Podcast • November 8, 2013

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?


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.

Podcast • March 12, 2008

What’s Coming in Cuba (I) Patrick Symmes

Is Cuba, after Fidel Castro, in for a Velvet Revolution? or a civil war? or more of the same? Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Symmes here (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3) The ...

Is Cuba, after Fidel Castro, in for a Velvet Revolution? or a civil war? or more of the same?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Symmes here (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3)

patrick symmes

The marvelous Patrick Symmes, who has a keen ear for Cuba’s own prophets, is haunted by the miserable chants of a woman in Central Cuba who told him, “we’re going to suffer… we’re going to suffer!” But will the suffering come from a settling of scores when Raul Castro, too, is gone? From raw violence along color lines, or between have-nots and have-less? From a homecoming of the children of Miami exiles? From a mad rush to condos and every other kind of money-making development? From drugs, drug-money and guns?

Patrick Symmes hung his remarkable history of the Cuban revolution on a single school picture — and the family stories of about 250 boys who went to prep school with Fidel Castro at the Jesuits’ Colegio de Dolores in the 1940s. The New York Times Book Review listed The Boys from Dolores among the ten best books of 2007. Thanks to the master-reviewer Richard Eder for mentioning to me that it was the best book he read all year. And thanks to Patrick Symmes for ten years research in the field, and for leading off a continuing Open Source conversation on Cuba.

Havana! I loved the capital, bitterly and deeply, an unrequited love made possible only by distance and loss. The luminous blue-gray hurricane light. The storm spray that left cars, people, and decaying mansions coated with the white dust of salt. The oily harbor, fuming and ringed with Spanish forts… A global capital of the quixotic, where free market superstars came to denounce capitalism, apostles of asceticism fell off the wagon, and most secrets were vulnerable to a $100 bill. The parks were full of prostitutes, the houses full of liquor, and in this capital immoral of the Revolution, even cocaine…

Despite the 2.2 million who lived here, Havana was notable for its emptiness, for the quietness of its avenues by day and their inky darkness at night. The streets were full of spectacular wrecks, black-eyed houses and abandoned hotels, mansions with holed roofs, featureless plains like the Plaza of the Revolution, a gigantic parking lot where legendary rallies had once been held… It was “the city where the whole world went to be lied to.” I found Havana dangerous to body and soul, a high-low environment where you could get arrested for nothing but everyone got away with everything.

Patrick Symmes,

The Boys from Dolores, pages 150-1.

Dolores Boys

Don’t try to get to know them, because in their souls they live in the impenetrable world of dualism. Cubans drink happiness and bitterness from the same cup. They make music from their weeping and laughter from music. They take jokes seriously and make everything serious a joke.

Never underestimate Cubans. The right arm of Saint Peter is a Cuban and the Devil’s best advisor is also Cuban. Cuban has never produced a saint nor a heretic. But Cubans pontificate among heretics and blaspheme among the saints. Their spirit is universal and irreverent. Cubans believe in Catholicism, Chango, in charades and horoscopes all at the same time. They will appeal to your gods and make fun of your religious rights. They don’t believe in anybody and they believe everybody. They will never give up their illusions and they never learn from their delusions.

Don’t argue with them, ever. Cubans are born inherently wise. They don’t need to read, they know everything. They don’t need to travel, they have seen everything. The Cubans are the chosen people… chosen by themselves. They pass among lesser peoples like a ghost passing over water.

Cubans are characterized individually by their sympathy and intelligence and as a group by their shouting and passion. Every one of them carries the spark of genius and no geniuses are tolerated. That’s why it’s easy to reunite Cubans, and impossible to unite them.

Lundy Aguilar in an essay on Cuba, quoted in Patrick Symmes,

The Boys from Dolores, pages 23-4.