After decades of blessed obscurity, the Dulles brothers have splashed back into the news of late. There are big books, little books, forthcoming books: all leading to a flurry of newspaper and online articles (notably Alex Beam’s March 8 essay in The Wall Street Journal).
The two major volumes that have led the way are The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World (2013) by onetime New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer; and The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (2015) by David Talbot, currently head editor of Salon, the online magazine. As one might expect from a Salon editor, the second book is sensationalistic and of dubious merit as a history, although some parts are excellent indeed. The Prologue is particularly good, with its prose portrait of old Allen Dulles trudging the streets of Georgetown in 1965 with Harper’s editor Willie Morris, denouncing John F. Kennedy, and struggling to put his tangled thoughts in order as he justifies his role the Bay of Pigs fiasco—for an article that would never be published.
The earlier volume by Kinzer is a fairly straightforward history, although it too is highly biased against both Dulles brothers. Primarily it focuses upon their 1950s coups and attempted coups—in Guatemala and Iran, in Indochina, Indonesia, and Lebanon—and finds finds fault with them all, in their operation and in the geopolitical outlook that lay behind them. Kinzer is particularly hard on Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, with his dour Presbyterian demeanor and his muscular-Christianity insistence that Communism could never be merely contained, it must be rolled back.
Why exactly, after these many years, are we suddenly reading so much about John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State, 1953-59) and his brother Allen Welsh Dulles (CIA Director, 1953-61)? One partial answer is the perennial fascination with the JFK assassination, in which Allen Dulles was peripherally involved. If he had nothing to do with its planning, he was undeniably a key player in its cover-up. Shortly after the assassination, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the ex-CIA chief to the Warren Commission. Ostensibly this was to give the Commission some gravitas and intelligence expertise (most of the seven members were Congressmen). The result of course was the “crazed lone gunman” theory of The Warren Commission Report, according to which one Lee Harvey Oswald managed to kill President John F. Kennedy and wound Governor John Connally with a single bullet. Commission findings looked dubious when first published in the mid-’60s, and they have not improved with time. Hence the continuous production of JFK assassination books, with no end in sight.
But I see a much deeper subtext to this new interest in the Dulles brothers. There are clear similarities between their time and ours. We can find a parallel between their belief in the clear and present danger presented by Soviet Communism in the 1950s, and today’s nationalist-populist movements that decry alien invasion, Muslim immigration, and destruction of our traditional Western cultures.
The two books I’ve just described by Kinzer and Talbot are highly negative critiques of the Dulles brothers. They belittle their fears, mock their strategy, damn their achievements. Essentially they follow an expanded version of same neo-Communist line that one sees in the press whenever General Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile is mentioned. Salvador Allende, we read time and again, was a democratic socialist who was freely elected by the people of his country, and toppled by a US-backed junta. That Allende was actually a Marxist dictator ruling by decree, and who had turned a prosperous South American country into a Soviet asset, never seems to figure into the equation.
Mockery of anti-Communism has been a persistent propaganda technique since the end of the Second World War. Some of its most popular clichés have embedded themselves in the popular idiom, to such a degree that even “Right-wingers” habitually use them. McCarthyism, most notably. It implies something cruel, boorish, asinine: a “witch-hunt” for Communists, or something, under the bed. Joe McCarthy even gets blamed for the Hollywood Ten investigations and the Alger Hiss trials, which happened before he ever got to the Senate. And the history of Red involvement in the “Civil Rights” movement is something most “conservative” spokesmen won’t even touch.
In popular culture, the post-war worry over Communism comes down to us as something slightly ludicrous, an epidemic of chronic paranoia. Yet it was very sound, much as concern over unbridled non-white immigration is today. And then as now, the worst danger wasn’t something far away in Moscow, or Peking, or Pyongyang—or Riyadh or Islamabad—but the enemy among us, and their allies and enablers in the public eye and in the columns of the daily press. Then as now, their primary technique was to mock us, smear us, belittle our worries, and shout us down. There is no reasoning to be had with them, no roundtable negotiations among people of goodwill. The enemy at home can only be identified, fought, and overcome.
In many ways, John Foster Dulles had it easier than we do. Fortified by a highly intellectual, deep Calvinist spirituality, he readily accepted the world as a battleground between Good and Evil. He knew the Evil Ones would never love him, so he didn’t seek their love, and wore an expression that was described as that of one who had “just met an unripe persimmon.” Seeking to understand the enemy, he delved into their strategy. It was uglier than he expected, but he studied hard and did not flinch. Here he is, just after the Second World War:
He began obsessively reading and rereading Problems of Leninism, a collection of Stalin’s essays and speeches. By one account he owned “six or more pencil-marked copies, and kept one in each of his work places.” To him it was a revelation: a chilling blueprint for world conquest, to be achieved by weakening rival powers and seizing control of emerging nationalist movements:
“The October Revolution has shaken imperialism not only in the centers of its domination, not only in its ‘metropolises.’ It has also struck at the rear of imperialism, its periphery . . . Having sown the seeds of revolution both in the centers of imperialism and in its rear, having weakened the might of imperialism in the ‘metropolises,’ and having shaken its domination in the colonies, the October Revolution has thereby put in jeopardy the very existence of world capitalism as a whole.”
In the grand sweep of its design, Bolshevism reminded Foster Dulles of another fearsome creed that had once tried to sweep the world. As he explained it:
“In the tenth century after Christ, the so-called Christian world was challenged by alien faith. The tide of Islam flowed from Arabia and swept over much of Christendom. . . . This time the challenge is Soviet Communism.”
“Manichean” is how colleagues in the State Department and Whitehall tended to view this outlook. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden found Foster Dulles particularly tiresome and in early 1953 asked President-elect Eisenhower to please not make Dulles his new Secretary of State. The Brothers includes an amusing diary entry from some years earlier, when Foster visited him and Undersecretary Sir Alexander Cadogan at lunch, and tried to lecture them on his theories of Christian imperatives for the post-war years. It did not go well. “Lunched with A. in his flat,” Cadogan wrote in his diary. “J. F. Dulles there. . . J. F. D. the wooliest type of useless pontificating American . . . Heaven help us!”
“Containment” had been the official policy toward Communist expansion in Dean Acheson’s State Department during the latter Truman years, as the Red tide flowed over China, North Korea, and very nearly Greece and West Berlin. Foster Dulles was having none of this. With the assistance of brother Allen (now Director of Central Intelligence), he actively sought out weak, Red-susceptible rulers in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, and replaced them with America-friendly governments. Regime change? Indeed it was, on a worldwide level. Sometimes destabilization and a coup were called for (Guatemala, Iran), sometimes support for a political party or candidate would do the trick (Italy, Germany, Lebanon). Occasionally the intervention went awry or was unmanageable (Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam), or a dictator refused to be bribed into America-friendliness (Egypt’s Nasser).
Then there was Cuba, of course, and the Bay of Pigs, two years after Foster Dulles’s death, and Allen Dulles’s crowning failure in his last year at the CIA. But Cuba failed only because everything went wrong, beginning with JFK’s refusal to provide air and ground support for an operation that had been planned before he took office. For JFK it was also horribly timed, inasmuch as he had just finished campaigning on a platform opposed to military adventuring. But as an objective, ousting Castro was both easily achievable and beyond moral challenge.
Moral judgment figures heavily in the David Talbot book, beginning with its innuendo about Allen Dulles’s complicity in the murder of JFK. (Was Allen Dulles actually complicit? Could such an assassination have been justifiable under certain circumstances? Both are good questions, but Talbot’s strident, lurid writing style is better suited to presenting thorny problems than trying to solve them.) During the Second World War, Allen Dulles was OSS chief in Bern. Talbot goes off the deep end in recounting this time, actually referring to some of his actions as “treasonous.” Talbot’s main complaint is that Dulles arranged an early surrender of German troops in Austria and Italy toward the end of the war, by negotiating with SS General Karl Wolff.
Talbot is also deeply offended that Allen Dulles recruited German intelligence officer Reinhard Gehlen as a key CIA contact in the post-war years. Tabloid-style, Talbot calls Gehlen as a “Nazi,” although Gehlen wasn’t. Rather, he’d been an intelligence officer with the Wehrmacht—a very good one in fact, with extensive knowledge of and contacts within the Red Army. Gehlen’s network made him an essential asset for post-war American intelligence. It is true that British intelligence (MI6) disapproved of Gehlen, but this disapproval was actually coming from Moscow. At that time, British intelligence was being run by Red spy Kim Philby. As for Gehlen himself, he remained loyal to the West (unlike some German assets) and was regarded as such an upstanding character that he eventually was inducted into the Knights of Malta.
Talbot’s not all bad. His taste for the sensational is brilliantly suited to his coverage of the ill-starred Arbenz family after the 1954 Guatemalan coup. After being evicted from the country (and subjected to a humiliating strip-search at the airport), Jacobo Arbenz takes his brood to Mexico, Switzerland, Paris, Prague, and then Moscow (where he officially enrolls in the Communist Party); followed by a stay in Uruguay (where he lives under the watchful eye of neighbor E. Howard Hunt), then the Cuba of Fidel Castro (who welcomes him but moves him to suburban obscurity). Arbenz’s beautiful daughter Arabella has a brief career as a model and film actress, then declines into drug abuse and murder-suicide in Colombia (1965). Jacobo too eventually commits suicide, it seems, in an overheated bathtub in Mexico (1971). Author Talbot makes the case that the CIA is to blame for all this misfortune, while noting that mental illness ran in the Arbenz family. This instability must have gone back much further than Jacobo Arbenz himself. His father had been a German Swiss who for some reason moved to Guatemala, where he married a local, became a drug addict, and then shot himself, leaving his family penniless. (One wonders what became of his father.)
In public life the Dulles brothers focused mainly on international concerns. But today, long after the collapse of Soviet Communism, the persistent enemy that Foster Dulles identified is right here at home, in our press, broadcasting media, politicians, and the “deep state” that the Dulleses inadvertently helped create. Whether or not Allen Dulles actually had a hand in the murder of President Kennedy (and my guess is that he didn’t arrange it, but may well have given it his blessing), if he were alive and in his prime today he would surely be full of intricate stratagems to fight our enemies, foreign and domestic.
And what solutions would an Allen Dulles offer us today? Would mere propaganda be enough, like his Operation Mockingbird scheme, in which the CIA arranged with dozens of press outlets (including Time, Life, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CBS) to publish helpful anti-Soviet intelligence? Or would more forceful, “executive” action be appropriate? What would he have done about the strange figure of Barry Soetoro, alias Obama, he of the murky history and dubious antecedents? Would Allen Dulles permit him to remain at large today, in Washington DC, with his entourage, operating a shadow government that unremittingly seeks to destabilize the administration of our current President?
Juicy questions, worthy of the talents of a David Talbot. WWADD?
1. In contrast with the work by David Talbot described here, most recent books touching on the role of the CIA in the Bay and Pigs and the Kennedy assassination are basically “conspiracy” studies, with little discussion of Allen Dulles’ role or possible aims. To name a few, all published by The Future of Freedom Foundation: CIA & JFK: The Secret Assassination Files by Jefferson Morley, 2016; Regime Change: The JFK Assassination by Jacob Hornberger, 2015; and JFK’s War with the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy was Assassinated, by Douglas Horne, 2014.
2. Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers, 2013.
3. Kinzer, ibid.
4. Kinzer, ibid.