Small world: Reliving the Cold War

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

It’s hard to realize but the Cold War, which engaged the United States for 45 years, ended more than a decade before the current high school graduating class entered elementary school. When I graduated, our conflict with “international communism” was just shifting into higher gear.

I recall going one night out to the baseball stadium to hear Senator Joseph McCarthy shout and wave papers about the “commie traitors” in the State Department. I didn’t pay much attention in those days to national news, but I do remember not hearing anyone speak up to contradict or question him.

These musings were set off by the dual biography I have just finished: The Brothers — John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer. President Eisenhower made these men his secretary of state and director of Central Intelligence, respectively. Ike, having lived through the horrors of war, ended the fighting in Korea and resisted pressures to enter new conflicts around the globe.

He was not averse, however, to authorizing covert actions deemed necessary to protect American interests. And, here he fell under the sway of the Dulles brothers, apostles of the doctrine that the monolithic communist dictatorship directed by the Soviet Union (including China and lesser satellites) must be combated in any ways feasible.

Foster and Allen, descended from a line that included two secretaries of state, were big in one of the nation’s largest international law firms and the Republican Party and were regularly picked for commissions and tasks abroad. Allen, in World War I, was an intelligence agent in Europe even before the United States had such an agency. He was the fun-living brother, a philanderer whose wife befriended some of her mistress competition. Foster was dour, driven and determined to have his way. During their tenure, they consulted each other daily and seemingly were always in accord.

Their first two “triumphs” were backing coups to overthrow democracies in Iran and Guatemala. Their reason was to combat feared communist conspiracies; in reality they saved Britton’s oil income in Iran and protected the United Fruit Company (a former legal client) from land nationalization in Guatemala. Neither brother sought differing opinions, they did not think about the others side’s motivations, nor did they try to consider the unforeseen consequences of their actions. (Revolution in Iran and decades of corruption and misery in Guatemala). The press and Congress didn’t dig into the facts and Americans remained ignorant and gripped by the fervid fear of communism the Dulles pair promoted.

It was mostly downhill from those easy successes, however. Overthrowing Sukarno’s regime in Indonesia failed (but did seed later turmoil and massacres). Attempts to help the French in Vietnam only succeeded in laying the foundation for our forceful intervention in that country. Nasser was too tough for them and the Russians easily suppressed the Hungarian uprising, which Foster’s rhetoric had encouraged.

The tombstone for their efforts arrived after Foster died and Kennedy had succeeded Eisenhower. The new president was persuaded to go with the Dulles’ plan for the Bay of Pigs invasion to bring down Castro. The Cuban is still around, but Allen was dismissed soon after the debacle.

So, what lesson do these two careers teach? Kinzer believes that the Dulles’ determination to project power is an impulse that is shared by Americans who believe in our country’s “providential exceptionalism,” think that we have “vital interest everywhere on earth” and that “we will be led by people who believe the same.”

I’m not sure I agree with that sweeping accusation. I do think that the country was misled by the Dulles — with the willing connivance of the entire American establishment — into an unnecessary, relentless and ultimately destructive hostility towards the communist block (which was not as solid as believed). In the pursuit of this ideology, Washington rejected feelers from Moscow and their alleged cohorts that might have allowed for an easing of tensions.

It is worth keeping in mind this dismal period of history when we confront various crises around the globe. We need to think rationally, critically and broadly when dealing with Putin’s Russia, China and the Middle East. Only disaster can come when all of us think alike and are led by cynics who play on fears rather than explore opportunities.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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