Modern history

PART III

ONE CENTURY

11

A FACE OF GOD

One of the most compelling works of twentieth-century political art is Glorious Victory, a spectacular mural by the Mexican master Diego Rivera. It is a sprawling panorama on linen, sixteen feet long, depicting the 1954 coup in Guatemala. In the foreground are biting caricatures of the men who carried it out.

John Foster Dulles is at the center, dressed in a flak jacket and grinning cruelly. Allen Dulles sneers from behind, his chin resting on Foster’s shoulder. A satchel of cash hangs from his waist. Dwight Eisenhower’s smiling face decorates a bomb planted in front of them. Dead Guatemalan children lie at their feet. In the background, laborers bend under the weight of bags of bananas they are carrying toward a freighter decorated with an American flag.

Rivera was one of countless Latin Americans who were outraged when the United States engineered the overthrow of Guatemala’s government. On July 2, 1954, he and his wife, Frida Kahlo, joined a protest march in Mexico City despite Kahlo’s severe illness. She died eleven days later. Soon afterward, he set out to paint Glorious Victory.

Allen found the mural delightful. Rivera may have believed he was documenting a historic crime, but he was a Communist, so Allen reveled in his enmity. He even ordered small-format copies of Glorious Victory and proudly handed them out to friends.

Rivera sent his mural to be exhibited in Warsaw, and it was later taken to the Soviet Union. It was never shown there, however, because Rivera’s freewheeling brand of Communism did not fit with the Kremlin’s tastes and he was considered unsuitable. For half a century its whereabouts were unknown. Finally, after the Cold War ended, Mexican art historians discovered it in a warehouse of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. They arranged for it to be shown in Mexico in 2007, and then in Guatemala.

After these showings, the mural was returned to Moscow. Having gazed intently at reproductions, I wanted to see the original, and contacted the Pushkin Museum to arrange a visit.

“I have to communicate to you that the big tableau by Diego Rivera, Glorious Victory, is not available to see, because it is kept as a huge roll, wound on the shaft,” the museum’s deputy director replied. “We could manage that you will be able to see this roll, but we can’t open it, because we haven’t enough space to expand it.”

At the beginning of my quest into the lives of these extraordinary brothers, I had searched for the bust of John Foster Dulles at the airport that bears his name, and found that it had been relegated to a closed room near baggage claim. As my quest ended, I learned that a similar fate had befallenGlorious Victory. The Pushkin Museum is reputed to take good care of works in its warehouses, so this masterpiece is not likely to be lost. No one can say, however, when or whether it will again be shown in public.

Both of these works—the bust and Glorious Victory—were intended to give a measure of immortality, for better or worse, to the Dulles brothers. Now both are locked away and forgotten. They deserve better.

*   *   *

John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles guided their country through the world during an era of extremes. The passage of time, and the end of the Cold War, make it difficult to grasp the depth of fear that gripped many Americans during the 1950s. Foster and Allen were chief promoters of that fear. They did as much as anyone to shape America’s confrontation with the Soviet Union. Their actions helped set off some of the world’s most profound long-term crises.

The brothers’ lives uniquely suited them to the roles they played. From their remarkable family they absorbed the belief that Providence had ordained a special global role for the United States. They were also immersed in missionary Calvinism, which holds that the world is an eternal battleground between saintly and demonic forces. Finally, both brothers spent decades serving the global interests of America’s richest corporations, and fully absorbed Wall Street’s view of the world.

“Once you touch the biographies of human beings,” Walter Lippmann observed while the Dulles brothers were in power, “the notion that political beliefs are logically determined collapses like a pricked balloon.”

Foster and Allen took a ruthlessly confrontational view of the world. They saw it as a theater of conflict between two mighty empires, one of which must ultimately vanquish the other. This paradigm began gaining currency in the years after World War II. By the time Foster and Allen rose to power, it was close to a national consensus.

There had been no similar rush toward global engagement after World War I. Many Americans were content to return to life at peace and allow other countries to shape their own destinies. For a brief period after World War II, it seemed the same might happen. Senator Robert Taft ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952 urging a foreign policy closer to isolationism than imperialism. His defeat marked the end of serious dissent from the spreading consensus. Foster and Allen’s brand of liberal internationalism, aggressive engagement, and corporate globalism emerged triumphant.

Soon after they became secretary of state and director of central intelligence, Foster and Allen failed their first conceptual test. Stalin died in Moscow on March 5, 1953, and in the months and years that followed, his successors made periodic overtures to the West. Foster and Allen categorically rejected them. They considered each Soviet call for “peaceful coexistence” a ruse designed to lull Americans into a false sense of security. By failing to explore possibilities for a new superpower relationship in the period after Stalin’s death, the Dulles brothers may have sharpened and lengthened the Cold War.

Their next great failure of imagination was their inability to understand Third World nationalism. They were too quick to see Moscow’s hand behind cries for independence and social reform in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. These continents were to them little more than a vast Cold War battleground. They never sought to engage creatively with the aspirations of hundreds of millions of people who were emerging from colonialism and looking for their place in a tumultuous world. Instead they waged destructive campaigns against foreign “monsters” who never truly threatened the United States.

Historians have recognized these two far-reaching lapses in judgment. A third has become clear with the passage of time. Foster and Allen never imagined that their intervention in foreign countries would have such devastating long-term effects—that Vietnam would be plunged into a war costing more than one million lives, for example, or that Iran would fall to violently anti-American zealots, or that the Congo would descend into decades of horrific conflict. They had no notion of “blowback.” Their lack of foresight led them to pursue reckless adventures that, over the course of decades, palpably weakened American security.

One reason Foster and Allen never re-examined their assumptions was that the two men so fully reinforced each other. Their worldviews and operational codes were identical. Deeply intimate since childhood, they turned the State Department and the CIA into a reverberating echo chamber for their shared certainties.

“I have always felt it was a great mistake that the two men should have had these two offices at the same time,” John Allison, the ambassador Foster removed from Indonesia in 1957, mused after retiring. “Because while I had a high regard for both of them, it was only human that Foster would listen to Allen before he would listen to anyone else. And he would take Allen’s views in preference to those of anyone else.”

One of Eisenhower’s most intriguing private thoughts about the Dulles brothers emerged in a memoir by the American diplomat David Bruce. He recalled a conversation with Sir Kenneth Strong, who had been Eisenhower’s chief intelligence officer during World War II and remained close to him. “[Strong] told me President Eisenhower once said to him that he wished he could have appointed Allen Dulles secretary of state, instead of Foster,” Bruce wrote. “I have always thought Allen would have, because of his far superior skill in dealing with individuals, been preferable in that position, but the possibility was never really in the cards, since Foster, as the senior, had always coveted the job.”

During Foster’s term as secretary of state and for decades afterward, many historians and journalists considered him the true conceptualizer of American foreign policy during the 1950s. “Dulles, not Eisenhower, was the prime mover of American foreign policy,” concluded a biography published the year after his death. “It was he who generated it. It was he who persuaded the President. It was he who carried it forward. That made Dulles the effective commander of American power for the six years of his Secretaryship. And the world recognized him as such.”

This view has shifted decisively. The consensus of twenty-first-century scholars is that Eisenhower shaped his own foreign policy, guiding Foster with a “hidden hand” and shrewdly using him as a “global attack dog.”

“There is no longer any question that Eisenhower rather than Dulles was the key figure in making American policy in the 1950s,” asserts a college textbook published in 2012.

Another text published around the same time reports a second consensus: besides being less powerful than he seemed, Foster was also less wise and successful. “Inspired by a Manichean conception of good and evil and a messianic devotion to advance the boundaries of what he called the ‘free world,’ the new Secretary of State challenged all foreign nations to choose between enlisting in the American campaign for global righteousness or submitting to Soviet domination,” this text says. It dates the easing of global tensions to the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit of September 1959—and points out that the summit took place soon after “the death in May 1959 of John Foster Dulles, the preeminent symbol of the Cold War mentality in the American government.”

The narrative of permanent threat that Foster relentlessly promoted was not fabricated, since Soviet ambition was quite real. He and others in Washington, however, exaggerated the danger and allowed private prejudices to distort their view of Soviet intentions. The period when Soviet power descended over Eastern Europe, and when Communist forces invaded South Korea, was also the period when the United States turned back Soviet challenges in Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Berlin. Each side feared the other. It is a classic security dilemma: states feel threatened; they act to defend themselves; rivals see their actions as aggressive and respond in kind. The Cold War was a product of this spiral. During the 1950s, Foster fell into it.

The end of the Cold War allowed scholars to study long-secret archives in formerly Communist countries. In 1996 the historian Melvyn Leffler summarized their first wave of research. His review depicts a world quite different from the one Foster and Allen saw.

Soviet leaders were not focused on promoting worldwide revolution. They were concerned mostly with configurations of power, with protecting their country’s immediate periphery, ensuring its security, and preserving their rule. Governing a land devastated by two world wars, they feared a resurgence of German and Japanese strength. They felt threatened by the United States, that alone among the combatants emerged from the war wealthier and armed with the atomic bomb. Soviet officials did not have pre-conceived plans to make Eastern Europe communist, to support the Chinese communists, or to wage war in Korea.…

US words and deeds greatly heightened ambient anxieties and subsequently contributed to the arms race and the expansion of the Cold War into the Third World.… US officials acted prudently in the early years of the Cold War, but their actions increased distrust, exacerbated frictions, and raised the stakes. Subsequently, their relentless pursuit of a policy of strength and counterrevolutionary warfare may have done more harm than good to Russians and the other peoples of the former Soviet Union, as well as East Europeans, Koreans, and Vietnamese. Quite a few of the new books and articles suggest that American policies made it difficult for reformers inside the Kremlin to gain the high ground.… Stalin’s successors might have liked to stabilize the relationship and curtail the competition with the West, but the perceived threat emanating from the United States held them back.

Documents from foreign archives, according to this review, suggest that “rather than congratulate themselves on the Cold War’s outcome, Americans must confront the negative as well as the positive consequences of U.S. actions and inquire more searchingly into the implications of their nation’s foreign policies.” Foster was America’s preeminent Cold Warrior of that age. If American leaders made misjudgments that helped intensify global tension, none was more responsible than he.

“Mr. Dulles’ moral universe makes everything quite clear, too clear,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1958. “For self-righteousness is the inevitable fruit of simple moral judgments, placed in the service of moral complacency.”

Foster spoke regularly to the American people, often from a collapsible podium he carried on his plane so he could make “departure statements” and “arrival statements,” and he periodically appealed to Europeans, but his communication efforts stopped there. When he addressed the rest of the world, he used a stern preacher’s tone. His message was usually dark, bellicose, and vaguely threatening, rarely uplifting or inspirational.

“So long as our foreign broadcasts, diplomatic pronouncements, and overt acts in the international arena give one-sided emphasis to our nuclear prowess, our readiness for massive retaliation, and our determination to defend American interests wherever they may be,” the social psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner warned after visiting the Soviet Union in 1960, “we only confirm the image of aggressive intransigence in the eyes not only of the communist world, but—what is perhaps more important—the non-committed nations as well.”

Foster’s inability to empathize with masses of people in a changing world robbed the United States of a historic chance. He conveyed a harsh, snarling image that alienated millions and contributed to generations of anti-Americanism.

Although Foster did not live to see his reputation decline, Allen did. His last and best-known operation, the Bay of Pigs invasion, was an epic disaster that humiliated him and his country before the world. He lost his job and dropped from public life. Few missed him.

Allen may have been a master case officer, but his broader legacy is clouded. He shared his brother’s closed-mindedness. It led him, like Foster, to dismiss the possibility of accommodation with the Soviets and to refuse to reach out to the rising Third World. Nor is he known ever to have reflected on the possible long-term consequences of his covert operations.

Even before the CIA was created, Allen developed a sweeping concept of what it should be and do. In 1947, driven by his fascination with operations, he helped persuade Congress to give the new agency a covert capability. That allowed him, when he became director, to transform the CIA from an intelligence agency that carried out occasional clandestine plots into a global force ceaselessly engaged in paramilitary and regime-change campaigns.

At Allen’s urging, CIA officers around the world adopted an activist mentality in which, as one of them later recalled, “you had to develop operations or you would fade away.” At home he demanded analysis that confirmed his view of an ever-aggressive Soviet Union. “We had constructed for ourselves a picture of the USSR, and whatever happened had to be made to fit into that picture,” said one of his analysts, Abbot Smith, who later became director of the Office of National Estimates. “Intelligence estimates can hardly commit a more abominable sin.”

By the time Allen retired, the Bay of Pigs fiasco had shattered the reputation of his beloved CIA. It never returned to the peak of power and influence it enjoyed during his term as director. For this he bears considerable responsibility.

Under Allen’s lackadaisical leadership, the agency endlessly tolerated misfits. Even in high positions it was not unusual to find men who were evidently lazy, alcoholic, or simply incompetent. Allen never imposed discipline on the agency. He hated to fire people. “We carried our walking wounded much too far,” a CIA inspector general later wrote.

The passage of years also revealed Allen’s partial responsibility for the epic “mole hunt” that shook the CIA for more than a decade. It was during the last months of his directorship, in 1961, that his counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton, launched what became an obsessive search for Soviet agents inside the CIA. This drama unfolded out of public view, but it unhinged the agency and, according to one officer, “caused havoc” for years.

Allen’s reputation eroded further as some of his unsavory operations became public. His involvement in plots to assassinate foreign leaders was slowly documented, and President Johnson complained privately that the CIA had been running “a goddamn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.” Investigators also uncovered MKULTRA, the operation in which psychoactive drugs were administered to unknowing victims. The family of Frank Olsen, the CIA officer reported to have jumped to his death during one of these tests in 1953, filed a lawsuit alleging that he had not jumped but was murdered after returning from a trip to Europe disturbed by what he had seen in secret prisons.

A Senate report in the 1970s described Allen’s years running the CIA as “a lost opportunity.”

“Jolly, gregarious, and extroverted in the extreme, Dulles disliked and avoided confrontations at every level,” the report concluded. “He failed to provide even minimal direction over the departmental intelligence components at a time when intelligence capabilities were undergoing dramatic changes.”

Allen had the cold-bloodedness an intelligence director needs, but not enough intellectual rigor or curiosity. Carried away by his love of the cloak-and-dagger game, he lost sight of the limits to what covert action can achieve.

His own record suggests how severe those limits are. He was not the brilliant spymaster many believed him to be. In fact, the opposite is true. Nearly every one of his major covert operations failed or nearly failed. His plot in Guatemala was on the brink of collapse from the loss of CIA planes, only to succeed when Eisenhower agreed to send replacement planes and President Arbenz suffered a providential failure of nerve. In Iran, only a fatal misjudgment by nationalists allowed a second CIA coup to succeed after the first collapsed. From there, the geography of Allen’s operational failure spreads across the world: Berlin, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, China and Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Indonesia, Tibet, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Cuba, and beyond.

Allen imagined himself as a modern incarnation of Sir Francis Walsingham, the chief of Queen Elizabeth’s feared spy network in the sixteenth century, who promoted English power through deft combinations of intrigue and violence. The truth was more prosaic. Allen spent much time in a world of self-reinforcing fantasy. He created an image for himself and came to believe it.

“Allen Dulles was a frivolous man,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. concluded. “He was most intelligent and a man of great charm, unlike his brother. But he was frivolous in the sense that he would make these decisions which involved people’s lives, and never would really think them through. He always left that to someone else.”

In the end, Foster and Allen depended on Eisenhower for all they did. They could not have waged their secret war without his approval. Nonetheless they decisively shaped the way the United States used power at the height of the Cold War. Their inability to adapt to a changing world, or even to see that it was changing, reinforced Eisenhower’s instincts. So did their faith in covert action.

Foster and Allen were born into privilege and steeped in the ethos of pioneers and missionaries. They spent decades promoting the business and strategic interests of the United States. More than any other figures of their age, they were vessels of American history. No other secretary of state and director of central intelligence could have done what they did. Only brothers could have achieved it—and only these two.

*   *   *

Unique biographies are part of what led Foster and Allen to misjudge the world. Human psychology is a second factor. During the 1950s, the United States was gripped by a diffuse but intense complex of terrors. When Foster warned Americans that an enemy with “slimy, octopus-like tentacles” was threatening them with the “black plague of Soviet communism,” they heard and were afraid.

Foster and Allen believed that most challenges to the United States were part of a master plan orchestrated from Moscow. A foreign ambassador once asked Foster how he knew that the Soviets were tied to land reform in Guatemala. He admitted that it was “impossible to produce evidence” but said evidence was unnecessary because of “our deep conviction that such a tie must exist.” This was how he saw Third World nationalism.

“It is all part of a single pattern,” he insisted.

From this assumption flowed a second one: since the leaders in the Kremlin were plotting world domination, they would never negotiate in good faith. “It is inevitable that orthodox communism should reject peaceful ways, except as a matter of temporary expediency, because it rejects the moral premises that alone make possible the permanent organization of peace,” Foster once reasoned.

Foster often contrasted Soviet cynicism with American virtue. “It is the policy of the United States not to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations,” he had his spokesman assert when he was at the peak of his interventionist campaign. Whether he was simply keeping secrets or had actually convinced himself that this was true cannot be known. When provoked, though, he became impatient.

During one of his meetings with religious leaders, a prominent Methodist, Bishop Bromley Oxnan, observed that the United States had itself been guilty of intolerance and aggression. Foster was indignant.

“Why do we have to run that down?” he asked. “Why present ourselves as such a terrible species of being?”

The Dulles brothers were not adept at synthesizing, compromising, listening, adapting, or evolving. Political nuance rarely clouded their worldview. Neither did moral ambiguity.

“For us there are two kinds of people in the world,” Foster once said. “There are those who are Christians and support free enterprise, and there are the others.”

Historians describe this approach to global politics as a Cold War trope that the Dulles brothers embraced with special fervor. Science is providing another explanation. Neurophysiologists, evolutionary biologists, and social and cognitive psychologists have made remarkable discoveries about the working of the brain that are highly relevant to Cold War history. They also provide intriguing 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. Contradictory information threatens cognitive dissonance. The brain rebels against it.

Social scientists have long used examples from the Cold War to illustrate the syndromes of groupthink, thought suppression, denial projection, structural blindness, and even mass hysteria. In 1960 the psychologist Charles Osgood wrote that the pull toward consistency “can plague big minds as well as little, in high places as well as low.” He called his first piece of evidence “Specimen 1: International Affairs.”

“Before the delegates to the United Nations, Khrushchev makes sweeping proposals for world disarmament,” Osgood postulated. “A large segment of the American press editorializes about the deceptive nature of these proposals—that rather than sincere overtures toward peaceful solution of problems, his proposals are carefully planned moves in the Cold War. It is cognitively inconsistent for us to think of people we dislike and distrust making honest, conciliatory moves.… We strive to maintain internal consistency among our attitudes and beliefs, often at the price of doctoring reality.”

In the twenty-first century, discoveries about how the brain works set off a mini-boom of books seeking to convey these discoveries to lay readers. They comprise a leap in understanding—not simply of psychology and human behavior, but of a force that, at times, influences world history. The Cold War was one of those times. All of these observations, made by scientists and researchers, are strongly applicable to the Dulles brothers.

• People are motivated to accept accounts that fit with their preexisting convictions; acceptance of those accounts makes them feel better, and acceptance of competing claims makes them feel worse.

• Dissonance is eliminated when we blind ourselves to contradictory propositions. And we are prepared to pay a very high price to preserve our most cherished ideas.

• Moral hypocrisy is a deep part of our nature: the tendency to judge others more harshly for some moral infraction than we judge ourselves.

• Groupthink leads to many problems of defective decision making, including incomplete survey of alternatives and objectives, failure to examine the risks of the preferred choice, poor information search, selective bias in processing information, and failure to assess alternatives.

• We are often confident even when we are wrong.… Declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.

• Certain beliefs are so important for a society or group that they become part of how you prove your identity.… The truth is that our minds just aren’t set up to be changed by mere evidence.

None of this absolves the Dulles brothers from the responsibilities of rational decision making. Like most adults, they had the ability to balance their emotional responses with cognition and adjust their behavior according to circumstance. Nonetheless both suffered acutely from what psychologists call confirmation bias—the tendency to reject discordant information. When their own envoys advised them to tolerate Mossadegh and Arbenz, or to accept neutralist regimes in Indonesia and Laos, they could not hear. Instead they replaced the envoys with others who gave them the reports they wanted.

Experience shaped the Dulles brothers, but so did private psychology. People can be deaf when their deeply held beliefs are challenged. The Dulles brothers had this quality to excess.

An American political scientist, Ole Holsti, studied the way Foster made decisions, and found that he dealt with “discrepant information” by “discrediting the source of the new information; reinterpreting the new information so as to be consistent with his belief system; [or] searching for other information consistent with preexisting attitudes.”

“Dulles was the archetype of the inner-directed person,” Holsti wrote. “The advice of subordinates was neither actively sought nor, when tendered, was it often of great weight.”

Early astronomers found the chaos of stars overwhelming, and came up with the idea of constellations as a way of imposing a design on the firmament. Like them, Foster and Allen were drawn to structure, order, and predictability. Their deepest impulses drove them to find patterns in a kaleidoscopic world.

*   *   *

A fictional product of the Dulles era, Rabbit Angstrom, is the central character in a series of novels by John Updike. In Rabbit Redux, Angstrom marvels at America’s role in the world.

“America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream, as a face of God,” he reflects. “Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not, madness rules with chains and darkness strangles millions.”

Foster and Allen saw the world this way. Their radiant self-image was ultimate justification for everything they did. Why did they do it? Part of the answer lies in their personal backgrounds, part in the realm of psychology. The most important explanation, however, may be: they did it because they are us. If they were shortsighted, open to violence, and blind to the subtle realities of the world, it was because those qualities help define American foreign policy and the United States itself.

The Dulles brothers personified ideals and traits that many Americans shared during the 1950s, 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.

Foster and Allen believed they knew what was best for all people. They considered the United States an instrument of destiny, blessed by Providence. This gave them deep self-confidence and a sense of infinite possibility. When they treated other nations cruelly, they comforted themselves with the thought that it was all for good in the end. They felt a noble, civilizing call. “Exceptionalism”—the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations—was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.

In all of this, the Dulles brothers were one with their fellow Americans. Their attitudes were rooted in the American character. They were pure products of the United States.

Nor was the Dulles brothers’ exaggeration of threats something new in American history. Conspiracy theories are as old as the Republic. Most of them posit a secret cabal—Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Masons, anarchists, bankers—that plots world revolution. Foster and Allen saw such a cabal during the 1950s.

“International communism is a conspiracy composed of a certain number of people, all of whose names I do not know, and many of whom I suppose are secret,” Foster once told a congressional committee. “They have gotten control of one government after another.”

No secret group hovered above and manipulated nations during the 1950s. Believing it, however, comforted Americans. Foster helped persuade them that their troubles in the world did not reflect the frustration of millions—or the conceptual failures of their leaders—but the blind hatred of a few obscure fanatics.

One historian has called the Cold War paradigm “one of the most powerfully developed national narratives in recorded history.” It gripped Americans in a frightening age, another has written, because it offered “a comprehensive way of understanding the world.… Fear served as the emotional glue that held this world together: fear of Soviet expansionism, of communist subversion at home, of nuclear war.”

Theorists in various eras have suggested that nations need enemies in order to maintain cohesiveness and inner strength. Foster deeply believed this. He encouraged “preparedness” projects like building bomb shelters and holding air raid drills, and conveyed the scope of the threat by authorizing live television broadcast of nuclear weapons tests in the Nevada desert. America’s state of fear during the 1950s was to him not a regrettable by-product of the Cold War but a prerequisite for victory.

“If there’s no evident menace from the Soviet Union,” he reasoned, “our will to maintain unity and strength may weaken.”

Even after lifetimes serving the cause of economic colonialism, Foster and Allen considered themselves anti-colonial. They rationalized their use of violence with the conviction that their cause—the once-in-a-millennium confrontation between civilization and barbarism—was so transcendent that it justified any extreme. Many Americans agreed.

Foster and Allen brought the United States into partnership with dictators in several parts of the world, and in some countries they intervened to replace democratic governments with tyrannies. Nonetheless they considered themselves paladins of liberty. By some standards, this leap of logic made them hypocrites. They justified it by applying a particular definition of freedom. It had little to do with civil rights or social welfare. Their view of freedom was above all economic: a country whose leaders respected private enterprise and welcomed multinational business was a free country.

This too reflected a widely shared American belief.

“Depriving the individual of his right to possession in favor of the collective, even in the name of social justice as communism in the abstract would do, seems inherently wrong to Americans—and this is understandable, given the American experience,” Paul Kattenburg, the State Department desk officer for Indochina during the 1950s, wrote after retiring. “That it does not seem wrong to millions of human beings in the world who have not shared the American bounty or the American experience and have never owned property or anything else, does not obviously strike many Americans.”

There was one other component to freedom as Foster and Allen saw it: religion. Countries that encouraged religious devotion, and that were led by men on good terms with Christian clerics, were to them free countries. Using these two criteria—attitude toward business and attitude toward religion—they conjured an explanation of why they condemned some dictatorships but not others.

Senator Fulbright once complained that Foster “misleads public opinion, confuses it, [and] feeds it pap.” Yet many Americans devoured his narrative. It fit with how they saw their own lives and history.

The world seemed threatened by malefactors. Someone had to crush them. Foster told Americans that Providence had given the United States this mission. With this discourse he plucked chords of collective memory that bind Americans to Indian wars, range wars, frontier marshals, shoot-outs, marine landings on foreign shores, and the richness of manifest destiny. His world was much like the untamed valley in Shane or the terrorized town in High Noon: a once-peaceful place threatened by evil, in need of a savior.

Americans are not patient by nature. When faced with a challenge or problem, our impulse is to act. We like to do things, not understand things. Reality does not limit our ambition. In fact, we are sometimes tempted to believe we can reshape reality to fit our needs. This is another national trait that Foster and Allen perfectly embodied.

Their approach to Vietnam was one example. In the mid-1950s Winston Churchill advised his American friends to recognize that Ho Chi Minh was unbeatable, accept his victory, and try to make the best of it. This the Dulles brothers could not do—because they were Americans. Churchill had on his side only negative, depressive, defeatist Old World reality. Foster and Allen counted on something they considered more powerful: the genius of America. They believed that their country’s vast resources, focused energy, endless ingenuity, and sheer material power would allow it to achieve what others could not. This optimism, somewhere between creative and delusional, was not simply a peculiar product of summers with “Grandfather Foster” and decades at Sullivan & Cromwell. It was and is central to the idea of America.

In some countries, American impatience had a strong political overlay. Foster and Allen found President Arbenz of Guatemala abhorrent, for example, but his term was ending and he was likely to be succeeded by a more pro-American figure. Yet Foster and Allen could not wait. An orderly transfer of power in Guatemala would show that it was possible for a country’s voters to choose socialism and then freely return to traditional capitalism. This would undermine the Cold War model, which rested on the premise that socialist influence must be resisted because socialist gains are always irreversible.

Foster and Allen could not allow history to prove them wrong, so they set out to change it. Lashing out against real or imagined enemies, as they did, is typically American. Quietly watching history unfold is not.

“By the late 1950s the United States had established an interventionist policy with a global reach,” the historian Odd Arne Westad has written. “Only regimes that accepted the American hegemony in foreign policy and in development strategy were seen as viable, and some of the ‘unviable’ states were condemned for voluntarily or involuntarily opening up for Communism, and thereby provoking a U.S. intervention. Even in cases such as Indonesia, where Washington’s strategy did not work out, there were few regrets. To the Eisenhower administration it was more important to spoil the chances for a successful left-wing development strategy than it was to impose its own version of development on newly independent countries.”

Americans often find it difficult to imagine how other people see the United States, the world, or life itself. Foster and Allen exemplified this national egoism. Empathy was beyond their emotional range. Sympathizing with the enormous complexities facing leaders of emerging nations would have required them to consider those leaders independent agents, rather than instruments of Soviet power. Their compulsive oversimplification of the world prevented them from seeing its rich diversity. In this, too, they were quintessentially American.

Their worldview fit the age. Americans were only a few years past the trauma of World War II, which taught them the horrors of global conflict. Urged on by Foster, Allen, and others in Washington and beyond, they projected the crimes of their World War II enemies onto the Soviet Union. Since Japan had attacked the United States without warning, they presumed the Soviets were liable to do the same; since Hitler had used negotiation as a tactic to give him room for war, they scorned diplomacy.

The half century of history that has unfolded since Foster and Allen passed from the scene suggests that they share responsibility for much that has gone wrong in the world. The blame, however, does not end with them. To gaze at their portraits and think, “They did it,” would be reassuring. It would also be unfair. Americans who seek to understand the roots of their country’s trouble in the world should look not at Foster and Allen’s portraits but in a mirror.

Foster and Allen exemplified the nation that produced them. A different kind of leader would require a different kind of United States.

The story of the Dulles brothers is the story of America. Their determination to project power was the same impulse that pushed settlers across prairies and over mountains, wrested rich territories from Mexico, crushed Native American resistance, and drew the United States into wars from Central America to Siberia. It remains potent. As long as Americans believe their country has vital interests everywhere on earth, they will be led by people who believe the same.

Foster and Allen tell Americans much about ourselves. Not all of it is comforting. Perhaps that is part of the reason they have faded into such obscurity. Forgetting their geopolitical sins allows the United States to forget its own.

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. Fundamental assumptions that guide American foreign policy have not changed substantially since the era when they were in power. Many Americans still celebrate their country’s providential “exceptionalism.” The Dulles brothers embraced this paradigm. Understanding what they did, and why they did it, is a step toward understanding why the United States acts as it does in the world.

Restoring Foster and Allen to their deserved place in America’s national consciousness would require an affirmative act. Two would be better.

The bust of John Foster Dulles that was once the centerpiece of Dulles International Airport should be the centerpiece again. It could be a mini-memorial, with texts explaining Foster’s career in ways that suggest questions Americans might ask themselves about their country’s identity and global role.

Behind it, on a wall, should be the brilliantly colorful Diego Rivera mural Glorious Victory. Rivera wanted it displayed in the Soviet Union, but the audience that needs to see it is in the United States. It serves no purpose rolled up in the basement of the Pushkin Museum. At the bustling international airport that serves Washington, it would be a provocative history lesson.

Keeping these two objects out of public view allows Americans to ignore realities that many wish to ignore. It encourages the childlike belief that since bad things are done by bad people, they will stop happening when the bad people are gone. Restoring Foster’s bust to its original place, and enhancing it with Glorious Victory, would be a blow against the amnesia that has allowed a nation to forget two men who helped guide it at a crucial moment.

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.

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