Beyond Mad Men: A Secret World War

A Review by Simon Romero    

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War By Stephen Kinzer (Times Books, 2013, 416 pp.)

At a time when so many viewers are captivated or repelled by Mad Men’s portrayal of the lascivious, liquor-drenched behavior which characterized Madison Avenue decades ago, one remarkable true story in the United States during the Cold War trumps that fictional depiction: Don Draper’s behavior seems genteel compared with that of the man who ran the Central Intelligence Agency during its frenetic expansion into one of the largest espionage enterprises assembled by any nation in history.

Allen Welsh Dulles, the C.I.A.’s longest-serving director, (from 1953 to 1961), had affairs which numbered well into the dozens despite being married to the same woman for most of his adult life. He carried out some of his liaisons while he was the preeminent spymaster of the United States, overseeing operations including the overthrow of leaders in
Guatemala and Iran, secret wars in Indonesia and Tibet and the spectacularly botched invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961.

Times have changed. David Petraeus, for example, resigned as C.I.A. director in 2012 over one extramarital affair, with his biographer. Dulles maintained many of his flings without even bothering to hide them, as Stephen Kinzer documents in his new book, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War. Pointing to how standards for public officials have evolved, one 1958 dalliance, with Queen Frederika of Greece, was carried out in Allen’s own office at C.I.A. headquarters within earshot of his aides.

Such episodes, dutifully not reported by journalists at the time, did not prevent Allen from seizing on womanizing as a weakness to exploit in others. For instance, he oversaw what may have been the C.I.A.’s first foray into pornography, a film called “Happy Days” in which an actor in a latex mask made by the agency’s Technical Services Division claimed an uncanny resemblance to Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding president, whom the Dulles brothers despised for not aligning himself with the West. The Sukarno lookalike was filmed in bed with a blonde actress (playing an agent of the Soviet Union!), a scene that aimed to damage the Indonesian leader’s reputation. It flopped, like many of Allen’s other plots meticulously described by Kinzer in a thoroughly entertaining and informative book.

Allen’s older brother, John Foster Dulles, loomed even larger in 1950s Washington, when he roamed the world as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State. The brothers were born into privilege. Their father, Allen Macy Dulles, the son of a Presbyterian missionary to India, became a theologian and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Watertown, a bastion for New York millionaires. Their mother, Edith Foster, was the daughter of a lawyer who had served as U.S. minister to Czar Alexander II’s court in St. Petersburg. The Princeton-educated brothers benefitted from a web of family connections at a time when the United States was on the rise as a superpower, but their personalities were remarkably different.

Allen was an extroverted diplomat, lawyer and partyer who spent World War I in Bern, the capital of neutral Switzerland, debriefing spies over glasses of cognac. Around the same time, Foster was an ambitious lawyer with Sullivan & Cromwell, the powerful New York law firm. He cut his teeth by representing clients with interests in Latin America, lobbying with success, for instance, for the United States Navy to send warships to Cuba to protect U.S. owners of sugar mills and railroads from protests shaking the Caribbean island. Commissioned as a captain during World War I, he worked as legal adviser for the War Trade Board, helping the Mumm Champagne Co., a German-owned concern, to avoid being seized by the U.S. government. More subdued than Allen in his personal life and something of a scold, employing a preacher’s tone in his public remarks, Foster evolved into an anti-Communist zealot.

By the time Foster was appointed Secretary of State in the 1950s, he had emerged as an undiplomatic symbol of Washington’s browbeating and condescending approach to enemies and allies alike. Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia called him an “acidy, arrogant man” and Winston Churchill said he was “the only case of a bull who carries his own china shop around with him.” Undeterred, he floated ideas like bombing China in 1954 with nuclear weapons, only to be told that such a plan could kill between 12 million to 14 million people. Named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1954, Dulles, a fixture of the foreign policy establishment who spoke fluent legalese, was known to some as “the most boring man in America.”

Such quips obscured the way the Dulles brothers deployed missionary zeal over the role of the United States in world affairs and made use of Cold War paranoia in their games of brinksmanship against the Soviet Union. Working with British spies, they engineered the 1953 coup toppling Mohammed Mossadegh, the Iranian prime minister who had nationalized Iran’s oil industry. The brothers collaborated again on the 1954 ouster of Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala’s left-leaning democratically-elected president. At the time, the Boston-based United Fruit Company, a prominent client of Sullivan & Cromwell which had provided both Allen and Foster with legal fees over the years, felt threatened by Arbenz’s ambitious land reform project. Irritated by potential diplomatic obstacles to the coup, Foster removed both the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, Rudolf Schoenfeld, and the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, John Moors Cabot, replacing them with more pliant officials. Allen, meanwhile, picked Tracy Barnes, a product of Groton, Yale and Harvard Law School, to oversee the plot’s psychological warfare. The C.I.A.’s “nerve war” included death threats made to Guatemalan army officers and government officials and character-assassination warnings issued in pre-dawn telephone calls.

Predictably, Allen and Foster viewed Arbenz’ overthrow as a success. But the coup reinforced a pattern of blatant disregard by some in Washington for political sovereignty in Latin America, ushering in brutal military rule in Guatemala and what Kinzer calls a “cocoon of groupthink and overconfidence” within the C.I.A., poisoning sentiment toward the United States in the region for decades. The errors of the Dulles brothers are vividly described throughout the book, offering, perhaps, a present-day warning of the unforeseen consequences of wielding American power abroad in an age when the C.I.A. has grown accustomed to carrying out so many remote-control killings in its covert drone wars. While Allen’s tenure is still viewed as something of a golden age at the C.I.A., Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, compiles the places where the C.I.A. director’s covert operations produced failures, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Laos, Tibet and Iraq.

For his part, Foster, a man who thought he held moral superiority in his dealings with political leaders around the globe, saw nothing wrong in doing years of legal work on behalf of corporate clients in Nazi Germany. Kinzer, a prolific author of books about U.S. international relations, including the classic Bitter Fruit about the Arbenz overthrow, deftly delves into these ties.He describes how Foster wrote admiringly of Hitler, even weeping when Sullivan & Cromwell finally felt obliged to stop representing German concerns. For Allen, his biggest blunder arguably was in Cuba, when he oversaw the disastrous invasion by commandos of the island in April 1961, an effort aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro. Poorly trained and over-budgeted, and with details about their training camps reported by Tad Szulc of The New York Times, the invasion force was overwhelmed by Cuba’s military, producing one of the Kennedy Administration’s most embarrassing episodes.

President Kennedy forced Allen to resign after that fiasco, saying, “I probably made a mistake keeping Allen Dulles.” Allen shifted into after-dinner speaking, writing about espionage and editing collections of spy stories. Some of his top agents also drifted away from the agency. Before he died in 1969, the C.I.A.’s reputation was already coming under increasing strain. In one story collection, he included an excerpt from Sir Compton Mackenzie’s Water on the Brain, a satirical 1933 novel about the British secret service’s attempt to restore a king to the throne of Mendacia, a fictitious nation in southeast Europe. Mackenzie, who drew from his own experiences as a spy in wartime Greece, described how the headquarters of Britain’s Directorate of Extraordinary Intelligence in London were turned into an insane asylum “for the servants of bureaucracy who have been driven mad in the service of their country.”

See also: Book Talk