Dawn had not yet broken over Manhattan when the door to 60 Morningside Drive swung open. Two men emerged, slipped into a waiting Cadillac limousine, and sped away. They drove through the darkness to Mitchel Air Force Base on Long Island. A guard waved them in. They made their way toward a runway where a Constellation airliner was waiting. The driver, a Secret Service agent, pulled to a stop, jumped out, and opened the rear door. President-elect Dwight Eisenhower stepped into the morning light.
On that Saturday, November 29, 1952, Eisenhower was setting out to redeem his most electrifying campaign promise: “I shall go to Korea.” This homespun pledge helped propel him to the presidency. News of Communist victories in Korea was sending shock waves through the United States. Eisenhower had vanquished Nazi armies in Europe. Voters hoped that if he went to Korea, America could win there too.
A fragile cease-fire had taken hold in Korea. Eisenhower arrived carrying the first piece of official advice he received from John Foster Dulles, his secretary-of-state-to-be. Dulles urged him to renounce the cease-fire, send armies across the demilitarized zone, and not rest “until we have shown, before all of Asia, our clear superiority by giving the Chinese one hell of a licking.” After three days of meetings with diplomats and field commanders, Eisenhower decided to do the opposite: accept the cease-fire and agree to end the war in a stalemate. A new offensive, he concluded, would cost many lives and risk a wider war with no certain outcome.
General Douglas MacArthur, the revered former American commander in Korea, was outraged. So were many Republicans in Congress. Some grumbled that if President Truman had accepted such a truce, he would have been impeached. Eisenhower’s popularity and unique military credentials, however, made it impossible for anyone to challenge him.
The carnage of World War II had given Eisenhower a visceral understanding of war’s costs. He was determined not to send American troops back to fight on foreign soil. The risk of retaliation was too great and the price of war too high. Nor could Eisenhower realistically hope to overthrow any of the world’s ten Communist governments, which ruled the Soviet Union, China, and eight countries in Eastern Europe. Yet despite these limitations, he was determined to strike back against what seemed to be Communism’s global advance. He wanted to fight, but in a different way.
Many historians have observed that, as Stephen Ambrose put it, “Eisenhower and Dulles continued the policy of containment. There was no basic difference between their foreign policy and that of Truman and Acheson.” Eisenhower, though, combined the mind-set of a warrior with a sober understanding of the devastation that full-scale warfare brings. That led him to covert action. With the Dulles brothers as his right and left arms, he led the United States into a secret global conflict that raged throughout his presidency.
In the secrecy-shrouded 1950s and for long afterward, the scope of this unseen war remained obscure. Truths about it have emerged slowly, episodically, in isolated pieces over the course of decades. Woven back together in their original sequence, they tell an illuminating tale.
Truman used the CIA to carry out covert operations, but drew the line at plotting against foreign leaders. That line evaporated when he left office. Eisenhower wished to wage a new kind of war. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles plotted it. His brother, Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, waged it.
“The White House and this administration have an intense interest in every aspect of covert action,” Allen told his men soon after taking office.
Since Eisenhower never admitted ordering plots against foreign leaders, it is impossible to be certain why he favored them. Revelations since his death, however, make two things clear.
First, historians now know that covert operations were far more important during World War II than outsiders understood at the time. Spectacularly effective ones, including the breaking of German codes, remained secret for decades. As the Allied commander, Eisenhower was of course privy to all of them. Understanding the role they played in winning the war must have left him with a deep appreciation for what covert action can achieve.
Eisenhower would also have seen covert action as humanitarian. It was a way to fight high-stakes battles at low cost. Never foreseeing the long-term effects these operations might have, he imagined them as almost bloodless.
“He was a great admirer of covert operations,” one veteran CIA officer recalled decades later. “He’s the reason we got caught up in so many of them. He had experienced war and saw that covert operations were the alternative. And of course in those days, you had this notion of plausible deniability. You could really believe no one would ever know what you had done. If somebody said, ‘Mr. President, I don’t understand why you authorized that operation against Arbenz,’ he would look you in the face and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ That’s the way things were done in those days.”
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, many Americans projected the worst images of their World War II enemies, including the Nazi campaign of mass murder, onto Soviet Communism. Americans were told, and came to believe, that Soviet leaders were actively plotting to overrun the world; that they would use any means to ensure victory; that their victory would mean the end of civilization and meaningful life; and that therefore they must be resisted by every means, no matter how distasteful.
John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles personified this worldview. They crystallized the Cold War paradigm. Everything in their background prepared them for this role. The forces that shaped them are quintessential strains in the American character.
First was missionary Christianity. “I see the destiny of America embodied in the first Puritan who landed on those shores, just as the human race was represented by the first man,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This destiny reached apotheosis in the Dulles brothers. They were raised in a parsonage and taught from childhood that the world is an eternal battleground between righteousness and evil. Their father was a master of apologetics, the discipline of explaining and defending religious belief. They assimilated what the sociologist Max Weber described as two fundamental Calvinist tenets: that Christians are “weapons in the hands of God and executors of His providential will” and that “God’s glory demanded that the reprobate be compelled to submit to the law of the Church.”
The second force that shaped the brothers was American history. They could only have been awed by its upward arc. Their grandfather John Watson Foster had helped tame the frontier and campaigned for Abraham Lincoln; they spread American power to every corner of the globe. In their belief that the United States knew what was best for the world, as in their missionary Christianity, they reflected dominant strains in the society that produced them.
As adults, Foster and Allen were shaped by a third force: decades of work defending the interests of America’s biggest multinational corporations. Although not plutocrats themselves, they spent their lives serving plutocrats. They were among the visionaries who developed the idea of corporate globalism—what they and other founders of the Council on Foreign Relations called “liberal internationalism.” Their life’s work was turning American money and power into global money and power. They deeply believed, or made themselves believe, that what benefited them and their clients would benefit everyone.
Both brothers were moved by compulsive activism, a conviction that they were instruments of destiny, and a reflexive sense of loyalty to the business elite that had made them rich.
Foster and Allen shared much in the years before they assumed high office, but their paths diverged in one important way. Foster spent his entire life devoted to a single cause: promoting American economic and political power in the world. He became famous and lived comfortably in the global elite.
Allen also earned a handsome living by brokering international deals for his Sullivan & Cromwell clients, and had no more sympathy than Foster for those who challenged the ruling world order. Yet unlike his older brother, he found Wall Street unfulfilling. He began lusting for adventure as a young man and never stopped. At the CIA he hired restless souls like himself: sons of privilege who graduated from elite schools, went to work for law firms or investment banks, left their jobs to do clandestine work for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, rebelled against the boredom of routine when the war ended, and during the 1950s found—or made—a covert war to fight. By temperament, training, and inclination, Allen was ideally suited to enforce Foster’s threats.
These two brothers were triumphs of cultural and political evolution. In the United States, pioneers had subdued wildness, redemptive religion had become ingrained in national culture, and concentrated economic power had produced great fortunes. Foster and Allen, more than any other Americans of their age, were heirs to this legacy.
Because Eisenhower made clear—despite his campaign rhetoric—that he would not approve “rollback” campaigns aimed at overthrowing established Communist regimes, Foster and Allen had to find other enemies. For years they had been warning about stooges in poor countries who served Moscow while posing as patriots, nationalists, or anti-colonialists. These would be their targets.
In his famous Independence Day speech to the House of Representatives on July 4, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams proclaimed that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The Dulles brothers, however, did. Six impassioned visionaries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America became the monsters they went abroad to destroy. Their campaigns against these six were momentous battles in the global war the United States waged secretly during the 1950s.
This war comprises a hidden chapter of American history. It shaped the world—and still does.
Invitations to the Council on Foreign Relations for the evening of November 21, 1949, said the event would be “a small private dinner.” It was also the geopolitical version of a debutante’s coming-out party. Singly and in small groups, nearly one hundred powerful men strode out of the darkness and into the elegant salon on East Sixty-Eighth Street in Manhattan. Their host, Allen Dulles, who was balding and wore rimless glasses, greeted each of them: Nelson Rockefeller, chairman of Rockefeller Center, Inc., and a former assistant secretary of state; Henry Luce, crusading publisher of Time and Life; even the legendary “Wild Bill” Donovan, America’s most famous spymaster. All had come to meet Allen’s new protégé, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran.
The young shah—he had just turned thirty—was living through a turbulent year. A few months earlier he had been wounded in an assassination attempt. He attributed his survival to divine intervention, and took it as a sign that he was fated to rule Iran. As he recovered, he cast about for a way to show the grandeur of his vision. Allen found him one.
After years of law practice that bored him, Allen had finally acquired a client with global ambition that matched his own. It was a radically conceived new company, Overseas Consultants Inc., formed by eleven large American engineering firms, that aimed to do nothing less than change the world by making poor countries—and themselves—rich. The visionaries who ran OCI were looking for a country to transform. They settled on Iran, which the United States viewed as a strategic prize. Iran desperately needed development and, since it was receiving more than $6 billion in oil royalties every year and had access to loans from the United States, would be able to pay for it.
The elaborate OCI proposal to Iran, five volumes long, envisioned huge-scale projects including hydroelectric plants, rebuilt cities, and new industries imported from abroad. Mohammad Reza Shah, who had grown up mainly in Europe and knew little of his homeland, was captivated but uncertain. The directors of OCI needed a special envoy to close the deal. They hired Allen, who was a famous charmer as well as the former head of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
In the autumn of 1949, Allen flew to Tehran to meet the shah. He must have been persuasive. Soon after he returned home, it was announced that Iran had agreed to pay OCI a staggering $650 million—more than half a trillion in the early twenty-first century—to complete a massive seven-year enterprise. This would be the largest overseas development project in modern history. It was the greatest triumph of Allen’s legal career. For Sullivan & Cromwell it opened a world of possibilities.
“OCI provided the King of Kings with a blueprint for economic revolution,” Time reported, “and US and Western European businessmen with a guide to a vast new area of relatively untapped markets.”
A month later, Allen stood before his brethren at the Council on Foreign Relations and introduced his new friend. When the applause subsided, His Imperial Majesty spoke. He introduced himself as a committed democrat who embraced “progressive ideas” and wished for no more power than the king of Sweden. As for Iran’s future, it would be shaped by “the seven-year development plan which, as you no doubt know, has been drawn up with the aid of American engineering consultants.”
“My government and people are eager to welcome American capital, to give it all possible safeguards,” the shah told his audience. “Nationalization of industry is not planned.” During the question period he added, “Iran’s resources are still virgin and are yet to be developed.”
This was what these lords of corporate globalism wished to hear. On that night, the American foreign policy elite accepted Mohammad Reza Shah as its Iranian partner. Allen had sealed a highly promising relationship.
Since he had recently been in Iran, however, Allen knew that the shah had not forthrightly described what was happening there. Far from embodying what he called “democratic values common to our two countries,” the shah had become the chief enemy of Iran’s democratic movement. Just weeks before he flew to New York, a throng of protesters, angered by his attempt to pack parliament by stealing an election, had marched to his palace, camped on the lawn, and vowed not to leave until he agreed to call a new vote. Not wishing to come to the United States with election-rigging charges swirling around him, he agreed. That cooled the confrontation momentarily, but no one imagined it was over.
During his visit to Iran, Allen had not only sealed his friendship with the shah but seen the frightening alternative. The democratic movement seemed a volatile mob stirred by demagogues. Among these demagogues, one was the unchallenged leader. It was he who led protesters onto the shah’s palace lawn, he who denounced royal privilege, he who directed every campaign against foreign influence in Iran.
This was Allen’s first close-up view of Mohammad Mossadegh.
Mossadegh’s upbringing was eerily similar to that of the Dulles brothers. He was born in 1882, not long before they were. He enjoyed a privileged childhood, was tutored by eminent relatives, attended a fine university, and pursued graduate studies in Europe. From an early age he was fascinated by the world and his country’s place in it. That drew him to public life.
Besides coming from the same generation, Mossadegh and the Dulles brothers shared essential beliefs. They embraced the principles of capitalist democracy, detested Marxism, and felt driven to defend their respective countries against what they considered mortal threats. The worlds from which they emerged, however, made them enemies.
Mossadegh grew up watching outsiders loot his prostrate country. Through corrupt deals, predatory foreign companies acquired the right to establish Iran’s banks, print its currency, and run its post office, telegraph service, railroads, and ferry lines. One Western firm bought the caviar industry, another the tobacco industry. At the beginning of the twentieth century oil was discovered in Iran, but British officials bribed a puppet monarch, Mozaffar al-Din Shah, into signing it away. The ocean of petroleum that lay beneath Iran’s soil became the property of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, owned principally by the British government. Mossadegh came of age in an era when Iran was found to have a spectacularly rich resource, but before Iranians could make use of it, foreigners had snatched it from them.
Educated Iranians of Mossadegh’s generation absorbed a tragic sense of life. They had two options: continue their humiliating submission to foreign power or launch a rebellion that was certain to fail. Mossadegh chose rebellion. He came from a national and religious tradition that celebrates martyrdom, and he was comfortable with it. Bargaining over the details of Iran’s oil contract with Britain did not interest him. He demanded full Iranian control of Iranian resources and was undaunted by the prospect of defeat.
“We were, perhaps, slow in realizing that he was essentially a rich, reactionary, feudal-minded Persian inspired by a fanatical hate of the British and a desire to expel them and their works from the country regardless of the cost,” Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote in his memoir.
Mossadegh emerged from an ancient culture enveloped in fatalism, poetry, and a belief that most problems will never be solved because injustice rules the lives of men. A very different culture shaped the Dulles brothers. They grew up as their country soared toward prosperity and global power. Like many Americans of their generation, they were boundlessly optimistic and self-confident. They believed that their country was uniquely blessed, that God wished it to project influence around the world, and that good people would welcome this influence because it was righteous, benevolent, and civilizing.
The Dulles brothers were negotiators and deal makers; Mossadegh was utopian. American history taught them that the future would certainly be better than the past; Iranian history taught him that this was nonsense. They believed that poor countries could progress only by welcoming outsiders; he hated what foreign power had done to Iran.
Mossadegh had been a law student at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland when, in the summer of 1919, Britain announced that it had imposed a one-sided “agreement” on the dissolute Iranian monarchy under which it would take control of Iran’s army, treasury, and transport system. This sent him into paroxysms of outrage. “He talked and corresponded with other prominent Iranians in Europe, published leaflets, and wrote to the League of Nations protesting against the agreement,” one biographer has written. “He even traveled to Bern for the sole purpose of having a rubber stamp made for the Comité de Résistance de Nations, in whose name the anti-agreement statements were issued.”
Here is grist for a tantalizing historical fantasy. The young Mossadegh was in Bern pursuing his anticolonial passion in the autumn of 1919. Allen Dulles, even younger, was also there, closing down his World War I espionage operation and preparing to leave for the Paris peace conference. Neither could have been aware of the other. There is no way to know whether they ever crossed paths—say, Mossadegh paying for his rubber stamp while Allen walked past the shop window—but the spirit of coincidence would wish it so.
Mossadegh never stopped agonizing over his country’s forced submission to foreign power. After World War II he emerged as leader of the nationalists in parliament. He was most famous for denouncing British ownership of his country’s oil industry, but in 1950 he found another audacious foreign project to oppose: the seven-year development plan Allen had negotiated for Overseas Consultants Inc. He and other nationalists denounced it as a sellout to foreign potentates.
Even some in the United States had doubts about the OCI project. Dean Acheson, who was secretary of state when it was announced, called it “a grandiose plan beyond the capacity of the Iranian government.” Yet the company, encouraged by Sullivan & Cromwell, pressed ahead.
Mossadegh’s loose political alliance, the National Front, led the opposition to the OCI contract. During debates over the contract in parliament, one National Front deputy warned that its cost would “break the back of future generations.” Another argued that “Iran should not blindly follow the advice of a foreign power” and should entrust its development “not to American advisers, but to trained Iranian experts who are qualified by experience.” These speeches struck a patriotic chord, and in December 1950 parliament, by refusing to appropriate funds for the project, effectively killed it. This liquidated with a single stroke the giant endeavor from which Allen and OCI had hoped to earn great profits—and which would have been an ideal base for projecting American influence throughout Iran and the Middle East.
Not content with striking this heavy blow against the position of foreign capital in Iran, Mossadegh soon dealt another. Parliament chose him as prime minister on April 28, 1951. Before accepting, he asked for a vote in favor of nationalizing the country’s oil industry. It was unanimous.
This dramatic step boded ill for another of Allen’s most important clients, the J. Henry Schroder Banking Corporation, which served as financial agent for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and on whose board he sat. It also jolted Foster, who was then seeking business in Iran for another Sullivan & Cromwell client, the Chase Manhattan Bank. Beyond that, it was a frontal attack on the structure of the petroleum industry, with which the firm had been deeply involved for decades and which had become a foundation of the global economy.
Mossadegh’s opposition to Western privilege made him the sort of leader the Dulles brothers instinctively mistrusted. Their mistrust turned to enmity when he helped kill the OCI contract. It sharpened further when he nationalized his country’s oil industry. He embodied one of their nightmares: a populist rabble-rouser who stirs the masses by rejecting the way the world is run.
This made Mossadegh the first monster the Dulles brothers set out to destroy. Deposing him was among their highest priorities for 1953. They had developed a deep grudge against him during their years at Sullivan & Cromwell. Upon assuming power, they acted on it.
* * *
As Foster and Allen settled into their new jobs, Washington society saw the sharp personality differences that had separated them since childhood. Foster remained somber and withdrawn. He rarely ventured out at night, preferring to sit at home working on a speech, reading a detective novel, or playing backgammon with Janet. His one regular public appearance in Washington was at National Presbyterian Church every Sunday morning, where he sat in the pew that “Grandfather Foster” had used half a century before. He was an awkward dinner guest, often inelegantly dressed in off-green suits, with distracting habits like stirring his drink with his index finger and stretching his legs to reveal stretches of pale skin. During one dinner, the wife of an undersecretary of the navy noticed him picking melted wax from a candle, squeezing it into a ball, and chewing it.
“Now, Mr. Dulles, I scold my children for doing that,” she told him. “It’s bad manners and it messes up the tablecloth.”
Foster quickly apologized for his “terrible habit” and later acknowledged the lady’s gift of a box of candles to soothe any hurt feelings. Social graces were not his strength at work either. His confidence in his own judgment was so strong that he felt little need to consult State Department professionals, and he often treated them brusquely. During meetings he doodled incessantly on yellow legal pads, taking breaks to sharpen his pencil with a pocket knife. When lost in thought he made what the columnist Stewart Alsop called “small clicking noises with his tongue.” The extended silences between his sentences were legendary.
“His speech was slow,” the future British prime minister Harold Macmillan wrote after one meeting, “but it easily kept pace with his thoughts.”
Allen was just the opposite: buoyant, outgoing, a sparkling presence on the diplomatic party scene. No one knew what he was up to, but everyone suspected enough of the truth to give him an air of mystery. His pipe provided a smoky halo that enhanced the mystique. Attacks of gout sometimes forced him to use crutches, but this had an endearing advantage: he was the only member of President Eisenhower’s inner circle who was allowed to wear slippers in the Oval Office.
Their old friend Henry Luce put each of the brothers on the cover of Time during their first year in office. Allen was pictured with his ubiquitous pipe, smoke curling up toward a black-cloaked figure carrying a dagger, above the title “In an Ancient Game, New Techniques and a New Team.” Foster followed a couple of months later. Wrinkled and sullen, staring out from beneath a black homburg in front of a globe encircled with red, white, and blue banners, he looked worthy of what Time described as his mission: “To Unite Principle and the Facts of Life.”
Luce’s friendship was only one of many assets that helped Foster and Allen project their views into the American press. Foster built a dense network of media contacts, and once Allen became director of central intelligence he went even further. Allen established discreet contact with owners, publishers, and editors of influential daily newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks. Among his regular collaborators were William Paley of CBS, Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times, Alfred Friendly of theWashington Post, and James Copley of Copley News Service. Through them, and through journalists who were veterans of the Office of War Information, the U.S. government’s official propaganda arm during World War II, he regularly planted stories about foreign countries and their leaders. By one account he could “pick up the phone and edit a breaking story, make sure an irritating foreign correspondent was yanked from the field, or hire the services of men such as Time’s Berlin bureau chief and Newsweek’s man in Tokyo.” The columnist Allen Drury called him “a man of notoriously thin skin who is not above trying to get the jobs of newspapermen who criticize his agency.”
Years later it became clear that Allen’s efforts to influence the American press were not casual or episodic, but part of a multifaceted project called Operation Mockingbird. Through it he funneled information, some of it classified, to journalists disposed to promote the CIA worldview, among them James Reston of the New York Times, Benjamin Bradlee of Newsweek, and the influential columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop. Operatives also planted stories in smaller news outlets and then arranged for them to be amplified through networks controlled by friendly media barons. Frank Wisner, who helped oversee Mockingbird, called it the CIA’s “mighty Wurlitzer.”
Home life remained as complicated for Allen as it was simple for his older brother. The pace of his romantic adventures slowed, though he continued his on-and-off affair with Mary Bancroft—who became so friendly with Clover that at one point they considered collaborating on an illustrated book about Jungian dream theory. He also reconnected with Countess Wally Toscanini Castelbarco, whom he had met when she was a courier for the Italian resistance, and after a period of coolness Clover accepted her, too.
While Allen cultivated an enigmatic, diaphanous image, Foster’s fire-and-brimstone Cold War sermons made him a major national figure. In his first speech as secretary of state, delivered on January 27, 1953, on national television, he dramatically unveiled a map of the world that showed a vast region, “from Kamchatka, near Alaska … right on to Germany in the center of Europe … which the Russian Communists completely dominate.” He warned that the population of this region, totaling eight hundred million people, was “being forged into a vast weapon of fighting power backed by industrial production and modern weapons that include atomic bombs.”
“We have enemies who are plotting our destruction,” he concluded. “Any American who isn’t awake to that fact is like a soldier who’s asleep at his post.”
Whether this was a sober estimate of Soviet power or a wild exaggeration, it both reflected and intensified the sense of fear that many Americans felt. Foster sought to make nuclear combat seem a real, imminent possibility. He conveyed a terrifying worldview. Most Americans came to share it.
* * *
Enveloped in a world entirely disconnected from Cold War pathologies, and even further distant from the imperatives of global business, Mohammad Mossadegh never realized that he had potent enemies in the United States. He was puzzled that Truman had not rallied to his cause, and when Eisenhower was elected, he dared to hope for a change. The first response seemed encouraging. In January 1953 Mossadegh sent Eisenhower a message asking the new president to help Iranians regain their “natural and elementary rights,” and Eisenhower promised to “study those views with care and with sympathetic concern.”
Even before Eisenhower took office, however, members of his incoming administration had begun discussions with agents of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service about a plot against Mossadegh. Their interlocutor was Christopher Montague Woodhouse, a former chief of the British intelligence station in Tehran, who made a secret trip to Washington soon after the election. At the State Department and again at the CIA, he argued that Mossadegh should be overthrown not as punishment for seizing Britain’s oil company, but because he had become too weak to resist a possible Soviet-backed coup.
“When we knew what the prejudices were, we played all the more on those prejudices,” Woodhouse later wrote of his dealings with American officials. “A powerful ally was Frank Wisner, who was then director of [CIA] operations. Allen Dulles was also receptive.… He proved to be shrewd and practical, and he greatly helped in convincing the CIA that between us we could carry out an effective operation.”
Eisenhower assumed the presidency without any of the anti-Mossadegh fervor that gripped the Dulles brothers. According to one of his biographers, Jean Edward Smith, he “initially took little interest” in the idea of fomenting revolution in Iran, but Foster pressed it, and “over drinks in the evening Ike was brought around to accept a coup, providing America’s hand would not be visible.”
Once Foster had persuaded the president to authorize Mossadegh’s overthrow, Allen began to plan it.
“On February 18, 1953, the newly installed chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service arrived in Washington,” the intelligence historian Tim Weiner has written. “Sir John Sinclair, a soft-spoken Scotsman known to the public as ‘C’ and to his friends as ‘Sinbad,’ met with Allen Dulles and proposed Kim Roosevelt as field commander for a coup. The British gave their plan the prosaic title of Operation Boot. Roosevelt had a grander name: Operation Ajax, after the mythical hero of the Trojan War (a strange choice, as legend has it that Ajax went mad, slew a flock of sheep thinking they were warriors, and killed himself in shame after coming to his senses).”
A series of vivid dispatches from Loy Henderson, the American ambassador in Tehran, fueled Foster’s enthusiasm for Operation Ajax—which may have been named for the household cleanser, not the tormented Greek. Henderson reported “the fact that the Iron Curtain is about to envelop Iran,” asserted that Mossadegh’s nationalism pleased “only those sympathetic to the Soviet Union and to international communism,” and urged policies that would “starve Mossadegh out of power.” These reports reinforced what Foster already believed and stiffened his determination to proceed.
Mossadegh had given both Dulles brothers many reasons to wish him gone. Once in office, each found a new one.
Foster had identified an emerging enemy of freedom in the world: neutralism. He defined it as the “immoral and shortsighted” belief that countries could hold themselves apart from the Cold War confrontation. This put him at odds with emerging statesmen like Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, who wanted his country “to avoid entanglement in power politics and not to join any group of powers as against any other group,” and the new Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser, who reasoned that there was no reason for Egypt to oppose the Soviets because “we’ve never had trouble with them.”
Mossadegh shared their view. He did not use the term “neutralism” to describe his foreign policy, but came up with one that meant the same thing: “negative equilibrium.” Foster realized that if Mossadegh thrived, leaders of other countries might follow him toward neutralism. If he were to fall, neutralism would seem less tempting.
Allen was eager to strike against Mossadegh for the same reasons as his brother, plus one of his own: he wanted action. His first two years at the CIA had been frustrating because Truman would not authorize the kind of world-shaking operations he longed to run. Now he had a president eager to wage clandestine war, and full command of what would later be called “the invisible government.”
“They might be more or less invisible in terms of the ongoing public debate about foreign policy, but that simply made them all the more powerful,” David Halberstam wrote of Allen and the men around him. “They were the real players in a real world, as opposed to the world that newspapers wrote about and Congress debated.”
The temptation to do things covertly grew; it was easier, less messy. In this netherworld of power and secrecy it was particularly comforting to the more established figures of Washington to have a man like Allen Dulles as head of the CIA. His job so readily lent itself to the abuse of power, but he was a comforting figure.… He was affable as his brother, Foster, was not. Even more importantly, he lacked Foster’s dogmatism and righteousness and rigid certainties.… A man that accessible, that open and gregarious, could hardly be a part of a world of invisible men with false identities who worked in the darkness. Rather, he seemed a thoughtful, fair-minded, humane public servant who seemed to offer reassurance that whatever things his men were doing, they were the kind of things that everyone at the party would approve of. He was not only the head of the closed society, he was its ambassador to the open one.
The Dulles brothers’ antipathy to Mossadegh might not, by itself, have been enough to propel the United States to the extreme of overthrowing him. That became possible only when several other factors converged.
First was the imperative of scoring a public “win,” somewhere or other, in the global struggle against Communism. The Eisenhower administration came to office pledging to lead the United States out of what Vice President Richard Nixon had called “Dean Acheson’s college of cowardly communist containment.” Pressure to act became more acute after the shock of Eisenhower’s decision to accept a truce in Korea, which some saw as a sign of weakness. His refusal to pardon the convicted atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed on June 19, 1953, toughened his image, but it was not enough. He needed a quick success. With the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe ruled out as unrealistic targets, another had to be found.
Iran had an open society, meaning that covert action would be relatively easy. It shared a long border with the Soviet Union. It had rich oil reserves and, as the historian James Bill has written, “the United States clearly had an interest in gaining entry to the Iranian oil business.” And although Mossadegh was far from a Communist, Foster and Allen saw him as weak and unstable, an Iranian Kerensky who would be unable to resist if the Communists struck against him.
“If disorders flare up in Iran as a result of nationalization, the Russians may intervene, grab the oil, even unleash World War III,” Life warned. “To call Mossadegh a fanatic may be correct, but it explains almost nothing. Mossadegh is a far more complex character than the most baffling men the West has yet had to deal with, including misty yogis like Nehru and notably unmisty commissars like Josef Stalin.… Mohammad Mossadegh, with his faints, his tears and wild-eyed dreams, is a whirling dervish with a college education and a first-rate mind.”
Striking against Mossadegh was also tempting because of the political risk of not doing so. Senator Joseph McCarthy and other anti-Communist zealots in Congress were denouncing diplomats they blamed for the “loss” of China. If Iran were somehow to be “lost,” Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers would be accused of having failed to act. They could avoid this danger by seizing control of events there.
The final factor in this equation was pressure from Britain. Losing access to Iranian oil, a foundation of British economic and military power, was difficult for British leaders even to contemplate. They had been forced to surrender India; Kenya was afire with anticolonial passion; and now the Iranians had nationalized their oil industry. One British diplomat warned plaintively that if this momentum was not stopped, “we will be driven back to our island, where we shall starve.”
To avoid this fate, British leaders had launched a campaign of escalating pressure on Iran in 1951 and 1952. It not only failed but provoked Mossadegh to close the British embassy in Tehran, expelling all diplomats including secret agents. Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s last hope was to reach across the Atlantic for help. He invited President Truman to “gallop together” with him against Mossadegh. Truman refused, for two reasons. First, he did not believe the CIA should overthrow governments, and second, he was an anticolonialist who had no sympathy for what he called the “block headed British.”
Secretary of State Acheson conveyed this message clearly. “Only on the invitation of the Iranian government, or Soviet military intervention, or a Communist coup d’état in Tehran, or to evacuate British nationals in danger of attack, could we support the use of force,” he declared. Later he wrote that a “distinct cleavage” separated American and British attitudes toward oil nationalization and Mossadegh.
That cleavage disappeared when Eisenhower replaced Truman in the White House. His secretary of state and director of central intelligence were impatient to “gallop together” into the world of covert action. A fateful alignment of forces led them to choose Mossadegh as their first target:
• They arrived in high office mistrusting him.
• They wanted to win a strategic victory somewhere.
• Iran was a tempting target.
• The British were urgently interested and eager to help.
Behind all of this lay the overwhelming reality of the Cold War. Eisenhower came into office believing that Iran “stands today at the same place China did only a very few years ago,” and that the United States had to find “some scheme or plan that will permit that oil to keep flowing to the westward.” The Dulles brothers won his support for a coup by framing their antipathy to fit Cold War fears. Even Ambassador George McGhee, who had been Truman’s liaison to Mossadegh and considered him “a patriotic Iranian nationalist with no reason to be attracted to socialism,” understood the imperative.
“If it weren’t for the Cold War,” McGhee mused as the coup was being planned, “there’s no reason why we shouldn’t let the British and the Iranians fight it out.”
* * *
On some days, Foster spoke personally or by telephone with Eisenhower as many as ten times. At dusk he often visited the White House for a chat over drinks. No one else was present at these meetings, and no notes were taken. Nor were any taken during the weekend lunches Foster and Allen often shared at their sister’s home in suburban McLean, Virginia, or during their many private conversations. Allen often dropped by Foster’s house after work, and by one account they “spoke on the telephone to each other daily, often many times, in quick, shorthand conversations that bypassed layers of bureaucracy.” Making far-reaching decisions secretly fit well with the new administration’s commitment to covert action.
“The line between intelligence and policy wore thin from the start,” according to the biographer Peter Grose. “Allen was ever imaginative in devising intelligence operations that by their very nature determined the shape of national policy.”
In Washington the CIA was seen as a bastion of relative liberalism. Allen believed—not surprisingly for a spymaster—that he had a deep and subtle understanding of the world. In speeches and interviews, he avoided the heated rhetoric that was his brother’s trademark. He recommended against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, arguing that it would stir anti-American sentiment abroad. His analysts often seemed sharper and more imaginative than their counterparts at the State Department.
“Many of the liberals who were forced out of other departments found a sanctuary, an enclave, in the CIA,” Robert F. Kennedy recalled later. “So some of the best people in Washington, and around the country, began to collect there.”
Allen even tried to hire George Kennan, one of the era’s most thoughtful American diplomats, after Foster pushed him out of the State Department. Kennan, recently returned from a truncated term as ambassador to the Soviet Union, was the author of the “containment” doctrine Foster professed to abhor. He had been quoted as calling Foster “a dangerous man” seized by “emotional anticommunism.” The State Department could not accommodate them both. Foster’s rise implied Kennan’s fall. Rather than dismiss him outright, Foster suggested that he might be happier at the CIA. Allen was ready to hire him, but Kennan demurred.
“I felt that if I could not be where I had grown up and belonged, i.e., in the State Department, I would rather not be anywhere,” Kennan wrote afterward.
By 1953 the CIA had become a truly global organization, six times larger than when it was founded in 1947. Allen commanded fifteen thousand employees in fifty countries, with an annual budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, no accounting necessary. He had remarkably little to show for it. All three of his main operations in Eastern Europe, aimed at stirring anti-Communist resistance in Poland, Ukraine, and Albania, collapsed in defeat. His analysts did not foresee Stalin’s death or its first major consequence, the emergence of Nikita Khrushchev as the new Soviet leader. He sought to use Burma and Thailand as staging grounds for guerrilla warfare against “Red China,” but his secret armies won no victories.
The operation in Burma was an early example of how closely the two brothers collaborated—and of how often their projects produced unintended consequences. Eager to destabilize the Communist regime in China, they created a guerrilla force of Chinese Nationalists in northern Burma, drawn from remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated army. Directed by Allen’s men, these fighters staged a series of raids into southern China. Foster’s role was to provide diplomatic cover, which he did by denying repeatedly that the United States was connected to the insurgency. He even kept the operation secret from his diplomats in the region. By the end of 1953, however, it became clear that the CIA was the outside force dropping arms to the insurgents and seeking to provoke war on a volatile border. This led to a burst of patriotic outrage in Burma, a decision by Prime Minister U Nu to stop accepting American aid, and a sharp improvement in Burma’s relations with “Red China.” Burma soon fell into a long cycle of military coups, repression, and ethnic war.
While the secret war in Burma was under way, Foster and Allen proposed an even more ambitious operation to President Eisenhower and the National Security Council. They asked that the CIA be authorized to do something it had never done before: overthrow a foreign leader. Their target would be Mossadegh. Less than two months after taking office, the brothers were bringing American foreign policy into a new age.
Truman had periodically convened the National Security Council—a shifting group of cabinet secretaries, military commanders, and senior intelligence officers—but under Eisenhower it assumed a central role as the official rubber stamp for foreign and security policy. It met once a week. Eisenhower presided, but Foster and Allen dominated most meetings. Allen, who was the council’s “security adviser,” would open with a twenty-minute review of world events. Foster would follow, usually echoing his brother’s views and recommendations. There was little debate. Eisenhower used the council to endorse decisions that he, Foster, and Allen had already made.
On March 4, 1953, the National Security Council met to consider overthrowing Mossadegh.
Allen gave a summary of intelligence from Iran, which he said pointed to “a Soviet takeover.” Foster took the threat further, predicting that after the takeover, “other areas of the Middle East, with some 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves, will fall under Communist control.” All agreed that this threat required urgent action. Only one participant was conflicted: Eisenhower. He still hoped Iran and Britain could reach some accord that would make intervention unnecessary. At one point he exploded in frustration, demanding to know why it was so difficult “to get some of the people in these downtrodden countries to like us instead of hating us.” Moments later he added, “If I had five hundred million dollars of money to spend in secret, I would get a hundred million of it to Iran right now.” He was quickly assured that the Mutual Security Administration could assemble “as much as the situation required,” but he did not pursue his impulse. Nor, in the end, did he discourage the idea of a plot. All knew this meant he had approved it. He made his approval clear again at the next week’s NSC meeting, silently assenting to Foster’s recommendation that the United States become “senior partners with the British” in a plot against Mossadegh.
“Moscow’s involvement in Iran was negligible,” the historian Richard Immerman later concluded, “but [Foster] Dulles could not distinguish between indigenous nationalism and imported communism.”
Operation Ajax occupied more of Foster’s interest than his time. In his frequent travels and many speeches, he made occasional disapproving remarks about Iran but never directly threatened Mossadegh. When the State Department’s cooperation in the plot was required, he gave it through his deputy Walter Bedell Smith. His role was to approve, to encourage, and to keep the president discreetly informed.
“Eisenhower participated in none of the meetings that set up Ajax; he received only oral reports on the plan; and he did not discuss it with his cabinet or the NSC,” Stephen Ambrose wrote in his biography of Eisenhower. “Establishing a pattern he would hold to throughout his presidency, he kept his distance and left no documents behind that could implicate the President in any proposed coup. But in the privacy of the Oval Office, over cocktails, he was kept informed by Foster Dulles, and he maintained a tight control over the activities of the CIA.”
On April 4, exactly one month after Eisenhower gave Operation Ajax his tacit approval, Allen signed an order approving the expenditure of $1 million to be used “in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh.” Never before had an official of the United States government approved such an order. The chain of command was elegantly direct: from the president to the secretary of state, and from the secretary of state to his brother, the director of central intelligence.
Declassified records show that on this same day, April 4, Allen set in motion another of his extraordinary projects: MKULTRA, a mind-control experiment that aimed to test the value of drugs in black operations. He received a proposal from one of his trusted operatives, Richard Helms, recommending that the CIA “develop a capability in the covert use of biological and chemical materials” that could be used in “discrediting individuals, eliciting information, and implanting suggestions and other forms of mental control.” Soon afterward he approved MKULTRA with a budget of $300,000. It included experiments in which LSD was administered to CIA and other government employees, doctors, prisoners, mental patients, and prostitutes and their clients. One prisoner who participated, the future New England gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger, later wrote that the experiments were “nightmarish” and “would plunge me into the depths of insanity.” Another participant, an army researcher who was unwittingly given LSD, was reported to have leaped through a window to his death. A Senate investigating committee later found aspects of this project “clearly illegal.”
Allen never recoiled from the use of coercive violence. He established secret prisons in Germany, Japan, and the Panama Canal Zone, where suspected double agents were subjected to what would later be called “enhanced interrogation.” At the same time he intensified CIA commando operations behind the Iron Curtain. His men trained bands of mercenaries and exiles, armed them, packed them into planes at clandestine airfields in Greece, Germany, Britain, and Japan, and air-dropped them into Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China.
One of the farthest-reaching projects Allen directed during this period was the creation of underground armies in Europe that would be ready to rebel and spread terror in case of Soviet invasion or the election of leftist governments. The CIA created these clandestine networks—collectively known as “Gladio,” after the name the force was given in Italy—in fifteen countries, sometimes with help from the British secret service MI-6. William Colby, a CIA officer who helped run the project, later wrote that to be sure fighters were properly armed, “specialized equipment had to be secured from CIA and secretly cached.” In 2000, a report to the Italian parliament concluded that some of the killings and bombings that threw Italy into turmoil during previous decades had been perpetrated by “men linked to the structures of United States intelligence.” Not until 2005 did the first serious studies of Gladio appear. In one of them, the Swiss scholar Daniele Ganser reported that in eight of the fifteen countries where the CIA shaped “stay-behind” armies—Italy, Turkey, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Sweden—“links to terrorism have been either confirmed or claimed.”
In order to guarantee a solid anti-Communist ideology of its recruits, the CIA and MI-6 generally relied on men of the conservative political Right. At times, former Nazis and right-wing terrorists were also recruited …
It is greatly upsetting to discover that Western Europe and the United States collaborated in establishing secret armed networks which in the majority of countries are suspected of having had links to acts of terrorism. In the United States, such nations have been called rogue states and are the objects of hostility and sanction. Can it be that the United States itself, potentially in alliance with Great Britain and other NATO members, should be on the list of states sponsoring terrorism, along with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran?
Rumors about these operations began to circulate in Washington and caused some alarm. In the spring of 1953 a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee summoned Allen, Frank Wisner—who as deputy director for plans was in charge of covert operations—and four other senior CIA officers for two days of secret testimony. No hearing like this had ever been held in the United States, and there were extended negotiations over who should attend, including whether a stenographer was necessary. Wisner spoke first and was remarkably candid. He told the subcommittee that the CIA “engages in covert psychological, political, and economic warfare” and directs “a very substantial program of covert and ‘unconventional’ military activities, including guerrilla warfare, counter-guerrilla operations, sabotage and counter-sabotage, and the development of escape and evasion networks in enemy or potentially hostile territory.” Allen gave the subcommittee a list of CIA operations—it has never been fully declassified—and when the subcommittee asked for more, he provided it.
Allen appeared regularly before congressional committees, often in closed session and accompanied by as many as seven of his deputies. He presented the CIA budget to the House Appropriations Committee and shared top-secret assessments of Soviet nuclear capability with the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. He assured a House Armed Services subcommittee that he withheld “no secrets” from Congress. In fact, he was never fully forthcoming. When one committee sent investigators abroad to assess the work of CIA stations, he sent a cable telling his men that the investigators were “completely unwitting” of what the agency was doing “and should remain unwitting.”
As Allen pursued his covert projects, Eisenhower proclaimed an important shift in American defense posture that became known as the “New Look.” One of his constant themes was that military and economic strength must go hand in hand and that, as he declared at one cabinet meeting, “We cannot defend the nation in a way which will exhaust our economy.” Immediately after taking office he began a series of sharp cuts in the defense budget, achieved mainly by reducing the number of troops under arms. Rather than relying on conventional forces, the “New Look” envisioned a rapid buildup of nuclear weapons, which Eisenhower believed would provide the same security at less cost. In 1954 he announced a $7.4 billion tax cut. Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey followed with an announcement that defense spending would be cut by $2 billion.
Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy had three components: a smaller army, nuclear deterrence, and covert action. The first two were public. Few knew about the third.
* * *
One Friday night in the spring of 1953, a celebrity-studded crowd gathered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City for an event that had nothing, but also everything, to do with America’s newly fortified determination to shape world events. It was the premiere of the year’s most poetic film,Shane, starring Alan Ladd as a brooding, noble gunman in the old West. His character personified the way the Dulles brothers perceived America’s role in the world.
Shane unfolds in a frontier valley where thugs are threatening peaceable people. One good man with a gun appears. Nobody has invited him, but decent folk understand that he has come to free them. He kills the thugs, and with that violent act brings peace to the valley. His service complete, he rides away. All are grateful.
Crowds thronged to Radio City during the film’s four-week run, and it turned out to be an Oscar-winning triumph. The New York Times called it “a disturbing revelation of the savagery that prevailed in the hearts of the old gun-fighters, who were simply legal killers under the frontier code.” It was that and more. The hero acts precisely as many Americans believe their country acts in the world. He is an enforcer of morality and a scourge of oppressors; he comes from far away but knows instinctively what must be done; he brings peace by slaying wrongdoers; he risks his life to help others; and for all this he wishes no reward other than the quiet satisfaction of having done what was right. Shane reinforced a cultural consensus that steadied America’s self-image during the disorienting early years of the Cold War. Whether Foster or Allen saw it is unrecorded, but they imagined themselves like its hero: a morally centered warrior who assumes burdens—even the moral burden of murder—in order to ensure the ultimate triumph of justice.
Another film classic of the early 1950s became Eisenhower’s favorite: High Noon, starring Gary Cooper as a peaceable lawman who is forced to confront criminals alone because no one else can or will. Eisenhower watched it three times. He cannot have avoided seeing himself and the United States in the sheriff’s role: reluctant to fight, but moved to do so because otherwise good people will suffer.
“In their recognition of the inevitability of armed conflict, these films present the politics of containment,” the critic Stanley Corkin has written. “The need to quarantine the misdirected and potential threats to civil society resounds throughout these films.… While High Noon and Shane offer some notion of the ideal state and function of the aggregate, they also assert the desirability of the extraordinary individual’s riding to the rescue.”
Soon after Shane opened in New York, Foster set off on his first trip to the Middle East as secretary of state. He spent three weeks traveling, with stops in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Libya, and Turkey, along with Pakistan and India. The absence of Iran from this list drew much comment. In Pakistan a reporter asked Foster if he was seeking to undermine Mossadegh. He replied that the United States had “no disposition to meddle in the affairs of others.”
Foster returned to Washington on May 24, and four days later Eisenhower received another message from Mossadegh. Iran’s economy was collapsing as a result of British sanctions. Mossadegh was not only unaware that Eisenhower had ordered his overthrow, but still believed what nearly every Iranian believed about the United States: that it was a friend of democracy and an opponent of colonial exploitation. Not realizing how fully the climate in Washington had changed, he appealed for Eisenhower’s help.
“Although it was hoped that during Your Excellency’s administration, attention of a more sympathetic character would be devoted to the Iranian situation, unfortunately no change seems thus far to have taken place in the position of the American government,” Mossadegh wrote. “As a result of actions taken by the former Company and the British Government, the Iranian nation is now facing great economic and political difficulties. There can be serious consequences, from an international viewpoint as well, if this situation is permitted to continue.”
This last sentence, which suggested that Mossadegh might consider steering Iran closer to the Soviet Union, set off new alarm in Washington and resolved any lingering doubts about Operation Ajax. On June 25, Foster summoned the principals to his office for a final go-ahead. He and half a dozen senior diplomats represented the State Department; Allen and Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, who had been chosen as field commander, came from the CIA. Roosevelt began by reporting that “the Soviet threat is indeed genuine, dangerous, and imminent.” Then he handed Foster a twenty-two-page summary of the action plan, which British and American agents had written during a series of brainstorming sessions in Cyprus.
“So this is how we get rid of that madman Mossadegh,” Foster said as he leafed through the document.
All understood that the plot would not have advanced this far without the president’s approval. This meant that, as Roosevelt later wrote, “anything but assent would be ill-received.” Roosevelt recalled Henry Byroade, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, “accepting the fact that discussion would be useless” and “drumming his fingers on a knee, his black brows forming an uncompromising line that matched his equally straight, uncompromising mouth.… In fact, I was morally certain that almost half of those present, if they felt free or had the courage to speak, would have opposed the undertaking.”
Roosevelt outlined the plan, which envisioned a series of operations aimed at weakening Mossadegh, throwing Tehran into chaos, and encouraging pro-shah military officers to stage a coup. Then Ambassador Henderson, whom Foster had summoned from his post in Tehran, summed up the case for it. “Mr. Secretary, I don’t like this kind of business at all,” he concluded. “But we are confronted by a desperate, a dangerous situation, and a madman who would ally himself with the Russians. We may have no choice but to proceed with this undertaking. May God grant us success.”
This was what Foster wished to hear and knew he would hear. “That’s that, then,” he said. “Let’s get going.”
Roosevelt was one of the last to file out. As he was leaving, he saw Foster pick up the white telephone that connected him to the Oval Office. The secretary of state, he guessed, was calling the president to report that he had set Operation Ajax in motion.
A few days later Eisenhower sent a tart answer to Mossadegh’s letter, which had been sitting on his desk for a month. “It would not be fair to the American taxpayers for the United States Government to extend any considerable amount of economic aid to Iran so long as Iran could have access to funds derived from the sale of its oil,” he wrote. “I note the concern reflected in your letter at the present dangerous situation in Iran and sincerely hope that before it is too late, the Government in Iran will take such steps as are in its power to prevent the further deterioration of that situation.”
* * *
As the United States was setting out to depose a non-Communist government in Iran, it faced a sudden opportunity to strike inside the Soviet bloc. On June 16, 1953, several thousand construction workers in East Berlin walked off their jobs rather than accept new government work rules. Their protest spread. Crowds besieged government buildings. As word spread through the city, people raced to the scene. One was the chief of the State Department’s Berlin Desk, Eleanor Lansing Dulles.
Eleanor had been given this post, which she said “came close to being the dream job,” just before Foster became secretary of state, but no fraternal influence was involved. In fact, soon after his appointment was announced, he told her that he would not give her any position in the State Department—though he would not fire her if she was on the job by Inauguration Day. Soon afterward James Riddleberger, head of the Office of German Affairs, asked Eleanor to create an unofficial “Berlin Desk” to coordinate “all the work on the political, military, cultural, and economic aspects of Berlin.” She accepted and began commuting to Berlin. After her first trip, she returned to a rude shock: her brother wanted to fire her. They had drifted apart, and he did not appreciate her habit of lecturing him. During the presidential campaign she had privately reprimanded him for refusing to distance himself from Senator McCarthy, and more than once she offered him unsolicited advice on economic policy.
“Jimmy Riddleberger went to see Foster and said he couldn’t fire me because I was in the department first, it wouldn’t be fair,” Eleanor later recalled. “And Foster told him he just couldn’t have me around, it didn’t look right, or something. And Riddleberger said, ‘Look, give her a chance. Give her a year and if she doesn’t get into trouble, it will probably be all right.’ And Foster agreed. And after a hard year, it all blew over. But I never understood why he did what he did.”
On the morning of June 16, Eleanor was discussing food stockpiles with city officials in West Berlin when a man burst in and shouted, “There is trouble!” Racing to East Berlin, she found surging crowds charged by bold denunciations of Walter Ulbricht’s Soviet-backed regime and chanting of “Get Ulbricht Out!” and “We Want Freedom!” One group of protesters begged for help, pleading, “Why don’t the Americans give us guns?” Soviet tanks were approaching. If the Eisenhower administration had been looking for a chance to jump into an anti-Communist uprising, here was one.
“By midnight on June 16, the basic decision for restraint had been made,” Eleanor later wrote. “The risk of nuclear war and the Soviet firmness in holding on to restive areas made clear that any action to help those in revolt would bring imminent danger of World War III.… If the revolting workers had been given arms, in their wild bid for freedom, a bloody confrontation would have resulted.”
Soviet officials were most unhappy at having had to face this uprising. A radio report from East Berlin fixed blame: “The fascist putsch was staged on the direct instruction, and under the guidance, of Allen Dulles.” There was at least some truth to this.
“Some of the provocateurs captured by the Communist authorities were too well equipped with blueprints for sabotage to have managed the business alone,” the intelligence historian Andrew Tully has written. “Rioters had in their pockets plans for blowing up railroad bridges and railway terminals, and detailed floor plans of governmental buildings. They had forged food stamps and fake bank drafts to be used to spread confusion in the food-rationing system and to disrupt East German bank credits. It seemed indisputable that they were getting their espionage pay checks from the CIA’s top German spy … Reinhard Gehlen.”
The imperative of liberating “captive nations” was a staple of Washington rhetoric, but neither Allen, Foster, nor President Eisenhower ever took it literally. They understood that providing military aid to protesters in Eastern Europe could draw the superpowers toward nuclear confrontation. Deposing a government under Moscow’s direct control was not a realistic goal. Foster and Allen looked for other places to win victories.
Operation Ajax had already been set in motion, but by law the National Security Council had to give final approval. At its July 1 meeting, Foster asserted that Iran “woefully lacks any prospect of effective political leadership,” and then pronounced his verdict.
“The United States must concentrate on changing the situation there,” he said.
Acting on this recommendation, the council gave its approval. Preparations proceeded methodically—with one glaring exception. Neither Foster nor Allen ever convened subordinates or anyone else to discuss whether overthrowing Mossadegh was a good idea. They never considered alternatives. Instead they acted on an unspoken consensus: Mossadegh was in rebellion against the West; his rebellion exposed Iran to Soviet influence; therefore he must be deposed.
Foster avoided debate at the State Department through the simple expedient of not informing either of its Iran specialists that a plot was under way. Allen had to do a bit more. The CIA station chief in Tehran, Roger Goiran, was penciled in as a key player in Operation Ajax, but wrote himself out of the script by firing off an angry cable warning that deposing Mossadegh would serve only the interests of “Anglo-French colonialism.” This might have been a warning bell, but Allen treated it as an annoyance. He pulled Goiran out of Tehran and replaced him with a station chief who knew less and would act as ordered.
No American who might have spoken against the coup could do so because none knew that a coup was being planned. One prominent public figure, however, became a fervent Mossadegh supporter: Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. This was the moment when Douglas emerged most clearly as the anti-Dulles.
In 1949 Allen had traveled to Iran for meetings with the shah and his courtiers aimed at securing the ill-fated OCI contract. Douglas also visited Iran that year, to travel on horseback through tribal homelands. He was one of the few Americans of his generation to become thoroughly absorbed with Iran. In interviews, articles, and a book called Strange Lands and Friendly People, he championed Mossadegh as “a great popular hero” who was “passionately Persian and anti-Soviet in his leanings,” embraced “democratic ideals,” and “offers an alternative to Communist leadership.” This was exactly opposite to the Dulles view. Foster and Allen saw Mossadegh through an ideological prism, as an enemy of global capitalism and therefore a threat to the West. Douglas saw him as Iran’s liberator and did not much care whether he served American interests.
“If you and I were in Persia,” he wrote in the New Republic in April 1952, “we’d be for Mossadegh 100 percent.”
By this time the political climate in Washington had become not just fiercely anti-Communist, but increasingly influenced by the crusading Senator McCarthy. For several years he captivated the nation by charging that Communists had launched “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.” Among the agencies he singled out as having been infiltrated by Communists were the State Department and the CIA.
Foster never forgot the trauma of Woodrow Wilson’s collapse after his failure to win Senate approval for American entry into the League of Nations. From it he drew the lesson that makers of American foreign policy must work closely with Congress and avoid alienating any of its prominent members. This made him eager, in his own words, “to find a basis for cooperation with McCarthy.” Since McCarthy considered the State Department a nest of dissolute leftists, that meant firing people.
During his first weeks in office, Foster dismissed twenty-three diplomats as security risks, apparently after being told that they might be homosexual. In another gesture to McCarthy, he turned East Asia policy over to a group of militant anti-Communists known as the “China Lobby,” who were convinced that traitors or fellow travelers inside the State Department had helped the Communists defeat their hero Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese civil war four years earlier. They singled out John Carter Vincent, whom Foster fired in 1953 for “failure to meet the standard” expected of American diplomats, and John Paton Davies, whom Foster dismissed the next year after concluding that he had “demonstrated a lack of judgment, discretion, and reliability.” McCarthy was a leading promoter of the loose but powerful “China Lobby.” So was Henry Luce, who used Time andLife to promote the view that China had been “lost” in part because of perfidy in the State Department; he featured Chiang on no fewer than ten Time covers. Foster appointed a “China Lobby” favorite, a Virginia banker named Walter Robinson, as assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. Eisenhower picked another, Admiral Arthur Radford, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In a gesture to McCarthy, Foster hired one of the senator’s protégés, a former FBI agent named Scott McLeod, to enforce “positive loyalty” in the State Department by rooting out subversives and other undesirables. Together they imposed a rigorous program of security clearances, loyalty oaths, investigations, and cross-examinations that ended the careers of many diplomats. Morale suffered. Applications to join the foreign service dropped.
McCarthy’s pressure on Foster was steady. For Allen it crashed down suddenly, on July 9, 1953.
Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief investigator, called the CIA that morning and demanded that a veteran CIA officer and old friend of Allen’s, William Bundy, present himself immediately for questioning. Cohn had discovered that Bundy had contributed $400 to the Alger Hiss defense fund, and considered this incriminating enough to require explanation. Allen immediately recognized Cohn’s summons as the beginning of an attack on his institution and power. It was also an assault on his social class. Bundy was one of his “old boys,” with a trajectory that ran through Groton, Yale, Harvard Law School, marriage to Dean Acheson’s daughter, clandestine work during World War II, and legal practice at the elite Washington firm of Covington and Burling. Allen quickly sent Bundy on “personal leave” and announced that he was out of town, a maneuver McCarthy denounced as a “most blatant attempt” to defy the will of Congress. A couple of days later, Allen drove to Capitol Hill for a meeting with McCarthy and other Republicans on his investigating committee.
“Joe, you’re not going to have Bundy as a witness,” Allen said.
The senators were startled, but Allen held fast and departed cheerfully. Later that day he called Vice President Nixon and asked him to use his influence to calm McCarthy. Nixon did so. Never again did any of McCarthy’s investigators seek to question a CIA officer. Some quietly cheered Allen’s successful defiance, though Walter Lippmann warned that it would strengthen “the argument that the CIA is something apart.”
Allen had reason to believe that his agency was indeed a thing apart. With the approval of the president and secretary of state, he was about to give “Kim” Roosevelt an assignment never before given to an American intelligence officer: overthrow a government.
Robust but bespectacled and professorial, Roosevelt was a thirty-seven-year-old Harvard graduate who had joined the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, returned to civilian life for a while, and then was recruited by Allen, his Long Island neighbor, as chief of the CIA’s Middle East division. He had written a few articles about the region for the Saturday Evening Post and a book about the role of oil there, but had none of the deep cultural knowledge or language skills that distinguished many British agents and diplomats. Yet he showed some of his famous grandfather’s adventurous spirit. It is a marvelous twist of history: President Theodore Roosevelt helped usher the United States into the “regime change” era, and half a century later his grandson followed him into the business of deposing governments.
Roosevelt crossed into Iran from Iraq on July 19, 1953, carrying a passport that identified him as James Lochridge. He made his way to Tehran and, working with a handful of American and Iranian agents, quickly set to work. The team bribed journalists and newspaper editors to publish anti-Mossadegh diatribes, paid mullahs to denounce Mossadegh in their sermons, built a network of dissident military commanders, and, after much difficulty, won the fearful shah’s cooperation.
While Roosevelt marshaled his forces in Tehran, Foster and Allen coordinated overt and covert pressures on Mossadegh. Foster tightened diplomatic screws and issued grave warnings. On July 28 he told reporters in Washington that “the growing activities of the illegal communist party in Iran, and toleration of those activities, has caused our government great concern.” Allen and his team in Tehran, meanwhile, launched the operation of which Foster professed to be ignorant.
It took Roosevelt just a couple of weeks to throw Tehran into chaos. On the night of August 15, he sprung his trap. He sent the elite Imperial Guard, sworn to obey only the shah, to Mossadegh’s house with orders to arrest him. The operation went disastrously wrong. Mossadegh had learned of the plot, and the Imperial Guard, which was to have captured him, was itself captured by loyal soldiers. Upon hearing this news on the radio at six o’clock the next morning, the shah panicked, grabbed a couple of suitcases, and fled to Rome.
This first attempted CIA coup was worse than a failure. Not only did Mossadegh survive, but the shah, America’s best Iranian friend, had scurried into exile.
Roosevelt might have quit and returned home in defeat. He still, however, had a key advantage. Mossadegh was a trusting soul, unwise to the ways of the covert world, and never imagined that a CIA officer was in Iran directing the rebellion; he presumed that the shah had been behind it, and that with the shah gone the danger was past. He relaxed security restrictions and released prisoners. Taking advantage of this misjudgment, Roosevelt decided to stay in Tehran and try again. He paid street gangs to terrorize the city, marshaled dissident military units, and, at midday on August 19, helped guide a mob toward Mossadegh’s house. Three hundred people were killed in the climactic battle. By dawn the Mossadegh government was no more. The shah returned, reclaimed the Peacock Throne, ruled with increasing repression for a quarter century, and then was overthrown in a revolution that brought fanatically anti-Western clerics to power.
Eisenhower wrote in his diary that Mossadegh’s fall had been “a serious defeat” for the Soviets. By one account he “genuinely believed that Russia was poised to enter Iran in 1953, and that only the CIA had prevented a Communist victory.” Having directed battles in which thousands were killed, he also marveled that the operation had been carried out with the loss of just a few hundred lives, none of them American. Foster understood what a potent new tool he now had at hand. Allen had shown that he could crush foreign leaders secretly, cheaply, and almost bloodlessly. All wanted to do it again.