Just a few weeks ago, in a New York Times op-ed on President Obama’s Mideast plans, Russian President Vladimir Putin took exception to the notion of American exceptionalism. He might as well have taken aim at two brothers who were its modern founding fathers, both remembered dimly if at all today but were, if the phrase be permitted, present at the creation of our contemporary political world.
They were John Foster Dulles, secretary of state for most of the Eisenhower years (“prissy, forbidding, and fun-hating,’’ in the words of Stephen Kinzer), and Allen Dulles, director of Central Intelligence in the same period, a swashbuckler and serial adulterer (maybe even with the queen of Greece). Together they grafted an ethos onto the American political character.
Some elements of that ethos: the power of muscular Christianity, which animates some strains of our foreign policy even now; the right of the United States to overthrow governments it does not like, a theme consonant with this fall’s debate about Syria; and the protection of American corporate interests around the world, a notion inherent in every debate involving the oil-soaked nations of the Middle East.
In his fast-paced and often gripping dual biography, “The Brothers,’’ Kinzer portrays the Dulleses as emblems not only of these impulses within US foreign policy but also of a missionary impulse in American life. And in a nation that prides itself on its democratic impulses the Dulles family, which includes three secretaries of state over the years, constitutes something of a diplomatic dynasty. Can it then be a surprise that Allen was shaped by Kipling and taught at a Christian school in India? Or that Foster contemplated a career as a preacher and as a young lawyer undertook a secret mission to Central America?
They both were with Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace talks. Together at the Sullivan and Cromwell law firm, they each made partner; they made contacts; they made overseas trips. Foster had strong financial ties to Nazi Germany, fortified by his strong anti-Communism. Allen, however, was skeptical of Hitler’s regime, and though eventually it backed away from Germany, the firm drew up, without charge, the charter of the America First movement.
By the time war broke out both men were established figures and Establishment figures. Allen would drift away from the law into the lawless world of espionage, mixing covert foreign undertakings with covert love affairs. Foster would drift into the world of missionary diplomacy, a church elder en route to becoming an elder statesman. They sipped the intoxicating, and sometimes toxic, mix of realpolitik and religion that would define their lives.
It was their circles that would shape them. Allen’s included Kermit Roosevelt, who would direct operations against a democratically elected government in Iran, and Frank Wisner, who would head the directorate of plans for the CIA. Foster’s would include Thomas Dewey and three A-List members of the pencil press, Henry Luce, Arthur Krock, and Roscoe Drummond.
One of them, Foster (briefly, an appointed senator), lusted after the limelight, while the other, Allen (who started at the CIA on a six-week consulting contract), preferred life in the shadows. Before long Foster, who worked for eight secretaries of state, had the job at Foggy Bottom, and Allen was the nation’s spymaster.
“The Dulles brother had shared such common backgrounds, and spent so much time together over so many years, that their minds had come to function as one,’’ Kinzer writes. ‘’They knew, or believed they knew, the same deep truths about the world. Their intimacy rendered discussion and debate unnecessary.’’
Kinzer’s portrait is unsparing and unsympathetic; he paints the pair as outlaws in suits, or at least suited by temperament and inclination to operate outside the customary laws of diplomacy. But he also places them in a historical continuum, as heirs to deep mainstreams in American political culture.
“In the United States, pioneers had subdued wildness, redemptive religion had become ingrained in national culture, and concentrated economic power had produced great fortunes,’’ he writes. “Foster and Allen, more than any other Americans of their age, were heirs to that legacy.’’
So, fortified with confidence, they went forth to do battle, serenely and secretly, on behalf of capitalism and Christianity and against communism. They created secret prisons, recruited underground armies, and prompted killings and bombings around the world, most especially in Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, and the Congo.
Kinzer, a onetime Globe and New York Times foreign correspondent, believes the brothers and what he calls their “ruthlessly confrontational view of the world’’ are responsible in some or even large measure for the Cold War and anti-Americanism around the world. He indicts them for failing to understand Third-World nationalism and for not engaging “with the aspirations of hundreds of millions of people who were emerging from colonialism and looking for their place in a tumultuous world.’’
All that may be subject for debate. But this is not: They were the most powerful brothers in American history, until of course, a few years later, the Kennedys.
David M. Shribman can be reached at email@example.com.