Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War by veteran New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer. In this dual biography, Kinzer details the life of the very influential Dulles brothers; one as secretary of state and the other as director of the CIA during the Cold War. John Foster and Allen Dulles influenced the United States and the world in ways that persist today. It was their vision for the United States that has shaped our national ideology, and continues to do so.
You can purchase the book here.
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.”