assassination are as interesting as anything that would ever be uttered by a former NY Times reporter. Historian Gerald McKnight found that of all the Warren Commission members, Allen Dulles was the most active in terms of attending sessions and such. This is interesting since Dulles formerly ran an apparatus responsible for conducting assassinations of political leaders up to and including heads of state. And Dulles was fired by the assassinated head of state in question…

  • Pingback: Robert Dallek on Three Last Questions about JFK | Radio Open Source()

  • Ivan Gutierrez del Arroyo

    The Dulles Brothers represented three major components of the “invisible government:” the Corporate Power, the CIA and the Military-Pentagon, which were denounced by Pres. Eisenhower as the “Military-Industrial Complex” (MIC) and by Dominican Pres. Juan Bosch as “Pentagonism, the last stage of imperialism”. In other words is not really important whether Allen Dulles directed personally the JFK assassination, but he was a key component of the MIC covert apparatus, which ran this historical and unprecendented assassination of the Western Alliance supreme leader and commander. After the MIC ordered the hit on JFK, the had to do the same against his brother and Martin Luther King. Another aspect of the MIC opersation against the USA was the assassination of Malcolm X, after his denunciation of the Black Muslims’ reverse racism and his call to create and white-and-black alliance against the Human Rights violations being perpetrated against the Afro-American minority in the USA. Before he was killed he announced that he will ask the United Nations to investigate the Human Right violations against the USA’s Afro-American minority sector.

    • Potter

      This is in response to Ivan Gutierrez del Arroyo’s above. I am having a hangover from the James Douglass interviews, I admit, but let’s be careful about the difference between what we know and what we think we know and only suspect about JFK’s assassination (as well as the others). If somehow things seem to add up to what we imagine or what has been suggested, this is not conclusive. To take what we suspect may be so as the truth is destructive. I don’t think I am naive but I think it’s better to live with the suspicions and inconclusiveness.

  • Great discussion. The Dulles brothers fascinate me, and I appreciate the pointer to that book. Such power and vision, so quickly quieted in history!

    Soon I’m off on another DC trip, and will fly through the eponymous airport.