Books, Documentaries, Reviews: THE BROTHERS, Stephen Kinzer

Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  December 29, 2013


Stephen Kinzer

The Brothers is a devastating book.

It’s also a deeply “Cultural Studies” book, which is my academic area.  This book  describes a system of cultural power which allowed men who wielded their cultural power to keep the status quo in place–a status quo from which they benefited mightily.  And, again, I am drawn to the notion that there is no possibility of an actual democracy when systems of cultural power control information, government functions, and the legal apparatus in the way that they do.  The recent Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to be “people” is the culmination of this same kind of cultural power.

This book could probably only have been written 50 years after the events that it describes as the dust of history needed to settle fully.  If someone tried to write this book very much earlier–while the players were still alive–that person would likely have put him/herself in danger and at the very least would have been discredited, fired, demoted, banished–as that’s what happens when the powerful don’t like being exposed.  It still happens in America today–as I have described many times in this blog.  You betcha!


We need to pay attention to the history this book details because we have not yet fully learned these lessons of history.  For instance, this morning the The New York Times reported that it is clear after its own extensive investigation of the Benghazi disaster that American intelligence and State Department people were so focused on Al Qaeda they missed entirely that local people were telling them to get out of Benghazi because the danger was local–home grown boys thought to be bought off with American aid started the Benghazi riots.

We made these same mistakes with the Soviet Union after World War II.  We, led by the Dulles brothers, created a monster enemy and then tacked onto this enemy a huge conspiracy theory–one that bore little connection to reality, but out of which we acted.  And, act we did, in the process fomenting murder, torture, and chaos across the world–all of which was unnecessary, secret, cruel, inhuman, stupid, and, yes, evil incarnate.  And all of which created genuine hatred and the “blowback” with which we live today.  The Dulles brothers, John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and Allen Dulles as head of the CIA (which he built into an immense organization), along with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, led us into the mess we now find ourselves.

Here’s an illustrative quote from Kinzer:

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 (115).

Fear is a powerful motivator.  And in the hands of those who have an agenda…fear mongering is very effective.   My dad was military.  I grew up with sirens going off in the night and my dad rushing out of the house, dressing as he went.  We lay in our beds, waiting for the telephone call to tell us it was ok, just a drill.  I spent some time under school desks as well.  And, in long lines of cars practicing getting out of a city targeted by a nuclear bomb.  My family’s life was dedicated to “keeping America safe.”  Little did we know that our lives were being sacrificed so that a bunch of wealthy, privileged people could continue playing in their particular sand piles.  Or, that so we could continue to have all the riches we all take so much for granted–the resources of which came and come from many of the countries targeted by the Dulles brothers and their ilk.

Stalin was a monster.  There is no doubt about that.  But the Soviet Union had been wiped out during World War II.  And the actions of the United States–actions coming out of this projection of the Soviet Union as an enormous enemy to be feared, terrified the Soviets.  They, in turn, took compensatory actions.  But, over the years, some of their leaders reached out to the United States and were rebuffed at key moments by John Foster Dulles–who “saw” that their overtures were just plots to get us to lower our guard.

I always said that I would never vote for a military man for President of the United States, but that President Dwight D. Eisenhower seemed to be a pretty good president.

I take it all back.

Military men are trained to identify and seek out enemies and to neutralize them.  Eisenhower was no except it seems.  He was as motivated as the Dulles brothers by the specter they created of an evil Soviet Union with plans to spread communism over the whole world.  And while the Dulles brothers could present their world views to him,  Eisenhower had the power to grant them the power to try to depose and murder–yes murder–anyone they did not like.  Recent scholarship, explains Kinzer, thinks that Eisenhower used the Dulles brothers, not the other way around.

Together, these three men lied to the American people, repeatedly.  They secretly deposed NATIONALIST leaders trying to take back their countries from the nations that had colonized them and were sucking out all their rich resources.  These three men used the power and money of the United States to prevent democratically elected leaders from throwing out American corporations–which were making these men and others in their networks wealthy.  They called these nationalist, neutralist leaders “communists” and said that if they stayed in power, they would join with the Soviet Union in plots against the United States.  John Foster Dulles, in fact, was the coiner of the term “domino theory” which was used to drag us into the Vietnam War.   And the thing is, John Foster Dulles believed what he believed, and he got rid of anyone who tried to complicate his belief system with complexity, facts, or actual truth.

Kinzer describes in detail what occurred with six of the “monsters” the Dulles brothers created and sought to defeat:  Mohammad Mossadagh of Iran, President Sukarno of Indonesia, Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, and Fidel Castro in Cuba.  All of these men were trying to be “neutralists” and to not become engaged with the battle lines drawn by the Cold War rhetoric that reduced the world to two ways of being:  capitalist and communist.  But the Dulles brothers and Eisenhower would not allow nations to be “neutral” if they could force them into the USA camp.

I read quite a bit about the shoddy history of Vietnam when I went back to school.  And I knew we installed a friendly Shah in Iran, but I did not know just how we did that and who we deposed.  I knew about the cesspool created in Cuba by American interests–from the mafia to American corporations.  I did not know so much about Sukarno and Indonesia.  And I am still sick at heart after reading about our role in Patrice Lumumba’s terrible death.  (The uranium that we used in the atomic bombs we dropped on Japan came from the Congo.)  What I like about this book is that Kinzer has put all of these events in one place, so readers can see the full extent of what was done in the name of the American people.

One piece of history I took away from this book is how alone the US was in its refusal to “see” nationalism and neutralism as an OK place to be.  With the possible exception of Germany, most European nations did not agree with the United States’s stark views about good and evil.  (John Foster Dulles supported, liked, and admired the Nazis long after other Americans had seen them for what they were.)  And Britain, often our staunch ally, refused to participate.  Churchill, in fact, loathed John Foster Dulles.  He thought Dulles a “narrow-minded ideologue and deplored his vivid denunciations of Communism.” Churchill noted after one of their meetings that Foster Dulles “`is the only case I know of a bull who carries his own china shop around with him’ ” (201).

In addition, Allen Dulles early on put CIA teams into fifteen countries in Europe that were charged with creating underground armies “that would be ready to rebel and spread terror in case of Soviet invasion or the election of leftist governments” (135).  Kinzer notes that 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’ ” (136).   And the CIA Allan Dulles built had plenty of money and virtually no oversight beyond those men who agreed with what it was doing across the world–and that agreement was often formed by their own economic self interest or their need to be part of the cultural power structures.  (Does this sound a bit like the NSA thinking its ok to tap the phones of world leaders?)

The Dulles brothers were born into seats of power and wealth.  They also came from a family of Calvinist Christians who believed that they owned and understood all “truth”–and that they, and America, as all were “exceptional,” were tasked to be major players in the internal battle between good and evil–which is why they sought out “evil” to fight.  Again, John Foster Dulles was a smart man who was so wedded to his ideology that he became a very dumb man. He had no flexibility and could not “see” beyond his belief system.  He put all the complexities of the world into a simple good/bad world view.

But, Allen Dulles was quite different. Allen was a curious combination of someone who liked people, but seemed to have no empathy for them.  He was a womanizer of monumental proportions–and sought out women, wine, song, playing, debauchery, for his whole life.  At one point, he was sleeping with Henry Luce’s wife while Luce was sleeping with Allen’s girlfriend.  From the beginning, Allen was drawn to the secret, covert life he lived.  He was a danger junkie in many ways–if only from the safety of his office desk for much of his life.  He was not in any way a deep thinker–but a devious, cunning man who led his men into dirty, dirty tricks across the world in order to get his way.  One cannot read the saga of Patrice Lumumba without feeling enormously dirty oneself.  In the early CIA, Allen hired men like himself–men born into wealthy, powerful families who were bored.

The ends do not justify the means.

And I do not understand how anyone professing to be Christian can think that justifying the “means” is ok.

Kinzer’s book is an important corrective to the history that we have been taught and have told ourselves since World War II.

I think you should read it.

Kinzer is primarily a journalist, not a trained historian.  But here he is doing what good journalists should do:  inform, not entertain.  He is the author of All the Shah’s Men, Overthrow, and Bitter Fruit.  He served as the New York Times‘s bureau chief in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua and as the Boston Globe’s Latin America correspondent.  He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where he teaches in the international relations program.  He contributes to The New York Review of Books and is a columnist for The Guardian.